How I Ended Up Underground With A Parisian Sewerman

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Descending into a pitch-black abyss with someone I had met online was probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. “What the hell am I getting into?” I mumbled as I worked my way down a shaft with rusty iron rungs set into concrete.

Centuries of excavation of limestone deposits have left an impressive footprint underneath Paris, which now sits atop more than 1,900 acres of underground quarries and tunnels eight to 100 feet below the surface. A Parisian friend told me about cataphiles, the French word for people who dwell underground, who steal away with torches and bottles of wine to visit these vast caverns.

Stefane Mezei, my online contact, had arranged an underground tour of Paris’ 13th arrondissement (district) just for me. I met up with him and five others one Monday night.

By the time I arrived, a crew of cataphiles was already there, huddled and chatting. Following Stef’s instructions, I was prepared for a five-hour (did I mention illegal?) tour of the underground and wore knee-high rubber boots, jeans, a T-shirt, and a daypack. Cell phones are useless down below, but I brought mine along anyway to give me the illusion of security. For sustenance, I packed a bottle of Evian, bread, chocolate, and a bottle of wine.

After a few minutes of discussion about removing a manhole cover, our point of entry, it was time to make our move. Stef and another seasoned cataphile, Paul Samat, pried open the cover with a crowbar and, one-by-one, we disappeared down the hatch, just like clowns in a circus act.
   
Stef was my guide into the darkness; I had to follow him on faith. Once the manhole cover was sealed, there was nowhere to go but down. I felt queasy with the knowledge that the maze of tunnels and galleries underneath Paris totals 186 miles. If we got lost, how would search-and-rescue know where to start looking?    

Once everyone made it to the bottom of four shafts, I pulled up so close behind Stef, that I crashed into him, propelling him forward before he even got a chance to light his carbide headlamp.

“Are you OK?” Stef asked me with a look that oozed French charm—something Frenchmen can apparently pull off even in dark and spooky places.

“Yes, I’m OK,” I managed with a feeble smile.
                                            
After walking for 20 minutes down a claustrophobically narrow tunnel, we came to our first stop, a spacious “gallery” with a 15-foot ceiling. It had two stairwells leading up to street level, indicating that it once served as a bomb shelter, but these days its main function was that of a “party room.” The room had coffee tables and benches made from slabs of rock. Stef said that not long ago, cataphiles had staged a party here for some 200 people. It took three to four hours to get everyone down.
    
The cataphiles told me that they come down about once a week, which begs the question: Why do seemingly normal people with families and successful careers choose to spend their free time underground when, for Pete’s sake, Paris is up above?  

Laurent, a cataphile who works as a Paris sewerman, has created an entire underground abode near a Paris suburb. So after a week of working in the sewers, he “escapes” to the underground for the weekend. For an introvert like Laurent, it is the isolation that he seeks.

Angelique, one of a small number of female cataphiles, told me, “I like the quiet, the calm.” Angelique is a striking beauty with long blond hair, who even at this depth wore mascara, lip gloss, and Chanel No 5. She added, “When I come back up I am not tired; I feel relaxed and refreshed.”

While hanging out in a cramped space that is dark, dirty, and damp, is not my idea of vacation, in Angelique’s defense, the quarries are indeed perfectly quiet and still—a stark contrast to the roar of cars, motorcycles, and sirens above. And once you’re down here, nobody can reach you. So in that sense, the underground really is an escape.

As Stef had promised, our tour ended at 1 a.m. When we finally reached the top, I poked my head out of the manhole and breathed in the cool evening air. I looked up, elated to see sky overhead.

Now I notice every manhole cover in Paris and can’t help but wonder whether cataphiles use it as an entrance. Maybe they are down there now, enjoying that strange, dark world under the City of Lights. 

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