A night in the Catacombs

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A quite mythic place – well a large one indeed – the parisian catacombs are anything but a easily accessible spot.

First of all : It’s forbidden to go there. If you get caught, you’ll get fined 70€ and escorted to the exit. Then it is nothing for the fainthearted as the tunnels are narrow, low ceiling, sometimes filled with 10-20cm of water and you’ve to rob through sneak holes that are often veeeery narrow. And it’s dirty…very dirty…Now, if you’re not claustrophobic and the idea of walking under 20-30m of stone with no emergency exit, no cell phone connection, poor lighting conditions but all this in a specific, really weird atmosphere doesn’t scare you, well I say you should try it.

Having been down there for the 1rst time 20 years ago, I definitely wanted to go back and see that place again. So with with my lightpainting buddy Thomas and a friend of his (which I won’t name here as he’s a great amateur & expert of the place), we arranged for a night down there. Starting from Port Royal, we went down through by simply opening a sewer manhole in the street and climbing down. But as you might understand, this is not so easy 🙂 There are challenges like at the end of the 1rst gallery there was a sneak hole – a real narrow one to get through. 1rst test of your claustrophobic sensivity.

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But there are other challenges too like some idiots who light up KNO3 mixed with sugar which produces white smoke that we encountered on the way down. That smoke was so thick that I couldn’t see my feet nor the guy walking 1m ahead of me. At some point we were a bit worried on what to do but finally we reached a spot of clean air.  It kepts us busy for at least 10 minutes walking slowly in an completely invisible environment. A bit scary when you think of it as we could event see the side galleries we were crossing. but our guide knew the way.

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The cataphiles, or catacomb addicts that go down there are spending a lot of time in the tunnels & rooms, decorating and changing the aspect of the area. Lots of wall taggins have appeared since and I must say, I don’t like it. Some even steal the street signs down there. But others do some real art and there was a spot with all stones full of glittery stuff. Quite weird. Nice are the very old writings on the walls, more than 150 years old as well as the street signs carved into the walls.

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Believe it or not, we settled down for a cheese fondue and our friend pulled out a cooker and everything needed to eat down there. We chose a clean spot with a rudimentary table while my LED wand proved again more than useful. Actually we were pretty hungry and went all over it. I even brought some freshly cooked potatoes and some wine. Finally, with some calories to withstand the coming efforts, we left for the target of the evening : the Room Z and the Val de Grace.

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It’s really hard to measure the distances down there or the time you spend. You just walk and try not to hit your head on the ceiling that gets really low sometimes. We finally arrived in the room Z through a sneak hole that is pretty exhausting to get through as you’ve to crawl 10m at least on your side & knees to manage to get in. Keep in mind that all these holes have been dug out by the cataphiles and are a way to get around the concrete obstructions the Inspection des Carrières has built over the years. The addicts down there simply dig around them and create new accesses to locked off places.

The Z room was empty but we did a quick Firepainting session there. Enjoy the pics.

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Finally we ended up meeting some people in the Val de Grâce undergounds in another large room that had a real nice atmosphere. There too we did some painting there, with light this time.

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Finally at 3am it was time to leave and we headed back to the exit. Actually our guide stayed in the room but gave complete explanations to Thomas who’s also been often down there. Me as a complete layman, I just followed 🙂 We found our way but on the last track there was a surprise : 50 cm of water that left us walking with squeaky noises in our rubber boots. Then – and this was unexpected…we didn’t find the right manhole to get out. There were 3 of them and we didn’t understand at first how to open them. In the end, I climbed up and analyzed the design of the cover that are made of cast iron. It appeared that the weight was the issue and when you try to push it up on the wrong spot, you need the force of a crane to get it open. But in the end, Thomas who’s better than me in climbing got it open and we went home safely, tired & exhausted, but happy of our exotic underground trip.

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Catacombs under Paris

If in a life you get a chance to meet a ‘cataphile’ (a catacomb addict), ask him to take you down there. It’s definitely a unique experience walking in this underground network of tunnels & galleries. Better go with a map and an experienced guy as there’s no way you […]