What lies beneath

“Paris has another Paris under herself…which has its streets, its intersections, its squares, its dead ends, its arteries, and its circulation, ” said Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. (“Paris a sous lui un autre Paris… lequel a ses rues, ses carrefours, ses places, ses impasses, ses artères, et sa circulation.”) Hugo was thinking mostly of the sewers, but there is much more than that under Paris. Its subterranean world includes church crypts, cellars, disused quarries, catacombs, the Metro, wartime bunkers, parking lots, and utility tunnels of all kinds. This is the topography of Paris turned upside down.

This picture shows a detail of a map I received from a friend who photographs disused industrial and institutional sites. It’s some of the underground landscape under the 13th arrondissement. It is every bit as complex as the aboveground map (and in some places mirrors it), but most of it is strictly off-limits to visitors. It’s the very sort of thing that attracts “urban explorers,” to whom a “No Entry” sign means have a careful look around and, if the coast is clear, go right in.

The labels are intriguing. Some are the sort of things you’d expect: La glaisière (clay pit). Ancienne cave à charbon (coal storage). Some suggest an entire alternative world down there: Salle de Sculptures. Salle de la Taverne. Sauna (!). Entrée principale de l’abbattoire (entry to the slaughterhouse).

There are at least 250 km of tunnels and excavations under the city – nobody knows the extent for sure, only that it’s probably even bigger than most people suspect. Victor Hugo placed some exciting scenes in his books in the sewers and catacombs and during the Second World War, the system sheltered French Resistance fighters and their Nazi occupiers alike.

Today, a branch of the Paris police force is charged with keeping out intruders and checking the tunnels for damage. There are however, places where you can see the underground Paris quite legally, and they offer a unique perspective on the city.

The 4th arrondissement contains some of the oldest buildings in the city, and many of the old cellars of these buildings have been turned into offices or showrooms under shops or wine cellars under restaurants. You can often see the original walls and vaulting. In this area of the city, it’s always a good idea to take the opportunity to go downstairs whenever you get the chance. Similarly, it is possible to visit the crypts of many of Paris’s churches, which often feel like a journey back in time.

To see one of the oldest cellars restored to something like its original state, go to Paris Historique, 46, rue Francois Miron, in the 4th. In the Middle Ages, this was a granary where a wealthy order of monks stockpiled grain grown on their huge estates in the countryside. They were merchants as much as monks, and this was their warehouse or entrepot. The cellar has been partly restored to indicate its original construction, and the volunteers who staff Paris Historique love to show it to visitors (entry is free).

To the north and east of the city are the remains of gypsum quarries, and to the south and west are old limestone quarries and a few sandpits (sablières). One of the old gypsum quarries in the northeast was turned into the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th, which features a lake made by flooding the quarry floor and dramatic outcrops of rock. There is a belvedere on the highest one, reached by a bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel. A terrific place for a picnic.

The limestone on the Left Bank was used to build everything from Notre Dame to some of the river embankments. In the late 18th century, some of the abandoned caverns underneath Montparnasse became the Catacombs. The bones of those who had been buried in the cemetery of the Innocents in the centre of the city were moved here and arranged in artful if rather gruesome displays. You can visit the main part of them if you have a taste for the macabre.

The first part of the sewer system was constructed under Baron Haussmann, starting in the mid 19th century and has been extended over the years since. (Previously, the main sewers had been the various rivers that fed into the Seine, such as the Bièvre, mentioned in the previous post, but also streams called Ménilmontant and Montreuil, which rose in the hills to the northeast, and Vaugirard, Bac, and Saint-Germain, which rose in Montparnasse.)

The sewer system follows the layout of the streets above them, and there are even street signs down there, so you know where you are. The sewers can also be visited, if you don’t mind the smell. Click here for more information.

Parisiens are so proud of their water system they actually have a whole museum devoted to it – the Pavillon de l’Eau in the 16th. The museum is quiet and spacious and contains a special area for children – I love the idea that Paris children have a special place to learn about their water system.

The Metro (officially, the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens or RATP) is worth several blogs of its own, but I’ll just note it here as another piece of the puzzle. The fourteen lines of the RATP began with Line #1, which was constructed just in time for the World Exposition of 1900. The newest and deepest line is the #14, officially opened in 2007. There is also the RER (Réseau Express Régional), the high-speed commuter system that links with the RATP within the city.

The Metro map looks impossibly complex, but if you peel back a few layers, you will find a certain symmetry that makes it easier to navigate. Line #1 is the east-west axis slightly tilted, and Line #4 is the north-south axis, with a bit of a wiggle in the middle where it crosses under the Seine. Then there is a grand circle made up of Lines #2 and #6, which connect up at Etoile in the west and Nation in the east.

This mental image of the four lines gives you a head start in navigating, and I have read that every native Parisian is familiar with this general outline, in addition to the particular daily routes that he or she knows by heart.

Add to all this acres of underground parking and miles of utility tunnels. And all kinds of one-off things, like the German bunker from the Second World War underneath the Lycée Montaigne, rue d’Assas, in the 6th arrondissement.

For all that it looks so solid, Paris essentially sits on ground that is much like a Swiss cheese. There is so much underground that nobody has ever explored it all, and it is still possible to stumble across forgotten or unsuspected bits of the network. In 2004, the police found a cinema and restaurant somewhere under the Chaillot Hill, apparently the work of some fly-by-night operators who disappeared once their hideaway was discovered.

Links: Click here to read about one adventurer’s experiences underground.


About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
This entry was posted in Paris underground and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What lies beneath

  1. Pingback: Mushrooms, manure, and the secret of French food | Parisian Fields

  2. Pingback: Paris: A Maze of Mushroom Caves | FrenchNewsOnline

  3. Pingback: A city built on air | Parisian Fields

  4. louisito92 says:

    Your website is very interesting. You said you obtained the extract of catacombs map from a friend. Is there a way I can contact your friend ? I am very interested in getting those maps do not hesitate to pay the price.

    Best regards,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s