Paris may be most famous for its catacombs, explored officially by tourists in some areas, illicitly by “cataphiles” in others, but did you know that catacombs exist all around the world, including in New York City? Originally the term “catacomb,” in its singular form, only applied to a group of underground tombs on Appian Way in Rome under the Basilica of St. Sebastian, where the bodies of apostles Peter and Paul were believed to have been interred. By 1705, the word was being used to describe subterranean cemeteries elsewhere, and by 1836, it also included the catacombs of Paris.
Fire-thrower in the Paris Underground. Source: National Geographic, by Stephen Alvarez
In Paris, vast limestone and gypsum quarries lie just below the surface and were in operation from the Roman period until World War II. Since the quarries provided the raw material to build the city above ground, their existence was by nature fleeting and ephemeral. They were eventually covered, leaving vacuums of space beneath the city surface. The void left by the quarries created a multifarious subterranean labyrinth, repurposed for crypts and catacombs, water and sewage infrastructure, transit and communication systems.
The catacombs in Paris date to 1786 and hold about 6 million people. For ten centuries prior to this, the Cemetery of the Innocents was used as the burial grounds of Paris, located in the area of present day Les Halles, but became a source of infection for the population. This official guide to the catacombs is produced by the Catacomb Museum, and shows such highlights as a carved reproduction of the fortress on the island of Minorca, made by a quarryman.
It has been illegal to be in the underground network since 1955, apart from the official tourist destinations, such as the Catacomb Museum and the Sewer Museum (Le Musée des Égouts de Paris). But the lore of the Paris underground comes largely from the activities of illicit explorers known as “cataphiles.” There is also one university, fitting called Les Mines, which has access to the tunnels into which first years are dropped in during initiation and have to find their way out.
We went down into the underground tunnels in 2010, with an architect mapping and recording the sensory experience. The parallel between underground and above ground worlds are marked by street names plaques on the walls of the vast tunnel system. Kata artists venture through the quarries making the burrowed walls their canvas. Art intermingles with the symbols of explorers, who mark their path to ensure they can get back out. Concerts and even invite-only secret parties occur below ground, but only if you can find your way in.
National Geographic has a great photographs and essay on urban exploration in the underground of Paris.