This post was contributed by Travis Sherwood
Sometimes travel takes you places you never imagined (in both good and bad ways). Whether it’s getting lost in a new city, bar hopping on a tropical island, or seeing a snake on a plane, that’s the fun of it! While sitting here, behind my laptop, writing this article, I can look back and proudly say that I had one of those experiences in Paris.
Julien, a Parisian, and I met while he was studying in the States. We met a few days before his graduation, after which he planned to head back to France for good. After a year and a half of having a long-distance Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat friendship, I finally booked a trip to go and visit him in Paris.
During that week, we did all the touristy things, from Montmartre to the Eiffel Tower, but we also did one thing that I didn’t realize a lot of Parisians would never dare do…
Underneath Paris are miles and miles of underground tunnels where dead bodies were buried in the 18th century to help control the city’s overflowing cemeteries. These are called the catacombs. Over 6 million bodies were placed (but really just thrown) in the catacombs, and there are certain sections open for tours today. However, there are local Parisians that explore the off-limits tunnels on a regular basis. There are even underground swimming lagoons.
Of course, underground catacomb parties are all the rage!
We started in Julien’s apartment that sat three floors above a boulangerie (smelling carbs all day was heaven). We changed into clothes that we didn’t mind getting dirty and wet, and put our phones and wallets in a ziplock bag to keep them dry. We also packed two flashlights, a bag of cookies, chocolate, and a huge plastic water bottle filled with mostly vodka and a bit of Orangina. (You gotta stay hydrated and chocolated!)
We made our way out of the apartment, and Julien told me that the plan is to meet a few of his friends outside of a metro station. When we got there, eight people were standing in a semicircle in a cloud of smoke wafting from their cigarettes. They were decked out in waterproof clothes, hiking shoes, and backpacks. Some of the girls had headlamps strapped on their foreheads. Julien started to introduce me to the group (this is always awkward since I don’t speak any French). Everyone was excited and ready for the adventure. They said a few groups have already gone down and start explaining the strategy – naturally, I was a little on edge. We had to go in small packs so we didn’t bring attention to the herd of people descending into the belly of the city. Afterwards, it was our turn.
We crossed the street to get to the center of a roundabout. It’s pretty late so there wasn’t much traffic, but there were still some cars and mopeds zipping around the circle. We walked to a manhole which was pried open with a ladder in it. Starting to climb down the ladder, I felt like I was climbing down into the sewers. It’s completely dark, except for the flash of our lights. One person remained above and put the lid back on the manhole. We got down to the damp floor of the tunnel and regrouped.
The creepiness factor was on high (especially since with all the sneaking around, this was most definitely illegal.)
Into the lion’s den…
[Disclaimer: Fully responsible for the potential consequences of my actions]
Down there I could see the tunnel that we would walk through, graffiti all over, and the sound of rushing water in the background. We waded through clear water that came up to mid-thigh. (I was told this was just rainwater. There was no sewer smell and the water seemed clean enough, so… Thank God!)
Twenty minutes into the hike, we got to a section of the tunnel where we needed to crawl to get to the other side. We’re the last two to make our way through. We went slowly since I had a huge backpack dragging behind me.
The people ahead of us were moving very quickly, I, on the other hand, was scrapping my belly on the floor while trying to make sure my pants didn’t get left behind. Finally, I got to the end of the tunnel, stand up, and realize there was no one there. (My excitement started to disappear and began to make place for panic.) Thankfully, Julien was still behind me. We decided to start walking again, thinking that we would bump into our group soon enough.
Then, the worst thing happened. A fork in the tunnel appeared and we couldn’t see anything down either path. We looked at each other confused… and began yelling for our group. My stomach dropped because I knew I wouldn’t be able to remember the twists and turns to get back to the entrance. (This would be my life from now on, a mole person stuck beneath the streets of Paris.)
“Climb down sixty-five feet to explore catacomb tunnels laced with human remains,” they said. “It would be fun,” they said.
Saved by the… party music?
We stood there listening and eventually heard some faint music coming from one of the tunnels. We decided to follow it because it was our only lead. After a minute of walking, we saw flashlights up ahead. We caught up to this small crowd and, to our surprise, it wasn’t the group we’re with… (It’s still shocking to think these people could have been anyone. STRANGER DANGER)
We joined the new group after, while nervously laughing, explaining that we got separated. Luckily, this new group soon realizes that we were all heading to the same place. We kept walking in the now waist-high water. The tunnels seemed to squeeze tighter and tighter the further we hiked.
Finally, we got to this cavernous room. It’s spacious and dry compared to the flooded tunnels we had just been in. The room had a big stone in the center where everyone had laid out the drinks and food they’d brought. I noticed a metal chandelier, decorated with bones (I’m guessing human since this is the catacombs…), hanging from the ceiling. Thankfully I didn’t spot any full-size skeletons or skulls. (Later that night I asked my new German friend where they were. She told me that they’re in different rooms down different paths.) With all these tunnels crisscrossing and forking, I can see how someone might get lost down here.
There was music pumping, and a party of people ready to have fun. Our group’s there! With a sense of relief, the party begins.
That is the night I got to party in the catacombs.
Meet Travis:Travis is a Washington, DC-based traveler working in corporate America but finding every chance he gets to explore new places and max out those vacation days. He’s traveled throughout Europe and Asia and is hoping to cross many more destinations off his bucket list. His philosophy on travel is to make the plans but don’t stress when everything falls through; it could be then when the magic happens! Keep up with him on IG.