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Posts Tagged ‘catacombs’

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Photo: Associated Press
Under the streets of Paris, you can get lost in a whole other world.

I have a friend whose dream is to go to Paris. It has been her goal for decades, and she was all signed up for a trip when she fell and landed in the hospital. But she hasn’t given up, and I expect by this time next year she will have met her goal.

Paris has an irresistible lure for people around the world. If you have already been there, consider discovering the underground version of that city next time you go.

Robert Macfarlane writes at the New Yorker, “The map runs to sixteen laminated foolscap pages, or about ten square feet, when I tile the pages together. I have been given it on the condition that I do not pass it on. It is not like any map I have ever seen, and I have seen some strange maps in my time. The plan of the above-ground city is traced carefully in pale silver-gray ink, such that, if you read only for the gray, you can discern the faint footprints of apartment blocks and embassies, parks and ornamental gardens, boulevards and streets, the churches, the railway lines and the train stations, all hovering there, intricate and immaterial.

“The map’s real content — the topography it inks in black and blue and orange and red — is the invisible city, the realm out of which, over centuries, the upper city has been hewn and drawn, block by block. This invisible city follows different laws of planning to its surface counterpart. …

“The map’s place names traverse a range of cultural registers, from the classical to the surreal to the military-industrial. … Affordance is specified on the map in handwritten cursive words: ‘Low,’ ‘Quite low,’ ‘Very low,’ ‘Tight,’ ‘Flooded,’ ‘Impracticable,’ ‘Impassable.’ More detail is occasionally given: ‘Humid and unstable region (sometimes flooded)’; ‘Beautiful gallery, vaulted and corbelled.’ …

“I have come to the catacombs with two friends — let us call them Lina and Jay. Jay is a caver keen to extend his explorations into city systems. He is droll, unflappable, and strong. Lina is the leader of our group, and she has been here many times. She is passionate about the catacombs, especially about preserving and documenting their swiftly changing features through photography and record-keeping. …

“ ‘We’ll plan to exit by a manhole, whenever we come out.’ She gestures back up the tunnel with a smile, then eases herself feet first into the ragged hole, raises her arms above her head, and disappears.

“All cities are additions to a landscape that require subtraction from elsewhere. Much of Paris was built from its own underland, hewn block by block from the bedrock and hauled up for dressing and placing. Underground stone quarrying began in the thirteenth century, and Lutetian limestone was used in the construction of such iconic buildings as Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and Saint-Eustache Church.

“The result of more than six hundred years of quarrying is that beneath the southern portion of the upper city exists its negative image: a network of more than two hundred miles of galleries, rooms and chambers, extending beneath several arrondissements. …

“For centuries, quarrying was ill-regulated and largely unmapped. Then, in the mid-eighteenth century, the extensive undermining began to have consequences for the upper city, causing subsidence sinkholes, known as fontis, that were reputed to be of diabolic origin. The quarry voids had begun to migrate to the surface; the under city had begun to consume its twin. …

“Louis XVI responded, shortly after his accession, by creating an inspection unit for the ‘Quarries Below Paris and Surrounding Plains,’ headed by a general inspector named Charles-Axel Guillaumot, and tasked with regulating the quarries for the purposes of public safety.

“It was Guillaumot who initiated the first mapping of the void network, with a view to consolidating existing spaces and regulating further quarrying activities. A subterranean town-planning system was established whereby chambers and tunnels were named in relation to the streets above them, thus creating a mirror city, with the ground serving as the line of symmetry.”

There’s a long read at the New Yorker, here.

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Loved this Wired article about an unusual artist underground in France that preserves antiquities under cover of darkness.

Jon Lackman writes that the Urban eXperiment (UX) “is sort of like an artist’s collective, but far from being avant-garde — confronting audiences by pushing the boundaries of the new — its only audience is itself. More surprising still, its work is often radically conservative, intemperate in its devotion to the old. Through meticulous infiltration, UX members have carried out shocking acts of cultural preservation and repair, with an ethos of ‘restoring those invisible parts of our patrimony that the government has abandoned or doesn’t have the means to maintain.’ …

“What has made much of this work possible is UX’s mastery, established 30 years ago and refined since, of the city’s network of underground passageways — hundreds of miles of interconnected telecom, electricity, and water tunnels, sewers, catacombs, subways, and centuries-old quarries.” Read more.

I’ve been collecting stories of people doing good by stealth. In fact, if you type the word “stealth” in the search box in the upper right-hand corner, you will find five other stealth stories I have blogged about.

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