Exploring the Catacombs of Paris

Beneath Paris is an underground network of tunnels and quarries, long closed to the public. <em>National Geographic</em> takes a tour of this forbidden part of the city, where urban explorers keep tradition alive.
February 3, 2011, 6am PST | Nate Berg
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The spaces themselves are rooted in a long history of people clandestinely voyaging below ground to hide or perform acts not legal or approved above ground. Today, a culture of underground explorers is thriving.

"Entering the quarries has been illegal since 1955, so cataphiles tend to be young people fleeing the surface world and its rules. Veterans say the scene blossomed in the 1970s and '80s, when traditional Parisian rebelliousness got a fresh jolt from punk culture. Going underground was easier then, because there were many more open entrances. Some cataphiles discovered they could walk into the quarries through forgotten doorways in their school basements, then crawl onward into tunnels filled with bones-the famous catacombs. In places only they knew, the cataphiles partied, staged performances, created art, took drugs. Freedom reigned underground, even anarchy.

At first the surface world barely noticed. But by the end of the '80s the city and private property owners had shut most of the entrances, and an elite police unit began patrolling the tunnels. Yet they couldn't manage to stamp out cataphilia. The young couple I saw climbing out of a manhole that morning were cataphiles. Maybe they had been on a date; some of the men I've explored the quarries with met their future wives in the tunnels, trading phone numbers by flashlight. Cataphiles make some of the best guides to the Paris underworld. Most Parisians are only dimly aware of its extent, even though, as they ride the Métro, they may be hurtling above the bones of their ancestors."

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Published on Tuesday, February 1, 2011 in National Geographic
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