The first person to photograph the underground of Paris was a gallant and theatrical man with a blaze of red hair, known as Nadar. Once described by Charles Baudelaire as “the most amazing example of vitality,” Nadar was among the most visible and electric personalities in mid 19th-century Paris. He was a showman, a dandy, a ringleader of the bohemian art world, but he was known especially as the city’s preeminent photographer.
Working out of a palatial studio in the center of the city, Nadar was a pioneer of the medium, as well as a great innovator. In 1861, Nadar invented a battery-operated light, one of the first artificial lights in the history of photography. To show off the power of his “magic lantern,” as he called it, he set out to take photographs in the darkest and most obscure spaces he could find: the sewers and catacombs beneath the city.
Over the course of several months, he took hundreds of photographs in subterranean darkness, each requiring an exposure of 18 minutes. The images were a revelation. Parisians had long known about the cat’s cradle of tunnels, crypts, and aqueducts beneath their streets, but they had always been abstract spaces, whispered about, but seldom seen. For the first time, Nadar brought the underworld into full view, opening Paris’s relationship to its subterranean landscape: a connection that, over time, grew stranger, more obsessive, and more intimate than that of perhaps any city in the world.
A century and a half after Nadar, I arrived in Paris, along with Steve Duncan and a small crew of urban explorers, with an aim to investigate the city’s relationship to its underground in a way no one had before. We planned a traverse—a walk from one edge of the city to the other, traveling exclusively by subterranean infrastructure. It was a trip Steve had dreamed up back in New York: we’d spent months planning, studying old maps of the city, consulting Parisian explorers, and tracing potential routes.
The expedition, in theory, was tidy. We would descend into the catacombs just outside the southern frontier of the city, near Porte d’Orléans; if all went according to plan, we’d emerge from the sewers near Place de Clichy, beyond the northern border. As the crow flies, the route was about six miles, a stroll you could make between breakfast and lunch. But the subterranean route—as the worm inches, let’s say— would be winding and messy and roundabout, with lots of zigzagging and backtracking. We had prepared for a two- or three-day trek, with nights camping underground.
On a mild June evening, six of us sat on the southern boundary of the city, in a derelict train tunnel that was part of the petite ceinture, or the “little belt,” a long-abandoned train track that encircles Paris. We’d spent the day collecting last-minute supplies: now it was past nine, and the dots of light at either end of the tunnel were darkening. Everyone was quiet, our headlamp beams dancing anxiously over the floor. We took turns peering down into a dark, graffiti ringed hole jack-hammered out of the concrete wall, which would be our entrance into the catacombs.
“Best to keep passports in a zipper pocket,” said Steve, thumbing the braces on his waders. “Just in case.” Every step of the trip, of course, would be illegal: if we got caught, having our IDs at the ready might be just enough to keep us out of Paris’s central lockup.
Moe Gates crouched over a map that would help us navigate the sprawling, mazelike tunnels of the catacombs. Short, bearded, and clad in a red Hawaiian shirt, Moe was Steve’s longtime exploring partner. He had run the sewers in Moscow, crouched on the gargoyles at the top of the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, and once had sex on the top of the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. He wanted to retire from exploring tunnels, to settle down and “have babies with a nice Jewish girl,” but he hadn’t been able to kick the habit.
Liz Rush—Steve’s girlfriend, a sharp-eyed woman with chestnut hair cropped above her shoulders—was checking batteries on a confined-space gas detector, which would alert us to any poisonous air that we might encounter in the unventilated tunnels. Liz had explored under New York with Steve, but this was her first trip beneath Paris. Sorting through gear next to Liz were two other first-timers: Jazz Meyer, a young Australian woman with red dreadlocks, who had explored storm drains under Melbourne and Brisbane; and Chris Moffett, a philosophy graduate student in New York, who would be making his first foray underground.
“Fifty percent chance of precipitation,” said Steve, checking his phone one last time before turning it off. The greatest threat to our trip was rain: once we reached the sewer collectors, even a small cloudburst on the surface could create a flood underground. It had been a wet June in Paris and, since our arrival in the city, we’d been obsessively monitoring the weather. Steve had enlisted a fellow explorer in the city, Ian, to text us weather updates. As a group, we’d made a vow: at the first sign of raindrops, we’d bail, expedition over.
As we huddled around the entrance, Moe, who would play the role of record-keeper, checked his watch and made a note on a pad: “Nine forty-six p.m., underground.” Steve went first, snaking his hips through the entrance, legs scissor-kicking behind him; the rest of us followed, one after the next. I was last: I looked up and down the empty rail tunnel, took a deep breath, then squeezed down into the dark.
The tunnel we dropped into was narrow and low, with walls of raw, clammy stone. I slung my pack around to my chest and crawled on all fours, my back scraping against the rocky ceiling, while cold water sloshed around my hands and knees, soaking me to the skin. The stone gave off an earthy, almost pastoral aroma, like rain-soaked chalk. Our headlamp beams flitted in an arrhythmic strobe. So abrupt was the feeling of departure from the surface, we might as well have been at the bottom of the ocean. The honking of cars on the street, the rattle of the tram on avenue du Général Leclerc, the murmur of Parisians smoking under the awnings of brasseries—all were stamped out.
We headed north, with Steve in the lead. Down a wider gallery, we rose into a squelching duck-walk, then down an arched passage, with earthen ground underfoot, until all of us were up and marching, the first leg of our traverse under way.
Parisians say their city, with its galaxy of perforations, is like a great hunk of Swiss cheese, and nowhere is so holey as the catacombs. They are a vast, stony labyrinth, 200 miles of tunnels, mainly on the Left Bank of the Seine. Some of the tunnels are flooded, half-collapsed, riddled with sinkholes; others are adorned with neatly mortared brick, elegant archways, and ornate spiral staircases. The “catas,” as they are known to the familiar, are technically not catacombs, a word usually traced back to an amalgam of the Greek katá-(down) and Latin tumbae (tombs); they are quarries. All of the stately buildings along the Seine—Notre-Dame, the Louvre, the Palais Royal—were erected of limestone blocks chopped from beneath the city. The oldest tunnels had been carved to construct the Roman city of Lutetia, traces of which could still be found in the city’s Latin Quarter. Over the centuries, as the city grew, stonecutters brought more limestone to the surface, and the underground warren expanded, fanning out beneath the city like the roots of a great tree.
In the years before Nadar first brought his camera beneath Paris, the quarries were silent. The only regular visitors were a handful of city laborers—the workers in the ossuary, who raked bones back and forth over the catacomb floors; the employees of the Inspection générale des carrières, who walked the stone passages by lantern light, bracing the tunnels to prevent them from collapsing under the city’s weight—and the occasional mushroom farmer, who took advantage of the dry, dark environment to grow his crop. For the rest of the city, the quarries were a blind spot: a distant place, a landscape more imaginary than real.
From the moment we went underground, so many years after Nadar, we could feel the quarries teeming. The walls tumbled with bright graffiti, and the mud floors were tracked up and down with footprints. When we came to shallow pools, the water swirled with mud, a sign of recent passers-through. These were traces of the cataphiles, a loose affiliation of Parisians who spent days and nights roaming the catacombs.
A subtribe in the urban explorer kingdom, cataphiles were mostly college kids in their teens and twenties; some, however, were in their fifties and sixties, had been exploring the network for decades, had even raised cataphile children and grandchildren. The city employed a squadron of catacomb policemen—known as cataflics, literally “catacops”—who patrolled the tunnels and doled out 65 euro tickets to trespassers. But they offered little deterrence to the cataphiles, who treated the tunnels like a giant secret clubhouse.
We’d been underground for about two hours when Steve led us through a tunnel so tight and low we dropped to our bellies and squirmed on our elbows through the dirt. As we popped out on the other side, we saw three headlamp beams bobbing in the dark. It was three young Parisians—cataphiles—led by a tall, rangy, dark-haired man in his mid-twenties named Benoit.
“Welcome,” he said, with a flourish, “to La Plage.”
We’d emerged in one of the main cataphile haunts, a cavernous chamber with sand-packed floors and high ceilings supported by thick limestone columns. Every surface—every inch of the wall, of the pillars, and much of the rocky ceiling—was covered in paintings. In the darkness, the paintings were subdued and shadowy, but under the beam of a flashlight, they blazed. The centerpiece was a replica of Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, with the curling wave of frothy blues and whites. Spread throughout the room were stone-cut tables, rough-hewn benches and chairs. At the center of the chamber was a giant sculpture of a man with arms raised to the ceiling, like a subterranean Atlas, holding up the city.
“This is like—” Benoit paused, apparently searching for a recognizable analogy “—the Times Square of the catacombs.”
On weekend nights, he explained, La Plage and certain other voluminous chambers in the catacombs filled with revelers. Sometimes they’d siphon electricity from a lamp-post on the surface and set up a band or a DJ. Or a cataphile would strap a boom box to their chest and go weaving through the tunnels, roaming from chamber to chamber, as the party followed, dancing in the dark, passing bottles of whiskey up and down, like a snaking subterranean conga line. Other gatherings were more urbane: you might turn in to a dark chamber to find a candlelit holiday party, with cataphiles drinking champagne and eating galette des rois.Every surface—every inch of the wall, of the pillars, and much of the rocky ceiling—was covered in paintings.
Cataphiles had long flocked underground to make art, to paint and sculpt and build installations in hidden caverns. Not far from La Plage was the Salon du Chateau, where a cataphile had carved from stone a beautiful replica of a Norman castle and installed gargoyle sculptures in the wall. And the Salon des Miroirs, where the walls of a chamber were covered in a disco-ball mosaic of reflective shards. And La Librairie, a small nook with hand-carved shelves, where people could leave books for others to borrow. (The books, unfortunately, often grew moldy in the dank air.)
To wander through the catacombs is to feel yourself inside of a mystery novel, full of false walls and trapdoors and secret chutes, each leading to another hidden chamber, containing another surprise. Down one passageway, you might find a chamber containing a sprawling Boschian mural that cataphiles had been gradually embellishing for decades; down another, you might see a life-size sculpture of a man half inside a stone wall, as though stepping in from the beyond; down yet another, you might encounter a place that upends your very sense of reality.
In 2004, a squadron of cataflics on patrol in the quarries broke through a false wall, entered a large, cavernous space, and blinked in disbelief. It was a movie theater. A group of cataphiles had installed stone-carved seating for twenty people, a large screen, and a projector, along with at least three phone lines. Adjacent to the screening room were a bar, lounge, workshop, and small dining room. Three days later, when the police returned to investigate, they found the equipment dismantled, the space bare, except for a note: “Do not try to find us.”
Whether or not they knew it, the cataphiles were essential to our traverse. Our map, which had been designed by the tribe’s elders, was a product of generations of cataphile knowledge: it marked which passages were low and necessitated a crawl, which were flooded, which had hidden pitfalls that would require careful stepping. (Wary of making the network too navigable, the elders left all entrances on the map unmarked.) Meanwhile, cataphiles over the years had brought power drills and jackhammers underground to gouge out small passages from the walls: chatières—“cat ways”—which would be vital gateways in our trek.
Benoit, who wore only a small bag to hold a bottle of water and an extra light, eyed our bulging packs. “How long do you plan to stay?” he asked.
“We’re hiking across the city,” Steve said. “To the northern frontier.”
Benoit stared at Steve for a moment, then laughed, evidently assuming it was a joke, before turning and heading off into the dark.
From Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet. Used with the permission of Spiegel & Grau. Copyright © 2019 by Will Hunt.