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Local Matters / Architecture & Landmarks

Exploring the secret world under Paris

Imagine descending into a labyrinth underneath Paris via a manhole cover just next to the Arc de Triomphe, in the dead of night, to meet up with your buddies to dance, participate in a theatre production, or finish a mural that has been months in the making…That’s the secret life of the Parisian underground societies.  It’s a world most never get to see.

The publicly accessible Paris catacombs are one of the most mysterious attractions in the city. Descending hundreds of meters underground via a spiral staircase into a series of tunnels and chambers piled high with eerily organized stacks of skulls and bones is normally as close as most of us get to discovering what secrets are stowed under Paris.   But there is another way to explore what’s under Paris, and it doesn’t involve riding the metro.

 

To a select group of people the Paris catacombs aren’t just a place where the bodies overflowing cemeteries are stashed, or where the French and German soldiers hid out during WWII, but rather, it’s a place to create a secret world, full of murals, sculptures, movie theaters, bars, and a way for them to preserve the history of Paris.
The series of tunnels under Paris were originally carved out during the 12th century, when Notre Dame church was buit, providing the stone used to create the world-famous behemoth cathedral. During the late 18th century, a street collapsed in Paris and shed light on what was underneath. The city decided to reinforce the tunnels underground, and also marked each tunnel with the name of the corresponding street above ground- markings which are still used today.  When it became illegal to descend into the catacombs in 1955, the French police dedicated a team to patrol the underground maze. Serving both as the guards of the underground, and as saviors for those foolish kids who venture down without a map or a flashlight, the police still roam there today.

In 2004, police discovered an astonishing establishment underneath the Palais Chaillot, a movie theater with seats carved from the stone of the catacombs, and a fully functioning bar!
The creators of this underground theater had even helped themselves to electricity from the apartment buildings located above. Needless to say, their illegal set up was immediately taken down, but mysteriously, it wasn’t the police who did so. When the police returned the next day ready to catch the mysterious underground society, everything was dismantled and a sign was left saying “Don’t try to find us.”

Today, there are several groups who dedicate years of their lives to the maintenance and beautification of the underground passageways of Paris. From full staircases carved from stone, to statues of lions and massive fountains, the catacombs of Paris are not just a place to house the skeletons of the past.

Societies of the Paris Underground:

The Cataphiles – The general name for all who are obsessed with the underground. Who would “rather descend into the murky darkness of Paris than ascend into a club on a Saturday night.”

The Untergunther – “Specialize in clandestine acts of restoration of parts of France’s heritage which they believe the state has neglected.”

The LMDP – The abbreviation for La Mexicaine de Perforation, is a group of cataphiles who specialize in drilling holes and who are responsible for staging art events and movie festivals underground. (Responsible for the infamous movie theater in 2004)

The Mouse House – A group of all-women cataphiles.

UX – The most mysterious and exclusive catacombs group today. Once described as, “a heterogeneous grouping of diverse informal entities… more a sort of collective phantasm than a real group”. Not always limited to performing their acts underground, one of their most famous feats, six years ago, was restoring a broken 19th Century clock in the Pantheon on site inside the Parisian monument where France’s most revered citizens are buried.  The French government was so embarrassed that lax security had allowed the group nocturnal access to the monument that they dismantled the restoration.

Lyonnaise des Os- a reference to the piles of bones (“os” is French for “bone”) in the catacombs – and also a pun on France’s famous water company, Lyonnaise des Eaux. This group spends their time exploring the tunnels, and carving sculptures.

 

On most cataphiles: “Their urge to conserve is an impulse that one doesn’t often see among people who have very innovative, artistic inclinations.” – John Lackman, Wired Magazine

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PPG Community Manager, Lindsay McCallum, has an uncanny ability to be wherever the action is – the newest hotspots and insider-only happenings that make everyone else jealous.  She recently explored this underground lair and pronounced it scary, but fascinating.  She recommends extra flashlights, rubber boots, a map and a great sense of direction.

Other articles on this intriguing subject:

 The BBC visits the secret groups under Paris

National Geographic explores Paris underground

 

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