There is an entirely new way to see the City of Light—in the dark. The chic and the daring are going underground to visit some of the best restaurants, jazz clubs, museums and secret tunnels
Photographs by Alexandre Guirkinger
Paris, the City of Light, is also a city of darkness: Caves and quarries, tunnels, vaults and crypts, aqueducts and ossuaries lie hidden beneath a good part of it. “Paris is a kind of lost cesspool,” wrote Victor Hugo. “To plumb the depths of this ruin seems impossible.”
Says you, Hugo. In Paris these days, down is the new up. Visitors are discovering a hidden world beneath the city’s postcard surface. Steps from the Louvre, the surprising young American chef Daniel Rose recently moved his restaurant Spring into new quarters beneath the rue Bailleul. Here a series of levels descends both in space and in time: When you’re sipping wine in his private cellar two levels down, you’ve made it back to the Renaissance.
The Musee National du Moyen Age was built over the remains of first-century Roman baths. The great chalk quarries of Issy-les-Moulineaux have over the years housed mushroom cultivators, beer brewers and bomb shelters. Today you can throw a party for 1,000 underneath the massive chalk arches of Les Crayères des Montquartiers, or just pop by for a quiet dinner for two—72 feet undergound. You might be able to glimpse the man-made lake architect Charles Garnier conceived far under the opera house to collect the water from an underground stream and stabilize the building. The opera’s lovelorn phantom drowned himself in it; Paris’s firemen practice scuba-diving there today. And if you want to go all the way back to Paris’s origins, stop by the Musée National du Moyen Âge off Boulevard St. Michel, where you can tour the subterranean hot and cold rooms from the first-century Roman baths.
For the more adventurous, Paris has an underground beneath its underground. Below the caves and crypts, beneath the metro, a vast warren of tunnels and galleries sprawls for well over a hundred miles. These were once quarries mined for their limestone and gypsum. They furnished Paris’s characteristic sand-colored building blocks and the plaster for its interiors—it’s where the term plaster of Paris comes from. As Paris expanded outward, quarries that had once lain well outside the city were paved over, absorbed into the city and forgotten.
Then the trouble started. Building a city over a series of big holes isn’t the best way to ensure stability, and Paris started caving in. On July 27, 1778, what is now the rue Boyer went under, taking nine souls with it. One of Louis XVI’s parting services before losing his head was the creation of a corps of quarry inspectors, headed by his royal architect, Charles Axel Guillaumot.
“Before the year 1777, the temples, palaces, houses and the public streets of several parts of Paris and its surrounding areas were about to sink into giant pits,” Guillaumot wrote in his memoirs. Guillaumot and his men began the laborious process of shoring up underground Paris, filling in the open spaces, and building an elaborate network of access tunnels to allow regular inspection and repair work. Without this, there might well be no Paris today.
The easiest way to get a sense of this other Paris is to visit the catacomb museum under Denfert-Rochereau, housed in a tiny portion of the quarry network. This is where the bones of six million Parisians were transferred from other cemeteries starting in the 1780s. It’s been open to the public as a kind of Disneyland of death almost as long. Here respectable Parisians contemplated their fleeting mortality in an appropriately Gothic decor, and they still do.
It falls to hardier souls to venture into the broader quarry system, although that too is a pastime almost as old as the system itself. This ant-farm maze of tunnels belongs to the so-called “cataphiles,” as the people who love crawling around down there are called. They come from all strata of Paris society. They are the masters of a parallel universe. They throw parties in its graffiti-frescoed chambers and salute one another by flashlight as they pass beneath the city streets. This is their world, and, being an amiable bunch, they will welcome you to it.
Three Cellars Deep
Like Dante’s Virgil, I recommend starting any underground excursion in the shallower, better-furnished circles. Paris doesn’t owe all of its underground to abandoned quarries. The city is shot through with basements and sub-basements dating back centuries. People discover new ones all the time, since Paris law gives proprietors subterranean ownership rights down to the center of the earth.
Daniel Rose, who hails from Chicago, opened his restaurant Spring on the rue Bailleul near the Louvre last July. Rose had been an architecture student in Paris, but needed papers to stay in France after he graduated in 2000. Cooking school seemed an easy way to prolong his visa. “I discovered I liked it, and one thing just led to another,” Rose says modestly, as he is the rare American whom French chefs respect—and his restaurant is booked months in advance.
We are eating in the restaurant’s cave, which dates back to the 18th century—hooks found on the wall suggest it might have been an annex to the Louvre’s stables. You can see the outline of a limestone arch disappearing down into the floor. As usual, the restaurant is full. Rose cooks one set menu, which he changes every week. Tonight’s offerings include a fantastic melange of oysters and asparagus—the asparagus season just hit France and Rose is taking full advantage—and a flaky pastry filled with pigeon and foie gras.
During extensive renovations, Rose came across a second cave underneath the first. This one goes back at least to the 15th century, and perhaps even earlier. “It’s a good thing we found it,” Rose says. “The rent is very high, and with the second cave, I got another 1,000 square feet for free.” He turned the sub-cave into a wine room, where wine maven Joshua Adler hosts private tastings and seminars.
The more you probe, the more you find. Further renovations hit yet a third cave below the upper two. Rose says two are plenty. “Each level costs 200,000 euros to renovate,” he says. “The more caves, the more euros.”
Digging deep carries other risks, particularly close to the Seine. The river flooded 100 years ago, inundating the surrounding caves. “We’re waiting for the Seine to flood again,” Rose says cheerfully. “Who knows? We could end up making more money on the insurance than on the restaurant.”
The catacombs are home to six million ex-Parisians
Just to the left of the grand old lion of Denfert-Rochereau in the 14th arrondissement stands the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, recently renamed for the colonel who was a leader of the French Resistance during World War II. “It’s thanks to the basement here that Paris was liberated,” says Gilles Thomas, author of “Atlas of Underground Paris,” who probably knows as much about what goes on under the city as any man. We are marching down to the underground shelters 60 feet below the street. This is where Rol-Tanguy directed the Resistance for the five days of the final battle to liberate Paris from the Nazis.
One advantage of these shelters is their many exits into the catacombs, where Thomas now leads me. We are in a special section of the quarry maze—the catacombs themselves—sealed off from the rest of the underground network since 1982. This is the vast closet where Paris hid its skeletons. Over 10 centuries, Paris had buried its dead in cemeteries such as Saints-Innocents near what is today Les Halles. By the end of the 18th century, the pile of buried corpses had risen over 8 feet aboveground, and the risk of epidemic presented a grave threat. In 1780 they started moving the old bones to their current location, which opened in 1786.
“Stop! You are entering the Empire of Death” reads an engraved plaque above the entrance to the ossuary. But the sign was never really intended to stop anybody. “It was the kind of romantico-macabre poetry that was popular at the time,” Thomas says. The same Gothic taste explains the skull-and-bone mosaics that line the galleries—here a giant heart made by skulls, there a cross of bones. And everywhere, snippets of mortuary doggerel by justly forgotten poets: “Like water, our lives flow by” reads one.
Thomas points out the local curiosities and fills me in on old gossip. One of the original workers, a fellow named François Décure, carved a detailed relief of the fortress of Port Mahon in Minorca into the limestone wall on his lunch hours—he had probably been imprisoned there in the 1750s. He was killed in a cave-in while making a staircase for people to come see it. “He died for something no one asked him to do,” says Thomas, a little disparagingly.
A little further ahead is the 1821 headstone of a woman named Françoise Gillain—the only identified resident among the six million estimated skeletons. “She spent her whole life trying to get a guy named Latude out of jail.” Why her? No one knows. “Life is funny,” says Thomas in what could be its own wall plaque.
Thomas points up to a big hole in the ceiling that runs up to the surface. This is where the six million skeletons came rattling down to their new resting place. There’s a chain hanging down the center. “That’s so they could get everything moving again if the bones got clogged.”
Caveau de la Huchette
History moves as inexorably underground as it does above it. Take the Caveau de la Huchette, a stone crypt under whose vaulted ceiling have passed Knights Templars, Freemasons, Danton and Robespierre, Lionel Hampton and Miles Davis.
The current owners, Cyril Dorise and his three siblings, are trying to hold back history’s sweep by preserving the old club just the way it was when American G.I.s infected Paris with the jazz bug just after World War II. The Caveau claims to be the oldest jazz club in France. On any given night, a motley mix of American tourists, students from the nearby Sciences Po university and dedicated French jitterbug enthusiasts in two-tone shoes crowd the ancient dance floor.
The Caveau had been sitting idle while history reshuffled its deck in 1946. The Templars had gathered there as early as 1550. In 1772, Freemasons used it for a secret lodge with hidden passages leading out to the nearby church of St. Séverin and Châtelet. In 1789, revolutionaries held their kangaroo courts there, dumping their victims down an old well on the premises.
A fellow named Gorgese turned the musty cellar into one of Paris’s most celebrated jazz dens after the war. Dany, Cyril’s father, played vibes in the band and bought the place when Gorgese sold out; Cyril’s maternal grandfather, Rustin, had invented a rubber patch for repairing flat bicycle tires (it’s been known as a Rustine ever since) so there was plenty of money.
“The place was so crowded back then it used to take people half an hour to get from the dance floor to the bathroom,” recalls Cyril Dorise. “But we had a big drop in attendance after the first Gulf War. We’re trying to get younger people to come with special student rates, but it’s not so easy.”
It’s likely that the Caveau will one day live again as something else. History has played these kinds of games with so much of Paris, above and below ground.
Les Crayeres des Montquartiers
Caverns of Chalk
Just past the 15th arrondissement along the Seine lie the towns of Clamart and Issy-les-Moulineaux. It’s the only part of the Paris region where you find chalk, which is far more fragile than limestone or gypsum. As the residents of Clamart can attest. On June 1, 1961, the earth opened, and seven acres of Clamart were swallowed up, killing 21 people.
I am just down the street in Issy-les-Moulineaux. A friend has told me I must see Les Crayères des Montquartiers—the Chalk Quarries of Montquartiers. I am met at the door by the owners, Gérard Trouvé and his partner, Isabelle Chouraqui, who lead me through massive metal doors straight into the hillside.
Trouvé had bought the factory above these doors for his building business and didn’t give a thought to the old chalk quarries underneath. The quarries had already had several afterlives when Trouvé took over. After the previous owners stopped mining chalk, they grew mushrooms in its dank caverns—the so-called champignons de Paris—during the 19th century. Afterward, they installed giant copper tanks and brewed beer. During World War II, the chalk quarries served as massive bomb shelters for the French, and munitions storage for the Germans.
“When you go underground with someone, you see his real personality and establish a real intimacy”
“I was doing some renovation in the factory in 1995 when a worker broke down a wall, and there it was—the quarry,” Trouvé says. Not long after, he had the idea of throwing a big party for 1,000 of his company’s clients there. It was a bit primitive—you had to find your way several hundred yards back to locate the toilets—but everybody loved it.
Trouvé is a born entrepreneur and a lightbulb went off in his head. He sold the building business, and now operates Les Crayères full-time as a restaurant, reception hall and storage cave for over a million bottles of wine—the famous chef Joel Robuchon once accounted for 45,000 bottles all by himself. You can throw a wedding party for 1,000 under the great chalk arches of the huge quarry, which covers several acres. The romantic spirit was catching. Trouvé hired Chouraqui to handle public relations for his new venture. They’ve been together 17 years. “D’abord il m’a embauchée, puis il m’a debauchée,” she says saucily. First he paid me, then he laid me.
Somewhere Under the 14th
“When you go underground with someone, you see his real personality and you establish a real intimacy,” says Gilles Thomas, who tends to see many things in basement terms. “You don’t care whether they’re a CEO or on unemployment. People who say ‘vous’ to each other up top say ‘tu’ underground.”
By law, the quarries have been off-limits since 1955, but the cops wink at cata-tourism. “They don’t close both eyes, but they close one eye,” Thomas says. Tap the word “cataphile” into Google and hundreds of sites come up. Send off a query and say you’re looking for a Virgil to lead you through this netherworld. It won’t take long to find one. Cataphiles are proud of their dark domain and many are happy to show you around, not for money but for subterranean bonhomie.
Riff, Prince of the Netherworld
That’s how I found my guide, a sweet-natured software developer with the nom de cave of Riff. He lives in the suburbs with his wife and kids, but what he really loves to do is wander around the catacombs. Riff came to Paris from Nancy for his studies in the ’80s. “I missed walking in the big forests where I grew up, and the forests around Paris seemed so tame,” he says. “And then I discovered the catacombs!” He’s since become a deerstalker of the Paris netherworld, and he looks it with his stringy graying hair and Buffalo Bill beard.
Riff and I walk along an old railroad track. Midway through a dark tunnel, Riff spots a jagged hole in the concrete, and we duck through. Before long, we’re deep in a very spooky maze of tunnels, some 6 feet high, others with ceilings so low you have to crouch down to move through them, which takes a mighty toll on the back after a while.
I inch forward, following Riff through a section where groundwater has filled the tunnel. I am probing tentatively for a foothold when an alarming sensation overcomes me: I am slipping. A few slow-motion moments later, I wind up on my rump in 3 feet of water, soaked through.
“Paris seemed so tame. And then I discovered the catacombs!”
We have eight hours to go and there’s no chance of turning back. Riff is already chugging along through the tunnel ahead and I could never find my way out by myself. The tunnels are marked with the names of the streets above them, making the catacombs an underground mirror of the city. But the mirror reflects a Paris that no longer exists, 18th-century Paris. I’m afraid of ending up like poor Philibert Aspairt, a porter in the hospital of Val-de-Grace. In 1793, Aspairt went poking around the tunnels looking for bottles of wine hidden there by Carthusian monks, or so the legend goes. They found his skeleton 11 years later underneath rue de l’Abbé de l’Epée. Aspairt was buried down there and a funeral stele marks the spot—the tomb of the lost cataphile. I decided to stick with the group.
Riff sets a brisk pace, and I’ve forgotten my recent dunking when we arrive at one of the many antechambers where cataphiles come to party. Getting in requires some vigorous wriggling, since the entrance is often just a hole punched through a side wall. This makeshift room is called Le Cellier, the cellar, and there’s a candlelit supper in progress around a stone-slab table. Elaborate graffiti frescoes of Egyptian deities and hieroglyphics line the limestone walls. Techno music is blasting from a boom box, and the rum flows freely. “Salut!” everyone at the table hails us.
It should be said that catacomb nightlife bears no resemblance to the orgiastic Black Masses of urban legend. Riff and others tell me that, back in the day—the day being the early ’90s—things were a lot more rough-and-tumble. Tunnel revels go back much further than that, however. Gilles Thomas tells me of a clandestine concert in the old ossuary as far back as 1817—inspectors who had been fired from the service let everybody in.
One of many underground rooms where Cataphiles come to play
We crossed at least four groups of “fêtards”—merrymakers—during our ramble, and drawing-room propriety reigned everywhere. Today’s cataphiles are distinctly “bons enfants,” as Riff calls them—well brought up. A tipsy Australian girl named Zina gushes, “Isn’t this fantaaastic?!” and presses us to stay, but we have unspecified business down the road.
Tramping through the catacombs isn’t really dangerous, and most of the imagined terrors prove unfounded. For one thing, there are no rats. “Nothing for them to eat down here,” Riff explains. There is no risk of a “fontis,” or cave-in. Guillaumot and his successors in the Inspection Générale des Carrières have done their job well. Still, accidents will happen, most due to CWI—cataphiling while intoxicated. Riff points out an old well once used by quarrymen. A few years back, he tells us, a girl sat on its ledge, got drunk, and fell some 20 feet to the bottom, messing herself up pretty badly.
On our way out, we pass through another big chamber known as The Beach for the huge copy of Hokusai’s print “The Great Wave at Kanagawa” on its wall. We sit with Cécile, who goes back 25 years with Riff, all of them subterranean. “The first law of the cataphiles,” Cécile explains, “is to get out again. The second is to come back. And the third is to do whatever you like.”