I was recently asked what my favorite travel story is, and this is it. I didn't take my camera with me as I was told we'd be getting wet, but I wish I did. Oh well. Makes the memories that much more savored. I did just jump around the webernets and have featured several pictures to share what it was like.

Paris ~ Summer 2006

My travel buddy and I were being shown around Paris by a native friend, and after a standard tour of the standard sites, I look over to my friend and ask: "Well, what do YOU do here? I know you don't go to the Eiffel Tour, hang out on the Champs Elysees, and gaze off the Arch di Triumphe in your spare time. What do you do for fun?" He turns to me, and gives me a sly look and says something I'll never forget in a purely Parisian accent: "Well, we go to the catacombs." He goes on to describe the underground network of caverns, tunnels, and caves that lie underneath Paris. How the tourist destination, the official Catacombs is a mere 5-10% of what is down there. How he has a map of what is called the Carrières de Paris or the Quarries of Paris. How he knows of several illegal entrances. And how it is awesome. He tells us that we'll start at about 11pm and get done around 7am. Mentioning that we'll get wet, we dress accordingly, but we not nearly as prepared as our host: he comes out to the living room to collect us wearing waterproof fisherman bibs that protect him up to his lower rib cage. And we've got sandals and shorts. Right. This should be interesting. It's my first sign that this is going to be more intense than we realized. It is.

We take the bus (and bounce off the weird looks our group is getting for going through the fancy city of Paris with someone who looks like they're about to go fishing in Montana), climb under a fence to some rail road tracks that lead us into a tunnel, then eventually get to our destination: a hole in the wall leading down. Alright, here we go. We follow our guide. Having already seen the map earlier in the evening, I know it's a maze (280 km/178 miles of tunnels). Our host reassured us he knew it like the back of his hand. Still, I decide that I'll try to keep mental notes of turns. Left here, right, right, another left, straight passing several turns we don't take... I try to recal my list of turns in my head 10 minutes in and realize it's going to be impossible. I'm already lost. And then this thought sets in: "If I lose him, I'll most likely die." Gulping, I tell myself: I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. Let's just not lose track of him.

A sample map, image found here
We start walking through calf-deep water. And out of it. And back in it. The whole time it fluctuates on what is flooded. Knee deep was about as bad as it got frequently except the one time it got hip deep! His fishing bib clothing choice was obviously born out of experience. Certain entrances are so small that we have to shimmy on our belly and to get through we even have to take off our backpacks to have enough space.

What it looked like, images found here and here.
We pass a skeleton sticking half way out of the wall that is holding a curled up note that my friend translates it's meaning as "Money has no value down here." We visit caverns where you can sit in a circle around a table. We share hot tea and stories. We visit multiple hang out spots. Some have micro cities carved out of the wall that are amazing and highly detailed. We end up in one spot where it's just huge. Like so huge we're told they hold raves down there. The parties must be kind of awesome.

And then we hear voices. I have no idea what they are saying: it's French. After following them, we end up upon another party of explorers. We proceed to hang out, share drinks, and stories. I'm amazed that we can even stumble upon others down here. After a while we part ways, never to see one another again.

Image Credit
As we are walking down a tunnel, my guide, my friend, my lifeline out of this maze starts running away from us. Not only is he the only one that knows how to get out, he's the only one with a flashlight. And to add audio to imagery: his backpack has a pair of speakers screaming the intesity of Prodigy. What sticks out in my memory of this moment now is strangely reminsicent of a music video. We start running after him, but he's got a head start. The tunnel dims as the sole source of light has turned a corner ahead, telling us where we need to go, but giving us little info to deal with the inconsistent ground. A few stumbles and a full on trip into mud follows. Eventually we catch up to him and he's just laughing. Bastard.

After what seems an enternity, we pop out of a hole in the ground to faint daylight. It's around 7am. We make our way back up to the street. Muddy. As. Hell. You can only imagine the looks we get as we take the bus along with all the people looking fancy, clean, and druggingly going to their desk job. We cap off the adventure grabbing some damn good french pastries and pass the hell out hard.

Further Reading

Cool Video about the Catacombs