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CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris
In this photograph taken on November 7, 2017, shows a street sign in a colorful part of the underground catacombs of Paris. (Photo by GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP)

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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CULTURE

The English-subtitled French film screenings for December you don’t want to miss

As the film club that screens French films with English subtitles celebrates its seventh birthday, here are the movies you will want to see and where you can see them:

The English-subtitled French film screenings for December you don't want to miss

For the past seven years, Lost in Frenchlation, a company that regularly screens French films with English subtitles, has given anglophones living in Paris – and more recently across France – the opportunity to enjoy French cinematic culture.

Lost in Frenchlation has also expanded out beyond Paris, with screenings in Charente and Normandy this month. 

Here are the screenings across France that you will want to take note of:

Paris

Trois Nuits par Semaine – In this film, the main character, 29-year-old Baptiste meets a young drag queen, Cookie Kunty, and becomes mesmerised, even though he is already in a relationship. The film shows Baptise becoming immersed in Cookie’s world, and eventually the start of their relationship.

Cineuropa described the film as “conveying to perfection the vibrancy of this incredibly intense yet wistfully painful world” and that the complex film is likely “to divide audiences.”

The screening will take place on Friday, December 2nd at 8pm, with pre-drinks beginning at 7pm. Following the film, moviegoers are encouraged to stick around for a Q&A with the director.

It will take place at L’Entrepôt Cinema (7 Rue Francis de Pressensé) in Paris’ 14th arrondisement. Tickets are available online for €7 for those eligible for reductions, and €8.50 for all others.

Pétaouchnock – Set in the Pyrenees mountains, this film is about two friends seeking to pull themselves up from rock bottom. While trekking on horseback, the duo enjoy an unforgettable experience. Described by Le Parisien as having a “well-seasoned cast with a good dose of comedy.”

The evening will also celebrate Lost in Frenchlation’s seventh anniversary, with giveaways and stand up comedy. Join the group at 7pm for drinks, and enjoy English-language comedy from Sarah Donnelly and Luke Thompson at 7:30 before the show goes on at 8pm.

Taking place at the Club de l’Étoile in Paris’ 8th arrondisement (14 Rue Troyon), on Friday, December 9th, you can find tickets HERE. Reduced tickets will be available at €13, and regular tickets are available for €15.

Petaouchnok_TLR-Pulsar_H264_HD-239_24p_WEB20_EN_20221020-M141.mp4 from Lost in Frenchlation on Vimeo.

Les Miens – a film by the director Roschdy Zem, Les Miens is a personal portrait of a family resembling the directors’ own. The film portrays a relationship between brothers – Moussa known for being kind – and Ryad – a TV presenter known for being egotistical. However, when Moussa suffers from serious brain trauma he becomes almost unrecongisable, and his family relationships are forever altered.

The screening will take place on December 12th at 8:30pm, with pre-drinks starting at 7pm. Moviegoers are welcome to stay after the screening for a Q&A with one of the film’s actors.

The show will take place at Cinéma du Panthéon, in Paris’ 5th arrondisement (13 rue Victor Cousin). You can get reduced-price tickets for €6.50 and regular priced tickets for €8.50. For this film, tickets will only be available at the door, but you can make a pre-reservation HERE

Simone, le voyage du siècle –  a biopic about one of France’s most prominent women, Simone Veil, this film will take audiences through the renowned feminist and holocaust survivor’s early childhood, as well as her most pivotal political battles. Vogue has called it one of “the most anticipated films of the year.” 

The Women of Paris walking tour will also be organising an event before the start of the screening, at 5pm. You can reserve tickets for €15 at this website.

As for the screening itself, it will take place on December 16th at 8pm. All are welcome to join in pre-drinks at 7pm. 

The film will be shown at the Luminor Hotel de Ville cinema, located at 20 Rue du Temple in Paris’ 4th arrondisement. 

You can find reduced price tickets (€7) and regular tickets (€11) HERE.

 
Les Engagés – Running a little over an hour and a half, this film shares the story of David, a man who ends up helping a young migrant who is being pursued by the police. Based on a true story, the film takes place in Briançon, a town in the Alps near France’s border with Italy, and tells the tale of how David commits himself to helping the young migrant, at all costs.

This screening will also be in partnership with the association “Serve the City Paris.” The only English-speaking NGO in Paris, Serve the City Paris has grown from its start in 2012 as a small circle to become a mobile organisation with over 700 volunteers.

The organisation will be conducting a Christmas fundraiser at the screening, where they will accept money, in addition to physical donations (with priority placed on sleeping bags and tents large enough for for two to four people) for those in need. You can learn more HERE

Taking place on December 22nd, moviegoers are welcome to enjoy pre-drinks at 7pm before the 8pm screening at L’Arlequin in Paris’ 6th arrondisement (76 Rue de Rennes)

Charente

Those looking to enjoy a French film with English subtitles in Charente are in luck this month. The theatre is located in Marthon, about half an hour from Angouleme by car).

Couleurs de l’incendie – An adaptation of the 1927 saga, the film tells the story of Madeleine, a young heiress who must take over a financial empire after the death of her father, Marcel Péricourt.

You can find the listing for the film on the theatre’s Facebook Page. It will be screened December 10th at 5:30pm. If you need to contact the theatre for any reason, you can reach them at [email protected]

Caen 

English-speaking fans of French cinema in Normandy can rejoice, as Lost in Frenchlation has also expanded to Caen. Here is what is in store for December;

Saint Omer – In this film by Alice Diop, a young novelist has her convictions called into question as she attends the trial of  Laurence Coly, a woman accused of killing her 15-month-old daughter, who drowned at a beach in northern France. As the trial rolls forward, the novelist is struck by the words of the accused and the witness’ testimonies.

The screening will take place in partnership with the Café des images, which is dedicated to giving the international community in Normandy an opportunity to experience France’s cinema culture.

Taking place on Wednesday, December 14th, moviegoers are invited to join for a pre-screening get-together at Café Polyglotte at 7pm. The screening will begin at 9pm.

The theatre itself is located at 4 square du théâtre, 14200 Hérouville-Saint-Clair

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