Underneath Paris is a parallel universe of tunnels, caverns, bones—and party venues. Will Hunt spends a few days and nights down there with a band of urban explorers

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012

SOME YEARS AGO, I sat on a stone-cut bench in a dark chamber in the catacombs of Paris wearing a headlamp and muddied boots, and listened to the strange story of Félix Nadar, the first man to photograph the underground of Paris. In 1861, Nadar invented a battery-operated flash lamp, one of the first artificial lights in the history of photography, and promptly brought his camera into Paris's sewers and catacombs. Over three months, Nadar—41, moustachioed, with unruly red hair—shot in the darkness beneath the streets. He used 18-minute exposures and, as models, wooden mannequins dressed in the garb of city workers. On the surface, the images of dim, claustrophobic passageways created a stir. Parisians had heard of the vast subterranean networks underlying their streets and Nadar brought this dark lattice to light. The pictures opened up Paris's relationship to its subterranean spaces—catacombs and crypts, sewers and canals, reservoirs and utility tunnels—a connection which, over the years, has grown deeper and more peculiar than in any other city. 

Now, a century and a half behind Nadar, I am back in Paris with a group of urban explorers. Our aim is to examine the city's connection to its underground in a way no one has before: we will attempt to walk from the southern edge to the northern, using only catacombs, telecom tunnels, sewers and other hidden infrastructure. It is a 14-mile trek, every step illegal. The six of us—five Americans and an Australian—are prepared for a two- or three-day journey, with nights sleeping in the bowels of Paris. We have packed food, sleeping bags, an arsenal of flashlights and headlamps, and gas meters to alert us to any poisonous fumes in the sewers. It will be urban troglodytism, a walkabout in the wilderness under the city. 

JUST AFTER 9pm on Tuesday, as twilight falls, we stand in a derelict train tunnel to the south of the city. Steve Duncan, the leader of the expedition, crouches by what will be our entrance into the catacombs, a craggy hole in the wall encircled with graffiti. Steve, 33, is a photographer and urban historian from New York. He has explored and photographed the undersides of cities around the world: the sewers of London, the underground rivers of Moscow, the cisterns of Naples. After each expedition, he has returned to New York to lecture on his findings. Like Nadar, he illuminates the hidden anatomy of cities, changing the way urbanites think about their environment. He stands up, flicks the braces on his chest-high waders, switches on his headlamp and grins: "Everyone ready?" 

One by one, we slip into the catacombs, unsure when we'll see the surface again. The tunnel we drop into is rough-hewn and low-ceilinged. We duckwalk, backpacks scraping against the rock, the beams of our flashlights dancing on the walls and cold clear water sloshing around our feet. When we pause, there is silence, the sound of cars on the street blotted out: we are inside Paris, yet utterly removed from it.

Parisians say their city, with all of its perforations, is like a wedge of Gruyère cheese and nowhere is so holey as the catacombs. They are a vast, earthy labyrinth, 320km (200 miles) of tunnels, mainly on the Left Bank of the Seine. Some of the tunnels are flooded, half-collapsed, riddled with sinkholes, others are finished with neatly mortared brick, spiral staircases and elegant archways. These were the quarries that supplied the limestone blocks that make up the grand buildings along the Seine, 18 metres (60 feet) above our heads. The oldest had been carved to construct the Roman city of Lutetia, traces of which can still be found in the city's Latin Quarter. Over the centuries, as the city expanded, quarrymen brought more limestone to the surface, and the underground warren spread like the roots of a great tree.

When Nadar first dropped into the catacombs with his camera, the tunnels were largely empty. He might have encountered the occasional mushroom farmer, or perhaps the Inspection des Carrières, the workers who prevented the tunnels from collapsing under the weight of the city—otherwise, in those days, no one. Today, the quarries teem with activity. Walls are covered in riots of graffiti, chambers gilded with carvings and murals. This is the work of cataphiles, a loose tribe of young, bohemian Parisians who spend days and nights in the catacombs. They throw parties, stage performances, make art, explore the limits of the system. Entering the catacombs is illegal and the police employ a special squadron—catacops—to patrol the network. But they deter no one. The tunnels are like a big secret clubhouse. 

We've been underground for about two hours when Moe Gates, the team's map-bearer, leads us into a passageway so tight we have to squirm through like worms. We emerge into a large chamber with walls covered in murals. Some of the paint still smells fresh. The floor is littered with half-melted candles and the debris of parties past: beer cans, cigarette butts, bottles of Jack Daniel's. There are tables and chairs cut from the rock, a crescent-shaped bench. Along one wall is a painting which turns out to be a version of Hokusai's "Great Wave off Kanagawa". The chamber is called La Plage, and is a central haunt of cataphiles.

Just as visitors to the surface of Paris follow a sight-seeing itinerary—Sacré Coeur, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower—so do visitors to its underside. Wandering through the alcoves connected to La Plage, we visit a room with a Norman castle and rock-hewn gargoyles, a room heaped with silk flowers, a room lined with paintings of film characters. We encounter four separate groups of cataphiles. On a weekend night, La Plage is as crowded as most Parisian bars.

The cataphiles, whether or not they know it, are essential to our expedition. The painstaking map we use to navigate the quarries, acquired years ago by Steve and Moe, was compiled by elders of the tribe. Other cataphiles over the years have brought power drills and jackhammers underground to gouge small passages in the walls, chatières, which will be vital gateways in our trek northward.

We hike for miles, twisting and ducking, climbing and crawling, jack-knifing our bodies in ways most people never do. We go through passageways as tight as sphincters, into chambers as big as ballrooms. The tunnels are marked with Paris's signature blue ceramic signs, the names corresponding to the streets above. The walls are slick with condensation and give off steam. It is like being inside the intricately folded tissues of a brain. It is a place of palimpsests—layers of graffiti tags from the spraycans of young cataphiles, black streaks from the torches of 17th- century quarry diggers, millennia-old fossils of sea creatures embedded in limestone. We peer up manhole shafts so high it is too dark to see the top. We see relics of the wooden braces later quarry inspectors used to shore up the tunnels. At one point, tromping through the darkness, I shine my light upwards to find a giant, black crack in the ceiling. In the 18th century, there were collapses: buildings and horse-drawn carriages and people walking in the street swallowed by the earth. Stonecutters perished in the cave-ins. But the tunnels today are secure and we do not fear entombment. The catacombs are the least treacherous leg of our journey.