Friday, July 19, 2013

My Offer on Access to Abandoned Observation Decks




Abandoned Observation Deck Offer:
Contact - HiddenCitiesBook@gmail.com

Abandoned observation decks are my favorite things in the world. If you can get me access to a previously unvisited abandoned observation deck you get:

1) A personalized signed copy of “Hidden Cities.”
2) A .pdf and/or paper copy (two feet by three feet) of the secret map of the Parisian Catacombs.
3) A personalized catacomb tour if we happen to both be in Paris at the same time.
4) A visit to some interesting place or another (nothing too stressful). Trust me, I've still got a couple tricks up my sleeve.
5) Good faith cooperation on your story on "Urban Exploration," (or whatever else you want to write about for that matter).

Unvisited abandoned observation decks are:        

70 Pine Street (AIG building), Downtown.
40 Wall Street (Trump Building), Downtown.
20 Exchange Place, Downtown.
Paramount Building, Times Square.
Met Life Tower, Madison Square.
Riverside Church Carillon, Morningside Heights.
Chanin Building, 42nd Street, across from the Chrysler Building.
Park Row Building, where J & R Records is now.
Torch of the Statue of Liberty.

Note 1 - these are just the one in NYC. If you can get me to an abandoned observation deck in another city, definitely drop me a line)

Note 2 - if you can't specifically get me to the abandoned observation deck, but can just get me in the building, I can probably figure it out from there. Successful excursions get you 1 - 5 above, failures will still get you 1 - 3 and possibly 5.

Other places that are not technically abandoned observation decks, but are still acceptable for this offer are:

103rd floor or antennae of the Empire State Building.
Roof of the Met Life Building (former Pan Am building), north of Grand Central.
Any interesting cupola, antennae, or spire
Outdoor roof of any building over 800 feet tall
The tuned mass damper of the Citigroup building on Lexington Avenue
Roof of the tallest building in Staten Island (Castleton Park Apartments) or the Bronx (Tracy Towers).
Top of the Verrazano, Throgs Neck, Whitestone, or Ward’s Island Pedestrian Bridges.

Monday, July 15, 2013

So you want to do on story on "Urban Exploration."

Both I, and most people engaged in this hobby with a reasonably popular website or any kind of media presence, have been the subject of numerous requests from journalists. The majority (I would even say vast majority) of which every one of us eventually rejects, if not outright ignores.

If you want to be one of those people who are not ignored, there is really only one secret: approach people as collaborators, not as subjects.

Most media requests I, and most Urban Explorers get, read somewhat like this:
“Hi, I’m a writer/videographer/photographer/reporter for xyz publication. I think what you do is really cool. I’d love to do a story on you where I tag-along/video/photograph you “in action” on your adventures. Want to meet for coffee to discuss more?”

This is a pitch for story subjects. Now, I know from your perspective, Mr. or Ms. Journalist, this is a perfectly reasonable thing. And it generally would be reasonable if you were to use this pitch to, for instance, do a story on an airline mechanic, or gourmet chef, or long-distance runner training for the Olympics. Your thoughts are “this person does this cool thing. I’m just asking to following along, which doesn’t cost them anything. And everyone likes to see themselves in the papers or on TV – it’s good exposure.”

But this is not how it works with Urban Explorers for several different reasons. Specifically:

1) What we do is much riskier, both for us and for you

I, personally, hate being anyone but the dumbest and least capable person on any particular excursion – my theory is that I know my limits and what I can do, so as such I’m the limiting factor and don’t have to worry about anyone else (it’s a very selfish thing, I know). If you’re along, there’s about a 99% chance that you’re the limiting factor. This is maybe fine if it’s that aforementioned profile on Olympic long-distance runners, where what eventually ends up happening is that you tire out and get left in the dust while the subject completes her run. It’s less fine if involves you getting your left arm torn off by the subway because you don’t know how to clear up properly.

2) What you want to report on us doing is illegal.

As such, what you think of as the value you are offering us – exposure – is not always of value to us. In fact, it’s often of negative value. Not everybody likes or wants to see themselves in print or on TV in general, and this is exponentially true if the things they are seen doing in the papers or on TV can have negative consequences on their reputations, employment, or personal liberty.

3) We are all, to a person, writers, photographers, and/or videographers ourselves.

This isn’t necessarily bad news – it means that you have a great and valuable potential collaborator in the story you want to do. 

However, instead of a potential collaborator, journalists set up paradigms in which we’re instead direct competitors to them – and direct competitors in a vastly better position than they are. This is a very dumb position to put yourself in. Since most Urban Explorers (not me though) are photographers, let’s use that example.

Let’s say you’re a photographer whose main gig is rock shows. Maybe you’re good, maybe you’re not-so-good, maybe you’ve got tons of experience, maybe you’re just starting out. It doesn’t really matter.

Think of how you would respond if somebody pitched you a story about following you around to rock shows - not as you the rock show photographer, but just as someone who happened to like rock shows and generally had a good seat. And then, instead of offering to run your photos in the story, wanted to bring a different photographer with no experience or investment in shooting rock shows whatsoever, who would be the one to sell their photos for the story. Now think of how you would respond if additionally, instead of offering to set up access to different shows you didn’t have access to - shows where you might be able to work out a future arrangement with the bands or, heck, to at least relax and enjoy the show - you were supposed to be the one to handle all access and logistics to your shows that you had worked to get access to. And not just for the reporter, but also for the other photographer: who is selling their photos in direct competition to yours. Anytime you ask to follow an Urban Explorer around with a different photographer, this is what you are asking them to do.

4) What you are asking us to tag along on is not our everyday experience (by the way, you’re all welcome to tag along on my career as an urban planner and affordable housing advocate all you want).

What you’re asking is for us to manufacture a specific experience for you that is very difficult to manufacture. I assume you aren’t interested in doing a story on waiting at a subway station for two hours for workers to leave and then eventually going home to bed. This is a much more likely scenario than an amazing urban adventure. Perhaps one out of five (at most) excursions I go on is even worthy of a blog post, much less an actual story.

5) What you are asking from us has a lot of value.

We all get a lot of people (not just journalists) constantly asking us to “take them on an adventure.” We’ve all spent a lot of time and energy making our own adventures, and, more importantly, learning how to make our own adventures. This knowledge and expertise has a certain amount of value to us, value that you’re asking for.

But even beyond this personal value, these excursion are also very easily monetized: there is a potential financial value to taking people to interesting and non-easily accessible locations, that there is not for most “let me follow you around” journalism stories. Be conscious of that value. You’re de facto asking for at least a location scout or tour guide (and this is not even getting into the times you ask for photos or video footage). The places that I can take journalists for a quick & easy “Urban Exploration” story are the same place I can charge a $500 day rate to people looking to do documentaries on “Mole People,” or “the Decaying Beauty of our Industrial Heritage.” Even interesting and noteworthy urban places that don’t even involve trespassing I can easily make $50/hour-and-up as a tour guiding for.

Now, I’m not saying that we’re all looking for top dollar in every scenario for these things (although some of us are) – any smart tour guide will let a journalist tag along for free on their tours, for instance. But that’s because they’re hoping the coverage will lead to more business. If you want the same paradigm with Urban Explorers, then you’re going to have to offer them exposure for something they are trying to sell. This might be a book (me), photos (most other people), even legal tours or location scouting services (see above) but it is rarely, if ever, illegal nocturnal adventures.


So what’s the answer? There is no single answer. Different people want different things. Some want exposure, some want money, some want a platform, some want access. Some people would be ecstatic just to see their photos credited in print in whatever publication you’re writing for, others are going to want to charge you more than your entire story budget for one picture. Some are going to want to be the central character of the narrative, others are going to want to be referred to by pseudonyms in passing, if at all. Some people are going to want to take you places you can barely get it together to follow without peeing yourself, but not even show their face; others (me right now) are happy to pontificate for hours on camera, as long as we don’t so much as cross a strip of yellow tape.

And some people, (me again) are going to want to try and leverage your journalistic credentials to get to an interesting place legally. My response to almost all of these requests is to give a list of interesting, generally off-limits places that I want to see in New York, and offer to work with the journalist on a story if they can secure legal, or otherwise not-too-stressful, access to some of these places (which could end up as part of the story or not, I don’t really care), which I feel like is a pretty fair tradeoff.

But again: the bottom line is that people are interested in being collaborators, not subjects. And this is doubly true if you are asking things of them that you would ask of collaborators (location scouting, video footage, story ideas), not subjects. Which means you’re going to have to start thinking about:

a) potentially sharing money.
b) potentially sharing credit and creative control of the story.
c) potentially compromising on the vision of your story.
d) thinking of what you can offer, not just what you want.

I know this isn’t fun or standard for journalists. But every major story done on Urban Exploration for at least the last 7 years has followed this blueprint, and they followed it for a reason: it's the only way to get a story done.

I also know there are ethical consideration in paying subjects, or allowing them to dictate the story direction beyond what they say on or off the record. Some of these ethical considerations can be worked around (one of the most common is to have the main subject refer other photographers they know to work the story), and some maybe can’t. But still – if you want to get anywhere, you need to be trying to creatively find that ground where you feel comfortable ethically, but are still working in a collaborative manner.

So my suggestion is simple. Instead of the pitch outlined at the beginning of this post, write something like this:

“Hi, I’m a writer/videographer/photographer/reporter for xyz publication. I think what you do is really cool. I’d love to collaborate with you or have you consult on a story about Urban Exploration. As part of this, I am looking for some “in action” photos/videos/reportage on Urban Exploration. What would you be looking for in this kind of collaboration? Want to meet for coffee to discuss more?”

Now, I’m not saying it’ll work. But your chances of not getting ignored are much, much better. And hey, look on the bright side – you could be trying to pitch graffiti writers.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Latest Writing

From other publications - blog below

Jewish Daily Forward. Encountering history on the tunnels of Odessa (excerpt from Hidden Cities).

Publisher's Weekly. Legal, but interesting, travel destinations around the world.

The Big Idea (John Scalzi blog). Memoir writing - an explanation.

Huffington Post. Hidden side to the World's Cities (excerpt from Hidden Cities).


From Narrative.ly

Prohibited Panoramas - the beautiful abandoned observation decks of New York City
On Tract - some interesting stories from some out-of-the-way census tracts
Riding the Green Wave - my favorite cab ride ever (you've got to scroll down)
Heartbreaker - what not to do on a first date (again, you've got to scroll down)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Odessa Catacombs

Hey folks - you can check out an excerpt of Hidden Cities about the Odessa underground here in the Jewish Daily Forward - also with Slideshow by Steve Duncan.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Beast of the North

Every bridge has its charm, and each bridge has a story. But after a while, the types of bridges and types of climbs start to repeat themselves - scampering up cables of a suspension bridge, climbing ladders or stairs to the top of a lift structure, scaling the curved beams of an arch bridge. We've long since pretty much figured out the best bridge designs, and tend to stick with the tried and true - suspension, cable-stay, arch, and the various moveable bridges. There are few opportunities to climb a truly unique bridge. One of those opportunities involves a 124 year-old beast of a triple cantilever structure just outside of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Some members of the International Bridge Brigade had been up the north tower of the Firth of Forth rail bridge previously, utilizing the scaffolding that had been in place for years while the bridge was being inspected, repaired, and painted by workers. I arrived with both the benefit and drawback of the scaffolding being some months gone. The benefit being the lack of workers at night. The drawback being that I had no idea how I was actually going to get up the thing. Still, I figured if I couldn't somehow find a way up this giant jungle gym of a bridge, I didn't have any business being in the International Bridge Brigade myself.

Photo courtesy of noclip.eu
Luckily, I managed to hook up with a couple locals who had been eyeing the climb themselves. It ended up being a two-night affair, the second night being accompanied by my friend Steve who had just arrived in town that morning. We went for the south tower, and the road to the summit was truly a team excursion. I dare say if any piece of the puzzle had fallen through, I don't know if anyone would have gotten to the top. Local savvy and recon, bridge knowledge and climbing experience, everyone played their part, and I was very happy to play mine. It's always nice to be a bit more than just a tag-along on these types of trips abroad.
Photo courtesy of noclip.eu
The climb itself can best be summed up as what you might expect of climbing up a bridge over a North Sea estuary in Scotland in the middle of February. Not exactly a walk in the park, but the wind, mist, and drizzling rain only really made the photography a difficult endeavor, not the climb. And I wouldn't have wanted it another way. There is little like the feeling of mounting this Scottish beast with the wind and rain whipping around you and the Forth churning below.

The bridge itself is amazing. When large iron and steel structures started to be built in the late 1800s, many were heavily, heavily over-engineered. Nowadays we know how to do it. Sleek suspension and cable-stay bridges are the norm (witness, for instance, the lovely but perfectly standard 1964 suspension road bridge which also crosses the Forth a bit to the west). But back then you took no chances - especially in light of the recent collapse of the under-engineered Tay Bridge - and reinforced everything up the wazoo, which results in the almost MC Escher-like structure of the bridge. A myriad of supports, latticework, beams, all going off at different angles with seemingly little rhyme or reason. Adding to the surrealness is the wide array of random accoutrements - staircases to nowhere, various ladders placed seemingly at random, catwalks which stop 30 feet from any useful end point.
Photo courtesy of noclip.eu
But the most interesting thing isn't the resemblance to Escher - it's the resemblance to Gaudi. There are no right angles, no perfect rectangles. The entire structure is slightly flanged, giving the climb an eerie, extra-dimensional Alice-in-Wonderland feeling. Take a look at the picture below. You'll notice the bottom of the beams are closer together than the tops. Walking up inside them, I went from having to crouch to avoid hitting my head at the bottom, to needing to climb several feet in order to hoist myself up to the summit at the top. This also leads to a skewing of perspective that, I imagine, is responsible for the kind of optical illusion you see below, where the beams look much steeper than they actually are (it's a 30 degree angle at most).

And when we reached the top of the structure, we noticed another aberration, another example of everything about the structure being just a bit off. The top beams aren't flat, instead being slightly titled outward.
Photo courtesy of noclip.eu
While getting to top is always the main goal, as might be imagined from such a huge, over-engineered structure, there's a lot more to the bridge than just the summit. Catwalks under the railway, empty worker rooms, a 40-foot stone tower guarding the entrance to the crossing, and other various nooks and crannies like the one below. 
Photo courtesy of noclip.eu
We heard the morning's first train rumble over the bridge from in here, and it was time to go. All in all a wonderful time on a truly unique and historic structure. I highly encourage you to check it our for yourself.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Erimus

I've had a bit of fascination with Middlesbrough for about 8 years now. It's a random story - my introduction to soccer was when I spent the summer of 2002 in Spain, while the World Cup was happening. My first game I watched saw Gaizka Mendieta hit the winning penalty against Ireland. The combination of that and his super-cool name (Basque), saw him become my favorite player, and when he joined Middlesbrough a couple years later, I started following their soccer team. I was pretty excited when, after meeting a fellow explorer here in New York, I learned she was from nearby Hartlepool (a lovely town in its own right). On a recent trip across the pond, I jumped at the chance to head up to the Northeast and finally pay the town a proper visit. And by "proper visit" I of course mean "climbing stuff in the middle of the night."


"Erimus" translates out to "We will be" in Latin. It's an interesting motto for a town whose best days are generally considered behind it - the Boro, as it's known, is one of the old, mid-sized industrial towns of the Northeast that, while not facing quite the same sort of decline as some its counterparts in the rust belt of the United States, has yet to really reinvent itself. Think somewhere like Milwaukee. In short, it's not exactly the kind of place overseas visitors generally make a destination out of.

I only had about 36 hours in the Northeast, but it was enough to confirm my love. I mean, when you waking up to rainbows over picturesque British towns, it's kind of an omen (not to mention crazy Australians in their underwear). 8 hours later we were climbing bridges.


Our appetizer was the Teas-Newport Bridge, the first major lift bridge built in England, and - rumor has it - the host of a recent addition to the (obviously NSFW) sex on bridges club. I hadn't climbed a bridge superstructure in a while and was pretty excited to do so, but started having second thoughts about 2/3 of the way up when I realized that what was flaking off in my hands wasn't just paint, but rusted metal. When I felt a couple crunches beneath my feet, I decided I'd best monkey my way over to the ladder to finish the climb.

Top of the Tees-Newport. Photo by Lucinda Grange 

After this, it was time for the main course - the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge (don't be fooled - it's still the middle of the night. I shot this photo the following day).

You might look at this picture and remark "wait - how is that a bridge?" And the answer is, "it isn't." That elaborate structure was designed and built solely as a truss mechanism. Wires hang down from a cart that runs in a track under the transverse, and connext with a platform floating on the water. A big cable is attached to this cart from the small building with the chimney that you can see in the foreground on the right. Every 15 minutes or so they take in or let out this cable, which moves the cart, which then guides the platform (which holds up to 9 cars and about 200 people) across the river. In essence, it's several thousand tons of metal put together in order to haul a ferry slightly larger than a boxing ring. Why they don't just have the ferry is beyond me.

Dozens of these had actually been created in the early part of the 20th century, with only a few still working and a few more (like this one I had seen in Buenos Aires) standing but long abandoned. Having failed to climb the one in Buenos Aires, I was pretty excited to get up this one. In true British fashion, they even had a sign politely reminding us of the rules. We followed rules #1 and #4 to a T.

While there's a catwalk for maintenance (and bungee jumping) that runs the length of the bridge, only one side of the bridge has stairs. As such, there's actually no way to cross the river on the structure (which I'd consider a baseline for something being called a "bridge") - unless, of course, you want to do this for a couple hundred feet. 

Snaps getting loose - photo by forsaken

I took the stairs - most of the way. Once we got to the catwalk the stairs ended, but there was still about 50 feet of structure above us. And, as always, you don't stop until you get to the top. Even if your camera sucks.


The next day I wanted to head back to the bridge - to ride it, see it in action. I can't really understand the people who only want the trespassing-adventure part of visiting cities, who travel solely for the purpose of checking various tough-to-get-to places off their list. It's fun, but without any context, it's flying across an ocean just to play around on a big jungle gym. What's the point of exploring, of interacting with this great structure up close, if you don't even bother to experience how it actually works? 

We drove over and paid our 70 pence to take the ride, accompanied by a few cars and what appeared to be a fifth grade field trip.


The ride begins
video

On the ride back, we asked the ticket-taker if we could see a bit more of the mechanics of the contraption. We were rewarded with a visit inside the machine room where Alan Murray, the Bridgemaster, spent a good half-hour with us explaining how the bridge works. That big spool on the left is used to wind up and let out the cable that moves the transporter mechanism back and forth across the river.


The spool in action

video

There is no way this would be done in New York or London. We would have asked, they would have said no, and that would have been that. I don't really blame the cities - in large, popular, heavily travelled places many interesting things have a general "lockdown by default" policy. The excuse given (if any) will be usually security or liability, but that's not the real reason - it's to avoid the hassle of eventually being overwhelmed with curiosity seekers. I appreciated the fact that we were in a different paradigm, a different culture, one where the pride that people have in the machines they build, maintain, and operate is manifested by gladly showing them off, not by keeping them smugly hidden away. In fact, for a scant 4 pounds they'll even let you up to the catwalk, weather permitting. You have to follow all four rules though. And I doubt they'll be thrilled if you try to get pictures like the ones above.

Grammatically, and also in the historical context of coming up with the motto, "Erimus" means "we will be" as opposed to "we are" or "we have been." But I started thinking about it in a different way after my 36 hours- "we will be" as opposed to "we will say" or "we will do" or we will (insert verb here)." Thinking about the motto as the motto of a town that goes about it business the way it always has - the kind of town that neither lets this crazy contraption fall into disrepair and abandonment, nor tears it down for a fancy new replacement, but just lets it be.

The bridge turns 100 on October 17th.  If you happen to be in England, head on up for some celebrations -they're going on all month. I wish I could be there for the event  itself though - I do love helping bridges celebrate their centenials. There's also a great book out by Dave Allen about the history of the transporter bridge. You can pick it up in person or online through the Middlesbrough soccer team's store. Go Teesiders!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How to visit the Catacombs - FAQ

First off, I should say that this assumes a certain level of both knowledge and motivation. Motivation I can do nothing about either way, but if you're currently either wondering "what are Catacombs?" or thinking "isn't that somewhere under Rome or something?" you have some rudimentary reading to do. If you're thinking "does he mean how to visit that weird museum in Paris?" you're closer, but still not quite there. Anyway, go read this, or this, or this, or heck, even this. Then come back here.

OK, so you want to go visit the catas but you don’t quite know what you’re doing. Here's a helpful FAQ. If you do know what you’re doing, you’ll find most of this unnecessary, but there might be a helpful tidbit or two in here.

Do I need a guide?

You do not need a guide. Stop asking around for one right now. You don't need even need to speak French. If you possess the ability to read a map and some common sense you'll be fine. In fact, you probably don't even want a guide. Not only is it kind of lame, but a local is not going to want to hoof it around for hours visiting all the places they’ve seen a million times. Locals generally go to the catas to party, or just to relax and hang out with their friends. If they’re doing something else it’s probably making art or working on opening something up, both of which are going to entail staying in one place for hours while you're chomping at the bit to go take off down the next tunnel.

If, for some reason, you are still insisting on asking around for a guide, you should probably be offering to pay. Why do you think someone would want to schlep around in the dark with a stranger for free? Actually, come to think of it, hire me. I'll do it for plane fare, accommodation, and a $500 day rate.

Well, you will probably bump your head a couple times. You might twist an ankle if you aren't careful. I've heard that there is a small but real danger of structural collapse, although the Parisians have spent the last 234 years stabilizing the network.

You'll also get your feet wet. If you don't want to get your feet wet, you're going to need either hip waders or chest waders, depending on your height. I have yet to see someone go in with calf-high rubber boots and come out with dry feet. With careful navigation you can pretty much avoid the thigh-level water, but not the knee-level water. While most of the tunnels aren't flooded, this is a pretty commonplace scene:
Personally, as I find waders a huge pain in the neck (not to mention taking up a lot of room in your bag flying over) I just go in a pair of sneakers with a dry pair of socks and shoes to change into, although I usually end up getting those wet also. Another option is to bring flip-flops (or even go barefoot) and shorts for the wet parts, but some of the footing is a bit treacherous and the water can be muddy, so I’d wear something with more traction and ankle support.

You'll probably also get dirty, although that might just be me. Somehow, the French have this amazing ability to spend hours in a dank, dirty tunnel network and still emerge looking like they just stepped out of a Yves St. Laurent catalog.

But isn't this dangerous?

Well, no, not really. I'd say it's marginally more dangerous than getting out of bed in the morning and going about your day, but not by a whole lot. The biggest thing is this - a lot can go wrong just going about your day. You could accidentally step in a hole and break your ankle, or run into some mean people and get mugged, or get too drunk and not be able to find your way home. But you're not too worried about this - you call an ambulance, or the police, or a cab. And anyway, how often does this really happen?

The biggest thing in the catas is that there's no "Esc" key. If you break your ankle, you're going to have to figure out how to wind your way back through the tunnels for a couple miles to the entrance in horrific pain before you can call a doctor. It's not that much different from going backcountry camping in this regard, although you certainly can't call for a Medivac or anything.

But isn’t this illegal?

Sure. Being illegal it what makes the place so great. With legality comes security guards, "don't touch" signs, 6 Euro hot dogs, and all that garbage. And anyway, it’s not THAT illegal. Even if you do run into cops (which does happen) you won’t go to jail or get deported or anything. You'll just get a fine. I've heard different amounts for this fine, with the highest being 120 Euros, which is probably what you'd pay just going sightseeing for a couple days anyway. Plus, you know, this is France. Actually making sure you pay the fine is probably considered more trouble than it’s worth. Police presence goes in cycles. If you know any locals, ask if the cops have been around lately. Police presence is also heavier on the weekends and almost always concentrated in the most frequented parts of the catacombs.

Will I run into people?

Most likely. There's a lot of folks in the catas, especially on weekends. And people come from all over the world. I've spent a total of about 70-80 hours down there, and have met (in addition to countless French), Japanese, Swedes, Koreans, Germans, British, Australians, Canadians, Americans, and a hound dog.
I’ve also recognized tags or art from people from four different continents.

You're most likely to run into people around La Plage, which is kind of the Times Square of the catacombs and about a 30-minute walk from the main entrance. These will probably be groups of mostly-young, mostly-male French folks hanging out. People are generally nice enough, but the vibe is pretty much "we're all here to do our own thing." A simple "Bonsouir" is usually sufficient communication, although I've had conversations with people. If you speak French you'll obviously have an easier time, but plenty of people speak English. You might also run into some foreigners, who will probably be taking pictures.

If you get deeper into the catas, you're more likely to run across more hardcore cataphiles. These folks will probably be a bit older (30s or even 40s) and dressed more for a caving expedition than a party. This is what a cataphile generally looks like (on the left):

The older cataphiles will know a lot more about stuff not on the map or usually closed things that happen to be open at the moment. With both groups, offering booze is always a good way to make friends.

So what should I bring?

Light - this is the most important thing. Bring three light source (same as for caving), with extra batteries and whatnot. If you run out of light, especially in a part of the catas that isn’t frequented very much, you’re somewhat fucked.

The Map - regular cataphiles don't need one, but you sure do. Think a fairly complex Dungeons and Dragons module. That's what you're in. If, for some reason, you lose the map you probably won’t die. Your best bet is to wander around until you find somewhere that looks interesting or has a lot of art and wait there. People will be along sometime.

There's a few different maps, but they're all more or less the same. When I went for the first time in January 2006 I got a .pdf version from some cataphile friends that I printed out at printing shop (It measured about two feet by three feet), and have used that version ever since, mostly just because it's what I'm used to. But you, full denizen of the digital age, don't even have to worry about having a hookup anymore. You can now download a copy (in English no less!) here.

The site's a little hard navigate, but hey: if you can't make your way around a website, you don't really have any business trying to make your way around the catacombs. Whatever map you end up using will probably have an inaccuracy or two, and won't cover the entire network (they generally omit a lot of the southern part), but are incredibly comprehensive overall and will be more than sufficient for getting you around. Some people laminate theirs to keep it from getting wet or door (which is almost certainly will), or sometimes cut it up and make a little book out of it instead of keeping the huge version. I just take a spare or two.

A tip: printing large format in France in incredibly expensive - print a few copies in Kinkos or Staples before you go - it should only cost you a few bucks each in Black and White (you don't need color).

Water - if you're planning a trip of any length, this will probably be your limiting factor as water is pretty heavy. But again, if you run out of water you won’t die – there’s a bunch of flooded tunnels where you can get a drink (flooded tunnels are even indicated on the map). Now, I should mention I have no idea how potable this water is and I have heard stories of people getting sick from drinking it. But if you're really stuck, as it’s just groundwater, I’m guessing it’ll most likely be OK. It probably won’t even be that gross as long as someone hasn't walked through it lately and kicked up a bunch of dirt.

Food - think camping provisions if you're going for any length of time. If you're just ducking in for the night, by all means prepare a 7-course continental dinner or whatever else you can haul through the tunnels for a half-mile or so, which is about how long it'll take before you get somewhere you can sit.

Sleeping Gear - I highly recommend sleeping in the catacombs, but you've got to do it right. I've spent two nights down there - one of the best, and one of the most miserable sleeps of my life.

The first time I brought only a sleeping bag and laid it out on the floor. If you sleep on the floor, or especially on the stone, after about 10 minutes it's going to start feeling like you're Harry Potter having your soul sucked out by a Dementor. I had to sleep wrapped up in a sleeping bag with my jacket, gloves, and hat on, and still shivered all night. A sleeping pad would probably help, but I don't know how much.

This is how to do it. The second time I brought a hammock. This was awesome. I still slept in my sweater, pants, and sleeping bag but didn't need a hat or anything. There's a bunch of places where people have put hammock hooks. We slept in the Cabinet Minerologic, which has the disadvantage of being somewhat heavily trafficked, but was the only place we knew of with hammock hooks (although I'm pretty sure there's some in the Salle Rouge also). You can get a travel hammock that's really light and packs down to the size of a softball for about 50 bucks.

I suppose you should probably bring a first aid kit and such also. I can't say I’ve ever brought one myself, but it seems like a good policy.


Generally speaking, it's funnest just to wander around and find awesome stuff (and there's a bunch of awesome stuff). There's lots marked on the map - go find it and see if it's cool. If you really want a destination guide, some of the most popular follow. Consider this a spoiler alert. I should also note that this only refers to the "Great Southern Network," or the largest quarry network that runs mainly underneath most of XIV arrondissement and parts of the neighboring arrondissements. There's also other, smaller networks throughout Paris and the suburbs.

If you're into art - go check out La Plage, Le Cellier, Gallarie des Promos and the Castle Room

If you're into history - go check out the German Bunker, and try to get to the Val de Grace although it's kind of a pain. Also make sure to read up on the inscriptions (it's on the English map), and pay attention to those. If the Free French bunker is open get to that also, but it's usually closed.

If you're into bones and creepy stuff - go check out the Ossuaries and the Tombe Philibert. Also go on the official tour.

If you're into cool spaces and architecture - go check out the Salle Z, the Abri Laval, and definitely try to get to the Aqueduct too, but that's almost always closed. Also the Cube Room I think is kind of cool.

If you have a limited amount of time - you should probably enter and head straight to La Plage, Le Cellier, the Salle Marie Rose, and the Castle room. They’re all reasonably near the main entrance and pretty close together. You can be visit them all and still be in-and-out in a few hours.

(Cata pros - feel free to chime in on any of the above. I'm sure there's a lot of stuff I'm forgetting or haven't been to).

Time - for some reason, time seems to go really quickly in the catas. You'll check your watch thinking you've been in there for a few hours and it's already the next day.

Weather - one of the wonderful things is that the weather is completely consistent year-round. About 55 degrees (Fahrenheit) and very, very humid. This has the practical effect of making you kind of hot when you're walking around, but quickly cooling you down when you stop to rest. As such, layers that you can easily put on and take off are a good idea.

Taking care of business - you can pretty much pee anywhere reasonably out-of-the-way, it won't be too long before it gets filtered into the groundwater. For a #2, you should probably go to a dead-end tunnel and bury it, although as it's not going to decompose anytime soon try to abstain if you can (it's also just plain nasty to take a poo down there). It's also obviously good form to pack out all your garbage. The cataphiles are actually on a bit of an anti-littering kick right now, and have started organizing cleanups.

So how do I get there?

Fly to Paris. There’s one entrance in an abandoned rail tunnel in the southern part of the XIV arrondissement that’s always open. I can’t quite bring myself to give A-Z directions on the Internet but trust me, it’s not a secret or anything. Someone will tell you if you ask. Heck, I’ll probably tell you if you ask. If you know a local or two you might have a lead on other entrances, which tend to kind of come and go. The main benefit of the other entrances is avoiding the flooded tunnels in the southern part of the catas, but it's also just kind of fun to get in and out other ways.

So that's about it. The catas are loads of fun and, at least for me, the coolest place in the world (and I've been a lot of places). I highly recommend checking them out.