What are Notre Dame helmets painted with

Secret Paris

My taxi rolls silently through Saturday morning. The avenues are quiet, the shops are still closed. A bakery smells like fresh bread. At a traffic light, this surprising scene caught my attention: a man in overalls and with a headlamp climbed out of a hole in the sidewalk. The young woman who follows him has a lantern in her hand. Her long, slender legs end in tight shorts. Both are wearing rubber boots, and both are smeared with light-colored mud. The stripes are reminiscent of the painting of archaic tribes. The man pushes the lid back over the gully and takes the woman by the hand. They run down the street together laughing.

Paris has a deeper connection with its underground than most other cities. There are not only the several thousand kilometers long tunnels in which the world's oldest subways and sewers run. There are also grave vaults. And bank vaults. And wine cellars that now serve as clubs and galleries. But above all there are the carrières: underground limestone quarries that perforate the ground like a gigantic labyrinth, especially in the south of the metropolis. In these caves and tunnels stone was quarried for the construction of houses and cathedrals until the 19th century. Later farmers grew mushrooms there. During the Second World War, resistance fighters hid in the caves. Others served the German occupiers as bunkers. And now a very special group of people roam the tunnels. Some often spend days and nights under the city. These are the cataphiles - cave-goers who love the Parisian underground.

It has been officially forbidden to enter the old quarries since 1955. Therefore, mainly young people are found among the cataphiles. You are looking for a tingling break from the regulated world on the surface. The scene flourished for the first time in the 1970s and 1980s, when punk gave new strength to the traditional tendency of Parisians to rebel. At that time, access to the underground was still quite easy, there were plenty of open entrances. Some cataphiles discovered that forgotten doors in the basement of their school led to the quarries. From there they crawled further into passages full of bones - into the catacombs known as tourist attractions. The cave-goers kept other tunnels a secret: Here they celebrated parties, held concerts, played theater, made art - and took drugs. There was freedom underground. Even anarchy.

At first, “normal” Paris hardly took any notice of it. But at the end of the 1980s, the city and private landowners closed most of the entrances. An elite police force patrolled the hallways. But even she could not defeat the love of the tunnel. The couple I saw climbing out of the gully are cataphiles. Was it from a rendezvous? In fact, some men I explored the quarries with met their future wives in the tunnels and exchanged phone numbers in the light of flashlights. The cave-goers are the best guides to secret Paris. Most of the others are little aware of the tunnel network, although they take the metro to work every day over the bones of their ancestors.

The catacombs

Philippe Charlier puts his plastic bag on a battered chair and rubs his hands. It's cool and dark down here in the tomb. Drops of water glitter on the ceiling, there is a smell of mold. All around us, thighbones and skulls are piled up in walls full of eye sockets. Charlier reaches into the bag. It contains bones that he “borrows” today. For example, a parchment-colored skull. “Wonderful patina,” he says. Six floors above us, the waiters in the cafés on Montparnasse are cleaning the tables. It will be noon. Charlier is an archaeologist and pathologist at the Sorbonne. He takes another piece of skull out of the bag. The bone below the eye sockets is porous and indented, and the nostril is enlarged. "Signs of advanced leprosy," explains Charlier cheerfully. He hands me the skull and digs through the bag again. He can take his time. Usually in the catacombs it echoes from the voices and nervous laughter of the tourists. But today is closed here.

The remains of around six million Parisians lie in this ossuary. Almost three times as many as live on the surface. The skeletons were exhumed from overcrowded cemeteries in the 18th and 19th centuries and dumped into the old tunnels. The younger ones date from the time of the French Revolution, the oldest probably date from the Merovingian period more than 1200 years ago. They are anonymous bones, devoid of any individuality. But Charlier reads her story in it: illnesses and accidents, whether wounds healed or not, what people ate and what they were operated on.
Water is dripping somewhere. Meanwhile, Charlier is examining a noticeable spot on a vertebra with narrowed eyes. "Aha!" He exclaims. "Brucellosis!"

This is an infectious disease that in some cases also damages bones. It can be transmitted to humans from infected animals or their excretions - for example milk. "Probably a cheese maker," says Charlier. I look down the tunnel. We stand in a kind of library, surrounded by ten thousand stories like the fromager's. When Charlier takes the metro back to his office, he takes a few of these stories with him in his plastic bag.

The inspectors

My people have prepared a small hole for you, ”says the inspector, holding the door of the van open. He grins. "You will suffer!" He shuts the door and we drive off. It's a warm spring morning. Men and women go to work under lush green chestnut trees. In the suburb of Arcueil, the driver stops at the edge of a busy street. His colleagues there are already putting on white overalls and high rubber boots and wearing helmets. We follow them to a gully below an ivy-covered embankment. A dark shaft leads down below our feet. The team members turn on their headlamps and climb down the ladder. They belong to the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), the general inspection for the quarries. Your job is to prevent Paris from falling into the voids beneath the city. Once at the bottom, the geologist Anne-Marie Leparmentier measures the oxygen content. Everything OK. Bent over, we set off in the low passage. Water sloshes around our boots. Marine fossils protrude from the rock. In a puddle we find a rusty horseshoe - a remnant of the time when horses dragged stone blocks here.

The Romans already mined limestone and gypsum here. The bathhouses and statues of old Lutetia still grace the Île de la Cité and the Latin Quarter. Lutetia later became part of Paris. Now the workers broke the material for the great buildings, the Louvre and Notre Dame. Initially, the pits were on the other side of the city limits, but Paris sprawled over them, and underground tunnels developed from open quarries over several generations. The miners toiled in the light of torches and in choking dust. Many were killed by falling rocks. If a quarry was exhausted, it was filled with rubble or simply abandoned. On the surface, no one noticed that the foundation of Paris was gradually becoming porous. Then, in December 1774, a tunnel under today's Avenue Denfert-Rochereau burst. The sinkhole tore houses and people into the depths. More and more holes opened up. Finally commissioned Louis XVI. the architect Charles Axel Guillaumot to explore, map and stabilize the quarries. In the course of this work, the inspectors dug further tunnels to connect the corridor systems. Around the same time, the king ordered the evacuation of an overcrowded city cemetery. Guillaumot was to store the bones elsewhere. He didn't think twice, and so the catacombs of Paris came into being.

Today Leparmentier continues the work. About 30 meters below the road we stop in front of a stone pillar. It consists of boulders that were piled up at the beginning of the 19th century. “Don't touch it,” warns the geologist. "It's a bit shaky." A long crack runs through the ceiling, which is currently still supported by the fragile column. The last time the soil swallowed up an entire district in the south of the city was in 1961. 21 people were killed. Smaller sinkholes still occur today. Another tunnel runs below us. At some point the pillar may no longer be able to carry the load. Then the tunnel we're standing in will fall into the one below. We continue. At the end of the corridor we examine the dark hole that I was warned about a few hours ago. It's barely shoulder width. Nobody knows exactly where it is going. First, a young employee squeezes through with kicking legs. Anne-Marie Leparmentier means to me that she will definitely not follow, but invites me with a wave of the hand: «Go ahead.»

The cataphiles

Some cave goers only occasionally go underground and stick to familiar tunnels. That is not enough for the die-hard. My next leaders are two dark-haired young men in blue overalls. At our meeting point, they sit casually on a park bench in the sun. Next to them are compressed air cylinders and diving equipment. Mothers push their strollers past and look at them suspiciously. Dominique is a mechanic. Yopie - he only reveals the name by which he is known to the cataphiles - works as a computer graphics designer. He is the father of two children and an experienced cave diver. We are going. Cool air flows from a hidden entrance under a bridge. A man covered in mud is just crawling out. He said he was preparing a hen party for a friend. A large part of the tunnel network is now measured. The successors of Guillaumot have always added to his notes. But the cataphiles also make their own maps. There is still something new to discover. Yopie and others spend a lot of time filling in the last few white spaces. We wade past many corridors until we reach today's object of his urge to explore: a black hole in the ground.

There are pits and wells in many tunnels. Some lead to hidden chambers. Others are full to the brim with water. Like the hole in front of us. Yopie is immersed in dozens of them. But nobody was in this one yet. The motionless water shines like black ice. The light from our lamps does not go deep. Yopie checks the regulator, mask and safety belt. Then he buckles on his helmet, switches on two headlamps and falls into the pit. Minutes later he reappears in a bubble fountain. The hole is only about five meters deep, nothing to be seen at the bottom. After all: the card receives a new entry.

We wander for a few more hours through tombs full of rotting bones. We see galleries with brightly colored murals: works of art by today's cave-goers. We pass a place where I got lost with two policemen days earlier. They belonged to the so-called Kataflics who hunt down people like Yopie and Dominique. Yopie leads us to a chamber that is not shown on any map. For years he and friends dragged cement here, rearranged limestone blocks and used them to build benches, a table and a sleeping platform. The space is comfortable and clean. Niches for candles are carved in the walls. The beige stone shimmers warm. I ask Yopie what draws him to the underworld. “There's no boss here,” he says. “A lot of people come here to celebrate, some to paint or to research, others to destroy. We can all do what we want down here. There are no rules. Up on the surface, on the other hand ... 'He makes a sweeping gesture and smiles. He lights a cigarette. «As we say: 'If you want to be happy, stay hidden.'"

The sewer

Pascal Quignon has been working in sewers, the égouts, for 20 years. In the van that drives us to his shift, he talks about explosive gas bubbles, pathogens and giant rats. We stop on a side street. There we slip into waterproof white protective suits, put on waist-high waders and white rubber gloves and put on white helmets. Warm, dense air wafts towards us from the entry hole. Quignon and his colleagues claim they'll only notice the smell when they get home from vacation. "Ready?" He asks.

In the oval tunnel, the sewage trickles through a channel sunk into the ground. Large pipes run along the walls on both sides. One carries drinking water, the other service water for street cleaning and park irrigation. At tunnel crossings, blue and yellow signs show the names of the streets above us. I wade forward, trying not to think about the dark water my feet are moving in. Quignon and his partner Christophe Rollot shine flashlights into the crevices and note the positions of pipe leaks in a minicomputer. Rollot shuffles through the mud with his rubber boot and pushes him up the wall. “You can discover a lot here,” he says. Jewelry, wallets, firearms. Colleagues once came across a person's torso. Quignon even found a diamond.

(NG, issue 05/2011, page (s) 40)