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The Glimpse: The Dark Side of Paris (article)
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Citation :The Dark Side of Paris FRANCE
Quarry diving in France
Valerie Broadwell >> To have and to hold...
>> Subscribe to Glimpse Magazine in-print!
The author shakily works her way down a manhole to the underbelly of Paris.

Thirty-eight million years ago, give or take a few eons, marine sedimentation created layers of limestone deposits underneath what is now Paris. Beginning with the Romans, inhabitants of the region have always dug down and found all the stone that they needed to build walls, baths, aqueducts, amphitheaters and roads, and then later, world-famous structures like Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre and Versailles.

Centuries of excavation have left an impressive footprint underneath the city, for Paris sits atop more than 1,900 acres of underground quarries and tunnels eight to 100 feet below the surface. It's all there to explore for those who are adventurous, curious or crazy enough … probably a little of all three. This is where I, Valerie Broadwell, enter the picture.

During my last stint in Paris as a freelance writer, my longtime friend Philippe, a native Parisian, told me about beatniks stealing away with torches and bottles of wine to vast caverns underneath the city with names like La Plage (The Beach), Le Cellier (The Storeroom) and La Salle du Bélier (The Ram's Room). Ever since, I had always wondered whether his stories were true or just urban legends.

Paris has a history of underground mischief. In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, both wily street urchins and political dissidents take refuge in the sewers to escape the law and political repression. Gaston LeRoux's phantom makes a vexing boat getaway across a foggy lake underneath the Garnier Opera House. During the German occupation, both Nazis and the Resistance used abandoned quarries as hideouts.

In the late 18th century, cemeteries in Paris had become so full that runoff threatened public health. Out of desperation, officials consecrated a quarry under the 14th arrondissement (neighborhood) and re-interred the remains of six million there. Tourists not prone to the heebie-jeebies can wander through the catacombs, a creepy maze lined with skulls, femurs and tibias, neatly stacked like children's blocks.

Indeed, it seemed that everywhere I looked, I imagined political dissidents, revolutionaries, vagrants, beatniks, phantoms, spelunkers and lost souls-all wandering in a subterranean city of dark under the City of Lights. It was then that I knew I needed to see for myself.

And so down I went.

“What the hell am I getting into?” I mumbled as I shakily worked my way down a shaft with rusty iron rungs set into concrete. I could not see the bottom. Descending into a pitch-black abyss with someone I had t online was probably not the smartest thing I've ever done. But it was definitely one of the coolest.
The author with Stef, her guide into the darkness. "I had to follow him on faith."

Cataphile is the French word for a person who dwells underground. Stefane Mesei, or Stef, my contact, had arranged an underground tour of Paris' 13th arrondissement just for me. I met up with him and five others one Monday night near Place d'Italie. They were a small representation of the roughly 1,000 cataphiles who regularly go quarry diving in the Paris area.

By the time I had arrived at our designated meeting place one evening, a crew of cataphiles was already there, huddled and chatting. Stef had instructed me on how to dress and what to bring. I was prepared for a five-hour (did I mention illegal?) tour of the underground. I wore knee-high rubber boots, jeans, a T-shirt and a daypack. Cell phones are useless down below but I brought mine along anyway to give me the illusion of security. For sustenance I packed a bottle of Evian, bread, chocolate and a bottle of wine. I guess if you're French that's all you need to survive-which explained why nobody balked when I showed them my provisions.

After a few minutes of discussion about removing a manhole cover-our point of entry-it was time to make our move. While the rest of us watched from a distance, Stef and another seasoned cataphile, Paul Samat, pried open the cover with a crowbar. Although entering the quarries is forbidden, the police can't arrest you unless they actually catch you in the act, so once the cover was off we had to descend quickly. When Stef and Paul gave the signal, we walked smartly to the manhole and, one-by-one, disappeared down the hatch, just like clowns in a circus act.

Stef was my guide into the darkness; I had to follow him on faith. Once the manhole cover was sealed back up with a “thud,” there was nowhere to go but down. So down, down, down we climbed. I felt queasy with the knowledge that the maze of tunnels and galleries underneath Paris totals 186 miles. If we got lost, who would know we were down here? How would search-and-rescue know where to start looking?

Once everyone made it to the bottom of four shafts, each about 12 feet long, I pulled up so close behind Stef, my lifeline now, that I crashed into him, propelling him forward before he even got a chance to light his carbide headlamp. Though they no doubt sensed it, I didn't want the cataphiles to know that this plucky journalist was rather freaked out. So I focused on one image only: throwing those panicky thoughts right down the sewer-in this case, quite litely.
The author craws around subterranean Paris, getting a "new" view of an old city.

“à‡a va, Valerie?” (“Are you okay, Valerie?”) Stef asked me with a look that oozed French charm - something Frenchmen can apparently pull off even in dark and spooky places.

“Oui, ça va,” I managed with a feeble smile. (“Yes, I'm okay.”)

I tried to get my mind off feeling trapped, so I thought about my crashing into Stef like a scaredy-cat Gilligan clinging to the Captain. That slapstick image helped me brush aside the archetypal fear of being buried alive and refocus on why I was there in the first place: to meet the cataphiles. Angelique, one of a small number of female cataphiles, was along just for my benefit and I was immensely grateful for another female presence. She was a striking beauty with long blond hair, who even at this depth wore mascara, lip gloss and Chanel No 5. I found this wellspring of femininity in such a creepy place comforting. I stuck close to her, too.

Once our equipment was secured, the seven of us-two women and five men-began trekking single file down a dark tunnel. It was about eight feet tall but was narrow enough to almost touch both sides at the same time if I stretched out my arms. Headlamps provided our only light; the sealed environment eerily muffled our voices and footsteps.

Paris quarries are comprised of four systems separated by deep valleys or by water. By far, the largest is the Grand Réseau Sud, or GRS. This huge system totaling 63 miles, meanders under the 5th, 6th, 14th and 15th arrondissements and extends all the way out to the suburb of Arcueil. The oldest known quarry sites are in the GRS and date back to the late 12th and early 13th centuries.

With 15 and a half miles of underground passages, the 13th arrondissement quarry is the second largest. The third is “Passy-Chaillot,” a small network of about four and a half miles below the chic 16th arrondissement. According to Stef, Passy-Chaillot is the most beautiful. When I asked him what makes a quarry beautiful he said, “The paintings on the walls.” It figures. Parisians are always on the lookout for good art - even at these depths.

The fourth system, under the 12th arrondissement, is less than 400 yards long.

We went on. After about 20 minutes of brisk walking we came to our first stop, a spacious gallery with a 15-foot ceiling. It had two stairwells leading up to street level, indicating that it once served as a bomb shelter, but these days its main function was that of a “party room.” The room had coffee tables and benches made from slabs of ro, giving it the feel of an American Great Room. Stef said that not long ago cataphiles had staged a party here for some 200 people. It took three to four hours to get everyone down.
Parisians will go to great depths to party.

Our next stop after the gallery was a small, grotto-like space that also had benches and a table. It had been built in the 1920s as a break room for subway construction workers. Indeed, much of what I saw that night had begun as a limestone quarry centuries ago, then was shored up in the late 19th century to support the Metro above.

At each gallery that we came to the cataphiles would examine the graffiti, then rest and socialize for a few minutes. The atmosphere was congenial but nobody drank or smoked. In fact, I was the only one who uncorked a bottle of wine during our longest stop - something I felt that I needed to do in order to ante up the courage to belly my way back through a particularly tight crawlspace.

From what I could tell there are different groups of cataphiles, each with its own subculture. The “serious” cataphiles-those who descend to explore rather than to party-are more like rock climbers than beatniks. Some cataphiles, including those I met, occasionally take their camping gear down with them and spend the night, sleeping in a hammock or on a slab of stone. They told me their purpose was to explore, not to party, and that being drunk in a quarry was too risky. They make a good point. Even with the pros who knew these tunnels like the back of their hands, it felt like we were navigating by Braille. I can't imagine trying to find one's way out in a drunken stupor.

The not-so-serious cataphiles descend at entrances that are close to where the action is. The most famous subterranean party room is La Plage. But contrary to its name, “the beach,” there is no water and no sand. It is just a big room with pillars and walls covered with psychedelic graffiti.

The cataphiles insist that such exploration is safe. But having gone down, I disagree. Even during a minor episode in which Stef, Paul and I became separated from the others, it took the two veteran cataphiles with over two decades of experience about 15 minutes and a map to find the others. It is extremely easy to get confused, as all of the tunnels look alike and there is no natural light to serve as a point of orientation. During our tour we came upon several deep wells that a novice could easily stumble into - a horrific thought. Worst of all, nobody would hear cries for help.

The cataphiles told me that they go down about once a week which b the question: Why do seemingly normal people with families and successful careers choose to spend their free time underground when, for Pete's sake, Paris is up above!
A gathering of cataphiles under Paris.

Laurent, a cataphile who works as a Paris sewerman, has created an entire underground abode near where he lives in a Paris suburb. So after a week of working in the sewers, he “escapes” to the underground for the weekend. For an introvert like Laurent, it is the isolation that he seeks. Others clearly go down to escape the stresses of family life and or the monotony of techy day jobs. When I asked Angelique why she was a cataphile, her answer struck me as nothing short of bizarre.

“I like the quiet, the calm,” she said. Then she added, “When I come back up I am not tired; I feel relaxed and refreshed.”

Say what? She hangs out in an environment that is devoid of light, dirty and damp, then emerges feeling like she's been on vacation! However, in Angelique's defense, the quarries are indeed perfectly quiet and still--a stark contrast to the roar of cars, motorcycles and sirens above. And once you're down there, nobody can reach you. So in that sense, the underground really is an escape.

It was clear that all of the cataphiles I met enjoyed the adventure and camaraderie of underground exploration. For the lonely or those with time to burn, underground exploration offers a free and funky diversion. Thus, depending on who you ask, the answer could be adventure, discovery, isolation, camaraderie or escape. But it is usually a mix. Some even descend looking for love.

As Stef had promised, our tour ended at one a.m. When we finally reached the top, I poked my head out of the manhole and took a deep breath of the cool evening air.

I looked up and saw the stars, elated to see sky overhead. Once everyone was out of the manhole, Stef and Paul secured the cover. I thanked my companions for coming out on a Monday night on my behalf, then bid them adieu.

Since then I've noticed every manhole cover in Paris and can't help but wonder whether cataphiles use it as an entrance. Maybe I know them. Maybe they'll take me down just one more time, to their strange, dark world under the City of Lights.

Valerie Broadwell, is writing a book about subterranean Paris. She has published over 130 articles and commentaries. She both worked and studied in France, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. When she's not crawling around Paris, home base is Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
-- h2o
Sauvez une hague, mangez un cataphile.

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