Parisians call it a "gruyère." For hundreds of years, the catacombs under the city have been a conduit, sanctuary and birthplace for its secrets. The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables' Jean Valjean both haunted these tunnels; striking students descended in 1968, and patriots during World War II. The Nazis visited too, building a bunker in the maze below the 6th.
Honeycombed across 1,900 acres of the city, the vast majority of the tunnels are not strictly speaking catacombs. They house no bones. Limestone (and to the north of the city, gypsum) quarries, these are the mines that built Paris. The oldest date back 2000 years to Roman settlers but most were excavated in the construction boom of the late Middle Ages, providing the stone that became Notre Dame cathedral and the Louvre. Riddling the Left Bank, these tunnels were at first beyond the city's southern limits. But as Paris's population grew, so did the city – and soon whole neighbourhoods were built on this infirm ground.
The first major cave-in happened in 1774, when an entire street collapsed not far from where the Catacombs Museum stands today. After a similar incident three years later, King Louis XVI created the office of the Inspector General of the Catacombs (IGC), designated with preventing further collapses. Officials went underground: inspecting, charting, filling chambers with concrete, digging a new labyrinth of maintenance tunnels.
Then came the dead. In the late 18th century, Paris's overcrowded central cemeteries leaked. Fetid gases would waft into the 6 cellars of Chatelet, marinating wheels of brie and braids of saucisson. Beginning in 1785 and for about a century, the government enacted their grisly solution: they transported six million skeletons to the southern quarries. Five percent of the catacombs remain ossuaries today, and Racine, Robespierre and Marat are among the dry, dusty residents.
Entrances to the tunnels can be found in the basements of hospitals, the cellars of bars, church crypts, subway tunnels, even at the bottom of Paris's tallest skyscraper. Many of these access points have been sealed by the IGC, who both protect the city from the catacombs, and the catacombs from the city. Circulating in the carrières was made illegal in 1955.
That didn't stop the catacomb craze. By the time Kunstmann and his friends were in college, almost every Latin Quarter party would end belowground. The IGC fought back, deploying a series of barrier walls that crisscrossed the passages, blocking the flow of visitors. The plan was good, but it only had so much effect: trespassers soon found ways around – and through – the concrete blockades.
By definition, Paris's hundreds of catacomb ramblers, its "cataphiles," decline to follow the rules. They are an odd gang of misfits – "urban explorers," vandals, kids who just want to hang out belowground. They chatter on online message-boards, share and hoard maps; they meander, explore, drink and drill through walls. By night they drop through manholes, and emerge from them, dusty, at dawn.
Members of UX spend time underground, but Kunstmann insists they are not cataphiles. It isn't just a matter of style. "The principle of UX is to provoke experiences using every available part of the city," he says at Le Pantalon. "Not as visitors but as users. Users for something other than the simple aesthetic of the places. And for something other than partying."
Their ideas are not new. It is Guy Debord's détournement turned loose on geography, Situationism without the politics, a nononsense take on Britain's art pranksters, the KLF. Yet these allusions betray UX's modest code – to do interesting things, without permission. This credo allows for superficial punkery, sneaking into back-yards, but considered seriously, it becomes a formula for being brave, for pursuing dreams. Which is a sappy way of saying – it grabbed me.
The first place I looked for UX was on Facebook. I put "Lazar Kunstmann" into the Search box and I hit Enter. There were no results. So I set my nets wider. I put up a message saying I was looking for contacts in the Paris "underground," figuratively and literally. I did the same on Twitter. I emailed friends in Paris, types who organize concerts in subway-cars, asking similar questions. No one knew anything of Kunstmann, or of UX. Next I scoured cataphile message-boards, at least those that are public. Although these forums had discussed the group's works and media coverage, I found no traces of UX's authors. As Kunstmann later scoffed, these boards are full of typical internet posturing – resentful quips and knee-jerk LOLs. I finally found Kunstmann through private correspondence with another journalist. They gave me an email address; that address told me to telephone a secret number; I asked for "Lazar"; Kunstmann answered; and we met at Le Pantalon.
"Ordinary" cataphile contacts are less difficult to make. My online searchlights were glimpsed by a friend-of-friends, pseudonym Cavannus, who does "urban exploration" in Montreal. Cavannus put me in touch with one of his cataphile pals – a man with a fake Facebook account, named for a celebrated guru. He tells me to meet him at Saint-Pierre-de-Montrouge church, to look for a guy "on crutches." Two days after meeting Kunstmann, as I ride the subway and climb up to Alésia Square, there seem to be broken-legged people everywhere. I imagine this as cataphile ground zero, a place where everyone has limestone dust in their hair.
The cataphile who meets me looks about 30, his dark hair pulled into a ponytail. He gestures at his crutches and says he slipped coming out of a manhole, on the rain-soaked street. He is called BHV.
"Underground, everyone has a nickname," BHV explains to me. He didn't choose his own, an acronym that refers to a famous department store. Someone else picked it, about a dozen years ago, and it stuck. Other names are more esoteric, like Sork, or Crato, the man who eventually takes me into the tunnels. Some conjure deliberate images. One of the catacombs' most notorious mischief-makers is Lézard Peint, the Painted Lizard, a "devil" with alleged fascist connections, who has been known to steal fellow cataphiles' lights or seal up their intended exits. "What you are on the surface, you are underground," Crato later says, sucking on a cigarette. "When you are a violent person, given to fighting – you're the same below." Scoundrels like Lézard aside, the cataphile community is civil. "In general [we] look out for each other," BHV agrees. They share knowledge, lighters, cans of beer (never bottles, which are still heavy when empty). "People know that if they get too drunk or if they get hurt, it'll be hard to get out."
BHV and Crato's first descents were similar – they saw a hole, or heard about a hole, and they entered. Telling me, BHV begins to cough. "Sorry," he wheezes, "I still have dust in my throat." On that first journey, he and his friends ran into some unlikely mentors – off-duty policemen who offered to give them a tour - "and then I spent the whole night underground."
BHV's story is beguilingly simple. I could go, I realize. I could find an entrance on the internet, slip inside, wander until I find an off-duty policeman or a shy, kindly filmmaker. "It's a very supernatural setting," BHV murmurs. "You're completely autonomous. There's no light. There's no electricity. Just stones and water."
But I am here to understand UX and this is not the way that UX works. That group does not rely on word of mouth, happenstance, the kindness of strangers. UX sets goals and quietly executes them. They never get lost.
I find Crato online, just as I found BHV. Whereas BHV, becrutched, does not volunteer to play tour-guide, Crato - lanky, vaguely grumpy – makes the offer. "There are a lot of reasons to go down," he allows. "There are those who want to find a calm and pleasant spot. There are those who go down to meet a partner. There are those who go to party. There are even those who go to watch movies. Everyone has their own reasons." We rendezvous on a bridge over train-tracks. It's the middle of the afternoon, cars whizzing by, clouds meandering across a dirty blue sky. We're not far from Denfert-Rochereau, site of the official Catacombs Museum. That plain stone building offers historical displays, dioramas, entry onto a sanitized one-mile circuit of "legal" catacombs. This is not, cataphiles emphasize, the "real thing." Besides – you have to pay admission. We look both ways and, one at a time, jump the bridge wall. It is thick, high as my shoulders. My jump is less deft than Crato's. I struggle for a moment and then I'm over, feet in the weeds, scrambling down the slope to the tracks. This is the Petite Ceinture, one of the city's abandoned railways. It is almost silent. We walk.
Crato has been visiting the catacombs for 10 years. He tells me how the original quarries were built just wide enough for a man with a wheelbarrow – six feet by three feet. How they are a permanent 55º F, day and night, winter and summer. "I remember once it was hot in Paris, really hot, really horrible. Instead of dining in an overheated apartment, we went down into the catacombs to eat."
After a time, Crato and I come to a large train tunnel. The sunlight falls away behind us. It is easy to trip on the wooden ties of the tracks or on the irregular stones to either side. We turn on our flashlights yet I can see neither end of the tunnel. I assume the problem is fog but Crato speaks of fumis, cataphile smoke-bombs, made by mixing saltpetre with sugar and flour. They are hiding something down here.
Ten minutes into the gloom, Crato swings his flashlight to the right. The darkness slips into focus. Before me, where the tunnel wall meets the earth, is a hole.
In 2009, this is the "grand entrance" to the catacombs. A craggy break in the rock, no more than two feet wide. Cataphile refuse is strewn nearby – empty beer cans, juice cartons, white paste from carbide lanterns. This is just the second "grand entrance" that Crato has known. One day the IGC will close it up, he says, fill it with concrete like the last one. But Crato hopes his fellow cataphiles do not dig a replacement straight-away. Better to give the losers, the troublemakers time to get bored and find something else to do. The committed ones already know different 10 ways to get in. The committed ones are patient. Even Crato seems to think that sometimes secrets are best.