National Geographic : 2011 Feb
• horrible canvas. Warm, thick air fountains up from the open manhole. Quignon and his col- leagues say they notice the smell only when they come back from vacation. "Ready?" he asks. In the vaguely egg-shaped tunnel, an endless stream of wastewater burbles along a channel in the oor. On both sides run large water pipes. One carries drinking water to houses and apart- ments, the other nonpotable water for cleaning streets and sprinkling parks. Some of the tunnels here date to 1859, when Hugo was nishing Les Misérables. Where tunnels intersect, blue and yellow signs indicate the names of the streets above. I splash along trying not to think of the dark current at my feet, trying not to get anything, anything, on my notebook. Quignon and his partner, Christophe Rollot, shine ashlights into crevices and record the loca- tions of leaking pipes on a handheld computer. Rollot scrapes his boot through the water and slides it up the wall. "If you look, you can nd a lot of stu ," he says. Sewer workers say they have found jewelry, wallets, guns, a human torso. Once Quignon found a diamond. Under the Rue Maurice Ripoche, I feel a jet of water wash over my foot. It came from one of the descending pipes. Someone has just ushed onto my boot. Beneath the Opéra Garnier, the old opera house, is a space that many Parisians dis- miss as a rumor. As the foundation was laid in the 1860s, engineers struggling to drain water from the sodden earth ended up simply impounding it in a reservoir 60 yards long and 12 feet deep. is underground pond, which gures in e Phantom of the Opera, is home to several plump fish: Opera employees feed them fro- zen mussels. One a ernoon I watch re ghters practice underwater rescues there. ey emerge shining like seals in their wet suits and talking of a leviathan. Not far from the opera, in the 1920s, an army of laborers working around the clock created another singular subterranean space. More than 120 feet below the Banque de France, and behind doors heavier than Apollo space capsules, they built a vault that today holds France's gold re- serves, some 2,600 tons. Photographer Stephen Alvarez and I stand in that vault one day. In all directions the halls are stacked with gold in tall steel cages. Dust settles over the bars like a slow, ne snow. I'm reminded of the catacombs: Like each skeleton, each gold bar has a story, possibly several. Gold has always been coveted, stolen, melted down. A single bar here might contain bits of a pharaoh's goblet and a conquistador's ingot. A bank o cial hoists one of the bars over to me. It is heavy, battered, a brick with a deep dent along its bottom like a cle chin. e seal of the U.S. Assay O ce of New York and the date 1920 Bonjour to All That Cataphiles Yopie and Dominique head for the surface through an abandoned train tunnel after scuba diving in a flooded quarry. Like many of their peers, they love the freedom underground. "At the surface there are too many rules," Yopie says. "Here we do what we want. Where else is that possible?" CATAPHILIA FROM YOUR COUCH See---and hear---more of underground Paris at npr.org and nationalgeographic.com.