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7th Jul 2012 11:00am | By Charlie Hamilton
Below Paris’s streets, the forces of law are waging a hidden battle against visitors to the city’s more extreme attractions
Trudging through a dark, humid labyrinth of passageways below one of Europe’s most famous capitals, my guide scours the walls, her headtorch searching for signs of activity.
Suddenly, she stops and picks something from a crack in the 200-year-old hand-carved tunnel wall. It’s a note. I hold my breath as she passes it me to read.
A centuries-old prophecy or an ancient warning? “Hi to everyone who reads this!” I turn the paper over to find it is written on the back of a nightclub flyer. Far less profound than I had hoped.
It’s only a few hours after dawn and I am with the three-person police team searching the vast network of underground tunnels in the heart of the City of Light, looking for illegal visitors.
The huge, almost 300km, network was quarried hundreds of years ago to provide stone for the city’s ornate buildings and monuments.
Part of the network is also filled with the bones of some six million Parisians, whose remains were moved here, starting at the end of the 18th century, when cemeteries became full. Another such area, the Catacombes de Paris, is open to tourists.
However, the underground shafts that I’m walking through – hewn from limestone 20m below the city streets – have been off limits to members of the public for more than half a century.
Not that you would know it from the colourful graffiti tags sprayed over the walls and ceilings, plus the occasional party leftovers: the empty beer cans, bottles, and even traffic cones.
After the 1955 entry ban, Parisians gave a typically Gallic shrug and carried on visiting them anyway. In the first weekend of June this year alone, police found about 30 people scattered among the catacombs.
The cops do their best to round up illegal entrants, but the one or two patrols a week, combined with the modest €60 (£50) fine for those caught, show exactly where the tunnels are on the list of police priorities.
Much of their job is helping inexperienced visitors lost in the maze of interconnecting tunnels. These visitors, known
as ‘cataphiles’, are locked in a constant game of cat-and-mouse with the cataphile cops, nicknamed ‘cataflics’.
“It’s all ages and backgrounds who make up the cataphiles,” my guide, brigade chief Sylvie Gautron, head of the police unit charged with patrolling the tunnels, tells me.
“The majority are students, and mostly men, but I have met older people down here, business people, too. Some people are fanatics. Some are just explorers. Some just come down here to smoke cannabis or drink.“
While some cataphiles use the tunnels simply as a party venue, others brave the dark for peace and silence, choosing to decorate the caves with intricate paintings and sculptures.
But the tunnels can be dangerous, and that is exactly why they are restricted. People often become disorientated and lose their way. They can fall and injure themselves. That is when they need the help of the cataflics.
Gautron and I descended through a metal street cover near La Prison de La Sante, in Paris’ 13th district and are now trekking, sometimes bent double, through the occasionally flooded shafts, eyes peeled for any signs of cataphiles.
Wandering through the underground shafts is a creepy experience. The airlessness, humidity and temperature rarely below 40 degrees means you can’t quite get your breath.
Claustrophobia has never featured on my radar before, but wandering through the stifling tunnels, I suddenly started to think of the hundreds of tonnes of rock above me.
Cave-ins do happen at times, and the chambers of catacombs have always posed safety concerns for construction in the city. All the more reason to keep people out.
And, it seems, police may be slowly winning the battle; Gautron estimates that only about 60 fines were issued last year, compared to almost 350 the previous year.