Skulls inset in walls
By the light of torches, candles or miners lights, haunting scenes centuries old appear to unfold. Mud-caked galleries, abandoned quarry caverns and even chambers containing human bones throw up their secrets.
Consulting maps, self-trained guides lead the way, while others look for opportunities to take photographs. Some paint murals, create graffiti, play music, or even work at opening blocked sections of the Mines. For the diehard, spending days on end here in the catacombs is as normal as a walk in the park.
Light in the darkness: Cataphiles navigate tunnels
The passages can be as low as three feet overhead – even less – the air heavy with dust, and the ground underfoot flooded with grimy water splashing way over your gumboots.
Some tunnels contain human remains
In tunnels up to 100 feet below the surface bustle of one of the world’s great cities, another clandestine world exists.
Exploring the Mines of Paris carries risk. For one, it is strictly illegal, with special police and their dogs patrolling the vast subterranean network. There is also a very real danger of getting lost, as well as the chance of cave-ins in some places.
Risk comes with the territory: Squeezing through a hole
Getting into the Mines can be a difficult enough business in itself. Finding secret entrances like specific manholes – frequently welded shut – or hidden openings inside off-limit tunnels in Paris’ abandoned underground railway takes persistence and usually the acquaintance of a guide.
More piles of human bones
For the uninitiated it might take weeks to find a way down to the re-opened tunnels, vaulted galleries and wrought stairwells beneath. The knowledge to do so is bound up in secrecy, and meeting groups of cataphiles who might be willing to help is not always straightforward.
Kitted up to go: Gumboots count among the equipment
This is still very much an esoteric culture, despite the hundreds of people in the French capital who take part in such activity – and the growing numbers worldwide who see this system of abandoned mines as the Holy Grail in urban exploring.
Miners’ lights are essential too
Popularly called the catacombs, the Mines of Paris comprise tunnels running for literally hundreds of kilometres, spread over several levels in a maze of echoing mystery. Out of bounds to the public since 1955, for decades the cataphiles have claimed it as their own.
Gaps and maps…
As in any loose community or subculture, there are differences. According to some, there are two categories of cataphile: the tourists who are just in it for the illegal quick-fix, and older, more serious – even crazy – types for whom going into the bowels of Paris is about escaping society’s constraints and being able to behave how they want.
Navigation is the key to avoid getting lost and other dangers
For the older generation of cataphiles, the newbies of the cyber age have it easy with their high-tech gear – and the groundwork of drawing maps of the Mines by hand already done for them.
Image: J.M. Schomburg
Steps back in time: Near the Marie de Medicis Aqueduct in the abandoned Mines
The deeper history of the Mines is as extensive as the tunnels themselves. Quarrying was recorded as early as the 13th century, and vertical mining ensured excavations continued for another 400 years – helping to build the city on top.
However, by the late 1700s, the underworld was becoming a sprawling mass of disused tunnels and unsafe mine workings. After several high profile collapses, it was finally decided that an official body was needed to map, repair, reinforce, monitor and maintain the quarries.
Maintenance work: Ladder leading up
Created in 1777, the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IDC) was largely responsible for making the subterranean tunnels what they are today. As the IDC consolidated a given roadway above, they would engrave its name, plus the date, in the tunnel walls they carved out beneath.
Engravings of the city grid above
Then, with overpopulated Paris’ cemeteries becoming choked with bodies, the IDC constructed a necropolis under the city where the remains could be relocated – mainly to the famous ossuary, today one of the catacombs’ few officially visitable parts.
Over the years spanning the French Revolution to the 20th century, the Mines were no doubt used by various shadowy groups for surreptitious goings-on, of which only rumours and cryptic graffiti scrawlings remain.
Image: Vincent de Groot
Bone piles in the Parisian Catacombs
During the War years, many of the old quarry rooms were seized as bunkers by civilians, the Nazis and the Resistance alike – the latter two engaged in a game of cat-and-mouse mirrored today by that played out between the cataphiles and the police division tasked with finding and fining them: the cataflics.
Firestarter: Circus activities are among those practiced today in the Mines
The game goes on as cataphiles persist in making their covert descents into the belly of Paris. Once below ground, anonymous tour groups may stop to talk to one another, engage in silent meditative rituals, share improvised feasts or throw parties big and small as they have done for decades. In 2004, the French police discovered an underground cinema run by the Mexican Perforation, a French artistic movement seeking to convey their ideas by improving and restoring hidden and abandoned spaces.
Art adorns the underground walls
Not everyone is so careful. The largest, most accessible and best known of the Mines’ networks, the Grand Réseau Sud, has suffered vandalism, littering and wholesale ransacking, and as a result of the invasion of people the cataflic division was set up. At least the smaller networks have so far stayed relatively unscathed.
Graffiti pieces and murals are commonplace
It is true that the Mines have been toured and investigated extensively. Yet unless policy is toughened against the infiltrators, the cataphiles will continue to penetrate the labyrinth Paris conceals.