Secrets Under Paris

Joanna here, talking about the secrets under the belly of Paris.  Women drinking beer manet
It's 1800 or so. 
There you are, sitting in a café in Paris, relaxing, wearing somethin
g Parisian with great éclat and style. 

Unless you are feeling deeply philosophical it's unlikely you wonder about what secrets lie hidden beneath your feet.   

"All secrets are deep. All secrets become dark. That's in the nature of secrets." 
Cory Doctorow

It is not solid earth down there.

By 1800 there's fourteen miles of sewers cut through the rock under Paris.  I don't know why folks always point out how far something like this could stretch, but that amount of Wiki _Nelson,_Nelson's_Column Eighteenth Century sewer would run from the Nelson column in Trafalgar Square to Terminal Five at Heathrow, neither of which was in existence in 1800, of course.  

We aren't going to talk about Regency-era sewerage, fascinating though that subject is.  We're going to delve deeper.  We're headed to the mines that lie far below that sidewalk café.

Carririere des caputchins pridian net

Paris feeds on itself, like the Worm Ouroboros chews its own tail.  The fine building stone of Paris is pulled from beneath the city's feet. 

From Medieval times onward, folks took that excellent limestone out of the ground and threw up little trifles of work like Notre Dame and the Louvre. 


Miners burrowed down sixty feet, cut blocks, hauled them out, and left behind a labyrinth of mine shafts, tunnels, and galleries under the earth.  



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There's 180 miles of tunnels and quarries running under the Left Bank.  When our Regency heroine sits in a café on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, she's a stone's throw above one of those old mines. Carririere des caputchins pridian net 4

And for a while there, the world crumbled from beneath.

While the miners were digging away over the centuries, they left big pillars of stone  in place, unexcavated, and built walls to support the roof of the mines.  This worked handily to keep the place upright while the stone was being removed, which was what the  miners were concerned about. 


However — you knew there was a 'however' coming — folks eventually came along and built on the ground above, having absent-mindedly forgotten about those pesky, empty underground spaces. 

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 It turned out the miner's pillars and walls were not so much sufficient to support the weight of cathedrals and palaces that were being built up top.  There was a bit of an 'oops' factor when some of these grand structures began subsiding into the ground. 


The French formed a bureaucracy to deal with this.  In 1777 Louis XVI — you will recall he came to a bad end — ordered the formation of an Inspection Générale des Carrières (General Inspectorate of the Quarries) to explore and map the underground, to dig wells, to control new mining, and to build stonework to shore up the old mines.  Plaque in quarries

They marked the place, so they could find their way around.   Since the tunnels tended to run under the main streets, they carved the names of those streets in the walls, matching the routes through the mines to the streets of Paris above.  


Le petit montreur de singe savant fragonard jaconde late c18


Streets and  houses stopped giving way and sinking into the bowels of the earth, much to the general rejoicing of the Parisians.





A visitor to the quarries in 1784 describes them —

"The general height of the roof is about nine or ten feet ; but in some parts not less than 30 and even 40. In many places there is a liquor continually dropping from it, which congeals immediately, and forms a species of transparent stone, but not so fine and clear as rock crystal.

As we continued our peregrination, we thought ourselves in no small danger from the roof, which we found but indifferently propped in some places with wood much decayed. Under the houses, and many of the streets, however, it seemed to be tolerably secured by immense stones set in mortar; in other parts, where there are only fields or gardens above it, it was totally unsupported for a considerable space, the roof being perfectly level, or a plain piece of rock."


When I came across these descriptiions of the quarries I just knew there had to be a story there. 

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In Forbidden Rose I send my characters walking through the tunnels and galleries of these old abandoned quarries.  While I've never visited myself, I consulted some of the intrepid modern 'cataphiles' who do explore there.  



This is Maggie and her cohort entering the quarries: Candle light attrib florriebassingbourne

     This was what hell had been like when it was first constructed and lay empty, before the demons moved in with their cauldrons of fire and their pitchforks.  Hell would have smelled like wet plaster before it filled with the fumes of sulfur and whatever devils smell like.

     They carried candles, bringing five small points of light into this world.  Of all the uncanny occurrences since Marguerite had descended to this place, the strangest rested here in her hand.  The candle flame stood upward, only stirring when her breath fell across it.  There were no currents of air, no connection to the winds under the heavens.

     The rock around her was damp, full of minerals, without the least trace of life.  This was the Realm of the Underworld.  The Kingdom of Darkness.  Their candles did not challenge it at all. 


Author Real Life Note here:  I lived in Paris for a number of years and not once did I feel any urge to go exploring around below ground.  I don't say I'm claustrophobic, exactly.  I would just rather not walk about in dark places deep under the ground with tons of rock hanging above me just waiting to fall down, thank you very much.

Which may be why I put my characters down there . . . 

Picture attrib coffee roboppy, Carrières one, two and six by samuel marshall at pridan net, Carrières three, four and five by espritdesel, candle by florriebassingbourne.

"Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong.  No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always go there first, and is waiting for it."
Terry Pratchett


When you read, what's the scary environment you want to see the protagonists face? 
Or, what do you most definitely not want to read about?