The Cataphiles: Dwellers of the Parisian Underground

The catacombs of Paris are no longer occupied only by bones and skulls, but also some rather adventurous Parisians. These adventurous citizens who roam the off-limits areas of underground are referred to as cataphiles. Though the cataphiles come from a vast array of backgrounds such as construction workers, engineers, graphic artists, and Internet start-up owners they each share a passion for adventure and exploration of their cities underground passages and its interesting history. With over 180 miles of underground passages that sprawl across the city, there is no shortage of new and uncharted areas to discover and enjoy (Lauter).

Though the areas of underground that the cataphiles explore are illegal to trespass on, it is done regardless because there is such a small chance of being caught in the endless caverns.  As a result of the illegal nature of the hobby though, cataphiles must enter the catacombs under the cover of darkness.  The underground labyrinth can be accessed through manmade holes in tunnel walls or unsealed manholes throughout the city.  Once one enters the catacombs navigation can be surprisingly easy.  In many areas there are street names from 18th century Paris that correspond with the streets above it (Levine).

An example of a road sign found in the catacombs. Photo Credit: James Mitchell
An example of a road sign found in the catacombs. Photo Credit: James Mitchell


These signs were put in place in the late 1700s when the most walls of the underground passages needed to be reinforced in order to prevent cave-ins from occurring. Cataphiles have also taken it upon themselves to make it easier to navigate the underground.  Many maps of the catacombs can be found online that have been uploaded by experiences cataphiles to help new cataphiles find their way (Duncan).  These maps come equipped with most known passages and also the names of popular rooms used by the cataphiles.

A cataphile rests in one of the many mural filled rooms of the catacombs.
A cataphile rests in one of the many mural filled rooms of the catacombs. Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

The catacombs play host to a variety of different activities that the cataphiles partake in.  Cataphiles hold dinner parties, underground raves, mural paintings, tours, and even formerly had a movie theater (Ganley). These social events create an underground culture for the cataphiles in which they can meet and enjoy the beautiful underground that so many do not even know exist. Of course, any activity or exploration of the Paris underground that is not open to the public is against the law.  Even though this is true, the Parisian police force does little to enforce these policies.  According to Don Duncan, Police “don’t block entrances used to access the tunnels; in the past this has led to manhole covers being opened in the street, endangering the public. But the police do fine people up to about 30 euros ($40) when they catch them below the surface.”  These policies do little to discourage both cataphiles and curious people alike from entering the underground.  This can lead to many inexperienced tourists entering the catacombs and getting lost in the maze requiring rescue.

The catacombs are filled with thousands of Parisian bones, many of which are stolen by cataphiles. Photo Credit: Chris Waits
The catacombs are filled with thousands of Parisian bones, many of which are stolen by cataphiles. Photo Credit: Chris Waits

The quickly increasing popularity of the catacombs has led to many young thrill-seekers to look past the historical qualities of the catacombs and see it as a domain for free reign. This leads to graffiti and litter being common in the catacombs as well as the stealing of bones.  The reckless youth are destroying underground Paris, much to the dismay of the city of Paris.  Though most catiphiles are respectful towards the underground, the few that do vandalize show no respect towards the great history of the catacombs and the city of Paris (Ganley). This vandalism and recklessness brings up concern for the future of the catacombs.  If youth continue to flock to underground Paris to seek thrills and adventure the hidden history of the city of Paris may not last for future generations to appreciate. The cataphiles, who are able to socialize, explore, and party virtually unnoticed by the outside world must be aware of the history around them and show it the respect it deserves. If the catacombs can successfully be preserved by the cataphiles they will be able to pass on the mystery and adventure of the catacombs to future generations and add their own piece to the long history of the Parisian underground.

For more on the Parisian underground and it’s origins click here.

– Casey Bird

Lauter, Devorah. “COLUMN ONE; Paris, in a very Different Light; ‘Cataphiles’ Risk Arrest to Explore the   Quarries — an Off-Bounds Maze of Tunnels and Caverns Under the Capital.” Los Angeles   TimesFeb 08 2011. ProQuest. Web. 23 Oct. 2013

Levine, Joshua. “Paris from Below; there is an Entirely New Way to See the City of Light–in the Dark. The Chic and the Daring are Going Underground to Visit some of the Best Restaurants, Jazz Clubs, museums and Secret Tunnels.” WSJ : the Magazine from the Wall Street Journal 06 2011ProQuest. Web. 23 Oct. 2013 .

Duncan, Don. “World News: Parisians Find Playground Under the Streets — Residents Take to an Underground Network of Tunnels and Caves to Explore City’s Past, Paint Murals Or Throw a Party.” Wall Street JournalAug 07 2010. ProQuest. Web. 23 Oct. 2013

Ganley, Elaine. “THE WORLD; Living Spirits Haunting Paris’ City of Darkness; Adventurous Youths and Urban Explorers are Attracted to Tunnels and Underground Passageways Where Secrecy is  Sacred.” Los Angeles Times: 0. Oct 03 2004. ProQuest. Web. 23 Oct. 2013 .

Ganley, Elaine. “‘Cataphiles’ haunt a subterranean world beneath City of Light.” Toroto Star 11 12 1988, Weekend Edition G3. Print.



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