Monday, January 27, 2014

Paris Under Paris

…Paris has another Paris under itself; a Paris... which has its streets, its crossings, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation….Crime, intelligence, social protest, liberty of conscience, thoughts, theft, all that human laws pursue or have pursued, have hidden in this god-forsaken place. 

That's Victor Hugo in Les Miserables describing the dark world beneath the City of Light, which is one of the most extensive undergrounds in the world. Ten stories deep in some places, it's honeycombed with hundreds of miles of metro, sewer, and catacomb tunnels. Water is everywhere -  in reservoirs, canals and even the Bievre, a once-beautiful river that cut across the Left Bank of Paris to empty into the Seine. There are old mines and abandoned quarry galleries, whose stone built many of the great monuments of Paris, including the Louvre and several successive walls of the city. Crypts of churches, bank vaults, the foundations of the ancient Louvre palace, the wine museum of Paris and the elevator equipment for the Eiffel Tower all share space in the underworld. Connected by streets that mirror those on the surface, it's littered with dead ends, and legends abound of people who descended on a lark never to emerge.

And then there are those who are officially there forever. They reside in the Catacombs, the final resting place for the bones of approximately 6 million Parisians past. The first citizens of the Catacombs took up residence in 1786 when their remains were transferred from the Cemetery of the Innocents in central Paris. In use for nearly 10 centuries, the cemetery had become a health hazard for the city's living residents. For two years, night time convoys of carts, loaded with bones covered with black veils, traversed Paris. They were accompanied by a procession of priests in surplices singing the service for the dead. By 1814, the catacombs had received and stacked the remains from all the cemeteries of Paris - rich and poor, young and old, revolutionary and royalist alike. 

Off limits to the public, the underground is illegally visited nightly by an unknown number of cavistes who explore and map the tunnels, paint its walls, party in its galleries, and scuba dive in its reservoirs. Every year, however, another l.4 billion people enter the Paris underground legally, descending into one of the city's 300 metro stations, and riding on 214 kilometers (133 miles) of metro track that crisscross the underworld.  

Before the advent of the metro in 1900, the caverns were a perfect environment for growing mushrooms, known appropriately as champignons de Paris. Once the metro arrived, mushroom cultivation was moved out of the city.

Several years ago, I read in a guidebook that these famous champignons de Paris were still being grown under the city. The book, which seemed quite reputable, said that the entrance to this "secret spot" was located in the emergency room of the Cochin Hospital in the city's 14th arrondissement, an area riddled with underground caverns. I invited my good friend and long-time accomplice Marcelle to come along. She was somewhat doubtful about the accuracy of my information, but was as always game to explore something different. Since it was my idea, I was the appointed spokesperson, even though Marcelle, being French, would surely have explained things better.

In the Salle de Urgence, it looked as if everyone had more pressing business, so we began to look on our own for this secret entrance. Finally, a nurse came over to ask if she could help us. "We're looking for the elevator to the mushrooms," I said. Assuming, perhaps, that my French was bad, she replied. "Les champignons, les champignons? You have a fungal infection?  You need to see a dermatologist."  "No, no," I said, "not that kind of fungus. Mushrooms, champignons de Paris, they grow in the galleries under the hospital and we're looking for the elevator." "Excuse me?" she said - at which point, Marcelle stepped in to better explain the situation. The nurse listened, joined by a couple of orderlies. Even though Marcelle's French was, of course, impeccable, our nurse looked even more confused. "There are no mushrooms," said one of the orderlies, firmly enough so we knew there was no sense in going on. With one more furtive look around, we left with our mission unaccomplished. 

A search of available literature on the subject has yielded little information and illegal entry into the underground is not our forte. However, just last week I discovered an organization of volunteers that conducts an official two-hour, by appointment only tour - 100 steps down beneath Cochin Hospital! Marcelle has written to the organizers to arrange our visit.

Does the secret mushroom world exist? I'll keep you posted. Or as the French would say, a suivre.

If you want to visit the Paris underground, but don't want to risk an encounter with an officer of the law, here are some official visits:

To read about other adventures that Marcelle and I have had, see the following Travel Oyster posts:

A bientôt,


  1. Loved your post, Geraldine. We were just talking about ghost metro stations. Super interesting, this world underground! I would not have imagined it. I do like hearing and feeling the metro roar beneath my feet up in our 2nd floor apartment. It makes me feel like we are part of the bloodstream of this place. Connected. G.

  2. Can't wait for the sequel. M.L.

  3. great blog. it is positively mcphee_esque. hardly
    a subject, no really clear goal, but really interesting!


Thanks for your comments.