As many of you may know, I am not much for tourist crowds and try to avoid them, so I choose different routes to get somewhere, or things that might not appeal to your everyday tourist. As I come into the last few days of my European adventure, I wanted to end things with something memorable and different. What better way is there than to spend a night in the Paris catacombs, illegally of course.
I happen to meet a Cataphile named Riff through a mutual friend. Riff has been roaming the catacombs for nearly 28 years and is very well known. Riff knows the catacombs so well; he no longer uses maps to find his way. For those unfamiliar with what a Cataphile is, they are urban explorers who illegally enter The Catacombs of Paris. These are a series of underground tunnels with various rooms, and the rooms are referred to as galleries. Exploring the catacombs has been illegal since 1955, however it remains a tradition to the Parisian people, who have designed maps of networks connecting these secret rooms, lakes, vaults, and tunnels.
I met Riff this past Saturday night around 11p. We walked a few blocks from the metro to an opening in a fence. After checking for cops, we ducked down, climbed through, and down a muddy hill, holding onto branches until arriving at the bottom, which stopped at railroad tracks. We followed the tracks until we came into a large pitch-black tunnel. Riff pointed towards a small hole in the side of a wall, where we crawled down into a musty passageway. With my lamp in-hand, I lead the way, walking along a light stream of water and mud.
I was moving right along, with Riff guiding me in the right direction, when all of a sudden he told me to stop. The water was now much deeper. Riff then took the lead. He hopped up onto one side of the stonewall and instructed me how and where to place my hands and feet. My feet needed to be placed on the lower ledge that was under the water. We were scaling the wall for at least ten feet in order to avoid falling into 3 feet of water and risk being soaked the entire night. This occurred in a couple other places, but was necessary in order to get us deep into the catacombs. After clearing the waterway, we headed off into another passage, bent over as we walked to prevent from hitting our head on the sometimes low-hanging ceilings, made up of brick, limestone or gypsum.
For the next seven hours, Riff led me through pitch black narrow passages and crawling through holes in walls, while staying upright, as you walked through mostly muddy passageways, leading to this network of underground galleries. In each of these galleries were walls covered in graffiti and murals, tea lights, figurines, manikins, and benches and tables made out of stone, some even had sleeping platforms. Around 4a, we waved to several folks tucked away in sleeping bags for the night.
I saw deep wells, some with light-colored water that went down a long ways, and other wells that went to the surface. I saw human bones of the victims who have been moved into the catacombs back in the late 1700’s, and even sat in a bone throne, which felt a bit creepy. One gallerie, The Coliseum, has bones that make up the flooring, so we walked over these bones to get inside. Some galleries had hammocks, music blaring or just conversation sharing. We came across at least 40 or so people, and we were always greeted warmly.
Around 6a it was time to start heading towards the entrance. We needed to be out while it is still dark to not risk getting caught and fined. We wound our way back through the passageways, once again climbed across the walls to avoid the water, shimmied up through the hole in the wall and back through the hole in the fence. With wet sneakers and muddy pants, we hopped back on the metro. We were a sight. Riff thought we both looked pretty clean, considering all the climbing through mud and sand we did, but I thought differently. The entire part of my lower legs had caked on mud, and I had to strip down outside before entering my friends flat. This was definitely a night to remember and one adventure I will not soon forget!