Life Below The City Of Light: Paris Underground Paris really is a tale of two cities: One of them above ground, with its beloved Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. And then there's the city very few us will ever see — an underground Paris — the souterrain. NPR and National Geographic team up to explore what lies below.
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Life Below The City Of Light: Paris Underground

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Life Below The City Of Light: Paris Underground

Life Below The City Of Light: Paris Underground

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In its February issue, National Geographic explores underground Paris. And it's such a maze down there that even a lifelong caver like photographer Stephen Alvarez can get lost.

STEPHEN ALVAREZ: I've spent thousands of hours underground but I will go in here and I'm lost immediately. I mean, without someone to show me around I'd wander around until I died.

HANSEN: National Geographic's Stephen Alvarez invited NPR's intrepid Jacki Lyden along for several weeks. Jacki concentrated on the men and women who make up the cataphiles, clandestine urban spelunkers whose world lies 60 feet below the City of Light.

JACKI LYDEN: To be a cataphiles in the catacomb, it helps to have feline nerves for crawling through tight spaces. One of the most popular entrances to the labyrinth of the souterrain, the underground, lies off an abandoned railroad that encircles Paris. You hike along its tracks, preferably in the dark to avoid the police, and then squeeze through a human being-sized wormhole and drop 20 feet and 200 years back into the past, leaving the modern world far above you and lonely you, amid the silent bones, rocks and antiquities in yawing, pitched darkness. And it can be wet as well.


LYDEN: Our guide on my first night down with the National Geographic crew is a charming, 22-year-old French student, Daniel Garnier-Moiroux.

DANIEL GARNIER: What I'm doing is where I walk on one side and then move (unintelligible) on the other side.

LYDEN: Earnest with a long ponytail, was telling me how to walk through the flooded tunnels by straddling it, sliding my boots on a tiny underwater ledge. My boots shimmy right off - wet feet for hours.


GARNIER: Are you OK?

LYDEN: Daniel is a student at the prestigious Ecole de Mines, the school of mines. Every year the school has a sort of field trip down below.

GARNIER: There are two second-year guides with a group of 10 freshmen. At some point, they say stop. They take everyone's lights and they give candles. And you explore the catacombs, a place you don't know, with candles. But the problem is you cannot see what's in front of you and the only thing you see is the candle. It's amazing. It's a completely different experience.

LYDEN: Daniel, do you think about how far underground you are when you're doing that?

GARNIER: Not really, not really.

LYDEN: What do you think about?

GARNIER: I know it's from 10 to 30 meters underground, depending on place. I know about the accidents that can happen. For example, there's a phenomenon that's called a fontis. That's when the ceiling collapses. And that created great problems. That's actually why they created the inspection of quarries.

LYDEN: Daniel points out the carbon black lettering etched into the stone walls - the best way for cataphiles to tell direction.

GARNIER: It's a number, then a letter, then another number. The number on the right is the year when that wall was made.

LYDEN: 1895.

GARNIER: K is for the first letter of the name of the inspector of the quarries who supervised this. And four is the number of the wall. That's the fourth wall he made in '85.


LYDEN: The muralist weaves over to us and gives us his one-word cata name:

PSYCKOSE: Psyckose.

LYDEN: Psyckose. Cata noms de cave are de rigeur because this is technically illegal, yet Psyckose has, for 30 years, been going down to what he calls the crossroads.

PSYCKOSE: The catacombs is the crossroad of the world. Everybody's coming here. You cross somebody from L.A., somebody from London, somebody from South Africa, somebody from...and everybody is totally naked because there is just dark. There's nothing. It's dead space, you know?

LYDEN: Well, metaphorically naked and not totally dead space.


LYDEN: There's another way to deal with all this dark space, and that's to light it up. While Stephen Alvarez sets out his cameras, one of our party, Louise, douses some batons with alcohol to create fire sticks.



LYDEN: But we may have celebrated a bit too soon. Some of the tightest, most restricted spaces are still to come - the notorious Cathole. Spaces in which you feel as if you're being encased in rock as you wiggle through.


LYDEN: A week later with another cataphile comes the moment I've been dreading.

HANSEN: Can I leave you here for a couple of minutes?

LYDEN: Unidentified Man: I'll be right back.

LYDEN: Unidentified Man: Oh, you're not afraid to be alone here...

LYDEN: Unidentified Man: I'll be back soon.

LYDEN: The mural lies at the dead end of a tunnel. A robed figure is ferrying a woman over what looks like the River Stix.

GILLES ZEPREY: It was a painting by a Symbolist painter from the 19th century whose name is Arnold Detain(ph). I was fascinated by this picture because although it's about death, it's not a sad picture. You have a kind of peaceful state of mind or serenity about it.

LYDEN: Zeprey finished in April and painted four masks hovering above the painting. Below, he added an inscription.

ZEPREY: It's Latin inscription, which says in Guillaumot (Latin spoken); to walk in circle in the night and were consumed by fire. And particular thing about that inscription is that you can read it either one way or backwards and it reads the same.

LYDEN: It's a palindrome.

ZEPREY: It's a palindrome, exactly.

LYDEN: Zeprey, who now works for a large corporation and travels the world says this is the third mural he created in 15 years below ground.

ZEPREY: I wouldn't want too many people to know about it. Just keep it like a really secret place, something you can discover when you just walk in there by chance.

LYDEN: Actually, there's a lot you could stumble on by chance in this endless maze of tunnels. There's graffiti from the Reign of Terror, like a tiny painted guillotine and baskets for heads. Bunkers - both the French resistance and the Nazis had bunkers below. There's so much that cataphile historian Gilles Thomas has written the definitive atlas. He shows me what everyone wants to see.

GILLES THOMAS: Ladies first.

LYDEN: Thank you, ladies first.

THOMAS: If you want to cry, not (unintelligible).

LYDEN: If I want to cry...

THOMAS: You can't do it.

LYDEN: When Paris emptied its cemeteries in the central part of the city in the late 19th century, six million Parisians were disinterred and disarticulated. Some of their bones wound up as macabre art in the official consecrated catacombs - tourists welcome. The rest were left here in large, disorderly heaps of human bones, ossuaries.

THOMAS: There are six small ossuaries but we don't know how much, the bones of how many people are in these ossuaries.


LYDEN: OK. This may seem like an odd place to party, but cataphiles don't mind if they disturb the dead and raise the ghosts. The catacombs are considered great places for a rave.


LYDEN: Cat is a 24-year-old cataphile and is the only name she'll give me.


LYDEN: We've met at a bus stop and crawled down a manhole together to the largest chamber I've yet seen below ground, which appears able to hold a couple hundred people. And she's asked me:

CAT: You want to crawl or do you want to walk?

LYDEN: Cat loves adventures and fellow adventurers.

CAT: And it's difficult to have a boyfriend who doesn't appreciate the same thing because you can't have a boyfriend and tell him every weekend, look, darling, I'm going underground with any man to drink and walk around. And I don't know what time I'll be coming home. And if I don't come home, it means that I'm at the police.

LYDEN: In fact, Cat's boyfriend arranged tonight's rave. But as I watched the crowd, I wonder, there are so many men gyrating around, what about the cops?

CAT: I've met them twice. It's part of the game, meeting the police. Because we're here - we know it's illegal. We're not supposed to be here. So, if you meet them, they'll bring you back at the surface, then fine you and then they'll tell you you're supposed to go home.

LYDEN: The police, also called cata-cops, may tolerate single cataphiles but they do crack down on parties. Tonight, it turns out, they're waiting up top by the manhole to arrest people one-by-one as they leave. So, Cat and another cataphile hatch an escape route, crawl out another way through an underground parking lot. I blithely agree until I see, sometime before dawn, what appears not much bigger than the eye of a needle.

DAVID BABINET: Your arms first, your both arms first. You want me to pull? Perfect.

LYDEN: Perfect. I'm in the sixth underground level of an underground parking lot. It's utterly surreal, and when we come out, it's pouring rain. The night ends with a whimper.


LYDEN: He's now a filmmaker, father and almost 40, but as a child, he forged a rebellious path. He calls the underground going downstairs, and he lives just above the catacombs.

BABINET: I started to go into catacombs in carriers. I was around 12 with some friends without going to school sometimes.

LYDEN: I'm sure you weren't telling your parents anything like this.

BABINET: They were aware of everything.

LYDEN: They were?

BABINET: Yes, they were.

LYDEN: What was their attitude about it?

BABINET: So, I was really a rebel before, so it was something very quiet to do that because I was not doing something really bad, you know, except going somewhere where it's forbidded, but it was like an obsession.

LYDEN: Have you thought about why?

BABINET: It's such a mystery, also the fear of the dark and notion of (unintelligible). To be afraid to get lost and to know like a parallel world under Paris, you know, which is kind of the inverse.

LYDEN: He points to a map on his computer.

BABINET: I want to show you where I'm living. We are very close to Le Clocherie de Lina(ph), which is a very famous French Parisian restaurant. I used to sleep underground just below this place.


LYDEN: Today, when Babinet walks a few blocks away and entertains clients at Le Clocherie de Lina, he could think about the famous who's come here - Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and Satchu(ph) and Devue Voi(ph), or about his boyhood days directly below in the catacombs.

BABINET: We were totally lost in time for one week.

LYDEN: You actually slept in a hammock slung down below this very place.

BABINET: It's like 24 meter below earth just right now. I will take you to the place on Sunday.

LYDEN: So, in early December, I went back to join Daniel and members of the freshmen class of Ecole de Mines as they descended on a chilly gray morning into the catacombs. They were being baptized by their classmates in the medieval robes.

GARNIER: Yeah, we have a secret (unintelligible) because kind of our item to teach. It's a very strict ritual.

LYDEN: You said people are dressed like monks?

GARNIER: You can never answer. I'm sorry.

LYDEN: All right.


LYDEN: Unidentified Man: (French spoken)


LYDEN: Unidentified Woman: (French spoken)

LYDEN: Unidentified Man #2: (French spoken)

LYDEN: And then they celebrated with a song.


LYDEN: Jacki Lyden, NPR News.


HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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