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Tunnel Vision

The search for an 18th century explorer inside the underground tunnels of Paris

Most visitors to Paris know the catacombs as a 45-minute, eight-euro tour through the main Parisian ossuary—basically a giant underground boneyard. The Paris of the late 1700s was one of the densest urban areas in the world. There are many things about managing this kind of urban environment that we just take for granted nowadays—like what happens to what you flush down the toilet, or how freshwater suddenly appears after turning a handle on a faucet—that were developed as ingenious solutions to once intractable problems. Waterborne diseases like cholera would devastate urban communities, a result of sewage mixing with drinking water. Sewer systems, aqueducts—these were inventions of necessity, not convenience.

The ossuaries were another of these inventions. In the 18th century, Paris was the largest city in the world and, along with London, well along its path as the forebear of the modern metropolis. As such, it had to start dealing with one of the great problems of the modern metropolis: pollution. In addition to garbage, sewage, industrial waste, and all the other things we might think of as “pollutants” today, Paris had another pollutant that had to be dealt with: dead bodies. The main burial ground, Saints Innocents Cemetery, was smack-dab in the center of the city, right next to the main market. The size of Paris had exploded in the 17th and 18th centuries, tripling in population—and potential cadavers—during this time. The mass burials, each of which the parish church took a fee for, quickly overwhelmed the embattled cemetery. The smell of corpses was dominating the city center, with the putrefied remains causing disease. A solution was needed. Burials in the city proper were banned, new grounds were set up on what was then the outskirts of town, and Saints Innocents and other central cemeteries were exhumed, the bones treated and transferred underground to the old quarries.

Some of the remains of these 6 million or so dead Parisians can now be viewed on the official catacombs tour. There, the bones are neatly stacked, with the skulls sometimes used to form patterns. It’s a great tour, and an easy way to see an interesting part of the city. It’s a little over a mile long—about one-half of one percent of the total length of the catacombs. We’re headed to the ossuaries that aren’t part of this tour. But first we have to figure out just how the hell to get there. The catacombs have almost 200 miles of tunnels.

After an hour or two of winding our way through the tunnels, we find a narrow chatière in the tunnel wall, a few feet off the ground. We pull ourselves up and through, and find ourselves crawling on a bed of bones.

The remains of these departed souls didn’t get the nice, neat treatment of the ones you pay to see. Instead of being neatly stacked along the wall, they’re flung haphazardly into small rooms and tunnels. In one tunnel, the shaft that the bones were thrown down was never fully sealed up, and they reach from the tunnel back up into the shaft, somehow stuck to the wall. The result is eerie: Crawling in the tunnel and looking up the shaft, it seems like you’re about to be buried alive in an avalanche of centuries-old dry bones. There are almost no skulls—we were later told that pretty much all of them had been taken for souvenirs.

After leaving the ossuaries behind, we decide to seek out the tomb of the Philibert Aspairt. Philibert is a legend, often referred to as one of the first cataphiles. When he disappeared in 1793, it was rumored he had entered the catacombs underneath the Val-de-Grâce military hospital, one of the oldest parts of the tunnels, and was looking for the wine cellars of the monks of Chartreux when his torch went out. When his body, reduced to a skeleton, was found in 1804, it was gripping a ring of keys, minutes from an exit. After hearing this story, I didn’t feel silly for carrying three extra flashlights around with me.

After our time navigating the catacombs, I can’t imagine how Philibert ever had a chance at that wine. Even with the benefits of LED lights and an annotated map, it takes us hours to wind our way over to his tomb. The catacombs are incredibly mazy, with myriad dead ends, offshoots, intersections, and splits. It’s not difficult to walk in most of the tunnels: They’re a comfortable height, or close to it. But there are times the height of the tunnels suddenly lowers, and we find ourselves crawling or doing what we deem the “cata walk,” a quick crouching stride through tunnels about five feet in height. After about 50 feet of this, your ass and thighs feel like they’ve been lit on fire, but it’s better than crawling.

The variety of rooms we pass seems endless, ranging from little more than caves to elaborate multilevel structures that wouldn’t be out of place in your average 19th-century Parisian aboveground building. But the variety of tunnels is even greater: two feet high to 10 feet high; lined with concrete, brick, neatly stacked blocks of stone, and rough, naked limestone; boasting graffiti, carvings, and disused utility cables. These tunnels are the backbone of the catas—all of the different types forming an interconnected network.

Finally we make our way into a small room in the upper right-hand section of this map marked “Tombe de Philibert,” where poor Philibert is memorialized by a tombstone set into a wall, with a short inscription telling his story. It reads:

À la mémoire de Philibert Aspairt perdu dans cette carrière le III novbre MDCCXCIII retrouvé onze ans après et inhumé en la même place le XXX avril MDCCCIV

(In memory of Philibert Aspairt, lost in this quarry on November 3, 1793, found 11 years later and buried in the same place on April 30, 1804)

Nobody really knows if his bones are actually buried behind the wall with the tombstone set into it. Cataphiles aren’t shy about breaking through walls; they do it all the time to create the chatières. We later learn the wall behind the tombstone has been dug through twice. But nobody has ever found Philibert’s remains.

By the time we make our way over to Philibert, we’re exhausted. We thought we had prepped correctly for the trip, but didn’t count on the sheer amount of time we’d be down there. After a quick hello to the remains of our predecessor, we start heading back south to the entrance. We still have plenty of time in Paris. We can afford to leave further exploration for another day.

Adapted from Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World’s Great Metropolises; A Memoir of Urban Exploration by Moses Gates with the permission of Tarcher/Penguin. Copyright Moses Gates 2013.

Illustration by Shantell Martin

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