Catacombs addicts : the mysterious roamers of Paris’ underground

In the Catacombs of Paris, adventurous people illegally roam about and hold night parties. These revellers or so-called urban explorers are all enjoying the freedom of the underground. Welcome to an unknown area of Paris.

Crédit: Les Compères

A small group of explorers threads its way through endless, narrow tunnels plunged into darkness. Their torches alone can light the path. A smell of damp hangs in the air. In the bleak labyrinth, the visitors come across obstacles: muddy water, cat-flaps, patrols… This is not an Indiana Jones movie, but nightly activity right under Paris! The City of Light is known for its great monuments, typical narrow alleys, street cafés and restaurants, but not as much for its 230-mile underground maze. Every night, especially at weekends, several groups of people make the Paris underground come alive.

“Cata-addicts” (people addicted to the Catacombs, called “cataphiles” in French) frequently go underground where they illegally organise meetings and parties in galleries. The majority of them go down to the Catacombs to get drunk in an odd atmosphere. But others pursue different goals. Some wander through the labyrinth of tunnels to discover new places, others work hard to dig their way into new galleries.

The Catacombs are former quarries, where gypsum and limestone were extracted until the 18th century to construct Parisian buildings. For the last two centuries, the underground tunnels have officially sunk into silence. They are closed to the general public, except for a very small part tourists can visit. The official museum – seventy feet underground – offers quite a spectacular tour: visitors go through a dimly lit tunnel surrounded by millions of skulls and bones transferred from Parisian cemeteries in the late 18th century. But this ossuary gives a distorted image of the Catacombs as a whole, because there is no light whatsoever in the unofficial parts of Paris underground, and not many bones outside the “museum”, except under Montparnasse.

There have always been people illegally visiting the closed parts of the catacombs, as the graffiti left on the walls by former “cata-addicts” show. The Catacombs are mainly narrow tunnels, but there are also bigger galleries, including some underground “monuments” (like a German bunker dating from World War II), where visitors like to gather.

Anthony is a “cata-addict”. This 23 year-old student engineer has visited all the Parisian and suburban quarries. He is part of a team of urban explorers: “What pleases me the most is discovering new things” says he, “I also like to take interesting pictures, like many cata-addicts, in order to show people everything that is worth seeing underground. But to be honest, we also go down to have dinner with other underground fans, drink alcohol and have fun. The Catacombs are a bit like a squat which is always free.”

Crédit: Les Compères

But the Catacombs do not exactly offer a nice walk in the park. People who go underground – most of the time through manholes – risk being fined by the police. The Catacombs hobby, somewhere halfway between underground camping and spelunking, requires elaborated equipment: boots and overalls, helmets with front lights, acetylene torches and even oxygen detectors for the most adventurous “cata-addicts”. Not to mention the hammers, chisels or drills used to dig holes between the galleries.

Underground night clubs

Most of the time, “cata-addicts” meet in select groups, but sometimes they open their doors to outside visitors and initiate them into Paris underground. They call them “discovery tours”. They include long walks through the maze as well as underground parties – in both senses of the word. Galleries are turned into makeshift night clubs, with a bar, lighting effects, DJ turntables… Electricity is diverted from the Parisian subway. A few years ago, night parties were organized under the Trocadéro.

Nicolas, 23, is not a “cata-addict” but he has occasionally gone down to the Catacombs with urban explorers. He remembers his “tour” under Paris:

“We went through a manhole and when we got down the ladder we had our feet in the water. I was wearing a pair of jeans and sports shoes, this was not exactly the best outfit! There are some difficult passages, where you have to crouch down or even crawl for several minutes to go through holes the size of cat-flaps. You must definitely not be claustrophobic! I felt a bit oppressed in some parts. But fortunately there are also big galleries, where everybody can stand and where we put some lights and music. There was also alcohol and spliffs [marijuana cigarettes]… just like in every party! When I look back, I’m happy to have gone there. I don’t know if I would be ready to do it again, but it was a good experience.”

Anthony, for his part, says he is ready to do it again and again. He has never grown tired of the freedom offered by the underworld: “When you are in the Catacombs, you lose track of time. Personally I’ve already stayed underground more than 24 hours. Sometimes you go out thinking you’ve spent 3 hours in it when you’ve stayed in fact the whole night!”  Life under Paris is punctuated by several unofficial events, like the “cata-marathon”, “cata-sprint” or “tractofolies” (people meeting other groups and exchanging leaflets). “Some of the cata-addicts are completely disconnected from the real world. They go underground almost every night” says Anthony.

Discovery tours and night bashes are less and less frequent though, as Anthony explains: “Discovery tours are very complicated to organize, especially to allow everybody to go in without trouble. Large night time parties are cause for concern, because when cata-addicts are drunk, tensions between each group get stirred up.” Indeed, the world of cata-addicts is not all about peace and love. It is fragmented between several clans, torn by conflicts and secrecy.

The Paris underground is more complex than the caricature offered by the French media. The phenomenon of “cataphilia” (people spending nights in the Catacombs) is increasingly known by the general public. But what people see through the media coverage is only drinking, danger, and defiance. You cannot deny that alcohol and parties are a big part of the game. But they are not the whole story.

“Cata-addicts are like you and me”

So who are these urban explorers? Are they lunatic, unconventional, extremist people? None of that, says Anthony: “Some reports tell people not to go underground because it’s “dangerous”.  They say there are weirdoes in the Catacombs, as well as Nazis or cranks performing black masses… But that’s not true! There are only people like you and me, people who go underground because they enjoy the freedom of it.” Engineers or people working in the public buildings and the works sector are part of the “300 to 400 people” regularly visiting the Catacombs, according to Anthony.

However, not all the “cata-addicts” are the same. Didier Mauger, a police captain at the head of the underground intervention squad (“catacops” is their unofficial name), frequently patrolls inside the Catacombs. He says that people visiting the Catacombs are divided into very different categories: “There are underground fans, who just walk around. They are very respectful of this place they love. There are also active addicts, who try to dig holes in order to open passages between two galleries. And there is the most troubling category, who are young people who mostly go underground to breach the law and enjoy freedom. They are damaging the catacombs, tagging the walls, throwing parties and drinking alcohol. The problem is that you have to go out after that.”

Crédit: Les Compères

Captain Mauger is quite sad to see how “cata-addicts” have progressively changed. He cannot help feeling nostalgic: “There are many more people in the Catacombs than there used to be. When I went to the Catacombs for the first time in the 80s, there were no more than ten regular cata-addicts. I have seen the damage caused by the new generation. The graffiti is not esthetic at all. Therefore we can’t be as flexible as we used to be. Last year we patrolled 108 times and fined 267 people. They have to understand they can’t do everything they want here.”

In the Catacombs, the revellers and explorers do not necessarily mingle. Cata-addicts belong to different groups and don’t get on well, as Anthony explains: “Everyone has their own philosophy of underground activity. Even passionate people disagree sometimes.” Cata-addicts are obsessed with secrecy. They strive not to give too much information about new areas they find, in order not to attract people. “Usually, you can’t keep a place secret for more than one or two months. There are many hackers among the cata-addicts, who try to get information on the internet.” The pressure from other groups can sometimes be quite harassing: “Underground exploration, especially in the Catacombs, is a battle for secrecy. My fellow explorers and I have been fed up with these ongoing tensions. There is constant cause for endless and pointless arguments.”

Did you say dangerous?

Internet and the media have fostered the growth of cata-addiction. A broader public is now trying to get access to the unofficial Catacombs. Captain Mauger wishes it would not have happened, for two reasons. Firstly, it has increased the proportion of disrespectful revellers in the Paris underground. Secondly, people are not conscious of the dangers of such an idea. “Going into the Catacombs is a bit like sailing or hiking” says Didier Mauger. “When the weather is fine, everybody think they are able to do it. But if tougher conditions arise, and supposing you aren’t specially trained or equipped, you can easily get into trouble. It’s the same in the Catacombs. People think it’s not dangerous, but when you’re 70 feet underground and have no ways of communicating, every little incident, like spraining your ankle for example, can turn into a big problem.”

The police captain remembers several rescue operations: a man stuck in a cat-flap, another one lost underground in the dark without a battery in his lamp, or another badly injured by a rock fallen from a wall. “Without his helmet, he would have been killed” says Mauger. Anthony disagrees with the notion of danger in the Catacombs, contrary to the quarries in the suburb where he usually goes: “In suburban quarries you can sometimes lack oxygen or be exposed to a deadly fall, but not in the Catacombs. I don’t think they are dangerous.”

The Catacombs are not big enough for the most passionate explorers like Anthony. They prefer to go wandering in suburban quarries: “It’s quite the same, except that nowadays the Catacombs are like the highway of urban exploration. You always bump into people, most of whom are rednecks who go underground just to booze. The walls are covered in graffiti and it’s not even beautiful. Suburban quarries are wider and quieter areas”. Urban explorers do not only go underground. They climb roofs and cranes, infiltrate building sites or industrial wastelands, go into sewers and abandoned mines. The Catacombs are only a small part of their playing field. But at the end of the day, the ultimate goal is the same: to have a good time.

Lire la version française sur Rue89

Crédits photos/vidéos: Les Compères (DR)

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2 Responses to Catacombs addicts : the mysterious roamers of Paris’ underground

  1. Johnc109 says:

    Several of these games are worth some time and are actually acaddfdgaafe

  2. Ping: Creepy Paris - Hecktic Travels

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