Jan 242012

Wired has a great story on Urban eXperiment in Paris titled The New French Hacker-Artist Underground. I’ve heard little bits about Untergunther through other stories via Urban Exploration, but Jon Lackman gives a fresh narrative to the information.

UX’s most sensational caper (to be revealed so far, at least) was completed in 2006. A cadre spent months infiltrating the Pantheon, the grand structure in Paris that houses the remains of France’s most cherished citizens. Eight restorers built their own secret workshop in a storeroom, which they wired for electricity and Internet access and outfitted with armchairs, tools, a fridge, and a hot plate. During the course of a year, they painstakingly restored the Pantheon’s 19th- century clock, which had not chimed since the 1960s. Those in the neighborhood must have been shocked to hear the clock sound for the first time in decades: the hour, the half hour, the quarter hour.

It reminded me how shocking it is to learn the reactions to much of their work, and how it parallels work and reactions by others. Instead of being celebrated for their good deeds, they are villainized. In the case of the clock, it ends up almost being a case of spite:

… the administration later decided to sue UX, at one point seeking up to a year of jail time and 48,300 euros in damages. Jeannot’s then-deputy, Pascal Monnet, is now the Pantheon’s director, and he has gone so far as to hire a clockmaker to restore the clock to its previous condition by resabotaging it. But the clockmaker refused to do more than disengage a part—the escape wheel, the very part that had been sabotaged the first time. UX slipped in shortly thereafter to take the wheel into its own possession, for safekeeping, in the hope that someday a more enlightened administration will welcome its return.

Reading the article one gets the sense that a lot of the flak they take is because they are exposing incompetence, but I wonder if there is also an element of mistrust for altruism. Either way, it means much of their work goes on in secret.

Nov 252010

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2010.10 Photos of Paris, France

Like any large city, Paris changes a bit with every visit. The bicycle is back, mostly in the form of Vélib’. Wifi in the parks is pretty cool (though frustrating to try to use with an iPhone) and though your batting average for a good cafe is never in jeopardy, yelp and other services give you a pretty good idea if you will like the menu before you even arrive.

But the things Paris is famous for haven’t really changed – the food and sights are still the main draw in the worlds most visited city. We focused less on particular goals for our 6 days, and were much better for it. The boulevards are gorgeous to stroll, the farmers & street markets are perfect to pickup a meal, and one can do much worse than simply sitting in a park to enjoy the sun.

Nov 262007

The Guardian has good news on the fascinating Untergunther group in Paris:

Four members of an underground “cultural guerrilla” movement known as the Untergunther, whose purpose is to restore France’s cultural heritage, were cleared on Friday of breaking into the 18th-century monument…

For a year from September 2005, under the nose of the Panthéon’s unsuspecting security officials, a group of intrepid “illegal restorers” set up a secret workshop and lounge in a cavity under the building’s famous dome. Under the supervision of group member Jean-Baptiste Viot, a professional clockmaker, they pieced apart and repaired the antique clock that had been left to rust in the building since the 1960s. Only when their clandestine revamp of the elaborate timepiece had been completed did they reveal themselves.

Since the 1990s they have restored crypts, staged readings and plays in monuments at night, and organised rock concerts in quarries. The network was unknown to the authorities until 2004, when the police discovered an underground cinema, complete with bar and restaurant, under the Seine. They have tried to track them down ever since.

But the UX, the name of Untergunther’s parent organisation, is a finely tuned organisation. It has around 150 members and is divided into separate groups, which specialise in different activities ranging from getting into buildings after dark to setting up cultural events. Untergunther is the restoration cell of the network.

Jun 292007

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Photos of Normandy, France

April 2-4, 2007

If you ever rent a car from a Paris airport (CDG in my case), make sure you book it from the net first. I spent a while talking up all the counter people up to get a decent rental rate. The price started at €500, and I eventually got them down to €320 by calling bluffs. Still not exactly great for two days. I remembered much better rates online when I looked the day before, so we walked over to a terminal with internet access. Reassured by the better rates online I returned and tried to bargain some more, but I think the agents were locked out from the better prices. Back to the terminal with internet, and a few minutes later I had knocked a further €80 off the price with a reservation. Lesson learned; reserve ahead.

We piled into the rental and navigated the freeways out of sprawl-land into the lush green of Normandy. We headed to Rouen first and enjoyed the half timbered buildings and the Gros Horloge before grabbing some dinner. We spent the night in Caen and the next morning in the WWII memorial museum. Some of the exhibits were interesting, but I think the €18 ticket price soured us on it. Forty junior high kids running around didn’t help much either. After that we headed out through the back roads towards Courseulles-sur-Mer.

I really enjoyed the drive. Every few miles you drove through a quaint little stone village with a stone chapel. There are still farms here, but it is obvious that industrialization means a whole lot less people live in the countryside. Which turns out to be a bit of a mixed blessing. There is very little ugly suburban development, only old stone buildings that blend in perfectly with the landscape. But the towns can feel a bit ghostly.

We picked up a delicious lunch at a little bakery in Courseulles-sur-Mer before walking to Juno Beach. It is a bit odd to see a WWII tank beside a carousel, but I suppose it makes a point. We all really enjoyed the Juno Beach Centre, a museum dedicated to the war effort made by all Canadians that opened three years ago right near the beach. Perhaps we are a bit biased, but the €6 ticket seemed more than worth it. I was quite impressed by the amount of information they packed into exhibits.

We walked the beach for a bit and watched the kite surfers before packing up and heading west along the cost. Eventually we reached Arromanches and the remains of Mulberry Harbour. After poking around we got lost in Bayeux for a while before heading to Saint-Lô, Avranches, and eventually arriving at Le Mont-Saint-Michel for a blazing sunset. We grabbed a cheap hotel and shared a mostly empty restaurant next door with a Japanese tour group. Definitely not high season, just the way I like it.

I woke up early to walk out the spit of land towards Mont Saint-Michel with the relatives of my dinner the night before. Each morning the sheep wander around the salt marsh and trim the grasses back. They also seem to enjoy running in front of cars later in the day. The fortress, abbey, and town are beautiful and amazing. Once inside, it can be a bit of a glorious tourist trap on the main drag. But it is worth braving the commercial gauntlet to explore the town.

We chose a different rural route back to Paris, rather than the toll-ways, and I was happy we did. Once again the countryside was lush and filled with great old stone buildings and chapels. We arrived full of cider and camembert. I really enjoyed Normandy, and the slower pace of off season car travel. Definitely a spot to come back to again.

Jun 132007

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Photos of Paris, France.

March 31 – April 2, 2007

If I were to pick a city to move to in Europe, Paris would probably be at the top of the list. The city has the same exciting energy that New York has, but doesn’t feel like it would burn me out. The buildings and parks are gorgeous, the people watching is some of the best around, and the wine is cheaper than soft drinks. Food isn’t half assed. All meals seem to take at least two hours, which is both wonderful and frustrating (when you just want to eat and run – how very unFrench of me).

The city and Seine are built for walking around, the density is nicely mixed to keep it interesting. La Tour and Jardin des Tuileries were wonderful, and held up well. The city seemed to have the same fog/smog mixture as LA – it made for wonderful sunsets. Watching the moon rise over Les Invalides is an image that will stick with me for a long time.

If you are leaving the city by rental car, make sure you have rental car reservations before you get to the airport… more on that later.

Jun 082007

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Photo album of the Catacombs of Paris

April 1, 2007

Ever since reading about the dark world beneath the city of lights in Infiltration some years ago, they have been digging away at the back of my head. The catacombs are a maze of 170 miles of Roman era tunnels – quarries, really – under one of the world’s most famous cities. Add in the bones of six million Parisians, war time occupation, artists, and illegal cinemas, and I fail to see how one cannot be fascinated.

On our trip to Paris, I knew the place I wanted to visit first. Much of the interesting bits of the system are blocked to casual visitors. You need to be ready for spelunking, avoiding getting lost in the labyrinth, and paying a fine if you get caught in the system. I wasn’t. So we did the next best thing, the walk through tour at Place Denfert-Rochereau.

The tour starts at an unassuming building where you pay your entrance fee and climb down about 100 stairs. After zipping your jacket up – it is about 14 C and wet – you walk a ways before you reach some museum style information signs on the people you are about to see. The path winds through a maze of stacked femur walls inlayed with skulls. These femur walls act as a dam wall to hold back an ocean of smaller bones. Most walls are about five feet high, with three to five feet of smaller bones piled behind them. Plaques and tablets state the year and cemetery where the bones are from. Occasionally they also dabble in the classification – good, bad, or innocent.

I walked slowly at first, soaking up all the details and straining my highschool french to decipher the old plaques. But after a kilometer of bones, one becomes a bit overwhelmed. Near the end, it was more of a stroll through a macabre park than a careful exploration. But our peek at the Paris underworld well worth it. One comes out feeling a bit more awed about the efforts that went into the city bellow ground, as well as above.

The UE folks would say we took the Disneyland tour of the Catacombs. I highly recommend checking out these other sources for a better look:

National Geographic Adventure’s Underground Paris
Guerillaphotography’s Les Catacombs
UrbanAdventure.org’s Paris Catacombs