There’s so much to see in Paris that it’s easy to miss the over 200 miles of tunnels, rooms, and dead-ends that lay underneath. For 600 years, the city extracted stone from quarries beneath itself, creating a kind of subterranean mirror-image, or “invisible city,” that provided shelter during WWII, storage for the dead in the famous Catacombs, and that now attracts urban explorers. The New Yorker has an excerpt from Robert Macfarlane‘s book Underland: A Deep Time Journey that takes the author underground for a guided tour of a cramped, terrifying wonderland. His anonymous guides are part of a subculture who respect, explore, and document the catacombs, people Macfarlane calls cataphiles. Loose ceilings, standing water, suffocatingly narrow passage ─ urban exploration is not for the faint of heart. On their first night exploring underground, the group shimmies through a narrow foot-and-a-half-wide hole in a wall and finds a place to spend the night.
I pull through and find myself in a low-ceilinged room, five feet high at its highest, with chisel marks visible on the stone. The main chamber has a stone table thick with white candle wax. In its center stands a plastic bong, bubblegum pink and shaped like a foot-long penis. Oyster shells have been arranged around it. The floor is covered in small spill-heaps of gray powder: the spent waste from carbide lamps. Leading off the chamber is an open doorway to a neighboring room, off which another room leads. We explore the rooms: a dozen or so, roughly organized around a supporting central trunk of stone.
“People will probably come to use the party space later in the night,” Lina says. “If we want any sleep, we should get as far from it as we can.”
So we set up camp in a distant room. Its ceilings are low, three or four feet high at the most. We move about it on hands and knees. The air swirls with rock dust, which I can taste on my tongue and feel on my eyes. The upper city seems very distant. I crawl to the back of the room and find that it extends into a low cave-like space, a couple of feet high and wide enough for a body. I settle down for the night there, oddly comforted by the sense of enclosure. Sixty solid feet of stone extend above me. We talk for a while in the candlelight, struck into closeness by the oddity of our dormitory. Then silence falls as tiredness does, with stealth and force.