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Mapping the Paris underground

It’s 4 a.m., and an IT geek with scruffy blond hair called Bunny is sipping beer and swallowing chunks of bread dipped in cheese fondue. Other people are passing around joints, or just chilling — literally.

The dank room is not that cold, but wading through stone corridors flooded with gray water has left their clothes soaked. That’s what happens when you have a middle-of-the-night picnic 65 feet under the streets of Paris.

This night, about a dozen people have found their way here through a maze of tunnels, caverns and half-flooded passageways, stepping over a few skeletons and piles of ruins, some dating to the time when the Romans called the city Lutetia.

The 180 or so miles of pitch-dark, chalky tunnels connect former quarries, mostly on the Left Bank of Paris, which provided the limestone and gypsum that built much of the city.

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Preserved and regularly monitored, the quarries are a kind of museum, the main difference being that it is against the law to visit them.

But that doesn’t stop Bunny or other “cataphiles” from breaking open the city-sealed manholes and digging narrow tunnels through stone and concrete walls to gain access to the labyrinth.

“Paris may be known as the City of Light to most, but there’s a whole other, darker side of the city, something other than the glitter of chic shops on the Champs-Elysees, where all that doesn’t matter,” says the 33-year-old, whose real name is Sylvain. (Because he’s breaking the law, he won’t give his last name.) “Here you can get away from it.”

The quarries (carrieres in French) are not to be confused with Paris’ catacombs, which were made into a national museum and harbor millions of carefully piled skeletons relocated in the 18th century from the city’s overflowing cemeteries.

This is no tourist destination. Because the city quarry inspectors have made it difficult to reach the underground no-man’s land without special permission, getting there can be a test of strength and courage. It requires the ability to climb through secret, cramped access holes with very little breathing room. Rocks and even ceilings can fall at any time.

It also helps to know a guide, someone who can navigate the old maps. Otherwise a person might easily get lost.

As in the catacombs, most of the skeletons in the quarries were placed there by the city, but at least one set of bones got there on its own. The doorkeeper to the Val-de-Grace military hospital got lost in 1793 while exploring underground — possibly looking for treasure, the legend goes. His remains were found 11 years later, and beside him, the rusted keys to the hospital.

The doomed doorkeeper was Philibert Aspairt, and his tomb, decorated with candles and artificial flowers, is a popular landmark in the quarries. So is the better-known Z Room, famous for its parties, murals and graffiti-covered walls. And the Beach, a room where a giant wave is painted on one wall and sand covers the ground. Throughout the quarries and tunnels, many walls are marked with scribblings, graffiti and old street signs from the 18th century that roughly correspond to above-ground locations.

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Although Sylvain calls himself an occasional visitor, others have made the descent into the quarries a way of life.

Cataphiles come in all forms: construction workers, engineers, Internet start-up owners and graphic artists. Many hope to find a speck of earth that’s off the map. Some of the hard-core actually try to get lost, searching for a little undiscovered cave or dead end. Many claim to have found rooms that no one has entered in 200 years.

They use battery-powered head lamps to light their way, and candles set the ambience when it’s time for a meal. But seasoned cataphiles like the old, handheld lamps that miners once used, which cast a warm orange glow.

Benoit Richard, 36, first “descended” when he was 16.

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“My parents screwed the lid on tight, so this was my huge playground,” he says as he walks through the quarries in tennis shoes, ripped jeans and a headlamp. He occasionally glances at a map, but doesn’t mind getting a little turned around every now and then.

“The quarries are a kid’s dream … and to walk around the streets of Paris, and know that underneath is this whole other dimension, it makes you feel strong,” he says. “Because most people don’t know what’s under them. But you do.

“It’s the stomach of Paris. A kind of negative, flipped image of the city.”

One group famously set up a movie theater in the quarries in early 2000. “Instead of wasting time trying to convince administrative officials to let us use a space for an art project, we just figured we could use the same amount of time to break in and do as we liked,” says Lazar Kunstmann, who was involved with the project.

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Kunstmann and his clandestine group, L’UX, regularly occupy public spaces that are off-limits and unused, sometimes by mysteriously getting hold of the keys. Then they host “cultural experiences,” which Kunstmann says he cannot describe because they must remain secret.

Not everyone shares the same vision of the quarries.

“It’s pretty strange, you know, to want to go underground in the dark and sit there alone,” says Xavier Piccino, deputy head of the Inspection Generale des Carrieres, or IGC, which monitors the quarries. “There’s nothing romantic about the quarries.

“I have other things on my mind than to talk about quarries when I go home at night,” he says, visibly annoyed at having to discuss the cataphile troublemakers, or “parasites,” as he calls them.

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“When we do public construction works, " Piccino says, “we always have to think: Is there someone who’s going to come behind our backs and destroy what we did?” But he also suggests that the group is just a minor nuisance. “It’s much faster to plug a hole than to dig one,” he says with a grin.

And as for the underground graffiti, “none of it is beautiful.... That is not what I call art.”

Some believe the oldest bits of graffiti, charcoal-colored markings of a few dates and names on the quarry walls, date to 1777, when King Louis XVI created the IGC to prevent Paris from caving in on itself.

After the mines fell out of use, people forgot their location and size, and Paris expanded over the porous earth. Around 1774, a major avenue and the apartment buildings on it collapsed into the ground.

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The IGC was charged with digging miles of corridors below the city to find the old quarries, consolidate them and prop them up to avoid another collapse, a job it still does today.

Yann Sauret, 35, likes to admire the stone carvings and masonry done by the original IGC team, saying it reminds him of his more than 300-year-old family home. So he felt comfortable right away when he began descending more than 20 years ago.

“I found a place that was blocked in time. That was what was so magical. You’re so disconnected there, which is why I no longer do it as often, so that I don’t feel separated from my two kids,” he says while taking a dinner break from his job as a technician for a phone company.

“It’s all for fun, and it’s forbidden. And you do something that is abracadabra-esque,” Sauret says of the cataphile experience. “It’s about saying that sometimes you have the right to lose it, let go and do what you want.”

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Lauter is a special correspondent.


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