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Spending the night in Paris' murky underground

Most of Paris' catacombs aren't open to tourists — but that doesn't mean no one visits them.

PARIS, France — The city of lights has an old, dark secret. Beneath its bustling streets, a pitch-black labyrinth of centuries-old subterranean galleries and caverns remains a magnet for spelunkers and street artists, disillusioned youth and thrill seekers.

With a rendezvous at midnight, this excursion wasn’t an ordinary visit to the tourist-tailored catacombs, the underground ossuary in south Paris filled to the rafters with femurs, tibias and skulls. The skeletal remains of about 6 million Parisians found their final resting place there after they were moved from overcrowded cemeteries for sanitary reasons in the late 18th to mid-19th centuries. Rather, our visit would take place in the miles of off-limits catacombs.

The adventurers who agreed to take me underground had plenty of warnings: Their primary concern was that we would encounter the special police who patrol portions of the 285 kilometers that make up Paris’ underground network and whose main task is to keep out intruders and protect the historical treasure trove that tells the story of the city’s origins. Members of the brigade circulate regularly during high traffic periods, like on weekends, or if they read on the internet about a gathering. Fines start as low as 35 euros, but one of my guides said he had to pay 110 euros when he was caught. And back down he went.

The pre-descent talk turned to rumors and urban legends, like the notorious rave parties known to attract large crowds who cause damage, leave litter and attract police. One member of the group had heard the more sinister tale of a serial killer who decapitated victims and discarded their bodies in the Seine and in the underground quarry.

Underground tunnel Paris

A sculpture and graffiti left by wanderers underneath Paris' streets.
(Mildrade Cherfils/GlobalPost)

Asked if they were aware of any nefarious activity, such as rapes or worse, one of our guides said confidently that as with any closed community, anyone involved in such acts would be “smoked out” immediately. “People talk,” said 24-year-old Cesar, who has been visiting the underground for about six years. Robberies have been known to occur but he had not had any problems.

Thus reassured we tried unsuccessfully to slip underground at several locations, including through a manhole located about a block away from a police station, that had been sealed. Did it mean there had been a police crackdown? Luckily, someone had a car so we piled in and drove to another entrance. Clad in high rubber boots and wearing headlamps, Cesar and Thibaut, who started exploring regularly in September, led the way.

Carefully avoiding shards of glass, five of us entered through an uneven hole in the ground into the otherworldly maze where we would spend the next several hours. With adrenaline coursing through my veins, we proceeded single file on a quick-paced march to what seemed like nowhere in particular. Falling behind was not an option since each person relied on the light of the person in front to illuminate the way.