Down in the Paris Catacombs

When my friend Jacques offered to take me on a catacomb tour of Paris, I didn’t hesitate. I couldn’t pass up an invitation to visit the labyrinthine quarry that furnished the stones of Paris, from the gargoyles of Notre Dame to the cobblestones of Montparnasse.

Throughout the centuries, saints and royalty as well as smugglers, criminals and soldiers have wandered in the vast network of subterranean tunnels. The perfect acoustics spurred a 19th-century “underground” concert of Chopin and Beethoven. On the more macabre side, the bones of six millions of Parisians are laid to rest in a single 60-square-meter deposit – the largest ossuary in the world – with smaller caches of skeletons scattered throughout the city. But I balked when I found out we weren’t going to take the public tour – quite the contrary. Jacques proposed no less than an illicit rove through the nether world à la Indiana Jones. “I’m a professional cataphile,” he puffed. “Seventeen articles have been written about me in six languages in the last three years.”

Professional curiosity overrode private hesitation. Dressed in neon Spandex leggings and a shoe-horn sweater, I arrived at Jacques’s house ready for my catacomb initiation. “I told you it was casual,” he reproached. Jeans. Sweatshirt. Hip-high rubber boots. Lantern helmet. Standard-issue backpack. “I am dressed casually,” I protested. This is Paris, after all.

While Jacques scrounged up another rubber bootie costume, other members of the cata-clan arrived. I felt like a voyeur at a jock club when four French executives metamorphosed into cataphiles right before my eyes. They swapped business suits for fatigues, sharpened their pocket knives and outfitted their backpacks with provisions, stopping just short of the under-eye charcoal smear. “When we get to the portal,” the Captain (a.k.a. Jacques) explained, “you’ll have less than fifteen seconds to get inside.” Like a Star Trek cata-crew on a Mission Impossible rerun, they discussed which manhole would offer both “ingress” and “egress” – meaning which manholes had been soldered shut by the State to keep the cataphiles out of the catacombs. Meaning which manholes had been opened back up by cataphiles to gain access to the catacombs. Meaning if our manhole was soldered tight after we’d gone in, where would we-.

Since I was carrying the responsibility of my entire gender on my slim aerobicized shoulders, I didn’t want to wimp out, but my partially digested dinner of fonds d’artichauts au beurre d’oursins gurgled as I grabbed the rungs and rapidly descended into the lightless tunnel. “This is a remarkably long ladder,” I thought, feeling my way down in the dark. “A very long ladder indeed.” After a harrowing Rung Purgatory Transit, we reached bottom and switched on our high-tech headlamps. “We’re even below the metro,” whispered one of the cataphiles as if he were referring to the clandestine architecture of Dante’s hell. Shrewd observer that I am, I noted that it was, in fact, unseasonably warm, but also very clean, a kind of terra cotta intestine. Even the knee-high water we were standing in was crystal clear.

Vowing to “go where no man has gone before,” three of the cata-crew sloshed off in search of a rare monument known as “Egbert’s Follies,” while the Captain and his sidekick, Vermin Le Grand, led me to dry ground. The Captain whipped out his pocket-sized electronic map. With a push of a button, he scrolled though a route marked with red lights, which indicated Major Points of Interest. “What happens if you go this way?” I asked, pointing to a tunnel marked with slashed lines.

“You hit the Seine, where the water’s up to the top and you have to breathe with your lips pressed against the ceiling.” “We can wear our tubes!” Vermin enthused. “Sorry,” the Captain said. “We’re only equipped for an introductory tour.” Among the sight-seeing highlights were “The Beach” (a dead-end tunnel choked with sand), “The Squeeze” (a narrow passage requiring an agile commando crawl) and “The Dome” (a quarry room the size of Le Grand Palais). There was a spontaneous round of hide-and-seek, which involved abandoning me at the Spaghetti Tunnel Crossroads to fend for myself, and a spectacular Three Minutes of Darkness, when we turned off our headlamps without a single particle of radiation piercing the retina. “Sometimes,” Vermin confessed, “I come down here and just grope around in the dark.”

Who cares about cata-pathology? I wanted to know more about the artifacts of cata-culture, the photocopies of bad Verlaine imitations and Rabelaisian tracts scattered like handbills in the subterranean landscape. “…The prodigious stones weep /  O what sweet wine flows / From memory’s earthy deep….” Even more curious were the sporadic art installations, complete with Surrealist Objects and naive paintings ripe for cata-collecting. “How come none of these works is signed?” I asked, referring to a suitcase full of brightly painted plastic thongs.

“It’s against the cata-code,” the Captain said sternly as a light sparked faintly at the other end of the tunnel. “Lamps out.” “What’s up?” I asked. “Aliens,” Vermin squeaked. Evidently we were not all one big happy cata-clan. In my precipitous crash course in cata-cliques, I learned that rival cataphiles not only beat you up, but also steal your batteries, flashlights and maps. “That’s why I always keep an extra map taped to my thigh,” the Captain admitted.

Suddenly I remembered the “Catacombs and the Black Mass” entry in the Guide to the Mysteries of Paris. Would I be carried away for use in some primitive cata-cult ritual? With my left brain, I desperately tried to decipher the dot-dash Morse code of the approaching beacons; with my right, I frantically repeated my “Beam me up, Scottie” mantra. “Hiureck,” the Captain challenged when they were within earshot. The invaders gasped; froze in their tracks; murmured in a foreign tongue. Minutes passed like eons; the Vermin belched. Finally we heard a tentative “bonjour.”

“Tourists,” the Captain sighed, turning on his headlamp. “They don’t know the passwords.” Two thirtysomething Swedes, gradually recovering from minor heart failure, politely excused themselves as they squeezed past and went on down the tunnel. More Dungeons & Dragons adventures lay ahead, but I remained stalwart. I didn’t complain when I fell headfirst on a pile of sharp gravel. I remained in control even when my synthetic sweatshirt caught on fire during the Candlelight Snack Ritual -after it burned to bits, I continued to wear the collar and the attached sleeve. Instinctively, I was saving my total freak-out for what really counts: the Door of Death.

Interesting how a mere iron grating elevated several feet above the ground can turn a full-grown woman into a blubbering idiot. One false move during the climb-over and I’d have impaled myself upon the points. Luckily I escaped with only a smattering of puncture wounds on my inner thigh. I like to think of those historical remnants of denim still clinging to the rusty jaw as the setting for an operetta entitled, “Prelude to An American Cata-Strophe.” By three o’clock in the morning, cata-phobia had set in. I was dirty, wet, bruised, ill-tempered and exhausted. I didn’t feel a bit like going to look at the medieval skulls, even if we could forage fallen teeth and put them on our key chains. When finally the moment came to re-enter the Upper Realm, I struggled out of the manhole, narrowly missing the wheels of a speeding garbage truck.

“The crew’s going down next Tuesday,” Jacques said. “You want to come along?” “Some boys,” I thought, “just never grow up.”

Catacombs, 2, place Denfert-Rochereau, 14e. Bring your flashlight!

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