Monthly Archives: March 2017

Visiting Paris’s off-limits catacombs: Part 2

Welcome back for Part 2 of my catacombs adventures. Here is Part 1.

Once we passed through the tiny hole that gave us access to the catacombs, we were able to move standing up for a while. Most of the passages are like this:

IMG_3088 (1)

…wide enough to walk through, but not to stretch your arms out straight. I was slightly stooping most of the time. And about 1/4 of the passages we went through had lower ceilings, so that you are actually folded over double while you are walking/scrambling.

Let me pause here to tell you just what these tunnels are. Before Paris even existed as the city is now, there were many mines on the outskirts…mainly for the limestone used to build the buildings you see in Paris today. At the time, that land was farmland, so no one thought about security. But as Paris grew, homes were built on top of land that had been hollowed out, and the more buildings perched atop these holes, the more dangerous it was.

This oblivious co-habitation of city and deep holes continued until 1774, when a whole street of apartment buildings and homes fell through the ground. Louis XVI named a commission to inspect, chart, and reinforce the mines. (The Inspection générale des carrières or IGC.) So Charles-Axel Guillaumot (the chief inspector) and his crew went around to all of these individual mines and made tunnels from mine to mine, connecting them. They raised their ceilings from the crouching height miners were forced to work in to a height that allowed men pushing wheelbarrows to get through. They reinforced the walls and ceilings and labeled them all as they made their way through.

So what was before a collection of individual mines were all connected now…thus creating the network of catacombs we have today. (I am simplifying greatly, but you get the idea.)

Back to the tour. As we made our way through the tunnels, Gilles pointed out Guillaumot & Co’s handiwork, especially the system of labeling that he had established. Markers were drawn on the walls in pencil/charcoal and afterward, stone-carvers (the same guys who carved tombstones) came through and carved what they saw in pencil permanently into the wall. (Because of the humidity, most pencil marks are still visible.)

Here is one example:


Beneath the inscription “Graves of the Lazarists” is 12 (the marker indicating which reinforcement or pillar) F. (the initial of the IGC inspector currently in charge) and the date it was inspected (in this case 1866).

Most of the markers in the catacombs follow this formula, except when the stone carver got confused like here:

P1030598and put the date first, the initial, and the 2 after, then scratched out the 2 and kind of shoved it below and in front. (And for those of you who can guess what the tiny drawing is beneath the numbers, it dates from the same year, and there will be more on that topic later.)

Besides the IGC markings all over the place, there are other official markings: street names and, in a small percentage of tunnels, the numbers of the houses or names of important buildings directly overhead.

As for street names, they can be either on plaques (many of which have been stolen):


Or carved into the wall:


like “Diagonal between the Big and Little Avenue of Midi”.

So you noticed the water in the photo with the street-name plaque? Let’s use that to get back into the tour itself.

Very soon after crawling through the hole, we began walking through large puddles of water on the floor. Very cold water. It soaked through my hiking boots, and chilled me right through. Gilles reassured me that it was because we were still near the entrance, and the water wouldn’t be that cold throughout.

Which I soon discovered when we hit an area where the water was waist-high. Gilles showed the artist and me how to straddle the tunnel, putting our feet on a tiny ledge on either wall—the ledge sometimes being a bit above, and sometimes a bit below the water (so invisible). At one point, my right foot slipped, and I stepped down to the center of the floor, soaking myself up to my butt. (I’m 5’9″, BTW.) I quickly regained my footing, and that was the deepest I went for the rest of the tour.


The water in the cave was crystal clear, except when it wasn’t. Which meant that someone had recently walked through and stirred up the mud. Meaning we weren’t down there alone. There was no odor besides humid rock except when we came across other cataphiles who were smoking (smoke smell), drinking (booze smell), burning candles (wax) or using some kind of lantern that had a chemical smell. This was rare, though, since we probably only saw 15 people in the 10 hours we were down there.

One note about smell, though. At one point I smelled a cigar, and even saw smoke hanging there in the air, as if it had no where else to go. I asked Gilles how long it would last before it diffused in the 90% humidity. “Three hours,” he told me. “Like a woman’s perfume.”

Which of course sparked a million storytelling synapses in my mind. An odor lasts three hours in the catacombs. Which means the culprit can’t hide her presence for that long if she leaves an olfactory trace. DULY NOTED!

It was also around the time that I was wading through thigh-high water that I asked Gilles about the fauna of the catacombs. There are no animals, he told me. Not even rats, because there is no food for them. The artist who was with us said she had heard about animals, like a fox, getting lost down there, but that was rare. And the whole time we were underground I saw only 2 spider webs (no food for spiders either?) and this:


oh…and this guy taking a nap…


But we won’t count him, because who the hell takes a nap in the catacombs?

One last thing for today: depth.


This is how deep we were. (The ladder goes way up above where it disappears at the top of the photo.) Gilles said we were 20 meters (66 feet) down in most places, and as high as 7 meters in others. And once we even climbed all of the way to the surface, up a staircase and behind a locked metal door, and peeked out of this keyhole


to see a sculpture across the street, and unsuspecting people walking by just a few feet away from three people wearing head-lamps and soaked and muddied to the skin.

Note on this particular locked door: Many years ago, two Nazi uniforms were found just behind it, where we were standing peeking out through the hole. Which means, unless they were ambling naked through the streets of Paris, two Nazis changed out of their uniforms, put on civilian clothes, walked out through the door into the above-ground world, and never made it back for their uniforms.

Alternate scenario…non-Nazis acquired Nazi uniforms, wore them underground, and then changed into their regular clothes before going out in the world. Since the uniforms are all we’ve got, the story is up to you. And trust me, there are a million stories lurking below the streets of Paris. More on that…



Visiting Paris’s off-limits catacombs: Part 1

One of the first attempts I made at fiction-writing was when I was 24 and living in an ancient building in the Marais. Every time I went down to my basement storage space, I would gaze longingly at a separate set of stairs that went down even lower…old stone stairs that descended into the darkness. Each time, I had this intense longing to follow them down, and would even tiptoe down three or four steps. But there were rats. Big rats that seemed to scuttle around with supernatural speed. Rats were a deal-breaker for me.

I ended up writing a story about Paris’s underground tunnels as a sort of time traveling machine. When you came up, you’d be in a different year than when you went down. Unfortunately, there were large talking rats in my story, and one of my friends read it and said it was total crap. So I trashed it and didn’t try my hand at fiction for another fifteen years.

Even then, when I began writing the DIE FOR ME series, I still couldn’t stay away from underground Paris. It’s a feature in every book of the series. I have visited the official Paris Catacombs (the Ossuary, where all the bones are) four times, and drew my knowledge from that and a bit of online research. But I had never experienced the true non-touristy catacombs of Paris…the fabled areas where all of the fascinating history I had read about…dreamed about…took place. Until yesterday.

I decided that for my 50th birthday, I wanted to do something I had never done before. I contacted a guide I had used a few times for private tours to ask if he would take me to the illegal part of the catacombs. He told me he couldn’t, but he knew someone who could. But he wouldn’t give me the guy’s name. He said he would contact me.

“The guy” turned out to be Gilles Thomas, who told me he’d be happy to take me and my friends on a two-hour tour of the abandoned tunnels under the Cochin Hospital. They are lit with normal lights, you don’t need equipment, and it’s not hard-core. I said that sounded wonderful, but what I really wanted was The Other Tour. *nudge nudge* He kind of waffled about it and said I should come to his office to clarify what I was looking for.

Now I believe that it was a test. He wanted to meet me in person and make sure I wasn’t a complete wimp. Also, once our meeting began, he had me define very specifically what I wanted. “The illegal parts…yes, in the dark…yes, in the water…yes, for hours and hours…yes, I understand we could be caught by the police and given a fine.” He warned me that if I was in the least bit claustrophobic, I shouldn’t go. That if I freaked out in the middle of the tour, it could be an hour and a half back to an entrance. I put on my most confident nothing-scares-me expression and told him that’s exactly what I wanted. I could tell that I had succeeded when he got a little gleam in his eye. I had passed the test. I asked him what his fee was. He said, “Homemade chocolate cake.”

I choked. “For a nine-hour tour?”

“It has to be homemade,” he repeated.

“But can’t I give you something else? I could translate one of your articles. I’ve translated historical documents, t.v. shows, books…”

He looked hurt. “My fee is chocolate cake.”

“Chocolate cake. Fine!” I said quickly, before he changed his mind.

He gave me a time and a place to meet him—on a street corner in the south of Paris—told me to wear a head-lamp and shoes I didn’t care about ruining…but not rain boots because they would just fill up with water. And that was that.

Until I went home and did some research on him. And I discovered I was getting a tour from The Expert of all experts. The guy who, for the past thirty years, has held a mythical role in the hierarchy of cataphiles. (Those whose passion is exploring the off-limits catacombs.) The guy who has written seven books on the topic, including:


Les Catacombs: Histoire du Paris Souterrain, which the Académie française awarded with the Ève Delacroix Prize in 2016. (!!) Which kind of says it all, right?

Not to mention that he is the go-to guy whenever anyone important wants a visit. Including George R. R. Martin. And Pixar’s team planning Ratatouille. And the makers of As Above, So Below (which Gilles swore he never saw). And every other important thing that is written or filmed about the catacombs. I thanked my lucky stars that I had somehow stumbled into this chance of a lifetime, and began getting my ducks in a row: buy headlamp, get dogsitter, plan a chocolate cake that would be worthy of a Gilles Thomas tour.

Gilles phoned me the night before my tour, and from his voice I could tell he was wondering if I had decided to back out. I reassured him that the cake had already been baked and iced and I was ready to go. I was excited. And a tiny bit nervous. But I went to bed, knowing the next day I would have one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

I woke up yesterday with full-blown jitters, after having a series of complicated nightmares where Gilles had given me a list of things to take that I wasn’t able to get together, that the cake wasn’t acceptable, that my kids were along for the trip and I had to protect them. I choked down my breakfast, drank about four cups of coffee, and got together:

supplies(I decided on buttermilk brownies instead of cake.)

Then packed a bag with this:

IMG_3075Towel in a plastic bag (because Douglas Adams), apple, sandwich with 10 euros and a metro ticket sealed in the bag with it in case I dropped everything in the water, my identity card in case someone needed to identify my body, scrunchie to tie back hair, and no bottles of water because I knew there wasn’t a bathroom down there.

I waited nervously on the appointed corner until I saw Gilles walking toward me in thigh-high green waders. Within minutes, another person joined us—an artist who has gone through the catacombs with Gilles several times and is working on a catacomb-themed art project.

And we were off. Through a gate, down a hill, down a very long, dark passage (Gilles has asked me not to be more specific) until we reached this hole:


“Here we are!” Gilles said.

“Where?” I asked. “In that gutter?”

“The hole’s right there,” the artist said, pointing to a crack in the wall.

“I’m going to have to squash the cake,” I said, trying to think of anything besides hyperventilating.

“That’s fine,” Gilles said, and started squeezing his 6’2″ body through the crack.

I mashed the bag I had holding the cake in into my backpack, and got on my hands and knees, and thought of wide open spaces, and followed Gilles and the artist through the crack in the wall and down into the darkness of the catacombs.

[Continued tomorrow…but if you want to see something similar to the crack-entrance (but not half as strenuous), look at the 1:13-1:50 mark of this video. And then watch the rest just because it’s fascinating!]




Classic Children’s Book Quiz

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a baby shower for one of my favorite people here in Paris, Celeste Rhoads​ (who is the Children’s and Teen’s Librarian at the American Library of Paris). It had to be book themed, of course, so everyone brought a copy of their favorite children’s book for new baby’s library.

And then there was this…


We also played a Classic Children’s Lit trivia game (with potted pansies as the prize).

I thought you would enjoy playing. How many of these classic book questions can you get? (The winner got 22 points!)

Classic Children’s Book Quiz — Celeste’s Baby Shower

1. What did the narrator of the Little Prince like to draw as a child and what did adults think it was?

2. What is the name of the mutinous ship’s cook in Treasure Island?

3. Who is Curious George’s roommate?

4. Give one phrase Charlotte weaves into her web to save Wilbur?

5. What is Violette’s vice in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

6. What species is the villain in Jungle Book? (Extra point for his name.)

7. What book acts as the world-building compendium for Lord of the Rings?

8. What species is Puddleglum in the Silver Chair (and VotDT)?

9. One point of each of the names of the three witches in A Wrinkle in Time.

10. What is Paddington Bear’s country of origin?

11. Who are Toad’s two best friends?

12. Where does Toad live?

13. What was TinTin’s dog’s name (either French or English).

14. Name one of the main themes of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret?

15. What is the name of Frodo’s Uncle in The Lord of the Rings?

16. Who is the musician in Asterix?

17. What is the profession of Pippi Longstocking’s father?

18. What is the name of the love interest in Anne of Green Gables?

19. What do Digory and Polly use to travel between worlds in The Magician’s Nephew?

20. What is waiting in Max’s room when he returns from ruling The Wild Things?

21. What animal appears on every double-page of Goodnight Moon?

22. What is Dr. Seuss’s real name?

23. Who is the nun who runs Madeleine’s boarding school?

24. What did Pooh use to reach the beehive?

25. Who are the witches in The Wizard of Oz? (Names not needed.)

Bonus contemporary questions:

1. What is the name of Hermione’s cat?

2. What are the five factions in Divergent?

3. What flower is President Snow associated with in Hunger Games?


Rooftop Ramblings Live Facebook Interview + win DREAMFALL ARC!

So happy to have my first in-person interview for Dreamfall. It’s one that ALL OF YOU can attend because it’s live on Facebook. (And I’ll be giving away an ARC!)

Join me on Rooftop Ramblings this Saturday (March 4) at 2pm Paris time (that’s 8am New York time) by going to this Facebook page: Paris in Person. If that’s too early for you, the video will be posted later. The interview is with Boris and Sam, these two guys from my book club:

bandsWho knows what they’ll ask? (Be prepared for anything.)

And if you send a question ahead of time, I’ll put your name in the hat to win an ARC of DREAMFALL. Your question can be about anything – just send it any time between now and 8am EST to :

See you Saturday!