Another French Birthday


And yet another birthday party in France. This one started at noon on a Sunday, and I finally convinced my French husband to leave at 2 a.m. The party wasn’t finished.
We ate twice: once at lunch and then another full meal later that evening. There were the usual guitars and musicians. All of the neighbors were invited.
After dinner the party moved indoors, and the last thing I remember before falling asleep on the sofa was everyone dancing to French disco CDs.
You just gotta love the French!

The Cryptoporticos in Arles

I lived near Arles for a year before I discovered the cryptoporticos. And with good reason: they are several meters underground at the city’s center, Place de la Republic and Place du Forum.

cryptoportico, Arles

Cryptoportico in Arles, France

Cryptoporticos, typical of early Roman architecture, were built underground to support porticos, hence the name. The cryptoporticos in Arles supported the Roman Forum, and are one of several important such sites in Europe. The Roman Forum at Arles was one of the most important Roman centers outside of Italy.

Probably built in 30-20 B.C., and most certainly in the 1st Century B.C., the Roman Forum at Arles was a center of economic, religious, and judicial life for the Romans, who conquered Arles in 123 B.C. Underground passages with domed ceilings supported the traditional porticos that surrounded the Roman forums, giving them a slight elevation to signify their importance. In 46 B.C. Julius Ceasar founded a Roman colony in Arles. The cryptoporticos at Arles, built soon after, were constructed in a U-shape, and consist of three parallel passageways. Stonemason marks indicate that the underground foundation was probably built by Greek masons living in Marseille.

ruin from Roman Forum, Arles, France

Ruin from the Roman Forum, 1 B.C., Arles, France

The cryptoporticos at Arles were ingeniously built into a natural slope in the terrain. The southern portion of the foundation would have been underground and the northern portion would have been at ground level. It has been suggested that these could have been used as shops at some point; however, some believe that civil slaves were kept here during it’s earliest use.

Today, all of the structure is underground, and the Roman Forum has been replaced by the town’s municipal building and the Chapel of the Jesuit College. Access to the underground site is rather obscure and gained through a small office located inside the municipal building. After descending a stairway, you take a step back many centuries to walk the dark passageways in the horseshoe-shaped structure, completely underground and in a remarkably well-preserved state.


The Death Empire of Paris: The Catacombs

This inscription marks the entrance to the public area of the catacombs of Paris: Arrêter! C’est Ici l’Empire de la Mort. “Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead.”

The Catacombs of Paris, public access

This cryptic message warns visitors to the site of what lies beyond: the bones of the deceased; a subterraneal burial ground containing the dismembered skeletons from Paris’ numerous above-ground cemeteries. Bones line tunnels and are artistically arrayed in underground rooms. Tourists can descend into this public crypt to take in the eerie spectacle where in the 1700s the bones were deposited due to overcrowding in Paris’ above-ground cemeteries.

But beyond this is underground tomb of bones lies a series of  tunnels of which few are aware and fewer have passed. It’s difficult to believe that such a massive structure (more than 170 miles of tunnels) could exist so secretly beneath one of the most famous and well-traveled cities of the world, but the lost catacombs stretch beneath Paris. Today they are explored by a sub-culture that refer to themselves as cataphiles, and the complex tunnel system is patrolled by the cataflics, special police who look out for invaders to the catacombs. Entrance was made illegal in 1955.

Wall of Bones, Catacombs of Paris

I stumbled across this secret society and it’s lair while listening to an online podcast. Details, necessarily so, are sketchy, but apparently the sub-culture consists of urban explorers, artists, veteran inhabitants escaping the stress of living above ground, and the rare, but occasional tourist who finds an access.

Access to the former quarries that were used to build the city itself is illegal because it is dangerous. People get lost and die in the complex system of tunnels. Some areas are flooded and sometimes there are cave-ins. But these dangers and the cata-police don’t stop numerous visitors to the catacombs who explore, make maps, have dinner parties, and create make-shift art studios.

During war-time the catacombs were used as bomb shelters. The Germans set up a base in one portion of the tunnel system during World War II. Smugglers have used the underground as a hideout, and religious ceremonies have been carried out in Paris’ most secret place. Although access to the tunnels is illegal, openings are all over the city and so numerous that they can’t be closed off and patrolled.

You can find lots of information on the Web about the catacombs, both the public and non-public sectors. But you’ll have a difficult time locating a cataphile to escort you to this dark underground. Even the most experienced cataphiles will tell you never enter the tunnels without a guide or you may never come out.

The catacombs of Paris and a journey into the unknown.

The history of the catacombs video from BBC News:
What lies beneath the catacombs of Paris.