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Published: February 2011

Paris Catacombs

Paris Underground Fire Thrower

Under Paris

Getting There: It involves manholes and endless ladders.
What to Wear: Miner's helmets are good.
What to do: Work, party, paint—or just explore the dark web of tunnels.

By Neil Shea
Photograph by Stephen Alvarez

The cab glides through Saturday morning. The great avenues are quiet, the shops closed. From a bakery comes the scent of fresh bread. At a stoplight a blur of movement draws my attention. A man in blue coveralls is emerging from a hole in the sidewalk. His hair falls in dreadlocks, and there is a lamp on his head. Now a young woman emerges, holding a lantern. She has long, slender legs and wears very short shorts. Both wear rubber boots, both are smeared with beige mud, like a tribal decoration. The man shoves the iron cover back over the hole and takes the woman's hand, and together they run grinning down the street.

Paris has a deeper and stranger connection to its underground than almost any city, and that underground is one of the richest. The arteries and intestines of Paris, the hundreds of miles of tunnels that make up some of the oldest and densest subway and sewer networks in the world, are just the start of it. Under Paris there are spaces of all kinds: canals and reservoirs, crypts and bank vaults, wine cellars transformed into nightclubs and galleries. Most surprising of all are the carrières—the old limestone quarries that fan out in a deep and intricate web under many neighborhoods, mostly in the southern part of the metropolis.

Into the 19th century those caverns and tunnels were mined for building stone. After that farmers raised mushrooms in them, at one point producing hundreds of tons a year. During World War II, French Resistance fighters—the underground—hid in some quarries; the Germans built bunkers in others. Today the tunnels are roamed by a different clandestine group, a loose and leaderless community whose members sometimes spend days and nights below the city. They're called cataphiles, people who love the Paris underground.

Entering the quarries has been illegal since 1955, so cataphiles tend to be young people fleeing the surface world and its rules. Veterans say the scene blossomed in the 1970s and '80s, when traditional Parisian rebelliousness got a fresh jolt from punk culture. Going underground was easier then, because there were many more open entrances. Some cataphiles discovered they could walk into the quarries through forgotten doorways in their school basements, then crawl onward into tunnels filled with bones—the famous catacombs. In places only they knew, the cataphiles partied, staged performances, created art, took drugs. Freedom reigned underground, even anarchy.

At first the surface world barely noticed. But by the end of the '80s the city and private property owners had shut most of the entrances, and an elite police unit began patrolling the tunnels. Yet they couldn't manage to stamp out cataphilia. The young couple I saw climbing out of a manhole that morning were cataphiles. Maybe they had been on a date; some of the men I've explored the quarries with met their future wives in the tunnels, trading phone numbers by flashlight. Cataphiles make some of the best guides to the Paris underworld. Most Parisians are only dimly aware of its extent, even though, as they ride the Métro, they may be hurtling above the bones of their ancestors.

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