Visited March 2007
The Paris Catacombs - Some people know the history of the catacombs, other may not.
Basically the Paris Catacombs is built with in a 40 metre layer of Lutecien Limestone, built up over millions of years, and originally covered by ocean. Fossils of small sea creatures can be seen in the rocks in some areas of the catacombs.
The area began to be quarried by the Romans in open air quarries, but was in the 12th century that the technique of digging tunnels to extract the rock was used.
In 1777, The Inspection des Carrieres( Quarries Inspection) was formed due to high amount of collapses with in the quarry tunnels. The inspectors would mark the galleries they have checked by inscribing the the date and initials and sometimes an abbreviation of the work carried out.
The Catacombs name is used as a general term for the Great Southern Network(GRS) but the catacombs are only a small area of this network.
With major overcrowding in the cemeteries causing health problems, it was decided to move 6 million corspes from graveyards over a 75 year period into the underground tunnels. The area is refered to as The General Ossuary.
Today the Catacombs are mix of old quarry workings with unfinished work, smooth brick tunnels built from waste rock, aquaducts, old telecoms tunnels, German and French bunkers from the war, and now local french explorers continue the history of the catacombs. Building rooms out of the rock in various area of the network creating a living underworld, a life below ground where people meet, explore, relax and party. The Paris Catacombs are pretty much unique.
After visting the catacombs last summer on a 24 hour trip and not even managing to see half of the GRS, I lept at the chance when Oxygen Thief mentioned planning a 4 day trip underground to cover the WHOLE GRS.
Since the initial decision to go and Eurostar tickets booked, it was a couple of months before the actual trip. But time soon caught up on us and a few days before leaving, we had to do some major route planning and equipment lists.
A whole day at OT's sorting a route that would cover every feature and tunnel while not covering the same ground twice was hard. Also not knowing if some tunnels were unpassable with high water or low ceilings.
It meant the route was flexible and more than likely to change as we progressed.
4 days underground meant we had to carry everything we needed. Food and water were obviously essential and of course some beer. Helmets, headtorches, backups, waders, hammocks, sleeping bags the list grew and grew.
All the equipment we took was bare minimum, nothing more nothing less. The rucksacks were weighing in at 30kg!!!! with out half our food or water which wouldnt even fit in.
We decided on taking a stash bag with food and water which we would be used for days 3 and 4. This on its own weighed another 5kg. We would hide this bag in the network and retreive it when we ran out of supplies from the main bag.
Food wise we would be living on self heating meals, mule bars, maltloaf, water and beer.
The 30 kg was heavy to lift but having it on your back for 4 days, climbing, crawling, stooping and dragging it through miles and miles of tunnels was going to be hard.
The Trip -
We left on the wednesday from St Pancras to Gare Du Nord and found a small cheap hotel for the night and we werent going in until the morning. We met with Rug our French contact and his friend(i cant remeber his name), and we chatted over a few beers and arranged to meet them in the GRS on saturday night. Got back to our hotel at 2am, and had to be up at 6 to start.
A bit of over sleeping and we headed for our entry point and were in the network by 8am.
We walked around looking for a good stash point for the food bag. After that was sorted the exploring could begin.
We headed for Le Passe de Muraille (man in the wall). Originally a plaster cast of an explorer coming out of the wall, but has recently been vandalised and is missing an arm and his head is partially destroyed.
We walked South and came to a spiral staircase to the surface with a concrete cap. Workmen just above our head digging up the road, could be seen through a small hole. Back down the stairs past our level and there was a small sub level, that went in a loop round but had a small room, which had a few old roadsigns which must have been brought down the stairwell when it was accessible. We were now of the most southern point of the GRS map, but decided to continue as far south as we could. We came to what we thought was the end of the tunnel, but a breach meant we could squeeze through a tight hole and continue on. We left the bags behind to do a quick walk not thinking it wouldn't go far. After a few hundred metres we headed back to the bags to retrieve them as it was clear it was long network of tunnels. It is common to see blue enamel plaques relating to the street name above. But we came across a white plaque at the bottom of a set of stairs to the surface. Access is blocked at the top. But the stairs were for easy access for the Inspectorss of the tunnels and plaque named the inspectors, the Engineer of the Mine and the Controller of the Mine. Further down we came across some iron gates, unsure of what these were for, but it may have been to seperate areas quarry owned by different people. At the far south was another small room, decorated in paintings and small 'towns' carved out of the soft stone.
Headed back north we tooks a slightly different route and came across a small wall. Later we find out this part was of an old Fort built in the tunnel to prevent people coming up behind the defenses underground.
We headed back to Le Passe de Muraille and sat for a break, we saw that the tunnels were the Le Vanne Aquaduct which OT actually had a seperate map for but didnt relise.
We travelled west along Boulevard Jordan, hoping to explore every tunnel along our route, but high water levels and low ceilings on this route meant they were impassable. We stopped in the 'Page Room' and small square room with no obvious features. Room named after the word 'Page' carved on the floor, although we couldnt see it.
Checked a few passages branching off the main 'road' but with no finds, so we headed for the 'Ram Room' first passing a mosaic on the wall 'JC Saratte' made in honour of Jean Claude Saratte who was Chief of Undeground Police Brigade.
The 'Ram Room' consisted of a few stone benches with some carvings and mosaics and a didgeridoo.
Continued South to 'The Viandox' were there was a collection of bones, may have been childrens bones and they were all very small. Unsure why these bones were here and we were miles from the main Ossuary.
Back north to Porte De Orleans crossroads and went West to see if there was access to the far West of the network, but after a very long walk the end was sealed as the tunnel crossed into a technical gallery, a term the French use for a telecoms or service tunnel.
Back we went at a Junction with Rue des Plantes we head north. The side passages were very low, and with all the stooping and weight of the bags was already beginning to getting annoying. The stooping and crawling was sapping the energy faster then i had imagined. Having to navigate with the map while moving, means you dont always see the low ceiling, and so you whack your head on the ceiling, you dont always see rocks on the floor so you stub your toe.
The combination of trying to concentrate on so many things, and navigating, back ache, a heavy bag, hitting your head and drinking water constantly to rehydrate can sometimes seem like torture.
The 'Painted Rose Room' was at the end of one of the tunnels.
The room entrance was sealed and could only be seen through an unaccesable hole. The room may have been sealed because of a stairway to surface level that was open. Couldnt see any sign of why it was the 'Painted Rose Room'.
So back to Porte De Orleans crossroads, and north towards 'La Banga' and tunnel of deep water, that was close to going over the thigh high waders i was wearing.
Next was the 'Castle Room', a castle carved out of the rock and other gargoyle feature carved around the room, with a table and seating around.
A few rooms down was the 'Flower Room'. A room filled with plastic and sometimes real flowers .
Continued down the passage to almost a full circle to head into 'Bysance'.
A small room with seating area. It was now around 8 at night, and we headed for 'Le Cellier' to find a room that we could set up hammock points. 'Le Cellier', or Cellar, was the basement of a brewery above were the kegs or beer and bottles of wine were stored.
Its a large cellar with lots of thick pillars to support the buildings on the surface. Graffiti and mureals are everywhere, and a large seating and table area are arranged under one the supporting arches. Our sleeping room was a nice small room, but lack hammock points. OT had bought pitons and bolts so we could set up the hammocks anywhere, this was a bonus. Sleeping in hammocks with a sleeping bag is a lot more comfy then then on hard rock or floor, also the stone saps your body heat away instantly leaving you freezing all night. A few beers and a meal and we went to sleep. Only woken for a moment in the night by other Cataphiles hoping to use the room themselves. Waking up late, we had breakfast packed up our stuff and left the room at midday. The time was not really an issue as there is no day or night, your body adjusts to a natural rythym rather then one dictated by time. We headed north, then along Rue de Alisea, to Ossa Arida (tombstones). 2 tombstones lean against a wall, all inscribed and just dumped in the tunnel from a nearby cemetary, presumable from when the bones were moved.
Carried on East along Rue De Alesia, then north passed the 'Skating Rink' named because of the inability to stand up in this tunnel becuase of the verylow tunnel and soft wet clay. Passed the 'X room' and 'Zogotunga Room' both small featureless rooms. The next area was interesting. another old brewery, this time through a breach gave access to all the old vats and storage containers were the beers were made. About ten huge vats on 2 levels. Not sure if the brewery still exists above ground but the vats are cut off from the surface and juried and forgotton. After the brewery we walk through 'The Circle' , a small circular seating area built in a passageway. North along Rue Dareau, then West along Boulevard Saint Jacques, we stopped at the 'Bookshop'. A room where people have left books, also an inscription of 'Librairie' on the wall. Some books, someone had set fire too, we tidied it up and layed out the books that hadnt been burnt. Further along at the crossroads we turned south to the 'Class Galleries'. Mureals on the wall started in 1992 by the students of the nearby Mine School. The most recent painted only a few months ago by the graduating class, but dated by the year they started. At the end of the gallery is a dead end , so we turn about and head north into a 'Minerology Office'. A stairway built in the middle of the room used to display samples of rocks, each step numbered with a chart on the stairs naming the rocks. Unsure whether this display was todo with marketing the rocks types available for sale or not, or just if it was just for show.
Just passed the office is the 'White Hand Room', unsure at first why it is called this but after heading into the sublevel of this passage, right at the end is a small white hand drawn on the wall. Back into the main passageway, we take the next right at the junction then right again, so we are heading south again. The we use 'Santes staircase' to go down into a sub level where we find the 'Trolls Room'. A room with troll carvings. Back up the stairs and continue south, the passageway slopes down into a sublevel, passing 'Dragon Room' a small room with an intricate carving of a dragon on the wall.
'Iron Ladder' brings you back up to normal level.
The next room is the 'Human Bomb Room' A mureal of the man or strapped bombs to himself and tried to blow up a school of children
Why there is a memorial to him i dont know.
The room is also full of old cds. The floor level has also been raised by a huge injection of black concrete, done by the authorities to help shore up a weak area, to prevent collapse or to allow more building work on the surface.
There are many areas around the network where modern conrete piles and supports are placed as the old catacombs struggle to hold up the huge city above.
This passageway is very low and long, and becomes a bag drag and you can stoop low enough with the bag still on your back, using any area of height within the passage to stand and strech the back, before stooping down again.
We make our way further south to 'KCP' and 'BDM' (Bout de Monde - End of the World). This area is all low ceilings, it becomes depressing and really frustrating and it seems never ending.
Some carvings on the walls and small features, which i had seen on my last visit, but we came here looking for sleeping areas, the rooms werent really suitable for sleeping and it was still early afternoon. So we decided to have a look at 'Iron Door' just further down the passage, then back to the stash bags, which would take about an hour, then follow the main cable run, which houses all the old telecoms cables up to the 'Py Room' which would take maybe hour and a half to get to.
This had been suggested by Rug as a good sleepin area.
Having picked up the stash bags our bags were back up to full weight again, slowly getting lighter as we ate our food. Both very tired, we concentrate on getting to the 'Py Room'.
Following the cable run the tunnels just about high enough to stand completely straight, sometime just having to bend your neck in parts.
Although having the luxary of standing up straight, we had the problem of the cables and cable holders taking up most of the passage and squeezing past them every metre.
Close to the 'Py room' we pass the 'Official Catacombs' that is open to the public, behind a metal door, you can here the plant gear power there lighting and air con.
At the 'Py Room' there were 2 hammock points so OT fits a bolt point to be able to get another hammock in.
This room is small but perfect. Light a lot of teacandles to save on headtorch batteries, a few beers and some food and while listening to Cuban Jazz music drift off to sleep.
In the night you can hear other groups of Cataphile explorers in he network with there music.
Another midday start, we wake, have breakfast and tidy the room as we found it and head off.
Heading for the Ossuary in the West. we start with sublevels around the ossuary, there seems to be some discrepencies in the sublelvel mapping, but we find our way around and come back out on the main level to the 'Feast Room' a large area with a bar area, the seating seems to be work in progress.
We had planned to cover the far west of the network today and meet Rug at Montparnasse at midnight, but we would have been about 8 hours early. So we changed the plan and cut across to the east passed 'Raspial Crossroads' towards the 'Pharmacy Shelter' and 'German Bunker' used by the Germans in World war 2, to fight against the French Resistence.
The bunker stil have the remains of toilets, German written signs and steel blast doors.
Just to the south of the 'Pharmacy Shelter' is the Carthusian Monks Fountain used to measure the water table level in 1819.
Next we moved on to St Michel Stairwell so OT could make a phone call to check in and double check the meeting place with Rug.
We continued further West to wards 'Salle Z' a large underground area with massive arches.
We stopped here for a rest and some food.
We retrace our steps back to the main passage of Rue Saint Jacques head south to the next juction to see the 'Feuillantines Shelter' another huge secound world war shelter. still a few signs of lighting and plant equipment and toilets.
Continue south on Rue Saint Jacques and west onto Boulevard de Port Royal. we head for the 'Cube Room', which requires a long tight crawl to get to.
Peferctly square blocks of stone, just left in the quarry. Hericart de Thuy also built a 'fountain' in this room , to measure the water level, although this one has become more of a rubbish bin.
We turn off onto Rue Notre Dame des Champs, to the faco shelter, a small secound world war anti aircraft shelter. Carried on the same passageway and headed for the 'Rats Bar' a small room with a couple of paintings and 4 seats.
Time was getting on so we headed back far west to finish the section we originally planned.
Back over Raspial Crossroads and onto Falguiere Place.
This far west triangular loop show one small section of low, so would take long to walk all the way round checking for rooms. In reality the whole route was one continuous journey into hell.
Tight low crawls and stooping and water.
This was a major strain on the body especially and we were nearing end of day 3.
Muslces in my back and neck were on the verge of snapping, pure torture. Getting back to Falguiere Place meant we could finally stand up and straighten our backs.
A small rest and we ploughed on through Rue Falguiere northwards, we found a small old service tunnel were we just collapsed in tiredness and slept on concrete slabs for an hour.
It was approaching 11, so we headed for our meeting at 'Montparnasse Shelter' where we were meeting Rug. We pass the 'Flag Room', a high ceiling vaulted chamber, with another white enamel plaque, and 2 french flags.
Further along we go through the remains of an iron door, presumably from the shelter, we head up some flight of stairs to the surface level where civilians would have entered.
We go back down and look around the shelter and check out all the rooms and out the other end into other passages.
OT goes back to stairs to take more photos while i wait for Rug in one room with a mattress on the floor to sit on.
I hear voices and think Rug is coming, but it is 3 other French Explorers who stop for a chat and a beer then continue on there way further south of the network.
Finally Rug arrives with the friend from the pub and we have a few beers and his friends leaves. Its now 2 in the morning, we are extremely tired and we had had a few beers.
Lying right there on the floor would have been perfect, but Rug had other ideas, he drags us back down south at a fast pace crawling and stooping along. Me and OT on the verge of heart failure. We head for the Carthusian Monks Quarry, the oldest part of the GRS. Something we forgot to see when we were in the area earlier.,br> We pass the bent pillar, a supporting pillar of stone that has fallen over but remain intact leant against a wall. In the Monks quarry we see the old working face on the quarry, worked masonry for windows or door surrounds, but never taken out the quarry and the arched tunnel that Philibert made to try and find the treasure of the monks. He is seen as the first explorer of the Catacombs. His light failed when he was in the quarry and could not get out, he died in the catacombs.
After leaving the Monks Quarry, we hear voices from 'Apero's Room', other cataphiles and sitting drinking, we join them for a while before heading off to Ansluce to set up hammocks and sleep for the night, but already there.
We set up hammocks but continue drinking and chatting with them until 6 am, when Rug departs and we finally get some sleep.
We wake up at midday again. Completely exhausted. Not a single bit of energy left in our bodies, and only bottles of water left.
We start the long treck south, remembering to pick up the stash bag on the way, it would be 2 hours of agony before we would eventually see daylight for the first time in 4 days.
We had done it.
4 Days in the Catacombs, even the french explorers could not believe we had done it. Insane.
It was a major achievement, but the tiredness and exhaustion meant all i could think of was food. A slice of pizza at a local shop suppressed the hunger enough for us to get back to Gare De Nord to shower, change and have a full meal.
Back on the eurostar to England i slept all the way.
Then we caught the bus to Paulo999's house where were stayed for the night , but there was no sleep until we had a few beers and told our story to Paulo.
Thanks to OT for making it a great trip, Rug and friend for beers and monkey brain, and Paulo for sleep and beer.
Never again will i do 4 days underground again, but will be back to the Catas for 'normal trips' soon.