Underground Paris – the dark secrets of the City of Light

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No one can deny that Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, well known for its chic streets, stylish boutiques, fine dining – and of course the sleek Tour D’Eiffel. Ooh la la! It is the perfect city for a romantic rendezvous, as you promenade hand in hand down the boulevards, or gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes as you eat, tête a tête, by candle light.

But if all that yucky lovey-dovey stuff gets stuck in your craw, then just look a little deeper. Paris has a lot more to offer than at first meets the eye. There are dark, subterranean worlds just waiting for you to explore their labyrinthine tunnels. The casual tourist and love-struck couples mostly have no idea that they are even there. So leave them to their Louvre, their parks and art and moonlit dancing, as you explore the creepy passages of Paris, underground.

There is a second Paris, which even few Parisians will ever see, which lies below their unsuspecting feet. The Souterrain. There are, mostly south of the river Seine, over 180 miles of winding passageways. Crawl spaces suddenly open up to reveal hidden rooms and cavernous spaces, winding too and fro through the darkness below some of the most famous streets in Paris. Many of these remarkable subterranean spaces were created by miners, who, over the centuries, quarried limestone for buildings and monuments – Notre Dame Cathedral, for example.

Most areas of the old quarries of the Souterrain are off-limits to the general public. But they are like a magnet to miscreants, rule-breakers and adventurers – the police take a dim view of those who enter there, and if caught, you risk being fined. But there is a determined sub-set of society who will not be denied. There is a lot of unauthorised art down there – a long and proud history of graffiti going back to the French Revolution. Cataphiles create art, hold performances and hold trendy, hipster parties down here in blatant flouting of the law.

If you are not an urban explorer, or adventurous cataphile, then you can still legally access a small part of this subterranean world. The ‘Paris Catacombs’ are an ossuary, or collection of human remains, which dates to the end of the Eighteenth Century. This section of the disused quarries was used, in that period, to hold the skeletons removed from Paris’s over-crowded cemeteries. It still houses many bones today, stacked up against the walls in gruesome but strangely compelling displays.

Another way to access this world beneath the city is to tour a portion of the nineteenth century sewers, Les Egouts de Paris. An hour long tour will take you into just a small fraction of the 1,300 miles that make up the whole system, giving you a fascinating, albeit rather stinky, introduction to this feat of engineering hidden beneath the ground.

Of course, another element of this underground world is the Paris underground railway, the many disused stations of which provide yet more dark and hidden disused spaces, visited for the most part only by intrepid urban explorers. But there is a growing feeling amongst inhabitants of the city that some of these underground stations should be re-purposed into clubs, bars, or maybe even swimming pools, and pressure is being put on politicians to make that happen.

So it may be that in the next few years, these too will add to the varied, amazing and surprising world found beneath the city of lights.

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