A City Built Upon Secrets
While the illustrious streets of Paris might charm many a visitor, few realize that beneath their feet lie ancient secrets that date back millennia. Paris stands atop vast limestone and gypsum quarries. The Romans, with their penchant for grandeur, sculpted bathhouses from this same limestone. And the renowned architectural marvels? The Notre Dame Cathedral, the illustrious Louvre, and even the Paris Police Headquarters owe their foundation to this stone. Ever heard of Plaster of Paris? Well, the gypsum underneath is its progenitor.
The Ground Gives Way
Imagine a city as grand as Paris teetering on the brink of collapse. In 1774, a tunnel collapse under Rue d’Enfer, eerily named “Hell Street,” brought to light the impending doom lurking beneath. To combat the growing dread, Louis XVI summoned Charles-Axel Guillaumot, tasking him with mapping and securing the underworld. Guillaumot’s subsequent revelations were harrowing: vast chunks of Paris were on the verge of sinking into vast chasms.
A Grisly Solution to Overcrowded Cemeteries
Amidst subsidence and instability, another issue plagued Paris: bursting cemeteries due to war, famine, and disease. One chilling February morning in 1780, a Parisian stumbled upon a grim sight in his cellar: twenty decayed corpses breaking through the wall. The solution? King Louis decreed the remains be moved to the quarries. Thus, the infamous catacombs, the haunting “Empire of the Dead,” came into existence.
The Allure of the Labyrinth
As Paris burgeoned, so did its subterranean labyrinths. Crypts, aqueducts, sewers, and the famed Métro tunnels were born. Nestled beneath all, the ancient quarries stand sentinel, held together by mere pillars of limestone. But it’s not just history that thrives here. Cataphiles, or lovers of these underground spaces, dare to traverse the forbidden passages, seeking solace from the confines of the world above. Their mantra? “Here, we are free.”
Neil Shea, reporting for National Geographic, gives a tantalizing glimpse into the world of these cataphiles. From diving into long-forgotten wells to crafting limestone castles, their activities are diverse. Some even go so far as to host underground events: imagine book signings or chamber music sessions, all amidst the ancient backdrop of the catacombs.
The Underworld’s Guardians
Yet, not all view these adventures kindly. “The catacombs are ours,” claims Morthicia, a veteran cataphile. But the cataflics, the guardians of this underworld, beg to differ. Their mission? To patrol and ensure that the catacombs remain undisturbed. Yet, occasionally, even they are taken by surprise, as in 2004 when they stumbled upon a secret cinema, complete with a bar! And just when they thought they’d get to the bottom of it? A mysterious note warned, “Do not try to find us.”
A Never-ending Enigma
While the so-called “Perforating Mexicans” later claimed responsibility for the cinema, one fact remains indisputable: beneath Paris, a world of mysteries awaits. Many secrets may remain buried, but one truth stands as a testament to Guillaumot’s words: Paris is always, silently, combatting the maze below. Today, as the IGC continues its eternal vigil, Paris, in all its glory, stands resilient against the gruyère beneath.
Unintended Descents into Darkness
In the 1990s, a group of teenagers decided to explore the catacombs as part of a dare. Venturing deep without a map or guidance, they soon lost their bearings amidst the labyrinthine passageways. It took them three days to find their way out, surviving on mere droplets of water seeping from the limestone walls.
The Mystery of Philibert Aspairt
One of the most notorious tales from the catacombs dates back to the French Revolution. Philibert Aspairt, a hospital doorkeeper, ventured into the underground network in 1793 and vanished. His remains weren’t discovered until 11 years later, just a few meters from an exit. His pockets still held the keys he’d taken from the hospital, suggesting he’d become disoriented and couldn’t find his way out.
The Catacomb Party Gone Wrong
In the early 2000s, authorities were alerted to a clandestine party happening deep within the catacombs. When police arrived, they discovered a fully equipped cinema room, complete with a giant screen, projector, and films. As they delved further, they found a bar and restaurant stocked with food and drink. While the revelers escaped, the police were left horrified by the audacity of such an event in this eerie, skeletal setting.
The Haunting Sounds of the Abyss
Explorers of the catacombs have frequently reported hearing haunting whispers, footsteps, and even distant screams echoing through the tunnels. One such account speaks of a tour guide and his group hearing agonizing cries that seemed to emanate from deep within the catacombs. As they hastened their pace, the sounds only grew louder and more frenetic, leaving the group in sheer terror until they emerged into the light of day.
Lost and Never Found
Despite numerous warnings and tales of lost souls, thrill-seekers continue to venture deep into the catacombs without proper preparation. Authorities occasionally come across remnants of encampments where individuals might have spent their last moments. Tragically, not all of these explorers find their way back, and the catacombs remain their eternal resting place.
Know Before You Go
Understand the history, layout, and regulations of the catacombs. Being informed will not only make your experience richer but will also ensure you’re mentally prepared for the adventure.
Choose an Authorized Tour
To ensure your safety and to respect the history and integrity of the catacombs, always opt for an official guided tour. This ensures you have an experienced guide leading you through the maze, providing insights and ensuring you don’t stray into dangerous or off-limits areas.
The catacombs can be cold and damp. Dress in layers, wear sturdy and comfortable shoes, and bring a lightweight jacket. The right attire can make a difference in how you feel, both physically and mentally, during your exploration.
Stay Calm with Breathing Techniques
If you ever start to feel overwhelmed or claustrophobic, remember to breathe. Slow, deep breaths can help calm your mind and lower your heart rate. By focusing on your breathing, you can center yourself and keep any panic at bay.
Ensure your group sticks together. Agree on a meeting point in case someone gets separated. It’s comforting to know you have a plan and are not entirely alone amidst the maze of tunnels and bones.
Limit Exposure to Disturbing Imagery
The catacombs house the remains of millions. If you are sensitive to such imagery, limit your exposure by avoiding areas with densely packed bones or avoiding looking too closely. Remember, it’s okay to step back or close your eyes if you feel uneasy.
Limit Stimulants Before Your Visit
Refrain from consuming large amounts of caffeine or sugar before your visit. These can increase your heart rate and potentially make you feel jittery or anxious in tight spaces.
Listen to Music
Bring along a pair of earphones and a calming playlist. If at any point you start to feel overwhelmed, pop them in and let the soothing tunes distract and calm you.
Dehydration can exacerbate feelings of anxiety. Ensure you drink enough water before your trip and bring along a small bottle during your exploration.
Post-Visit Wind Down
After emerging from the catacombs, give yourself some time to adjust. Sit down, have a drink, and reflect on the experience. Discussing what you’ve seen and felt with others can be therapeutic and help process the intense emotions that such a unique place can evoke.