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Subterranean Renaissance, Paris; 22/11/08-23/11/08

After such an amazing experience on last years adventure into the Parisian netherworld I was almost loathe to return to it for fear that the experience could never match up to that fabled first time, even now, a year on I find that some of those memories still make me grin and I often remind myself that I really was there and it really did take place.
I believe you can have a little too much excitement however, the only Paris I have ever known has been one of adrenalin, furious metro dashes, cramming down Big Macs with trembling hands and jangling nerves and frantic dashes down nameless streets whilst maintaining that we aren't hopelessly lost. Therefore perhaps I have mellowed slightly from the previous year but this time I found myself seeking a far slower paced trip, one that not only involved seeing far more, but also entailed being detained, interrogated and aimed at far less.
Not only were my own hopes riding on this vision of mine but also the hopes of the select few errant accomplices that had foolishly accepted an invitation to come along, as with last year some of the original die hard crazies had returned for more, namely Cookie, Root and myself, yet this year we found ourselves joined by LesW, Walrus and Laura all very keen to experience what the dark depths of Paris had to offer.
Truly it has a lot to offer, ossuaries, art, history both modern and ancient, tales and legends, so much detail down there presents itself to the keen eye and yet there are so very few answers to the origins of the many carvings, murals, mosaics and sculptures that can be found in abundance within it's depths.

Of course any seriousness and ceremony for this trip stood little chance of realisation with the presence of a select few jokers, although I count myself amongst them (and by them I mean Les and Cookie) and thus from the very start it was clear that most if not all of the trip would be fraught with the shambolic disorganisation and fevered one up manship that I had grown accustomed to (and often encouraged and instigated) in the presence of these two.
From the moment I was collected there were disparaging comments about the small amount of stuff I had brought, people couldn't believe that I could manage to pack all I needed into one small backpack. I didn't have the heart to explain that I packed my bag on the criteria that I would be able to break into a sprint at any time, the advice was generally to pack light but to pack right, therefore it was a clearly down to Les to buck this trend by packing absolutely everything he possibly could, including walkie talkies, an 8inch cooking lighter, a pan, a stove, general tea making equipment, a pillow... the end result looked something similar to this.

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Packmule, Photograph courtesy of David Cooke

Of course, any feelings of inconvenience he might have experienced lugging it all the mile or so to St Pancras station were as nothing compared to the examination that awaited him at security, a debacle that I shall possibly never forget, it really was that funny.
With Les being the last to pass through security it was with some amusement that we all watched them pull him aside and start rifling through his pack, Root and myself propped up a nearby pillar and like the big kid I am I called out the various items security pulled out of his bag with some amusement. It went something like this "Cup", "Gas lighter" .... "A pot"... "A stove full of petrol", "Some walkie talkies".... which is about the time I realised that Les had brought all the items required to make security very nervous........it was no surprise then when I watched one of the guards produce a special device and begin swabbing the contents of Les's bags, this would have started to look like quite a serious incident and I would have almost had to stop laughing if it wasn't for what happened next.
Cookie, Laura and Walrus were behind a barrier some distance away from us and obviously trying to capture the hilarity of the moment had started to take photographs of me bent double in hysterics, the next thing I heard were two guards had been dispatched to seize them and their cameras, and so whilst Cookie and Laura were out of earshot and oblivious to this, all Root and myself could do was watch (and laugh) hysterically as they too got lynched by security, In the midst of all this we met up with Paulo again who had been with us on the previous years trip, it was only a very brief meeting though because security took him away, along with the hammer that they had just removed from his pack...

So there I am, in St Pancras leaning against a pillar with Mr dickplaces, both of us trying desperately to pretend that we don't know these people whilst also trying to keep a straight face, Les who is in front of us getting scrutinised and interrogated by security and behind us, Laura, Cookie and Walrus who are currently in the process of having their cameras vetted and their memory cards wiped, whilst receiving a lecture on security protocol. What an absolute shambles, and the trip hasn't even bloody well started!

Needless to say Les had his stove confiscated and they all had their cameras wiped, I believe I found myself apologising to Root about what was clearly going to be an ill fated and desperate trip of gross incompetence, before quickly moving on to make fun of Les who would now be enjoying cold cups of tea for the duration of the trip.

Hoping to put all this behind us in Paris, we disembarked and got ourselves changed and ready to go underground, we had maps and a plan and this year we were determined everything would go correctly, serendipity visited Les in the form of a chance meeting with OT who was kind enough to lend him a stove (much to my dismay, I still had a lot more value to get out of that).

Entrance to the catacombs is changing all the time, no sooner have the authorities and police welded one manhole shut, and the Cataphiles have already wrenched a new one open, it is a constant battle and as a result information is the greatest asset, OT was spot on as he always is and told us about a fantastic new entrance that would plunge us right into the heart of the catacombs not only bypassing all the risky areas but also saving us nearly two hours of trekking and anxiety.
Even so, it was a risky entrance, right in the heart of Paris and on the pavement in rush hour... and as we discussed the gameplan in McDonald's, the atmosphere was one of nervousness and uncertainty.

Once we were all finally ready we set the plan into motion and whilst the specifics of the entry point won't be discussed, I am fairly sure that for many it was one of the highlights of the trip, it was something that you probably wouldn't get the chance to do more than once in a lifetime and as such was an unforgettable experience.
There we were, finally... in umbral silence, we had descended from the noise and bustle of the Paris skyline to the nearly deafening quiet of this hidden underworld, a wonderful contrast as we quietly got ourselves changed at the bottom of the ladder, some 100 foot under the street whilst in front and behind of us dark passageways stretched so far as to almost seem endless.

Root was leading this trip and so we put our faith in him and set off for the grand traverse.

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Ossuary, Photograph courtesy Of David Cooke.

The first stop was the Ossuary which was one of the places that I have been most keen to see, here there are chambers and hallways literally filled to the roof with human bones, yellowed with age and piled high in great jumbled heaps, many were shattered and broken, perhaps indicative of the journey from their place of burial in the once overpopulated Parisian graveyards to the now rarely visited and less than ceremonious chambers that has become their second final resting ground. Skulls and pelvic bones are something of a rarity, despite the overwhelming frequency of just about every other bone you could imagine (or indeed possess) more than likelythis is because they were pilfered by the morbid and eccentric to serve as some macabre trophy or mantle adornment.
I found myself picking my way carefully over the bones and musing on how in these sugar coated times this place offers an undeniable glimpse into a future that we will all have waiting for us, however before I got completely lost in philosophical ramblings it dawned on me that I had no idea what the owners of these bones had died of and it was on the basis of this realisation that I beat a hasty retreat whilst unwelcome facts about Plague and Smallpox and Scarlet fever presented themselves to my mind in a most unhelpful manner.

Our next stop 'Le Local' was a fantastic room with carved stone benches and crystal chandeliers hanging from the roof, situated on one of the main junctions it was surprising to see how well preserved the room was, with the chandeliers looking like they might be more at home adorning a ballroom in some stately manor, It was certainly a strange contrast and whilst I doubt they were installed by the original quarrymen, they certainly added an interesting touch.

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'Le Local' Photograph courtesy of David Cooke

Onwards we trudged and our next destination proved to be not only fascinating but also educational, whilst the catacombs served many purposes in the past, one of the most important would have been in the wartime, such a large underground network would be a strategic boon to any occupying force or sheltering citzen and could be converted into an almost impregnable bastion with little to no work needed to make it so. Thus we found ourselves in the Pharmacy shelter which was a maze of rooms and chambers often partitioned by gigantic iron doors, possibly weighing a ton or more each and long since rusted in place. Exploring this network of passageways and staircases was as exciting, and certainly as informative as any museum tour, this was history in your face... the German signs forbidding smoking (Rauchen Verboten), the masses of rusted cable and decaying iron work and the absolutely squalid yet somewhat charismatic German crapper, the whole area served as a most excellent and well preserved time capsule for the lucky few to walk amongst and experience.

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'Nazi crapper' Photo courtesy of David Cooke

Continued in part two.
 
Part two.

We made our way further in through the twisting labyrinth of passageways until we reached the Anschluss room, which was a large and well preserved chamber with carved benches, murals and stone faces adorning the walls, upon arrival we were greeted with the sight of an already lit tealight, this was to be the first of many reminders that we were not alone down here and we took the time to relax and light a few more which served to bask the room in a warm and comforting glow.
   
    After a short rest we made our way onwards and stopped briefly at another large and well preserved bunker before moving on to the 'Rat room' which was a balcony above a large stone stairway that ended in a wall, a marker on the wall suggested that with was used as some kind of measuring station but the most interesting thing to be found here was the mysterious spiral staircase that seemed to wind upwards in an endless fashion, by the time we had reached the very top it felt like we had been climbing the steps for hours. The care and attention to it's construction and the work that must have gone into it's carving would have been enough to rival the grandeur of many a castle, and whilst it ended somewhat abruptly in a ladder and hatch, this was far from the only example we found within this intriguing underworld, in our travels we spotted several more winding up into the darkness, certainly a unique and amusing way to scale 100 feet, if only to come right back down again afterwards.
We stopped briefly to gaze upon the Carthugian monks quarry, which was a large room with pillars that formed a central stone pagoda and on a nearby wall a fountain trickled into the floor, perhaps a spring or perhaps the runoff from a nearby sewer, whatever... I preferred to leave that part a mystery.

It was getting near midnight and as many of us had been awake for a long time it was decided that we would look for a place to bed down for the the night, after some map studies we opted for a place off the beaten route and made our way there, on the way we passed one of the ancient geological institutes that would have at one time showcased the various minerals and rocks that were found beneath Paris, however, we didn't linger here as the sound of people nearby and the smell of smoke had us keen to move on.
We stopped briefly at 'The Library Room' which was filled with some ancient and rather battered books, and then engaged in some frenzied photography in ' the Dragon room' which contained a skillfully chiseled dragon skeleton, which in my eyes looked a bit like a fossil protruding from the limestone.

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Draconian Palaeontology, Photograph courtesy of David Cooke

    After a little more walking, (we had by now walked many miles) we finally reached our designated sleeping area and started the process of bedding down for the night, there was a lot of faffing as air beds were blown up and sleeping bags prepared, but this was as nothing compared to what was to come a few hours later.
As I mentioned before, having only packed the things I needed I was quite content with my lot... that is, until my fellows cast all sorts of derogatory comments about how small my pack was and how it was 'hardly possible' that I could have everything I need. Of course I gave this childish banter the credence it deserved and slept rather well with my Thermorest and 3 season sleeping bag... that is until about 4am when I was awoken by what I can only explain as a cacophony of stupidity.
It turns out that Cookie with his large pack had neglected to put a sleeping bag inside it, and so at some point when the cold outweighed his pride he decided to do the unthinkable.... he pulled out a space blanket.
It's not often in my life that I have laughed myself to sleep, and this was not one of those times either, whilst hearing a human being wrestling with something that sounds for all the world like a million bags of crisps is perhaps humorous for a few minutes, it loses it's appeal fairly shortly thereafter, and leaves a humourless void that can instead be filled with other emotions such as frustrated rage or perhaps murderous intent. Thus it was that Cookie shared his faffing with the rest of us by spending the rest of the night tossing and turning in his baking foil sack, a debacle that was only amusing in hindsight and all the more amusing because he tried to blame it on some hapless passers by who had apparently instigated the whole thing.
Humble pie was doled out in large doses at breakfast and whilst Les fired up his borrowed stove and kindly offered everyone a cup of tea, we all refused on the grounds that it was clearly a trap and would start him lecturing us on the virtues of stoves and how we should never have mocked him, we are indeed bastards.

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Tea for one, Photograph courtesy of David Cooke

  So it was after I had packed that I ventured on ahead a ways and found another little gem of a room nearby that has some rather macabre history, namely 'The Human Bomb Room' a memorial to a man that held a lot of people hostage with explosives strapped to him and was eventually shot dead by the police, I'm not entirely sure why someone would wish to build a memorial to such a person but I always found the image to be quite haunting and indeed the room was somewhat eerie.

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The Human Bomb Room, Photograph courtesy of David Cooke


I returned to the camp and after the self heating meals, sleeping bags and effin space blankets were put away we consulted the map and set off for more mysteries and sightseeing.
    After several interesting little rooms, we finally arrived at one of the most interesting and artistic areas within the catacombs, there are times within this strange and diverse netherworld that I found myself disheartened by the level of graffiti and the blatant disregard for history and stonework that was seemingly apparent when looking at all the multitudes of meaningless scribbles and sprayed marks, that get left by faceless people with seemingly nothing more than a selfish urge to daub blank spots with tags and then move on. However there are examples that you have to marvel at, the kind of artwork that wouldn't be out of place in a gallery.
For here in Bysance lies the Mushroom room, like a ghetto Tate modern but without the pretentious socialites and self proclaimed artists, here there are wall to wall murals and paintings by unknown method and unseen hand, all manner of concepts and ideas cover the area some of them absolutely exquisite and because of this they are respected and preserved. There isn't any red tape or arrogant plaques here, instead broken glass and debris litter the dirt floors and yet upon the walls are the most beautiful scenes, I'm guessing there weren't any champagne launch parties and ribbon cutting down here either, rather a group of friends and a bottle of Jack Daniels, my kind of art.... a strange oasis of culture in this diverse underworld.

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The Mushroom Room, All Photographs courtesy of Les Williams


    This was one of the highlights of my trip, and I sat and took it all in whilst all around me flashes fired and expletives were exclaimed as photo after photo was taken.
Root soon decided that we should move on and so our next stop was the Foxy room, a memorial to a Cataphile who had disappeared down there and wasn't found for 13 years (at least that is what we managed to translate it as) the candles around it were already lit when we arrived which was surreal and poignant and we stopped a while to relax and take photos. A wonderful memorial to what must have been a very sad and lonely way to die. All throughout our journey down here we had passed the occasional lit tealight, or the scent of pipesmoke, some of the rooms had a faint whiff of lantern smoke about them, all signs that others had been through, perhaps hours or maybe even minutes before... it really gave a sense that the place was alive, instead of cold stone galleries and empty chambers you got the feeling that it was a network of activity, a reflection of the streets above, just with far less traffic. This isn't the only memorial to those that have been lost in the depths of these catacombs, we passed several plaques and stones that served not only as epitaph but also as a warning to the unwise, in some 300km of passageway it is all too easy to get lost and not chanced upon for months, maybe even years.

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Foxy's memorial, Photograph courtesy of Les Williams


    Onwards, and we found ourselves in a small corridor with a series of strangely themed rooms, including one that had a large stone castle built inside it that took up the whole room...it must have taken a very long time to build and exactly what would motivate someone to do so is beyond me. However the result is quite impressive and while the others stopped here to take photos I checked out a couple of nearby rooms including one that was filled with dry flowers and plants, resembling a strange and verdant (albeit plastic) underground jungle, and another room which was called 'The porn room' and contained a flat blow up doll and a large stuffed toy in a compromising position, it was possibly the least erotic thing I have ever seen and left me feeling slightly disturbed, it takes all kinds I guess.

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The Castle Room, Photograph courtesy of David Cooke

It was getting close to lunchtime now and it we decided we would begin our journey to the surface, along the way we had to wade through several passageways that were filled with deep water, Les being somewhat of a tart managed to traverse over them, much to my disappointment (I'd bribed Root to take us this way solely to get Les soaked) after what seemed like hours of walking we reached the final room 'The Goat room' which was one of the most exquisite.
The artwork had gone a step further here and as well as carvings there was also detailed and colourful mosaic work that made the room seemingly come to life in a rich and vibrant style.

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The Goat Room, First and Fourth photographs courtesy of David Cooke, Second and Third courtesy of Les Williams

    Fairly soon after this we made our way to the exit, it had been nearly 24 hours of underground, possibly 20k of walking and from Les...no small amount of moaning (especially on crawls and wet parts), but we had done it! we'd seen everything we had set out to see and what's more we didn't even get nicked! result.
This vast and diverse underground maze has many surprises and secrets and through the millenia and to this very day has had much to offer, Paris owes its very existence to the great expanse of quarries beneath it's streets, a labyrinth of shelters, galleries and mystery that have seen wars and revolutions, protected those in need of shelter and sheltered those who had sought to conquer. Whilst the city has doubtless changed in countless ways these past 2000 years, no doubt this underworld have changed little, and from the modern murals and conceptual graffiti to the ancient scultpings and wondrous stonework, there in the dark lies a wondrous testimony to the imagination, hard work and ingenuity of mankind.
I'd done the fast paced adrenalin romp through Paris the previous year, this time I found myself glad of a far more relaxed sojourn and as we emerged blinking into the sunlight like grime coated refugees, I saw Paris enshrouded in snow, a perfect and fitting end.

Many thanks to Root for navigating, leading and organising, fantastic job! and to OT and Paulo for the leads, Cookie and Walrus for coming and thanks to Les and Laura for taking a chance, sorry we didn't get nicked Laura (maybe next time?!) Big thanks to Cookie and Les for allowing me to pilfer your photographs which are truly superb!

Magnifique!

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Photograph courtesy of David Cooke


 

Les W

Active member
Good trip report Gnome and a good trip also.  (y) (y)

I am somewhat surprised to see no mention of crepes, you are slipping.  :tease:
 

shotlighter

Active member
Les W said:
Good trip report Gnome and a good trip also.  (y) (y)

I am somewhat surprised to see no mention of crepes, you are slipping.  :tease:
So that's how you managed to sneek in & out without getting caught - much quieter than boots I guess?
Great reports BTW!
 
I thought I would spare you the shame of mentioning that you ate 5-6 crepes in a row in St Pancras, earning yourself an instant loyalty card and the absolute amazement of the staff who possibly see hundreds of folk pass through their shop daily and yet still couldn't believe how much you ate.

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Bogof Mr Williams? (that's Buy One Get One Free, or in this case.... SIX!)

:eek: :eek: :eek: :eek: :eek: :eek:  (y)
 

Les W

Active member
Known by None said:
I thought I would spare you the shame of mentioning that you ate 5-6 crepes in a row in St Pancras, earning yourself an instant loyalty card and the absolute amazement of the staff who possibly see hundreds of folk pass through their shop daily and yet still couldn't believe how much you ate.

20081122-David_Cooke-2395A_Paris_Ca.jpg

Bogof Mr Williams? (that's Buy One Get One Free, or in this case.... SIX!)

:eek: :eek: :eek: :eek: :eek: :eek: (y)

Four actually, you don't normally exaggerate Gnome.
I seem to recall you were quite close behind me as well
 
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