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Report - Paris Catacombs

Discussion in 'European and International Sites' started by snappel, May 21, 2007.

  1. snappel

    snappel BMW 4 LIFE
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    There's not enough room to stand up, so I half walk, half crawl, my bag being dragged along behind me. I'm last, and the others are waiting round the corner. When I reach them, I realise my spare torch has detached itself from my belt, so back I go to find it. I've been underground for all of a minute, and I hate it.

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    With a couple of slight adjustments made, we're moving along the tunnel, deeper into the network. A few corners here and there and we take a left. Behind me I hear the sound of European pop music approaching in the darkness. It gets louder and louder, passes the end of the tunnel we're in and disappears into the gloom. Ahead, the voices of the others indicate that we've reached our first landmark - a concrete sculpture of a man who appears to be emerging from the wall. Bags off, cameras set up, and I suddenly realise how much the place is growing on me. The air is cool, there's room to stand up, and the initial complications of getting into the Catacombs are long forgotten.

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    Back along the corridor, and we embark on our first proper journey - a long walk to the so-called Goat, or Ram Room. Roughly a kilometre to go, so everything's packed back in the bags and we set off, relying on OT's map reading to prevent us from getting hopelessly lost in a network of tunnels and caverns that stretches for hundreds of miles under the streets of Paris.

    At times the ceilings of the tunnels are so low that we have to stoop again. The waders prove their worth as we splash through deep puddles of water. With time to spare we emerge into the Goat Room, throw off the bags and sit down. Despite initially feeling uneasy at the thought of being so far underground, the nerves have worn off along the way and I'm feeling relaxed. Happy now that I chose to join the trip, the cameras are out again and the features of the room are photographed - notably some carved figures and faces in the wall.

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    And so the first part of our journey continues, visiting the 'feature rooms' in the southern part of the network. One includes a miniature castle built out of limestone; another contains an array of flowers brought in from the real world. Closeby we find a statue of a robot. Above us and around us as we walk are a multitude of passages, tunnels and cracks in the limestone, all leading off to some other part of the Catacombs. Ensuring that nobody is left behind, our procession ventures deeper and deeper into the historic quarry tunnels.

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    Unlike tunnels I've explored before, where meeting other people would be scary to say the least, stumbling upon groups of French 'Cataphiles' is a pleasant experience. More often than not the greetings are accompanied by choruses of 'Salut!' to which we reply (Not 'bonjour' you idiot, that means day! Of course, it is day, but underground we forget). Our first meeting takes place in a small alcove, where OT discusses possible exit points from the Cattas in perfect English. A French guy with a 6D Maglite suddenly bursts out of the darkness, laughing in French with the others. The word 'anglais' is mentioned - clearly we're the butt of someone's joke!

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    Onward then, heading northeast now. Although we're not in a hurry we're due to meet French Catacombs explorer 'Rug' at our overnight rest spot for 1am. Negotiating twists and turns, junctions and floods, the sound of music suddenly materialises. Another corner and we've entered a party, held inside a big room decorated with paintings of mushrooms and naked women. The inhabitants are French Cataphiles, many of whom are merry. The table is covered with bottles and cans of beer and wine, the room is lit by candles. Some of them come over to greet us. It's like a strange scene in a strange film.

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    With jokes about Man Utd and Liverpool (but not the war) out the way, we talk about the exploring 'scenes' in our respective countries. More talk about ways out for tomorrow takes place, and a few email and web addresses are swapped so that we can stay in contact. A couple of them talk about wanting to visit London soon, so of course we insist they call us nearer the time.

    Time's getting on now, and we don't want to keep Rug waiting, so it's 'bon soir' and back into the comparitively lonely darkness. Passing the 'swimming pool', we enter some sections that bring us up to our thighs in water, taking care not to trip over hidden rocks. A few near misses ensue, but nobody gets wet, and soon we're halfway to our destination, but not before the first 'crawl'. Unlike most of the others I hadn't ever been to Monkton Farleigh, or caving at all, having always stuck to relatively sound underground structures like railway tunnels and air-raid shelters. This is entirely different. The passageway is a couple of feet high, and so like the name suggests it's passable only by crawling.

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    Shoving my bag along in front of me, I keep going, following Tank who's in front of me. How much further? Almost there. I can't see the end. We're nearly there! Round a corner and then drop down into the main passage. Not being entirely trusting in the structural integrity of the tunnels, that was scary. But grinning I wait while the last of the group haul themselves out, and then we all enter the 'Cube Room'.

    This room is particularly interesting. It takes it's name from the cubes of rock littered about, and also has a kind of well or fountain that can be accessed through a passage, down some stairs. No photographs here as we'll be back tomorrow, and so it's only a few minutes late that we enter the cavern that'll be our room for the night. Rug's there already, we exchange greetings, have a chat, light some candles and bring out the beers.

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    Tank's chosen some kind of whisky beer. My 'burger beer' is 8%. I hand Zero a Heineken that I'd earlier swapped for a Hoegarten. With bags unpacked, food is consumed, sleeping places 'shotgunned' and (for those with the luxury) hammocks constructed. Rug's excited though, and wants to check out some nearby rooms, so we agree to go a little excursion before trying to get some sleep. Chess volunteers to stay behind and guard the stuff. Travelling is easier now, my bag just containing the camera and tripod.

    Following Rug and his enthusiasm, we venture into the 'Bunker' area, which is part of an old wartime bunker, as it's name suggests. Some more crawls are conquered, a couple of which really test my metal, knowing that just one collapse could separate us from the rest of mankind - forever.

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    Relieved, tired and plastered in muck, we get lost in the Bunker. It's not a problem, the way out is there somewhere, and the map would help if we could be bothered. Rug's laughing, we're going in circles, but eventually we're back at the room. Chess is still alive and the kit's all still there. And of course, it would be - we're not in London anymore.
     

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  2. snappel

    snappel BMW 4 LIFE
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    Re: Paris Catacombs - REPORT

    I can hear voices, getting louder. They're not English, that's for sure. Eyes opening, I'm looking out of some kind of hole. There's yellowy light and it's getting brighter. As I surface from the dream, I realise that I am actually in an underground room, somewhere beneath Paris. The room is in fact full of French people and I am sitting up in a small alcove in the rocky wall. Extracting myself from the hole that is my bedroom, I attract a few nods of welcome from our French visitors.

    More noise and a few more people enter the room. One is clearly drunk. They take him to a bench formed out of the rock and he drifts off to sleep, snoring comically. It turns out our new room-mates are the PAP, a group of Cataphiles who spend large amounts of time down here, so far underground that the Metro is above us. They'd come to the room hoping it would be empty, but finding us decided to stay for a chat and a beer. They're friendly, and again we swap stories of explores and locations. Yet again I find myself embarassed by their mastery of our language, and my poor efforts at speaking theirs. The whole experience is surreal. Several times I say this out loud.

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    After an hour or so they leave, one guy staying behind to share our room, and soon everyone is asleep. I wake several times, shivering violently in the cold and search for my foil blanket. This helps a bit, and next thing it's 11am and I've had 5 hours sleep. More than I had the night before, so that's a bonus. We get up, and self-heating meals of meatballs in tomato sauce are on the menu. We've got lots to cover so don't spend too long packing up, and after saying goodbye to our French compadre (who's now taken ownership of the hammock space vacated by OT) it's back into the darkness.

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    The first feature of the day is an immaculately carved monument, adorned with the remains of a human skull and a few leg bones. The tombstone is in memory of a monk who got lost in the caverns whilst searching for treasure centuries ago. His body wasn't found for a whole decade. If the thought of being lost down there is sobering, the mood is lightened by myself, Tank and Zero arguing about camera shots and getting in each other's way. I'm last to take some photos, and the others leave the room.

    By the time I've finished packing up, darkness is all around me save for the few tea lights we'd used to illuminate the gravestone. I can't hear the others, but despite knowing they're silently hiding round the corner to spook me I remember the importance of packing a copy of an up to date map and a compass in my bag. I leave the room and point the torch down each of the black connecting passages. Before I get to the last one there's laughter and my beam picks out four figures. Joke over, it's back to the serious task of finding the entrance to the Val de Grace caves.

    Built under the Val de Grace hospital, the caves are one of the remotest parts of the Catacombs network, and are rarely visited. They're in bad shape, and only one way in exists. I'm aware of this as we enter, remembering for a moment that should our crawl into this sub-network collapse, we're in big trouble. Forcing myself not to dwell on the possibility of death, I remain calm and our tour of Val de Grace begins.

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    Extracting Zero and Tank from the first part is tricky. They're in 'drain photo' mode, lighting up the arches in a multitude of directions with any light source they can. Checking the photos on their cameras afterwards, it's clear that the effort has paid off - the photos are excellent. Now inside Val de Grace, we go to another arch, the so-called Salle aux Ballons (Balloon Room, which, as it happens, contains no balloons) and start working our way north back to where we came in. I'm guessing collapses aren't too rare here, and with only one way in (and out) I'm relieved to have left.

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    For some reason the tunnel ahead appears foggy, and it's getting foggier. Fog is all around, but suddenly (and far more alarmingly) my brain registers an unwanted scent - smoke. It's not fog, it's smoke. From where it's coming isn't clear. OT reckons somebody has let off a flare, maybe because they were spotted by the Catacombs Police. It's so thick now we can hardly see anything, and the torch beams are so diffused they're not much use. I feel panic levels rising, scared we'll suffocate, but try and keep a lid on it. OT detects this and tells me to keep calm. It's cool. This just happens down here from time to time.

    Checking our route, it's a case of sit and wait or continue. Still got lots to do so we start walking. For a while I lead, and it's hard going, watching the floor and the ceiling for obstacles that'll appear with just a moment's notice. Heading north there's a bit of confusion at a couple of junctions, but we're soon on track again. Suddenly the smoke thins, disappears and we're by the entrance to an old air raid shelter. Outside workers have been busy not long ago removing copper cables from quarry tunnels used as ducts, but there's nobody here. Inside the shelter we find old toilets and mosaic floors, all from the war. The staircase to the surface has long been blocked, and most of the walls are covered in grafitti. After a quick tour of the shelter we're back in the corridor, aiming for the Cube Room again.

    Having initially journeyed south to north, we're now going east to west. It's back through the deeply flooded corridor by the swimming pool and back to the crawl by the Cube Room. Inside the Cube Room we take photos. OT and Tank go on ahead as they've photographed this bit before, and there isn't much space. With the job done, I follow the sound of their voices and enter another crawl, twisting and turning before a hand grabs my bag and pulls it through. I follow the bag and turn to retrieve Zero's bag. He's behind me, with Chess last.

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    Everything in order, we've got another long trek ahead. Prior to visiting 'the bones' beneath the cemetary, we need to check that our exit manhole isn’t sealed. We walk for quite a while, heading away from the bones, but this has to be done. Several crawls, stoops and detours later and there's daylight. Only a spec, way above, but it's daylight. Strange how accustomed you become to a lack of it, and so it seemed almost strange up there high above, blinking now and then as somebody on the surface walked over the cover, not knowing about the five grimey figures looking up from way down below.

    OT volunteers to test the lid. He climbs up and has to wait. Somebody is standing on the lid. It won't budge so he returns, taking care not to slip on the damp ladder. It's risky opening the lid when we're not ready to leave as it may not close properly, plus we'll be spotted by the people in the street. We turn and head back to the main corridor and work our way to the bones.

    If the overnight room was strange, this is stranger still. I've just crawled into a circular corridor, from which there are passages half full with human bones. They're under my feet and all around. Bits of skull, leg, pelvis. All once part of a living breathing person. But it's anything but macabre, and I don't feel intrusive or disrespectful. It's a stark reminder that our time to live on Earth is finite, that eventually we'll be there with the rubble and dirt, and that in the grand scheme of things we actually mean very little.

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    But today I'm not the bones, but instead I'm alive, so I'm taking the opportunity to photograph my surroundings before exiting the room, back through the crawl to where OT and Tank are discussing our plans to make roads for an exit. One way or another we need to leave the Cattas, and time is running out. We need to leave by 5.30 to make sure we get our Eurostar in time, but with the stuck manhole cover things aren't looking good.

    A group chat results in a swift decision being made, and we're sticking to it. Despite the fact it's a long trek across the network, we're going to leave where we came in. We know it'll be possible to get out there, and it's preferable to going back to the manhole, getting everyone up the ladder just to find it won't open. So we bag-up and traverse a series of small corridors which take us back to the main route towards out exit. It's going to be a long walk, but it’s unavoidable.

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    Cable racks on the walls are snagging our bags, the ceiling dips now and then and forces us to crouch and crawl, we splash and wade through more water and there are lights ahead. Getting brighter, they're suddenly right in front of us. It's another group of explorers, local of course, and we have a brief chat before continuing. After what seems like forever, we reach our waymarker and it's a right turn. Another long walk, more turns, water and obstacles and I know we're getting close. There's a cool breeze and I can almost smell the outside world.

    Bent almost double, my bag's in my hands, almost too heavy to carry. I know it's not far but it's still hard work. Close behind are the others, and a couple of Cataphiles who caught up with us in the last tunnel. Reaching the end of the passage, my attention turns upwards and the climb begins. At the top I drag myself and my bag out of the hole and out of the way. Behind me the others emerge. I breath the 'fresh' city air and check the time. 17.30 on the dot. We'd made it.
     
    Smalltownboys likes this.
  3. Smalltownboys

    Smalltownboys 28DL Member
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    I realise this is an old posting, but none-the-less, excellent.

    Having just watched the movie, "As Above, So Below", and then reading this, my mind is made up. There is no way I could ever enter these tunnels. Not because of any malignant entities or meth heads that may be there, but simply because of the claustrophobia that I know I would feel. I felt it just reading your text!

    So I have to say thank you to you and others who have explored these places so that people like me can share the experience, albeit vicariously.
     
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