Home > Uncategorized > A maze of twisty passageways IRL

A maze of twisty passageways IRL

So I’m in France for the foreseeable future.*

Which means that just occasionally I get to look at some D&D inspirational material up close. The latest escapade was the tunnels beneath the medieval town of Provins. Chloe has the tour guide thing down and some pix, here. There’s about 10km of tunnels under the town, which is less than you find under Riems, but still, nothing to be sniffed at, in 8 separate complexes that crosscut the town’s streets, drains and chalk quarries. In the roughly half km you can see on a guided tour they’re pretty uniform, well-maintained and have good ventilation.

This is pretty much the… um… I hate casual use of “trifecta” – maybe “golden triangle” for D&D tourism. The tunnels were dug mostly in the 12th and 13th centuries to store goods for the towns and especially for the fairs of Champagne. They contain underground sections of palaces, almshouses, hospitals and yes, dungeons. And they’ve hosted anchorites, literal underground cults of various kinds and, perhaps best of all, Freemasons, who scratched drawings of compasses, rules, plumb bobs and the like into the walls.

So what can we learn from being down there?

First, they’re a uniform, sensible size for excavations, even given the ease of carving out the native soft chalk: 5-6′ wide and about as high at the top of their arched ceilings. i.e. just about big enough for a handcart. Face it, the D&D 10′ corridor is a goddamn cathedral if you’re hacking it out with pickaxes. That soft chalk is easy to carve into blocks in order to wall passages back up, BTW: have a think about what might be behind that recent addition…

Temperature is a constant 50 degrees F or so, humidity a reliable 95%. This keeps clay and chalk mix in the walls workable: you can draw on the walls with a sharp stick or leave handprints. They are covered in little marks: carved and painted writing, tool marks, notes regarding how many wine bottles were left there in 1810, and how many taken out in 1813, who this store belongs to and how much that cost… and especially arrows. Arrows in all directions. Because every direction has been important to somebody, once.

They used to have a bunch of doors, you can see the holes where the hinges, locks and sometimes doorframes used to be. It’s pretty much impossible to tell if something was carved or written yesterday or a hundred years ago. But you can tell if you’re in a really old tunnel because the ceiling will be furrowed and ridged with the beginnings of stalactites.

The floor is fairly flat and hard-pressed. You could maneuver a wheelchair around if you needed to, but a donkey couldn’t turn around (and they’re allegedly incapable of reversing).

They’re full of candle niches and you can tell which those are by the soot. Some junctions have chimneys to the surface, for ventilation, possibly for fires (both for cooking and for drawing air into the tunnels from other openings). Those chimneys don’t just go straight up, they twist and turn so it doesn’t rain down them. Storerooms are just passage cul-de-sacs. Visibility is about 30′ at the longest: most of the time curves in the tunnels, moving shadows and the visual noise of the rough-cut walls don’t let you pick stuff out farther than 10-20′.

A few stretches are lit by optical fibres. Yeah, I know, that’s cheesy and weird and you wouldn’t put it in your dungeon. It looks great, though, lke mysterious fairy-lights, or like the rock wall is only paper thin and the bright day outside is trying to get in. Are you sure this isn’t an old post-apocalyptic tunnel complex? If it were, cheap, low-loss optical fibre would be a great way of lighting it. Maybe with a big lens or reflector at the above-ground end.

BTW, those nice folks at UNESCO have compiled a list of tunnel meccas for you. I should tell Roger the GS about it.

And if you’ve read all the way down here you deserve a much more exciting link: here, mapping the caves and tunnels under Nottingham, with videos. Just click it, you’ll be glad you did.

* That’s more than the next year. I’m taking a holiday from foreseeing.


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