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Paris’ secret subterranean world

Catacombs, underground movie theaters, and dozens of tunnels pull the curious down from the streets.
Image: Paris
A man is shadowed in the catacombs in ParisMichel Euler / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The City of Light harbors a city of darkness, a vast network of subterranean tunnels that once gave refuge to bandits, smugglers and saints and cradled the bones of some 6 million Parisians.

Today, this eerie maze is the haunt of living spirits, from youths looking for adventure to urban explorers carving out a new frontier. An underground movie house replete with bar, phone service and reportedly even a toilet, recently discovered by police, is but a slice of an underworld that thrives below Paris, those connected with the cinema project say.

Some 300 kilometers (186 miles) of tunnels and underground passageways honeycomb the underbelly of Paris, most of them old quarries from which Lutecian limestone used to build the French capital was dredged. Others house electricity and telephone cables.

In the deepest sphere, some 30 meters (98 feet) under, lie the catacombs, holding ancient bones from overstocked cemeteries, a part of which is open to the public: entrance Place Denfert Rochereau.

“Paris is a Mecca” for underground exploration, said Lazar Kunstmann, who serves as spokesman for the group that set up the cinema across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower— and down. The group has seven other subterranean sites, he said, refusing to provide details.

In the eternal night of underground Paris, secrecy is sacrosanct, creating a subculture with its own code and even names.

“There’s an abandoning of the code on the surface and the creation of a micro-society,” said Patrick Aalk, a photographer with more than two decades of experience as an urban explorer. Slipping into the underground, social classes melt away, and “there’s a sense of having a double life.”

Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice discovered when she fell through a rabbit hole into Wonderland, fear, intrigue and, yes, wonder await the subterranean traveler. Instead of a tea party with the Mad Hatter, there are parties by flashlight in dank, musty quarry rooms bearing sinister-sounding names like “Byzance,” “the Cellar” or “Room Z.”

This is not a journey for the faint of heart. Dropping into the city of darkness is illegal and can be hazardous. One way is a middle-of-the-night descent through a manhole and down a ladder. Once inside, a sand-colored maze of galleries, nooks and crannies unfolds. Ominous holes seem to descend to the center of the Earth.

It’s an all-weather trip that includes strolling, sloshing through ancient Lutecian mud and slithering on the stomach through narrow tunnels.

But this strange universe is being increasingly scarred by young “cataphiles” daubing graffiti on walls or leaving beer cans behind. Some quarry rooms are covered in paint, irking another breed of subterranean spirits who call themselves urban explorers.

They range throughout the underground network in search of new frontiers in what Kunstmann calls a quest for artistic space.

The police chief in charge of subterranean Paris fears the new generation of fun-seekers is on a collision course with urban explorers who regard the underground as part of Paris’ patrimony.

“It’s a milieu that is becoming more and more mixed ... with some people who can be in opposition to others,” Commander Luc Rougerie told The Associated Press.

Underground movies

It is an urban explorers’ group, “The Perforating Mexican,” that set up the cinema.

Cataphiles have haunted the Paris underworld for decades, but the Aug. 23 discovery by police of the cinema revealed just how sophisticated life below ground has become.

The cinema seated about 30 people on benches carved from the rock and covered with wood for comfort, according to Kunstmann. The complex included a bar, a restaurant and some annex rooms for privacy.

A toilet drew water from the Trocadero gardens above where “there was a permanent leak,” said Kunstmann. Electricity was siphoned off by induction, wrapping wires around the state power company’s cables to generate 32 amperes, he said.

“The problem is not to leave a trace on the electricity counter.”

According to Kunstmann, the cinema, finished some 18 months ago, was a renovation of a crude theater built three years ago.

“There was a certain surprise” when police found the movie house, Commander Rougerie conceded. Those familiar with the operation said police went looking after a tip from a former member of the Perforating Mexican group—something Rougerie refused to confirm.

Shady types in shady places

A less sensational but more worrisome discovery was made across town, under the high-security La Sante prison. There, several tunnels, once shut, were partially reopened. Fears that prisoners were plotting an escape or, worse, that terrorists had invaded the underground set off alarms.

In the end, “we think it’s amateurs of the underground looking for an old passage,” said Catherine Briguet, spokeswoman for the judicial police. There have been no arrests in either case, she said.

Rougerie warns of dangers to those who trespass, from thin air that can cause queasiness to cave-ins. He cited cases of people falling into wells 10 meters (32-feet) deep, or others getting lost. There are no known deaths.

The catacombs—the broad term for the subterranean network—have inspired writers from Victor Hugo to Gaston Leroux whose “Phantom of the Opera” hid himself in “that infernal underground maze.”

“When you go down, you enter the city’s past. It’s a voyage into the bowels of the city.” said Aalk, the photographer.

Through the ages, the catacombs have harbored an eclectic lot. In the 13th century, bandits hid under the Chateau de Vauvert, now the Luxembourg Gardens, and sorcerers used the quarries for black masses, on the rise during the 1348 plague.

St. Denis, patron saint of France, said Mass in the quarries during the Christian persecution, according to Simon Lacordaire’s “The Secret History of Subterranean Paris.” During World War II, French Resistance fighters used the network as hideouts.

Scoundrels still haunt the underworld. People have been caught stealing cables belonging to France Telecom, the phone company, “to resell the copper by the kilo,” Rougerie said. People have also been found carrying old bones from the catacombs.

Nearly two decades ago, there were reportedly some 300 accesses to the quarries. Most have been sealed shut. However, new entryways are uncovered by increasingly enterprising underground explorers.

Asked how many accesses exist today, Rougerie, the police official, conceded: “There are those I know and those I don’t.”