Leonardo: Paris Below the Surface
Most people have heard of the catacombs, which are actually an ossuary. But few have heard about the other underground activities that have been taking place beneath the city of Paris for centuries. My son, Leonardo, knows all about them, so I decided to interview him. I haven’t given specific details because the regulars don’t want what they call ‘tourists’ down there as they are not always respectful of the unwritten rules of the underground subculture.
How did you first learn about the quarries and what made you want to go there yourself?
I had a friend who used to go there and I was just curious I guess.
How do you get in?
Through manholes in the street. They weigh about a hundred kilos. Inside there’s a 20-metre ladder. You find out where they are by word of mouth. Some are regularly welded shut but there are always a few open at any point of time. You keep in contact with the people who know about it via the net, but you have to have a contact to introduce you and they use code words.
Do you need special clothing and is it dangerous? Are there any rats?
Just good walking boots. Some people have those overalls that fishermen wear. That way you don’t get wet. Sometimes there can be up to a half metre of water. It’s not particularly dangerous, but you shouldn’t go by yourself because if anything happens, there’s always someone to go and get help. And there are no rats because there’s no food and no life at all.
How long do you have to walk for and what’s down there?
It depends which manhole you go down because there are several networks. There’s a big one under the 14th arrondissement and a smaller one under the 13th, then a couple of other really minor ones. There are mainly tunnels and rooms from time to time. Mostly they’re empty but sometimes there are sculptures on the wall from way back. The idea is to sit around and hang out.
How do you see?
We wear headlights and also have candles. It’s very common to take a large can of beer and cut it open and put a candle inside to make a personal lamp we call a catalampe. My brother doesn’t use his headlight much. He prefers his catalampe.
What sort of people are down here?
Counter-culture, maybe artistic or musical. Stereotypical art students. There’s some real artwork on some of the walls. What’s interesting is that you’re in another world. Time stops. I guess that most people are the introverted type because that way, being underground, you’re not bothered by the whole outside world and you can kind of connect with your friends or meet some interesting weird people. There are no social conventions, except for being polite of course. You could just be anyone. Everyone’s accepted, no matter who they are. It’s weird because in some ways, it’s not very open. You get to know most of the people. It’s a real community. But once in a while, you come across someone you don’t know which is great.
There are quite a few computer engineers. I’ve met people down there that I knew on the surface and I didn’t know they went into the quarries. The average age is between 20 and 30 though you get older people as well. There are about 2/3 men and 1/3 women.
Is it policed?
Basically, there’s a bit of policing because Louis XVI created an administrative body to manage the catacombs. I’m not going to give you any specific details about this bit, just explain the general idea. There’s one part of the city where there’s an old train line. There are entrances there but you have to dig down and that’s prohibited. If you go there on a Saturday night, for example, you can get fined – 68 Euros for being underground and 200 Euros for being on the train lines.
When do you go down ?
Usually at night, for several reasons. During the day, going in and out isn’t very discreet. Also they could close up some of the places while you’re down there and you could get locked in. When there wasn’t as much surveillance, it was more popular. It’s never been used by illegals though, because there’s nothing down there and it’s pitch dark.
Do you go often?
No, only about once every couple of months. I actually prefer the quarries – there’s a chalk quarry and a limestone quarry in the outer suburbs of Paris. I like them because they’re much bigger. In lots of places in Paris you have to bend down a lot so it’s not very comfortable and it can be very wet. The quarries are bigger.
Is there any danger of them caving in?
I guess, but I’ve never heard of it. None of them are legal. The one in the north is enormous and was used to make all the Haussman buildings in Paris. It was also a hiding place for the Germans during WW2 – you can still see missiles, etc. And because it was used as a quarry until the ’70s, there are still wagons you can push around.
Then, about 50 km out of Paris, there’s a sand quarry with very white sand used to make crystal back in the days of Versailles. It hasn’t been used for several hundreds of years now. We played beach volley in that one. We even took down acetylene torches. There must have been about 50 people at the time. It was really massive. It’s good because the temperature’s constant winter or summer. Underground in Paris, it’s 14°C all year so if you’re walking you only need a T-shirt but if you stop, you need a sweat shirt or something. In the limestone quarry, the temperature’s 13°C. I even spent a whole weekend there once.
So if you want to join the subculture, you’ll need to find someone in the know! Good luck!
1, 2, 3 © Rosemary Kniepp
This is such an interesting article, Rosemary – as you say, most people know about the Catacombs, but I for one had never heard of the other underground activity in Paris before reading this. Thanks to you and Leonardo!
It’s amazing isn’t it? I was a bit worried when I first heard about it, but he took his sister down one day and she reassured me!
Leonardo’s brother has read the post and says that under Paris, the risk of the tunnels and rooms caving in is monitored by the official quarry inspection (the same as that created by Louis XVI) and take all necessary measures.
That’s amazing! Like Sarah, I knew about the Catacombs but I wasn’t aware of a whole community gathering there. Thanks for the photos as well, we can picture what it looks like underneath.
A very interesting article! Paris has really surprising places to discover. Thank you for sharing the pictures!