N’oubliez pas le guide!

Door: Jolanda Spronck

Une aventure sous Paris,
Avec Rodolphe le guide; Lenka la chienne, René; Harold; Peter; Jolanda.

Why French? Well, first the trip was in France of course…and our guide is French.
So why now in English? Since not all of us speak fluently French (better: all of us don’t speak it fluently) and we communicated in English, it will be easier for our friend and guide to read it too (not to mention the fact that for me it is a bit hard to write a complete story in French..)

A while ago we met a few persons in the quarries of Maastricht, they asked us something about the quarry and I noticed one of them was wearing a caving suit. We decided to stay in touch because of the shared interests and later he joined us to some other quarries and to the Savonnieres for caving.

Since he was well known with the quarries underneath Paris, we decided to visit them together. The date was set on around carnival, since none of us was eager to celebrate this event. We had other plans: to spent 2 days in the quarries, with an underground bivouac. Preparations were made, some had to buy some necessary equipment, bags were packed-unpacked-repacked to fit every necessary detail and get rid of unnecessary things.
Light travelling was the slogan, since we had to walk for hours and in case of meeting police, running away was the only option (apart from being caught, getting a fine and having to leave the quarry).
Later I seemed to have concluded that pasta could be eaten with your hands, since I had left our plates at home…

So very early on Tuesday morning we drove to Paris and looked for a free parking place in a suburb. We found one on top of a supermarket, a parking that was free and hopefully safe. We left in our caving suits with heavy bags, walking through the streets to the train station. It appeared that Parisians are used to see all kinds of strange people, nobody really looked surprised..
We took the train and after that the metro north in the direction of the centre of Paris. There we walked the streets again while Rodolphe was looking for the right place to disappear in the underground. We lifted a lid in the sidewalk and descended about 7 metres along a ladder. Than we walked a bit down a concrete gallery, and found a small opening into the quarry. We didn’t know wether all of us would fit this opening, a real etroiture. Harolds bag already was a close encounter and when it was his turn René had to help a bit by pulling his legs (“zieh mich xan de bein”).
Once we were in, a long walk started along the galleries.

And if anyone thinks this was an easy walk….We all carried a bag witch was very heavy during the first day: sleeping bag, mattress, 3,5 litres of water each, bread and cheese for 2x lunch and 1x breakfast, chocolate, nuts, 1 litre of schrobbeler (!), first aid kit, dry socks and thin thermal underwear for the evening, food for Lenka, one of us had the gas stove and kettles, others carried soup, already cooked (to save water) pasta for 5 persons and 3 litres of pastasauce, candles, extra batteries, photogear, etc etc. Luckily the second day some of the weight had been eaten!

With this heavy bags, we had to walk, crawl through so called chatieres (or etroitures), climb up and down stairways, walk with a bended head (for René almost all the time), a bended back, take the bag off because of the low gallery and put it on the back again, only to take it off again the next minute…And according to Rodolphe this was the normal tour, there is also a so called “warrior tour”.
In total we crossed the largest quarry underneath Paris from north to south, in a straight line 8 kilometres. During these 2 days we went left, right, left, very often I saw the same streetname on the wall, we probably did a throughtrip of about 25 kilometres. At the end René and Harold couldn’t stand the idea of another low gallery and longed for the exit (René because of his length and Harold because of his enormous big bag, which was watertight at the beginning but after dragging it behind him over the floors…)

Sometimes there was water in the galleries, from 10 cm deep to waist deep. At those points we had to carry Lenka for a bit. Of course she can swim, but swimming a long gallery would take too long. Also she wouldn’t dry anymore, which was not a pleasant option since she had to sleep on our sleepingbags.

What did we see?
We saw all kinds of different galleries, some just chopped out of the stone layer, and others were consolidated by brick walls. These consolidations started after the mining itself, when the city began to grow and got heavier and heavier. After quite some collapses it became necessary to consolidate the mines and the first inscriptions we saw ons these walls dated from 1777, this was when the fortifications started. Also around this period the Parisians decided to use some of the galleries as a cemetery. The cemeteries on the surface got fuller and fuller and it was necessary to make some room for the new dead…so part of the old graves were cleaned, the bones were put in the galleries and there was room again on the surface-cemeteries.

Also the galleries were used to burry the victims of the French Revolution, famous people such as Robespierre, Danton, Camille Desmoulins are actually resting in the catacombs, in middle of millions other unknown persons.
Although a lot of visitors in the quarries have felt the need to take some bones and spread them around or even take them up to the surface (maybe to put a skull on the chimney..) there are still loads of them. We took some photo’s but no one felt the need to go very far into this gallery.

There were a lot of nice rooms, some of them restrooms for the old miners and others made by cataphiles (people who regularly visit the catacombes). Also there was a room with a fountain, La fontaine de Chartreuse. Beautiful, but very polluted at the time. We saw quite some waterpitches, and knowing that there is also some cavediving going on in the catacombes, we always had a look into the nice clear water.
Cave diving was also one of the items of the evening talk in our bivouac. Rodolphe mentioned having done his initiation in diving, and wants to start cave diving too. And being in the company of 3 cavedivers was enough reason to see what the possibilities are.
The bivouac was a nice room underneath a military hospital. It had a few small rooms, enough place to put our mattresses and sleeping bags and to do some cooking. The already home made pasta tasted good after this long day of driving to Paris, walking and crawling underground. And of course the “sjrubbelke” was a good digestive after dinner!

The next day we went on south again, Rodolphe tried to get us mad by saying that we had to travel about 50 kilometres in total underground (nobody really believed him since this is quite impossible to do in this kind of environment with all the luggage). We passed another beautiful room, the cabinet mineralogique. In this room you see two stairways to the roof with steps of about 10 centimetres high. Each step stands for another layer in the rock and used to have a mineralogical example on it. On the wall you can still see the explanation of the different layers. A pitty that this room has also suffered from visitors who have no sense left in their heads, due to their alcohol and other abuse..
We also saw a nice sculpture, the passé-muraille. It is a man who comes walking through the wall, sadly also damaged by idiots. The underground passé-muraille is supposed to be sort of a copy of a likewise passé-muraille somewhere on the surface.

The quarries are full of graffity, the easier the way to get in somewhere, the more graffity around this place. Wherever there was an entrance for a while, you see lots of graffity and rubbish. The more remote places are nice and clean though and fun to walk through.
The reason for the government to close the entrances is not to annoy people, but to try and make sure there are no incidents and accidents. There have been areas where huge parties took place, sometimes with a 1000 people. You can imagine what happens when these people start drinking etc. They get lost, fall down in pitches, get their hands between heavy lids etc etc. And everytime police and firemen have to start a rescue.

At the end we also saw a nice form of graffity, a legal one. Students of an engineering school (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Parisevery) get an annual license to enter the quarries for a certain amount of time, and every year they make one painting on the wall in a specific gallery. You can now see paintings of a few decades there.

Finally, after more than 30 hours underground, not too much sleep, an aching back, some heads scratched against the ceiling, we arrived at a small ladder which led to a lid. It was supposed to be our exit and hopefully still open. If not we had to go on searching for one that was open.

It was open, and so we all climbed into the daylight again. And again nobody passing by looked really surprised. An old man even was kind enough to make a picture of our group.
And only around the corner was the supermarket where we found our car! It was strange though to walk along the entrance of the supermarket in our caving clothes, not very clean anymore…

Next time we’ll visit one of the other Parisian quarries!

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