In case you missed the carrier pigeon memo last week: we held our first Keyholder Video Event, and kicked it off with a live Q&A with the fabulously entertaining Alexander J.E. Bradley – an artist and urban explorer whose mastery of the Paris catacombs has led us down many a rabbit hole (you may recall our trip to his underground catacombs cinema to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show one Halloween). He joined Nessy and the Keyholders to answer all of our burning secrets about what it takes to venture into the Paris underworld, so grab a candle and let’s find out.
If you missed the Live Q&A or want to re-watch the full Video Event along with a list of resources, including underground quarries he recommends (plus some books & museums), you can unlock all of that here in the Keyholder’s Vault. But we’ve also transcribed a few of the questions for everyone to whet your appetite…
MessyNessyChic: Welcome! It’s 6:00pm in Paris. There go the church bells – so let’s get to it! Alexander, what does it mean to be a cataphile? How do you become one?
Alexander JE Bradley: Good evening everyone! Chin chin [raises beer glass]. I’ve been living in Paris for 10 years now. When I moved here, I had heard about these secret underground passages leading across the city. Old relics of 12th century mines that were adapted, regenerated, renewed over the years, decades and centuries; limestone caves that had been repurposed into bunkers, breweries, places of resistance. To be a cataphile just means you love that. You have the spirit of the Paris underground inside you.
MNC: What’s the difference between cataphiles and catacomb “tourists”? How do you graduate from being a tourist to a cataphile?
AB: [Laughs] We used to debate this! Even those I started going down with didn’t know too much about it. We would make up ‘markers’ for things. Like, that you had to have gone down a certain level, or slept underground, etc. In the end, you just need to love it.
MNC: We’re going to open up the floor to Keyholder’s questions now….
Keyholder: How can you trust someone the first time you go underground?
AB: You probably can’t [laughs]. You’d want to go down with someone you know well. Cataphiles are renowned for being d*cks. If they see you down there with a map…cataphiles have been known to grab your map from you, and burn it. (Distributing maps of the catacombs breaks rule number 1).
So really get to know who you are meeting. Ask for photos of their trips. Listen to how they talk about being safe in different situations. You’re very far away from any medical assistance down there.
Keyholder: In this lockdown, are cataphiles still going down?
AB: I don’t know – I hope not! It would be a public health risk. Someone asked if I stay down there for two weeks if I had the chance? No. It’s so humid and moist down there, it would be the perfect breeding ground for a respiratory virus.
Keyholder: How big are the secret catacombs?
AB: So the public catacombs are about a 3 kilometer closed network. It used to be connected to the rest of it, which totals some 250 kilometeres inside the city limits (and another 100 kilometeres outside). Half of the city is built on this honey comb foundation of empty void. Tunnels, tracks, mazes…
Keyholder: What stops you from living down there? Are there police?
AB: There’s a special division of police, yes. We call them the “cata-flics” (cata-cops). I have met them down there – as well as going in through the street, and out.
I’ve spent three nights in a row. That’s my record. We bring hammocks, coffee and gas canisters. We bring down sleeping bags. A projector. A boom box. Usually lots of Whisky. You just have to think of it like urban camping.
Water is a major issue – if you want to stay there for a good length of time, you’re going to need enough water, which is heavy to lug around. I’ve had friends who have stayed for about a week, and we would ferry them supplies. You can stash food, but then you risk it being stolen or spiked.
Keyholder: How easy is it to get lost?
AB: If you don’t have a map, it’s very easy. And if you do have a map…it’s also very easy to get lost! Last year two sixteen-year-olds got lost for three days. And that was in a very “touristy” (beginners) area. They launched a whole Fire Brigade and cataphile operation to rescue them, placing little arrow markers underground to note where they had checked. They must’ve been shit scared by the time they got found.
Keyholder: Do you sell your catacomb maps?
AB: You know, it’s a place we enjoy, love and respect. We try and protect it from too many “tourists” [laughs] and from people who could get lost. So no I don’t.
Keyholder: Have you had any close calls?
AB: You know, I always used to guard my maps. That all changed one day when once after a Halloween party in the catacombs I got quite sick. I couldn’t even stand! So I sent my friends out to get help, when I realized only I had a map, and I knew how to get in and out. So I’ve changed my tune. I started teaching people I trust.
Keyholder: How many entrances are there? How physically demanding can it be to get in and out?
AB: There used to be a lot of entrances! From people’s basements, schools, car parks – when Jacques Chirac was the mayor of Paris in the 1970s he famously closed the catacombs. Shut it completely. So we go in through manholes in the street, which is risky because you may otherwise head into a pile of poo really quickly. Which I do not recommend. The manholes can also weigh 120 kilos, so that takes a lot effort. I think I’ve been through 50 different entrances.
Keyholder: How many active cataphiles are in Paris?
AB: I’m trying to figure that out myself, as well as how many people could be in the Catacombs at a given weekend – honestly I think there must be 1,000 . When I look at the cataphile groups I’m in on Facebook, they vary from 1,000-5,000 people.
Keyholder: How realistic are the portrayals of the catacombs in horror movies and such?
AB: . [The movie] ‘As Above, So Below’ did film in the Catacombs. But It’s just like with any Hollywood movie, where you’ll see them cut from one shot at the Eiffel Tower, turn a street and suddenly be at Notre Dame. There’s another so-good-it’s-bad film in the Catacombs with Pink, called Catacombs that is a fun watch. A lot like what you imagine it would be like – like going swimming in these massive pools in the Catacombs. In reality they’re small and freezing.
There is a cataphile – “plongeur” (diver) we call him, who has made it a goal to reach the end of every tunnel even if its submerged in water – just crazy stuff. He has this thread he takes down with him so he knows where to go. I filmed it, and you can see on my website. The water can be crystal clear, really beautiful.
Keyholder: How are the parties organized? Can anyone join?
AB: You hear through the grapevine. Halloween is a big one. Sometimes folks tap electricity and bring down DJ decks. I’ve been to thrash metal parties that manage to bring down a whole drum kit, electric guitars. I’ve seen brass bands. Sometimes you just bump into them. I went to a “cata-pute” party, which…how would you translate that [laughs]…let’s say it was like Eyes Wide Shut. But with more mud.
One happened in an old war bunker built between WWI and WWII. It was meant to fit 100 people, but we were some 500 so suddenly, the candles wouldn’t stay lit. There just wasn’t enough oxygen. But for whatever reason, these acetylene miners lamps stayed lit. Of course the French being French [laughs] they’d see your lamp and their first thought would be, “Oh, Monsieur! Will you light my cigarette s’il vous plait?”
Keyholder: What is your ‘end game’ with exploring the Catacombs?
AB: The way I interact with the Catacombs has changed a lot over the years. As a photographer, I’m also inspired to take photos. First, you want to know every passage, every place to map – like a treasure hunt. But then you start to notice the history before you. Drawings from the Spanish War. Carvings made by people during the Napoleonic Wars. Forgotten bunkers. You learn so much. A lot of it was about the friends I went with as well. It’s that shared exploring.
Keyholder: Sounds like you’ve learned some cool secret history about Paris in what you find…
AB: Yeah. People have been down there for centuries. They’ve got markings on the wall like this [shows a cryptic image]. And another one that we couldn’t understand, initially, was this one that read “12 G 2R” – and we were like, ‘What the hell is that? Oh, ok, so this wall was the 12th wall built by Charles Guillemet in the second year of the Revolution, because the numbers indicate the new Revolutionary calendar! When they said, ‘Ok now it’s year one..’ and even changed the clocks. They changed the week to being 10 days long. Each month was three weeks. So you go down a real rabbit hole.
There was also German bunker built under in an old void under a high school in the 5th arrondissement by the Luxembourg Gardens. The Nazis notes and scribbles are still down there. Less than a kilometer away from that, you can get to the French Resistance bunker, which is now being turned into a museum.
It makes you see Paris very differently!
MNC: Lastly, I think we’re all wondering – what’s the first thing you’ll do when we’re out of quarantine?
AB: Give my best friend a hug. And not too far off of that…probably go to the Catacombs!
MNC: Well Alexander, you’ve been an absolute dream as a first guest host and interviewee. Thank you.
AB: It’s been a pleasure to be here.
Like many artists right now, Alexander J.E. Bradley is currently in need of extra support– so if you can, show him some love with a donation on his website or an Instagram follow. You can also book a Paris Photography workshop with him. Everything helps. Cheers, and see you next week!
While our travel & events at MessyNessyChic are also affected during this time, we’re hosting weekly Video Events for Keyholders during the lockdown, which will allow members to join our virtual shindigs live from Paris by video link. We’ll be having Pub Quizes, costume parties, and of course, amazing interviewees! Do join us next time.