We just returned from a two-week vacation in France where you could say the theme turned out to be “underground France.”
Not as in underground cinema, or underground resistance, or anything so metaphorical.
We started in Paris where we took a self-guided tour of the city’s sewer system. You know how in Les Miserables, Jean Valjean carries wounded Marius through the sewers of Paris? That’s where we were. Below the sidewalks but above the Metro, walking through some of the vaulted tunnels that stretch for 2,100 kilometers under the city. Yes, we watched the dark water coursing along a few feet below our walkway. Yes, it smelled like sewage.
Paris is the only city in the world that designed sewers large enough for people to walk through. The sewer network was a major 19th century technical feat, a reminder that the French have a history of superb engineering as well as superb wine, food and fashion. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Parisian elite took tours of the sewer system. You can still do that today at the Musee des Egouts de Paris.
An earlier era of sewer tourism
Not content with sewers, we ventured deeper underground — 20 meters deep, about the height of a five-story building — to Paris’ catacombs.
These were originally 13th century quarries for limestone, the stone used in Notre Dame, the Louvre and countless other Paris buildings. In the late 1700s, as Paris’ population outpaced the ability of its cemeteries to hold the dead, the abandoned limestone tunnels were repurposed as a storehouse for skeletons — some 6 million of them. Blessed by priests and supervised by engineers, centuries worth of bodies were dug up and carted ceremoniously across town for storage in the catacombs.
A resourceful public works administrator in the early 1800s added snippets of morbid Romantic poetry about the transience of life. And yes, it became another tourist attraction — there was even one midnight concert held in the tunnels in the late 1800s. You can find out about touring the catacombs here.
Paris catacombs/ Photo by Ilana DeBare
Paris catacombs with sign, “Stop! Here is the empire of death.” / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Paris catacombs / Photo by Ilana DeBare
We weren’t doing all this underground touring on purpose. It just turned out that way. We did spend time in the fresh air, like strolling along the Promenade Plantee — an old railroad aqueduct turned into an elevated tree-lined walkway between Place de la Bastille and the Gare de Lyon, a Parisian precursor to New York’s High Line park.
But that night we somehow ended up underground again, at a jazz club located in a 12th century dungeon.
Listening to jazz in an underground 12th century dungeon / Photo by Ilana DeBare
And when we left Paris for the second half of our trip — a bike tour through the Dordogne and Bordeaux countryside — one of the highlights was a visit to the prehistoric art within the Dordogne’s limestone caves. Back down into the dark and cold, but this time even further into the past — 15,000 years back.
We visited the Rouffignac cave, with over 250 engravings and drawings of mammoths, bison, horses and other figures.
Entry to Rouffignac cave / Wikipedia
The French cave art was something I’d read about since I was a little girl. It was stunning and humbling to see it in person, one of my “bucket list” experiences. Archeologists don’t know what the drawings meant to the society that created them — were they part of a spiritual ritual? a social history? any theories are only speculative fiction — but there they were, just feet away from us, crisp and clear despite 15,000 years.
We biked from the cliffs of the Dordogne into the rolling vineyards around St. Emilion, and visited a winery where the bottles of wine are stored underground… in (you guessed it) limestone caves that were once quarries. In this particular winery, Chateau Beau-Sejour Becot, the caves also served as a hiding place for wealthy families during the French Revolution, who lived there for years and built a tiny chapel underground.
Entering the wine cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Wine in the cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Chapel inside the wine cave / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Later we visited a quarry/cave inside the town of St. Emilion that has been made into an underground museum of pottery. They lent us shawls to wear during our visit since the temperature dropped some 20 degrees in the tunnels. And we visited St. Emilion’s famous Monolithic Church, a church painstakingly chipped and carved out of a single giant limestone cliff in the 12th century. This was not just a little chapel carved into the rock, but a serious, humongous cathedral-sized church.
Exterior of Monolithic Church, carved into the rock / Photo by Ilana DeBare
In nearly all of these sites — the 12th century church, the 15,000-year-old cave art galleries — we saw evidence of visitors there before us. There was graffiti carved or etched into the walls.
At first I was irritated: Why can’t these stupid teenagers limit their graffiti to subway cars and modern buildings?
And then I looked more closely at the graffiti. These were names and dates from the 1700s.
Graffiti near entrance to St. Emilion’s cave from 1767 / Photo by Ilana DeBare
So what’s with all of this underground France? A couple of things, I guess. Many parts of France — in particular the areas around Paris and the Aquitaine, where we spent this vacation — are limestone plateaus that were formed eons ago when covered with shallow seas. Sea organisms died and decayed and were compressed into limestone. Limestone is a soft, porous rock, easily eroded into caves by water, easily carved into quarries by humans.
And then France — like the rest of Europe — is an old civilization in comparison with the United States. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy traveling there — the ease of transporting yourself back into different eras.
People have been living continuously in France for tens of thousands of years. The 15,000-year-old cave drawings that we saw in Rouffignac are in fact among the most recent examples of neolithic art; others in the Dordogne region go back 30,000 years.
And in 30,000 years, there’s a lot that people can find to do with caves.
Seek shelter. Create art. Dig for building materials. Worship gods. Bury the dead. Hide from enemies. Store wine. Play jazz….
And tomorrow what?
If humans still exist 15,000 years from now, will our subways and sewers, our museums and music clubs, be as much of a mystery to them as the Rouffignac cave paintings are to us?
Now for some above-ground daylight! This is the “Mirror of Water” along the Bordeaux riverfront. Photo by Ilana DeBare