The Parisian Underground: Beyond the Catacombs

Below the streets of Paris wind the catacombs and the sewers, two of the city’s more popular tourist attractions.  The history involved with these two locales has certainly had a profound impact on Paris’s growth, but perhaps the true reason for their popularity is their mysterious nature.  Because of this intrigue,  the Parisian underground has cemented an important spot in pop culture.

One of the most notable examples of the underground’s presence in pop culture is The Phantom of the Opera.   Gaston Leroux’s early twentieth century novel tells the story of a horribly disfigured man who torments those who work in the ornate Palais Garnier opera house.  The Phantom resides in a lair that is across a lake beneath the famed opera house.  One would assume that this lake, like much of Leroux’s tale, is fictitious.  However, there is truly a lake beneath the Opera Garnier.

Photograph of the lake beneath the Opéra Garnier, made famous by The Phantom of the Opera
Photo from “Rotting International- Palais Garnier, Paris, France”

When the opera house was being constructed in the mid-19th century, a stream was discovered beneath the building site.  Architect Charles Garnier decided to collect this stream’s water and keep it one pool, which he thought could serve as a stabilizing structure for the massive building he intended to place on top of it.  Thus, Leroux’s fantastical lake was created.  The lake is not as interesting as the stories would indicate, however.  It is said to be little more than a dark hole filled with water, and is used today by Parisian firefighters for scuba exercises.

The sewers themselves, which played such a pivotal role in the influx of clean water and the rise of modern comforts such as indoor plumbing in Paris, have played a role very similar to that of the Opera Garnier’s lake in pop culture.  In Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables (which, like Phantom of the Opera, gained a great deal of modern popularity after being transformed into a musical), the story’s protagonist, Jean Valjean, descends into the sewers to escape death for himself and a fellow revolutionary, Marius.

A photo of the Nazi bunker beneath Paris, containing a German "no smoking" sign and an oil drum
Photo by Michael Garukan

As stated above, the sewers and catacombs have both played an important role in the history of Paris.  However, deep beneath Paris’s streets lie other sites of great historical significance that do not always benefit from the same recognition.  The cataphiles, who have extensively explored parts of the underground not open to the public, have discovered what appear to be underground bunkers, most likely used by both the Nazis and the French Resistance during World War II.  As these sections of the underground are technically not open or acknowledged to the public, all that we know about them we’ve learned from the cataphiles who have documented them.  However, the photos that they’ve taken of the spaces clearly place them in a more modern era.  The walls contain some brickwork, and benches, electrical boxes, and oil drums have all been found in or around the bunkers.  Tying the space to the Nazis, the bunkers also contain signs depicting the German phrases for “quiet” and “no smoking,” which were likely reminders so that the soldiers could avoid being discovered.

From its roots as a simple limestone quarry, the Parisian underground has experienced much growth and has been a hub of activity in Paris throughout history, and for tourists today.

-Tad Abramowich


Gakuran, Michael. “Urban Exploration in the Paris Catacombs 2.” Gakuranman. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.

Tommasini, Anthony. “Paris Journal: In the Depths of the Palais Garnier.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2013.

“What Lies Beneath: Underground Paris.” Wall Street Journal (Online)May 26 2011. ProQuest. Web. 27 Oct. 2013 .


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