Monday, April 21, 2008

My adventures in the Catacombs of Paris - part 1

My weekend was highlighted with my first real adventure into the catacombs of Paris and these are not the ones for tourists. I had been in the tourist catacombs before, yet they closed at 16h (4pm), yet these don't!

There is a subculture in Paris known as the catophiles, people who have their social lives centered on the parts of catacombs not opened to tourists. A few years ago I was working at a tattoo shop and was invited by a special lady but didn’t have the time, now I regret not doing it earlier. To go with the catophiles you need to be invited and “know the right people.” Since this community is closed, you can imagine that they are not very welcoming to outsiders, this is true...

The catacombs were built between the 15th and 19th centuries mainly for quarrying of stone to build the city. However they were eventually used as depositories of bones and hideouts for groups like the communists, French resistance and even the Nazi's used them. Many movies and stories took place down there which are too many to count. For a real look at the catacombs visit the Wikipedia page of the Catacombs of Paris.

Our night began around 11pm, where we met up with our hosts in the south of Paris. Sascar and I were nervous and excited. We were totally unprepared, yet did our best. We thought it would be a small group but it ended up being about 20 people. We met outside of a PizzaHut and within about 20 minutes we were off with a pit stop at a small grocery for beer and batteries.

I noticed our hosts putting on fishing boots! I was like crap, I didn’t l know about that. What was cool is there was an American couple who came from San Fran and they knew lots of people I knew from the Burning Man scene, their names were Eric and Fur.

Next we were on a bridge over some abandoned railroad tracks, everyone scaled them and we walked about a kilometer into a tunnel. Here was the entrance, and it was small! After everyone gathered I noticed garbage all over the place, piles of it, but mostly old water and beer bottles. I was actually shocked people brought alcohol down there thinking it would be dangerous. We all climbed into the hole. From what I was told the police close the entrances and the catophiles open them all the time, the eternal game between these two forces.

We crawled about 30 meters and finally to a tunnel you could walk in, then for about a kilometer we walked, with our guides head of us. They were very cool and making sure we didn’t get lost in a side tunnel and explaining everything around us. The temperature is consistent to about 25 degrees Celsius and there was spots with water about calf height, the water was soothing as we could get hot walking. I noticed street signs everywhere marking the tunnels.

Our first melodrama was someone running past everyone and pushing them saying “I have a surprise for you!” I started seeing smoke and a fire about 50 meters down the tunnel, some guy was being a dick because he hated tourists in his tunnels. For about half a kilometer we could not see more than arms length in front of us, it was quite freaky.

Finally we had to make a detour and eventually landed in this larger cavern. Here there was, what appeared to be a workman’s stop in the old days is now a mini lounge with people smoking and drinking listening to music. One of our guides was amazing and a dedicated catophile, he had the map of the catacombs tattooed all over his body! Eventually we went on. People were coming and going all night, but our group remained constant. We stopped one more time and had a little soiree, then went on to a chamber. We missed a lot because some of our people got lost and we had to stop at various points and go back for them.

The chamber we ended up in looked like a carved room, groups came and went, people traded cigs and smoked weed and drank all sorts of alcohols. I learned a lot about this place. We were evidently about 13 meters under a bank vault and there was a sign there. Our lady guide, who amazingly had her makeup and dress intact like she was at a nice club told us we were going to leave because some people drank too much. We would stop and see some bones before leaving, it was about 3h30. Sascar was getting worried and I don’t blame her, but eventually we got going….

After a while we came to a turn and there was a break in the wall. All of us climbed into a little room. There was bones everywhere! The graveyards were emptied here. We hung out for about 20 minutes, I could not believe I was sitting on hundreds of dead people. One of the Frenchies grabbed some femurs and thigh bones in his bag. It was not as bad as I thought. There was a pitt bull hanging out with our group and his owner was very cool. I took a femur bone and put it in his mouth, it was a doggie heaven! Hahaha

So it was time to go and we eventually made it through many tunnels to a manhole. They opened it, carried the dog up on their shoulders and we came up into a residential area near the Eifel Tower. Sascar and I said our goodbyes and thank yous and walked, dirty as hell to the metro. It was just sunrise and I was thinking about my checklist of things I need for the next catacombs adventure...

For more pics of this adventure please visit my Picasa Catacombs album.


Anonymous said...

I must say that this information is truly outstanding. thanks for a glimpse into this secretive world .

Danis said...

An amazing opportunity to explore. thank you for sharing.

mummabare said...

wow...very confronting on a cultural level...but interesting none the less :)

how big our world seems.