Below Paris, Part the Second…
Through a chain of astonishingly unlikely events, and at the last possible moment, I had an opportunity to meet up with a man I’d been told was an expert at all things under Paris, by the name of Gilles Thomas. I’d heard he was an historian, author of a book called PARIS SOUTERRAIN, and that he works in some capacity with the city.
What I didn’t know is that he is the one and only King of the Paris Underworld.
Thomas [his prefered catanym — more on that in a minute] met me at a spot near what he called the Little Beltway, and led me on a very pleasant walk along this abandoned rail line.
La Petite Ceinture — the little beltway — was once a thriving rail line which completely encircled Paris, connecting the major termini by 1867. It was essentially superceded by other transport, and ceased carrying passengers in 1934. These days, in addition to the Paris Metro, there are already three RER rail lines, trams and buses to serve the transportation needs of this beautiful city. Also scooters. E-scooters, with drivers from businessmen to teens are everywhere. As a visitor to the city, you ignore them at your peril. Anyway, there’s been talk of reviving the Petite Ceinture, but for now, the costs seem prohibitive.
After handing me a headlamp, we walked the length of one of the tunnels, looking for distance markers, and stepping carefully along the old tracks. Thomas and I had paused to discuss a piece of beautiful grafitti that had sadly been painted over when, literally under our feet, two lights appeared.
And I met my first two cataphiles*.
Thomas chats with the cataphiles. Faces blurred to protect the guilty.
Cataphiles [a completely illegal pass-time, I should note right up front] make a habit of exploring the caverns deep below Paris — beneath the Metro and train lines, beneath the sewer and power lines, beneath even the catacombs. The mining of these quarries of Lutetian limestone [and plaster — hence Plaster of Paris] began officially sometime in the thirteenth century, though there is evidence of work done long before that. So when the graveyards of Paris began to overflow in the eighteenth century, and a few houses collapsed into charnal pits of rotting flesh and bone, parts of the old quarries were put to a new use. The contents of the Saints-Innocents cemetary [and a few others] were dug up and dumped into the abandoned quarries. Later, some of these bones were rearranged to make the ossuary we know today as the Catacombs of Paris.
The rest of the bones? Still down there — somewhere. I say ‘somewhere’ because there are more than 200 km of these mining tunnels deep, deep below Paris. Many of the tunnels are flooded, and all the entrances are blocked, of course. Too easy to get lost down there. To easy for the tunnels, [carved only out of limestone, after all] to collapse. To easy to Get Up To No Good. It’s highly dangerous, and completely illegal, and is regularly patrolled by the Parisian police.
But, judging from the hole at my feet, deep inside this abandoned train tunnel, the cataphiles find a way.
Tunnel entrance. Maybe 18-20″ diameter?
While I was examining the hole in the ground, the boys were talking to Thomas. They were wearing boiler suits, headlamps and were muddy from head to toe. Initially, they were full of swagger [once they’d assured themselves that we were not cataflics, the aforementioned police patrols] about to arrest them. But soon, their eyes were bugging out of their heads, and they both shook my companion’s hand reverantly before slinking away into the dark.
It turns out only one man has free rein in the underground caves of Paris. One man who has literally written the book on this subterranean world.
“So — you want to go down?” says Thomas to me, after the boys leave.
I said yes.
Typing this brings back the wave of sick fear that washed over me in that moment. I am an avowed claustrophobic [admittedly a bit better these days than a few years ago] with an overactive imagination. Truthfully, the only reason I agreed, was that the meeting with Thomas had been set up by my daughter and son in law. I knew they’d gone underground with him. The thought of admitting I couldn’t — when they had– pushed me onward. Later, I found out their visit underground was to a preserved WWII bunker. Unique yes, but also warm & dry. They didn’t have to go ass-backward into a dark, wet cave in the ground, is all I’m saying.
Nevertheless, I’d committed, so there was no turning back. I held my breath so as not to hyperventilate, and backed my way down through the hole. It was cool underground, in contrast to the brutal heatwave the rest of Paris was enduring. I was NOT in a boilersuit, having been entirely unprepared for anything more than a genteel peek into a cave, and therefore was immediately covered in mud, and soaked through for the second time on this journey.
Inside, after a few seconds of wriggling, the tunnel opened up enough to allow us to stand almost upright. Thomas is tall — over six feet — but he’s mastered the art of loping through these darkened tunnels without braining himself on the roof. I scurried along behind, trying to keep up without tripping on unseen hazards in the murky groundwater, knee-deep in places.
The tunnels were lined with graffiti as we entered, which was reassuring to the extent that it proved others had at least been down here before. In places, as in the depths of the Catacombs, markings indicating the streets far above are carved into the rock. But these are centuries old, and some of the streets above have different names these days. It was horrifyingly apparent how easy it would be to get lost.
“You’re not in Paris any more,” said Thomas, and then had me turned my light off to get a taste of absolute darkness.
I’ve been in absolute darkness once before, last year inside a lava tube in Iceland. [Don’t ever let anyone tell you the life of a writer is dull, okay?] This time, in the dark, the only sounds were of dripping water, and the tremor of the earth caused by trains passing far above us.
I lasted about two seconds before I had to turn my light on again.
And then? We went deeper.
When the ground shook around us, Thomas patiently explained the different sounds made by RER trains travelling above, or the Metro. Of course, then all I could think of was tunnel collapse. I’m pretty sure my blood supply was entirely adrenaline by that point.
A glimpse of the absolutely clear groundwater in the Paris deeps.
When the first set of bobbing headlamps appeared in the distance, my heart nearly stopped. What if these people were down here for nefarious purposes? What if they had ill will against us? Who would ever find us again?
Limestone stalectites & stalegmites.
But Thomas, unfazed and completely at home in this environment, stopped to wait; interested to chat with fellow cataphiles. When they spotted us, though, they fled, perhaps fearing the police. And rightly so, as it turned out.
After identifying a few more ground shakings [“No, that’s not the Metro — you can tell the difference from the RER by the sound], Thomas stopped. An impossibly long way away was a single, tiny pinprick of light.
“I think perhaps this group has a woman,” he says. I could see or hear nothing beyond the tiny light, but sure enough, as we carried on, more lights appeared. It was a group of cataflics; police and a couple of firemen for good measure, led by a policewoman. They were fully geared up in caving equipment — hard-hats and ropes, and the requisite boiler suits and waders, and they had a few questions for us.
But I was with the King of the Underworld, and so, after a protracted discussion and quite a few flashlights beamed into my face, they moved off.
We explored a bit more, including this iron and cement route to the surface. I took this picture standing at the bottom and looking up, with water pouring down, to give a sense of just how deep we were. Each of those panels marks a storey underground, and there were at least four above us at that point. At the top, an innocuous-looking manhole cover.
We hiked all the way back the way we came. By the time we crawled out of the hole, I was soaked, muddy, and with a case of post-tunnel euphoria that lasted for days.
Petite Ceinture this way…
Next time you’re in Paris, once you are done admiring the Eiffel Tower, look down. If you see these tiny arrows on the ground, you know they’ll point you to adventure.
A huge word of thanks goes out to Gilles Thomas, for patiently talking me through this amazing experience. If you are at all interested in the world under the ground in Paris, buy his book. It’s a huge tome, exquisitely photographed, and a compendium of all the information you need to know — and more — about Paris underground. En francais, of course. Merci Thomas!
As for me, I might have showered the mud away, but I can promise you, this adventure will stay with me always.
*of course, Thomas was the first I’d met, but I hadn’t clued in yet…