April 2024: Every once in a while, I am still able to get a group of my friends together and do something amazing and adventurous. and spending a night exploring the illegal network of Paris Catacombs with my friends was an experience I will never forget. Fewer places are as shrouded in mystery as the Paris catacombs, a maze of limestone tunnels originally built during Roman times for quarrying of construction rock for buildings in Paris like the Notre Dame. Then in the 1700 and 1800s when space in Paris was at a premium, city planners decided there wasn’t enough space for the cities cemeteries that were unsanitary and already taking up too much room and bursting with bodies from numerous plagues like the black plague and the executions of thousands of civilians during the French revolution typically carried out by guillotine. Ancient cemeteries were razed, and 6 million corpses were either dumped unceremoniously into the catacombs beneath Paris. The tunnels span hundreds of miles and lie as deep as 100′ beneath the city of Paris are still largely unexplored. Besides being used as a disposal ground for corpses over the years, the catacombs have also been used for various other clandestine purposes such as a hideout for French partisans fighting the Nazis during World War II.

The catacombs are divided into two sections and one small section is set up specifically for tourists and the trail is maintained and kept safe. Tourists enter and exit the tour via a souvenir shop. The other section of the catacombs, the much larger one is vast and unregulated. It is potentially dangerous due to the possibility of cave ins and getting lost. Cell phone coverage, GPS signals are all non-existent underground and the possibility of getting lost in the catacombs and running out of flashlight battery power is real and for this reason the authorities have made it illegal to enter this section and a special group of catacomb cops is assigned to arresting trespassers and seeking out entrances into the catacombs and sealing them shut. There are a few entrances that remain open, and I have known for years that it is possible to still enter and explore the illegal section of the catacombs.

However, it would be crazy to enter without someone with knowledge of them and a map. I had wanted to do this for a long time, but I was never in Paris long enough to find a guide and most people that know the catacombs, a kind of secret society of Parisians called cataphiles, are secretive and refuse to bring outsiders inside. I was also weary of finding a guide who would either rob us or leave us for dead in the catacombs, something that is rumored to happen occasionally. But after months of careful planning and research, I finally found two urban explorers from Paris on social  media that appeared to know the catacombs well catacombs and actually responded to my request to pay them to guide me and a few friends. I negotiated the terms and I felt comfortable with the trip. The only problem was that there was only one day that the guides, who have normal jobs during the week were available to lead us and it was on the Sunday night of the arrival of my 11-hour international flight. So, to make the trip work I needed to fly all the way to France with my family and 8-month-old baby and go immediately to the catacombs to explore all night after a long flight with a baby. The idea of this was daunting but I was determined to make it work because for years I had wanted to do this. Then my airline French bee, decided to be almost 3 hours late but luckily the guides were still onboard with the trip, since I figured out a few other ways to save time and salvage the trip. The guides were now going to pick me up at the airport and I was going to go directly to the catacomb entrance with them to meet my other friends, Dan, Frank, Wes.

With my pre-packed bag for the catacombs packed with extra flashlights, power batteries, snacks, water, dry clothes and waders for the deep water in the tunnels, I met the guides at the airport, and we were off. As promised to the guides, who are committed to the conservation of the catacombs and do not want to reveal the entrances or secret rooms to other reckless explorers online who might vandalize them, I promised I would not reveal these locations so I will only say that we entered the catacombs via an abandoned railroad tunnel that was built by Napolean. Once inside the railroad tunnel there was a very small hole that was barely noticeable that I could barely fit in. To enter the catacombs, we had to squeeze through this hole headfirst one by one and then we were in a small, dank room that reeked of stale urine.

 

 

Abandoned railroad tunnelwe entered and walked for 1/2 a mile before entering the catacombs

Entering the Illegal Catacombs

Once inside the catacombs, we didn’t linger. it wasn’t the kind of place to stand around in. We had miles of ground to cover before reaching the ossuary where the bones would be located, and it would take hours of walking through cramped humid tunnels with low hanging ceilings and occasional water up to our waists. We walked briskly through the tunnels/ One guide led in the front and the other stayed in the back to make sure that no one was separated. Even know we were a small group of 6 including our guides, it was easy for us to get separated and difficult to hear one another. The catacombs proved to be dark and overwhelming as I anticipated them to be. There were numerous side tunnels disappearing into different directions. Some tunnels lead upwards to potential manhole cover entrances and others led down into dark pits. Colorful graffiti lined the inside of the ancient limestone tunnels and gave it an almost medieval funhouse feel.  But as we descended deeper into the catacombs, the graffiti became less visible. My waterproof waders I purchased off of Amazon before the trip proved to be worthless and leaked in water and my boots became waterlogged so i removed the waiters and this made it easier to walk.

 

 

Tunnels with water. In the deeper tunnles up to our waist, I put my phone away and didn’t take video

Tunnels with water. In the deeper tunnles we were up to our waist 

Low ceilings in the older tunnels were common and difficult for me at 6.1′ to navigate

Ladder leading up to a sealed manhole cover

Different areas of the catacombs are connected by small holes called cat holes big enough for cats that cataphilles have created for access. Police are constantly trying to close these and cataphilles then quickly re-open them again. 

Secret entrance

Chambers

Occasionally we came across a small chamber, and we would stop to relax and have a snack. Some chambers contained interesting sculptures of gargoyle looking creatures that a cataphiles made and another we entered had a group of coffins that seemed to be more symbolic of something than actual graves. Needless to say, it’s safe to assume that cataphiles have a dark sense of humor. There are many rooms in the catacombs and we only had to time to explore a few. One that I missed that I would love to see but it was far away from where we were is a World War II Nazi bunker room that the Nazis used to try and fight the French partisans who were hiding in the catacombs.

 

 

Map of Guinea

The Ossuary

The main attraction of the catacombs is the ossuary or burial area. There are multiple ossuaries in the catacombs but the main one where the majority of bones are located here beneath the Montmartre cemetery, an old cemetery dating back to the 14th century where many bodies were relocated from the cemetery to the catacombs in the 1700s and 1800s.

To reach this very old section of the catacombs, we walked for a few hours and then suddenly we started to observe scattered bones on the ground. This area was my favorite and there were multiple stairs we had to descend and side tunnels and secret rooms stacked with layers of bones and skulls that were dozens of feet deep. I thought that it might be creepy to be among so many of the dead, but I was surprised that it wasn’t. Instead, it was peaceful and instead of fear, I felt a kind of connection to these people that walked the earth before me and I was fascinated by the stories they could tell if they were alive today.

 

 

Dan climbing through a tunnel stacked with bones and skulls to get to the wall of skeletons

Tunnel of bones

Me in a tunnel of bones

Bones and more bones

Wall of bones

A skull

Another corridor with bones and skulls

We came across two bone thrones that cataphiles constructed over the years. One was very elaborate and even though we risked being disrespectful to the dead by doing so, we had to give into our inner narcissist to take the traditional photo of one another seated in the throne with the appearance of being a dark lord of the underworld.

 

 

Me in a bone throne

Me in the 2nd more elborate bone throne

We spent a total of 6 hours in the catacombs, and we never saw one other person. At one time we heard some techno music being played and even smelled a cigarette, but we never actually saw anyone. On our return we tried to exit a manhole, but the lid was sealed, and we instead had to return from the same entrance through the railroad tunnel that we entered the catacombs through.

 

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