Some of the greatest adventures are the ones we never knew we could have, the ones we stumble into accidentally, and the ones where we are presented with an opportunity so beyond our normal realm of possibility that we hesitate for a moment before saying “yes”. This is exactly what happened to me when my friend David approached me nonchalantly about coming with him and a couple of his friends into the Catacombs of Paris.
David, a fellow Canadian, was a new friend of mine I had met once before through my little group of expat girls here in Paris. We have the same relaxed attitude towards life’s ups and downs, but a great thirst for adventure. He asked if I’d ever been down to the catacombs upon our first meeting and told me about the various weekends he’d spent exploring them with a few of his friends (who can easily described as ‘hardcore cata folks’). I, like most ‘not-particularily-underground-exploration-enthusiasts’ had heard of the Parisian catacombs, but only the touristy ones. The ones with electricity and ropes, with signs, and a very small route. Not to down play the impressiveness of the tourist attraction catacomb – they have a wall entirely built of human skulls! But that catacomb experience and my catacomb experience were worlds apart.
When I got David’s message that he and a couple of people were heading down to the catacombs and would I like to join, I remember having a moment of self-doubt and a flicker of fear at the thought of it. I thought “I dont know any of these people, I dont know my way around in there, I dont know what to expect, I dont know what I’m getting myself into, can I really trust someone that I’ve never met with my safety and quiet possibly with my life?”. Rather than a wave of drenching fear it was almost like feeling cool water rising higher and higher until it starts sloshing in through your shoes and soaking your feet. I knew that my fear was something I could over come, that I could tolerate, and that having that fear made it mean that I was sure to get an experience that few others would ever have.
When I told David I’d love to come he responded with “Great! We’ll meet at around 9 and we’ll be spending the night so you’ll get home at around 7am the next morning”. What had started as a tingling sense of fear suddenly transformed into an adrenalin soaked excitement. My first thought at the idea of spending an entire night crawling around through tunnels in the underbelly of Paris was – what should I wear?!
Ugh. How girly of me, I’m sure is what you’re thinking! But actually, having grown up in the wilds of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, I know that how you dress and what you wear in certain climates and conditions can often times be the difference between life and death. It’s not always about the aesthetics people! I remember trying to explain fashion to my Dad once, and said “If someone showed up to go hunting wearing a dress and heels, or a suit and tie with dress shoes and cologne on, you’d tell them they looked ridiculous, and that they had to go and change. Now they could be wearing a suit by Tom Ford and look damn good in it, but that’s not really what you meant by using ‘you look ridiculous’. How you dress in certain situations is a reflection on your attitude and the respect and mind set you bring to that particular situation or environment.” The fact that you’d wear a suit to go hunting means you have no intention of getting down and dirty and doing what needs to be done. You’ll be of less help, and even more of a hinderance because your presence will make it harder for the hunt to be successful.
The tables can turn on this idea as well, where someone show’s up for a high stakes business meeting wearing their camo gear – they’re giving the impression that they’re not taking the task at hand seriously or showing the business environment the respect it deserves. Like sweatpants at a wedding, or a formal gown to a baby shower, the list can go on and on. What I wanted to avoid was being a) uncomfortable, or restricted by my clothing b) wrecking any of my nice clothes (which I need to cherish due to my extremely limited selection from moving to France with one suitcase) and c) looking like a total, as my mother would say, dough-head.
Luckily for me David was kind enough to deck me out in his clothes – some old jeans, a T-shirt and a long sleeve for layering, along with a head lamp. I wore my own handy classic black Chuck Taylors which, once I had changed, gave me the feeling I was suddenly a part of the cast of The Goonies. (*Oh, I got changed by the way in the pitch dark of an abandoned railway tunnel while shielded by three other girls… it’s all part of the adventure right?!)
Due to the super secrecy of the Catacombs, and my huge respect for local secrets, history and keeping things sacred and special (Ahem Albertans in BC Campgrounds Ahem!) I won’t be divulging the location of the entrance we used, or any details which may be used to harm or destroy the magic of the catacombs in any way. There is a huge catacomb explorer culture, but much like the culture of the backwoods and the wilderness, it is guarded and protected with extreme secrecy and occasionally with violence. The information we received was provided by a good friend who was mentored by one of the catacombs’ most well known explorers and enthusiasts. She has spent countless hours learning from him over the years that she has been living in Paris, and was given the rights of her own map to the underground system when he deemed her ready.
We were approached by several of the more ‘permanent’ and ‘hardcore’ catacomb communities with stern questionings as to how we had arrived there, if we had a map, who gave it to us, how did we hear about it, etc. Luckily for us we all spoke French and were able to diffuse many of the more tense encounters. It also doesnt hurt to be Canadian in those instances either, and soon we were greeted in the tunnels by “Ohhhh Canadaaaa”, as word of our presence had traveled quicker than we had expected.
After squeezing in through the entrance – a small hole you would never notice if you didn’t know it was there, we were immediately faced with a web of seemingly identical tunnels. We were hunched and squatted as the stone ceiling was perhaps at most 3.5ft high. Scuttling and crab walking further down one of the tunnels, the ceiling lifted up enough for us to stand, get our back packs on, make sure our headlamps were working, and give one last tighten of the shoe laces before trekking into the darkness.
It was instantly a humbling feeling knowing that if I got separated from the group I’d likely never find my way out again. The labyrinth of tunnels, where everything looked the same, every twist, every rock, every graffiti tag offering no help in gaining your sense of direction. The air was still and stagnant, but warm. Chalky dust would stick to your hands from the walls and form a paste, while pools of water were a beige murky colour. The pools of water began to fill up the entire tunnel, from wall to wall. After only 5 or 10 minutes of following the chamber, it became impossible to dodge the ever expanding puddles, and we had to surrender to getting wet.
At first it was just your feet, then up to your ankles, then your shins. Wadding through the flooded passage ways, trying not to trip and fall over some of the large rocks that had fallen from the ceilings, or been placed there previously made our progress slow and awkward. As broody as the mood might seem, we were all in incredibly high spirits, singing songs, telling stories, laughing, one of the girls had even brought a portable stereo system (which, by following the sound helped us all from getting lost and separated on numerous occasions).
We found wells which were filled with the clearest water I have ever seen. Our more seasoned cata-explorer told us that some of the wells were interconnected and that sometimes you could find scuba divers who come to map out new sections of the underwater tunnel systems. It was incredible to look down into these deep deep perfectly still pools of water. It made me wish I had a bathing suit, I would have dove right in in a heartbeat.
It’s hard to describe the experience in the catacombs in a chronological order or with any sense of time because time ceases to exist down there. A right turn, a left turn, an hour of walking straight down a tunnel, crawling through a crack in a wall, crawling through a crack in the floor, a right turn and left turn. It’s hard to keep it all straight. At one point we crawled into one of the most high traffic zones of the catacombs, a super strict – invites only location where weekend raves are held. Yes, even Paris has hippies.
But this place was unlike any Canadian woodsy, one with nature type rave. This was a place where a bad drug trip could lead you quite literally down a rabbit hole you never find your way out of again. The people, although friendly and hospitable enough, seemed hard and cold, uncaring in a way I had not felt from the BC Hippie culture I was used to. There was a large stone table which their tribe had carved out of stone, with benches carved around it. Piles and piles of candles lit up the table, providing warmth and light without the smoke of a fire. When we arrived in the hall, there were only about 20 people milling about. David said that usually there are hundreds of people raving down here on any given friday or saturday night. The whole thing felt to me like a combination of the film ‘The Beach’ and the underground community Zion in the Matrix.
Within that chamber, were rooms and rooms filled from floor to ceiling with some of the most incredible graffiti and artwork I have ever seen. The idea that these artists come down and spend days, weeks, or months working on a piece allows them the time, space and freedom to create their vision. The fact that they are kept underground is both sad and brilliant, as some of these incredible works of art will only be witness by a few, yet they will last longer than if they had been painted anywhere on the surface.
Not far from the Rave Hall was a small opening in the stone, gave way to a large chamber, the Movie Chamber, where the walls were painted solely with characters from films.
After our exploration around some of the chambers near the Rave Hall, we decided things were getting a little tense and we were getting a bit too much attention, so we headed off somewhere a little less ‘public’ to keep our non-localness to ourselves. At 3am we took our first rest from all of our wandering, crawling and scrambling, in the Room of Mirrors. It was small, cozy, warm and off the beaten path. We lit some candles, plugged in some tunes, and naturally, cracked open a couple of beers.
The Room of Mirrors got its name from the shards of broken mirrors which have been cemented onto the walls. The walls are also covered with sparkles, stars, glitter and anything else that can reflect light. Of all the chambers we visited, this one definitely felt the most feminine. I don’t mean to say that it felt sissy or pretty or any of those other powerless words we associate with femininity. I felt a strong sense of womanly presence there, but it was broody and dark and I’m sure if I’d been in there alone it could almost have felt sinister. But this was definitely a room where women had come and poured whatever their love or fear, happiness or anger into the walls. One section of the room had pieces of a female mannequin which had been completely dismembered and then cemented into the wall. Hands poking from odd and unnatural angels, legs dangling from the ceiling, a face only half exposed through the stone and brick gave the place a playful, yet eerie feeling. In the far back corner of the room, behind a large cement pillar were paintings of facings screaming with all their might – veins popping from their faces and necks, eyes bulging, lips straining and cracking at the corner of their mouths. I found myself very moved and thoughtful amongst all of this hugely expressive art and asking myself what it all mean, what it was all for. It soon became evident that a lot of the art in the catacombs is left there to mess with your mind. Black and white swirl paintings that moved and morphed with the rocks beneath them as you moved passed them, carved skulls, or the sign of the 12 Monkeys. In an even creepier instance we began to find a trail of tiny old dolls who’s faces had been melted and mutilated.
As the night wore on, and our explorations continued, we stumbled across only a couple more groups who’s members ‘stayed down’ for days even weeks at a time. Real communities exist down there; each one sticking to their own section, with their own HQ. Carving out tables and benches, organizing food and supplies, candles, etc. It was only when we stumbled into chambers filled with people sitting around a carved table that I felt like I was somewhere I shouldnt be. I felt like I’d just walked into someone’s house and was standing in their living room with my shoes on – unwelcome, uninvited, and utterly out of place.
Eventually we were able to figure out that we were somewhere beneath one of the oldest cemeteries in Paris. The tunnels changed from being a warm, beige colour in the light of our headlamps, to being a cold bluish grey. The air grew colder and felt more stagnant than ever before. Eventually we came through a passage and entered a roundabout hallway with passages branching off of it every seven or eight feet. We circled the round about twice before realizing we’d passed the same set of rocks once before. As we circled the giant stone pillar, I noticed the sides of the pathway were filled with shards of human bones.
We decided to explore the many different passage ways which lead off of the roundabout. Each tunnel was littered with bones. Where the passage ways were filled with water, I could feel them popping, slipping and scrapping beneath my feet. On one such tunnel we found a small passage which led to a ledge in the rock. Another small hole appeared to be on the other side. We’d found one of the Ossuary chambers of Mass Graves created for victims of the plague.
I think this room, above all the others made the greatest impact on me. The bones were perfectly preserved even after hundreds of years due to the conditions of the cement tomb. You could perfectly spot all the various nodes and joints, vertebrae, and pelvic bones. Most of the skulls had been removed, but it was none the less impressive. The chamber was circular, but the ceiling was too low to stand up in. There were stones strewn about the room which you could stand on to keep you from stepping on the remains. The height of the ceiling of the chamber was determined by the height of the mound of bodies within it before they sealed it up. I was humbled and in awe of the magnitude of what I was seeing. It made me think of death, of grieving, of what it means to be buried, to be cremated, to have a tombstone. I suppose if we all end up as these bones in the end, what we leave on the surface is more for those we leave behind – a way for them to find us, to connect with us once more. How many nameless people are laid to rest here? How many of their family members, their descendants live on knowing the fate of their ancestors, but never their resting place.
Mass graves show the mark of some of the truest horrors that humanity has faced. Bodies collected then tossed one on top of the other, piled high then covered over because too many have died, and to stop the spread of disease to those still living. In such times as the Holocaust, the genocides in Rwanda, the Plague of Europe, now in Haiti after the earthquake, these mass graves mark the resting places of so many people who soon become nameless and uncelebrated, so often times forgotten. These bones belong to an individual who was loved and who loved in return and who was surely mourned and missed in the time of their passing. To see where so many where laid to rest, to see human remains was an experience and a feeling I will never forget.
As the night drew to a close, we decided to plan our exit of the catacombs with the first train of the morning – 6am. We thought it would be straight forward getting back out, but it ended up taking us hours and hours after getting lost, and taking the wrong turns, and tunnels being blocked, and backtracking, finding passage ways completely flooded only to wade through it all to find the exit was blocked. By the time we emerged, it was 730am, the sun was shinning, birds were singing, and we were filthy. Covered head to toe in mud, soaking wet, chalk dust paste in our hair, we didn’t realize how tired we were until we saw the day light. It was almost as if a timer had gone off and the clock was ticking for us to get back to our homes before a complete system shut down.
We must have looked quite the sight to those clean, tidy, well rested folks riding the metro that morning. But it was the best way to finish any adventure. Tired, happy, dirty, and filled with memories that will last a life time.