Snapshot: Paris Underground

Tunneling into the fascinating dark underbelly of the City of Lights

Eric Jaffe

An extensive network of abandoned quarries, sewers and subway lines twists beneath modern Paris. Read about this netherworld below then click on the main picture to view a photo gallery.

Origins: About 45 million years ago, Paris was part of a vast shallow sea whose shifting waters left sediment layers that over time compressed into massive stores of limestone and gypsum. The Parisii, the area's early tribal inhabitants, made little use of the resource. When the stone-loving Romans arrived in the first century B.C., they began a legacy of quarrying. By 1813, the year digging beneath Paris was banned to prevent further destabilization of the ground, some 170 miles of labyrinthine tunnels had been carved far below the city proper. In 1786, to stanch the spread of disease from overcrowded cemeteries, a portion of these old quarries were consecrated as burial grounds, and human remains were transferred there. Burials in the newly anointed "catacombs," both direct and as cemetery transfers, continued until 1860.

Napoléon Bonaparte ordered the creation of the underground sewer system, now some 300 miles long, in the early 19th century. Baron Georges-Eugène Haussman, the urban planner who shaped modern Paris, expanded the network, and it was finally completed in 1894 under Napoleon III.

Launched in 1900, the Paris Metro was not the first underground rail in Europe—London's Tube holds that honor—but it's one of the largest and most convenient. Almost every address in Paris is within a third of a mile of a Metro station.

The appeal: We love what makes us scream or squirm. In the catacombs, visitors descend more than 60 feet to a stone entrance bearing the warning (in French), "Stop! This is the Empire of Death." Beyond that welcome, the bones of six million people line the dim tunnels. Across town, tourists can channel the hero of Les Misérables, Jean Valjean, by exploring the city's sewer system. Those able to stomach the full tour pass through exhibits illustrating sewage technology to reach gangplanks that hover alongside a gently flowing river of water and human waste, sometimes even glimpsing a fat rat or two (toy versions of which are available in the gift shop).

Small, chapel-like niches punctuate the catacombs' narrow passageways. Dimly lit by electric lights today, the passages and niches were once pitch-black, illuminated only by visitors' torches. A thick black line runs along the ceiling of the tunnels, originally drawn to help tourists stay on the correct path and out of the many dark, winding side passages that branch off into dead ends. Click image for more photos / Bettman / Corbis
The construction of Paris's modern sewers symbolized innovation, wealth and the power to sculpt the urban landscape—just as the Cloaca Maxima, or Great Sewer, did for ancient Rome. Perhaps more importantly, the underground sewage system helped keep Paris relatively clean and disease-free compared with most European cities. This illustration from 1858 depicts General Espinasse's visit to the main sewer below what is now the Gare de l'Est, or Eastern Train Station. The first dignitary to tour the sewers ranked even higher: Pedro V, King of Portugal, visited not long after the sewer tours began in 1855. Stefano Bianchetti / Corbis
Before being interred in the catacombs, many of the remains originally were buried in traditional cemeteries. This sign indicates that the surrounding bones came from the ancient Madeleine Cemetery, were moved to the Western Ossuary in 1844 and were transferred to the catacombs in September of 1859. The first remains transferred were from the Cemetery of the Innocents, in the neighborhood of Les Halles. Fred de Noyelle / Godong / Corbis
Almost everyone who visits Paris goes underground for transportation. The Metro, the city's storied subway, has some 380 stations and is the densest underground rail system in the world. If you know where to look while riding, you can spot abandoned stations including the Croix-Rouge and Champ de Mars on the 8 line. Both have been closed for decades, and graffiti now covers their walls. iStockphoto
Ancient Rome's imperial glamour was not lost on Napoleon. Rome's famous catacombs drew tourists and inspired legends; so too, then, should the Paris catacombs. In 1809, Napoleon's prefect of the Seine, Count Frochot, and the Inspector General of the Quarries, Hériart de Thury, had the bones arranged in decorative patterns to impress visitors. A new tourist destination was born. Siobhan Roth

Interesting historical facts: In 1783, a porter named Philibert Aspairt got lost in the pitch-black quarry tunnels. His body wasn't found until 1804, just a few feet from an exit passage. During World War II, both the French Resistance and the Nazi forces used the ancient quarries as operational bases. Legend has it that they observed an unofficial ceasefire while underground. Until recently, farmers cultivated mushrooms, les champignons de Paris, in portions of the old quarry tunnels.

Famous sons and daughters: Many of the players in the French Revolution found their final resting places in the catacombs. Elizabeth of France, sister of King Louis the XVI, as well as the revolutionaries Robespierre and Georges Danton, all of whom were guillotined during the war, were buried in the catacombs—as was, perhaps, Madame de Pompadour, and the actor Scaramouche were among those transferred to the catacombs from the overcrowded cemeteries.

Then & Now: At the turn of the 19th century, the city was scandalized and titillated by the news of a secret concert held in the catacombs. On the program that night: Frédéric Chopin's Funeral March, Camille Saint-Saën's Danse Macabre and Ludwig van Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica. Today, urban cavers, or cataphiles, throw parties, carve sculptures out of the limestone and decorate the walls with everything from basic graffiti tagging to minor masterpieces. Just a few years ago, police discovered in one of the tunnels a fully functional movie theater, some 4,300 square feet, powered by pirated electricity.

Who goes there?: Public tours of the catacombs commenced in 1810, and tours of the sewers began in 1867. From the start, crowds thronged at each. The king of Portugal was the first of many dignitaries to tour the sewers. Today, the Paris Sewer Museum and the Catacombs of Paris, on-site museums run by the city, draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. To explore all three sets of tunnels in one day, start with the sewers on the Left Bank of the Seine, then zip over to the catacombs by Metro.

Siobhan Roth, based in Washington, D.C., last wrote about a third-generation French perfumer for

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