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Not far from the opera, in the 1920s, an army of laborers working around the clock created another singular subterranean space. More than 120 feet below the Banque de France, and behind doors heavier than Apollo space capsules, they built a vault that today holds France's gold reserves, some 2,600 tons.

Photographer Stephen Alvarez and I stand in that vault one day. In all directions the halls are stacked with gold in tall steel cages. Dust settles over the bars like a slow, fine snow. I'm reminded of the catacombs: Like each skeleton, each gold bar has a story, possibly several. Gold has always been coveted, stolen, melted down. A single bar here might contain bits of a pharaoh's goblet and a conquistador's ingot.

A bank official hoists one of the bars over to me. It is heavy, battered, a brick with a deep dent along its bottom like a cleft chin. The seal of the U.S. Assay Office of New York and the date 1920 are stamped in one corner. "American gold," the official says. "It is the ugliest."

He points to other bars he considers better-looking. They have gently tapered sides or tops rounded like bread loaves. Each is worth around $500,000. France is slowly selling off a portion of its trove, he explains, but buyers don't want the beat-up American gold. In a nearby room pallets of it are being packed up and shipped to an undisclosed location, where the bars will be melted down and recast in prettier forms.

Last March thieves tunneled into a bank vault not far from here. They tied up a guard, cracked open some 200 safety deposit boxes, and set a fire as they left. Here in the central bank, officials assure me, the vault is not connected to any other part of the Parisian underground. I ask if anyone has ever tried a robbery. One of the men laughs.

"It would be impossible!" he says. I think of Napoleon, who established the Banque de France in 1800, and who is credited with a famous saying: "Impossible is not French."

We leave through the steel doors and head up the ten-story elevator, past the retinal scanner, and through glass chambers with sliding doors that seem like air locks on a spaceship. Outside on the street at last, Alvarez and I are still stunned with gold fever.

"Did anyone check your bag?" I ask.

"No. Did they check yours?"

We walk. Not far off I notice a manhole. It must open onto a tunnel. The tunnel may parallel the street, or it may dive toward the vault. My mind moves along that passage, imagining its path and its many branches. Cataphiles tell me this sort of thing is perfectly normal when you return to the surface; you can't help it, they say. You picture the cool, still freedom of the underground, with all its possibilities.

Cave-loving contributors Neil Shea and Stephen Alvarez last collaborated on a 2009 article on Madagascar’s Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park.
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