We were told to dress in inconspicuous clothing, wear sturdy boots and gloves, bring food supplies, an ID in case of arrest and a rosary in case of the unimaginable. We met our host to the underworld whose name will remain Mr. X, at a location I can’t reveal. And down the rabbit hole we went …
As soon as Mr. X unhinges the manhole with his mysterious tool, he signals and we scamper over like thieves in the night to begin our descent. There is no time to think, no time to regret, no time to look back, up or down– just climb into darkness– fast.
Scrambling down the ladder, stepping on each other’s fingers in a race to find the bottom that we won’t reach for another twenty meters…
My heartbeat finally begins to slow down as I hear Alex jump to the ground. We’ve made it into the catacombs.
They can’t get us down here, they wouldn’t dare follow anyway. Now, we belong to the underworld.
Taking in our immediate surroundings; the medieval carvings on the wall left by limestone miners long ago and the graffiti tags left by cataphyles of yesterday, Mr. X begins to explain his ‘rules’. These are not ‘rules’ as we know them in society above ground, but more like a code of honour to follow during our stay in the underworld– the code of the cataphyles.
But what is a cataphyle?
Probably the better question is, how do you become a cataphyle? Tonight, for the first time, I am truly entering the catacombs. There is no easy access, no safety guaranteed and everything about it is illegal. But I am a rookie; a virgin of Paris’ vast network of historical underground tunnels and caverns and this is what I’m calling level one. This is the beginner’s level to potentially becoming a ‘true’ cataphyle– if it’s a path you choose to take. But sometimes, it might just choose you.
Mr. X is a true cataphyle. He enters the catacombs illegally up to several times a week and has delved into its furthest depths. He works in IT consulting during the day and very few people in his life know about his nocturnal habits. We’ve been introduced to him by my most valued new Parisian friend, Foulques, the founder of We Are the Oracle– the same group that threw us a party in a secret cold war bunker, a masked ball in the abandoned Rothschild Chateau and even a dinner banquet in this very section of the catacombs we’re about to discover. He’s here with us tonight, many levels higher than me on the cataphyle scale, but all too willing to mentor my transition into the underworld.
Basic Level One Guidelines:
In the unlikely event we happen to cross fellow cataphyles on our journey this evening, we’re advised to be friendly, but as a general rule, not to share how or where we entered or how we’ll be exiting.
Leave no trace.
If we get lost, we stay put and wait (hopefully to be found) and do not attempt to navigate the intricate tunnels ourselves.
And we’re off, guided by Mr. X and his gas lamp through tunnels that look like they could lead us to an ancient Egyptian crypt.
He’s marching at an extremely fast pace– this is not a leisurely stroll through the catacombs. If you don’t want find yourself lost in the darkness or knocked out in the damp sand, you keep your head low and your feet moving.
Some tunnels are marked with street signs indicating what roads we’re travelling underneath, but for the most part, it truly is a maze down here.
After some time (I have no idea how long because I’ve lost all sense of time ducking and diving at great haste through the darkness), we come to what seems like a dead end with a small window not much bigger than a cat door.
Well, it looks like we’ll have to turn back…
I’m ready to set off in the other direction when suddenly, I see this happen…
And in under fifteen seconds flat, Mr. X has wiggled his way to the other side.
Follow me, he says.
Yeah right, I say.
I’m sure you would love to see me wiggling my way through that hole but unfortunately, I struggled through first (crash landing on the other side) and Alex was behind me. Of course I took pleasure in capturing every elegant moment. Handstands in the catacombs. Who knew?
After all seven of us in the group have wiggled our way through, we decide it’s high time we have some dinner and settle in a grotto carved out by someone of this time or another.
At the entrance of the grotto, this hanging doll … or shall we call it “art installation”, serves as a reminder that although we might be about to bring out the red wine in our cozy candlelit cave, one should never feel as if they can be totally at ease in the catacombs…
Although you can still do “Bio” ↑ (organic) in the catacombs, mais naturellement!
We feast on an interesting mix of dry figs, saucisson, organic peanut butter and nutella with crackers. And of course, the vino.
But the night is young and there is no time to waste. After exchanging a few stories in the candlelight, we’re on our feet once again in search of an old bunker.
Mr. X doesn’t disappoint, and after a few slips and slides deeper into the damp catacomb tunnels, we find the old disused air raid bunker which lies directly under a post office above ground.
It’s a vast and impressive space, the perfect canvas for (sub) street artists. Time to light our torches…
The dual staircase must eventually lead to a door somewhere in the post office that most employees just assume is the janitor’s closet.
On our way here through the tunnels, Foulques had been telling me about the unforgettable dinner party he once threw here in the early days of his clandestine party planning…
But tonight, there are no candelabras, no flowing wine, no music or laughter or sounds of clanking of cutlery.
Tonight, we are alone with the vibrant frescoes waiting to be illuminated by a passing torch.
I knew thirteen was my lucky number!
As we gather round a well, we notice that we’re joined by some rather unwelcome locals of the catacombs … (take a closer look at the rocks…↓)
If you’re terrified of creepy crawlies (I couldn’t think of a more fitting description in this case), then scroll very quickly past.
They move like spiders but at closer inspection, look more like crickets. And for creatures that live in perpetual darkness, they seem to like the light of our torches.
It hasn’t occurred to me to look at my watch the entire time down here, but somehow, we’ve lost nearly four hours. We bid adieu to our cricket spiders of the underworld, and decide it’s time to head back up to the real world in time for the last metro home.
The ascent is a long and arduous one on the arms, but our crazy clandestine party planner, Foulques, always finds time to make a joke…
A video posted by messynessychic (@messynessychic) on
We emerge like deer in the headlights– literally. Headlights of cars driving by on the road are shining in our eyes as we clamber out from the manhole, dazed, relieved but our bodies still pumping with adrenaline. And within seconds, the manhole is put back in place and we disperse into the Parisian night as if the whole thing never happened. Like a dream.
When we return home, we’re not entirely sure what has happened to us tonight. Where have we been? How long were we there? It just doesn’t quite feel real, like we travelled through time or hallucinated the entire thing. And this is the drug that is the catacombs. I know now that I’m hooked and I want more.
Bring on level two.
If you’re interested in exploring the Paris catacombs and finding out how you can get in touch with some experienced cataphyles, I can only recommend that you become involved in the world of We Are the Oracle. Discover the WATO experience, test the waters and meet fellow enthusiasts of the Parisian underworld. Stay updated on their Facebook page.
And no doubt, Mr. X will be hiding in the shadows somewhere.
In the meantime, some cataphyles have created a street view style catacomb online experience.