02 May 2021

The New Yorker: “The Invisible City beneath Paris”

All cities are additions to a landscape that require subtraction from elsewhere. Much of Paris was built from its own underland, hewn block by block from the bedrock and hauled up for dressing and placing. Underground stone quarrying began in the thirteenth century, and Lutetian limestone was used in the construction of such iconic buildings as Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and Saint-Eustache Church. The result of more than six hundred years of quarrying is that beneath the southern portion of the upper city exists its negative image: a network of more than two hundred miles of galleries, rooms and chambers, extending beneath several arrondissements. This network is the vides de carrières—the quarry voids, the catacombs, which together total an underground space around ten times the space of Central Park.

Urban exploration is international in its geography, with groups, crews, and chapters scattered around the world. There is a surprising number of female explorers, and the class base is mixed, often drawing on a disaffected and legally disobedient demographic. At its more political fringes, urban exploration mandates itself as a radical act of disobedience and liberation, a protest against state constraints on freedom within the city. The subculture has its subcultures: there are explorers who specialize in “track-running” underground rail systems to gain access to off-limits parts of those networks; others are particularly known for their ascents of factory chimneys in former Soviet-bloc countries. Detroit and Pripyat—the city evacuated after the Chernobyl disaster—might be thought of as two meccas for those urban explorers who seek out the problematic pathos of “derp” (explorers’ argot for “derelict and ruined places”), Instagramming shots of collapsing pianos, scattered archives, and children’s toys abandoned in the corners of dusty rooms.

Robert Macfarlane

Fascinating deep-dive into the hidden geography underneath Paris, its centuries-long history, and the contemporary people exploring the tunnels and escaping into an alternative life not possible at the surface. I have visited Les Catacombes during my time in Paris, but naturally only the ‘safe’ space available to tourists. I was vaguely aware they are much larger, but I had no idea how extensive, nor that they were used as shelters for the population and hiding places for the French Resistance during World War Two. These days, they are fulfilling another human need, offering a sense of the unexpected, a target for exploration in a world that so often can seem steady and predictable.

Paris Catacombs illustration
Illustration by Naï Zakharia

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