I’ve long had a fascination for things abandoned and decayed. Nowadays this manifests itself as an interest in history; touring castles and National Trust properties and sensible things like that. When I was younger, slightly less foolhardy and much less afraid of death or injury, my friends and I would seek out and explore abandoned buildings. It’s hard to explain to someone where the fun in this strange hobby is. Part of it is in the excitement of ignoring the myriad of signs that warn of danger and the consequences for trespass – mostly it was the excitement of being somewhere you were not supposed to be. There is a subset of urban explorers who prefer the underground to the overground – in the UK is manifested by ‘drainers’ who explore the vast sewage networks under our streets. You wouldn’t have caught me down there for any money but I do understand the appeal.
Underneath Paris, approximately five stories deep, lies one of the holy grails for urban explorers: a network of over two hundred miles of tunnels hewn out of the limestone bedrock. Known as the The Mines of Paris (carrières de Paris) or sometimes simply ‘The Catacombs’, the tunnels are the result of the five hundred years of mining activity which built the city above. A small section is open to tourists, where they can gawk at the millions of bones that were decanted there from the cemeteries above, but much of the tunnel network is off limits and the extent of them only known because of the small number people, driven by the unknown and the forbidden, that mapped the secret parts for future explorers.
Those secret parts have been used to host raves, dinner parties and film screenings – but for most explorers they offer something quite simple: somewhere secret, where the normal rules do not apply. After reading the recent New Yorker article on The Catacombs I found these lovingly created maps, showing the astounding scale of the tunnels:
Tourists have become less welcome since the internet brought the tunnels to wider audience – but the young urban explorer in me would have liked this place very much.