I’m Lost All the Time. So I Went on a Labyrinth Vacation.
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Who’s to say when exactly we started to walk twisting paths — to think of them as sites for enjoyment, for the holy, and for the surreal? Labyrinths and mazes have appeared across cultures and time, made by digging ruts into the soil, laying out rock or mosaic or enclosing paths within hedges, walls, bamboo, corn and mirrors. The first recorded labyrinth dates to the 19th century B.C., built by Egyptians near the ancient city Arsinoe to hold the sepulcher of kings and crocodiles. In the desert of Peru, the Nazca dug winding geoglyphs in the shape of birds, flora and monkeys; some of them were thought to be traversed by gods and spirits, by priests and pilgrims during ceremonies. Rock-lined labyrinths along the coasts of the Baltic Sea may have been created in the Bronze Age. Surviving lore suggests they were used in spring pagan dances and light exorcisms, trapping malevolent spirits in their confounding geometry. And of course, one of the most enduring myths of ancient Greece is that of the Minotaur lying in wait at the center of the maze.
We don’t all seek the same things in these winding pathways. People may use the whorls of a labyrinth — unicursal constructions that wind to the center — to enter an exalted, spiritual state: Take, for example, the pilgrims who have flocked to the church labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France for a thousand years. Mazes — which, unlike labyrinths, fork and multiply and often lead to dead ends (error gardens, the Germans call them) — offer a touch more hedonism, drawing tourists from all over for their beauty: The oldest surviving hedge maze, planted in 1690 for King William III, in Hampton Court Palace, gets around 330,000 visitors per year.
I come to mazes and labyrinths for a different reason. In them, I can be a student of my own bewilderment.
Every day since 2007, after an accident and brain injury that gave me temporary amnesia, I have been lost. I am never quite sure where I am. I first realized this cognitive change one day as I was behind the wheel, going around the block. Making four turns was something I had accomplished a million times before, but now, after the first turn and arriving at the next block, I was perplexed. Where had I come from? Did I now turn right or left? My husband was worried. He said we should take me to the doctor. We never did. I can’t say why, but somehow it didn’t feel like an emergency, plus we were both uninsured.
Being lost simply became a way of life. I did OK when moving in a straight line. But the second I turned right or left, that mental image tracking my own movements in relationship to my surroundings disappeared. With no point of reference, I journeyed in circles, walked by the same storefront over and over again, stared in wonder at bus-stop maps detailing information I could no longer read. Is it strange that I enjoyed this? I thought my life was beautiful, ruled as it was by astonishment. It felt like a miracle when I reached my destination.
The Paris catacombs.Credit…Joakim Eskildsen for The New York Times
After being lost for 16 years, a day came when I craved being lost on purpose. I fantasized about meandering in some of the world’s most ancient mazes, in search of designs meant to invent and enhance my confusion, where I could finally escape the pressure to find and be found.
Outside the castle of Chenonceau, in Chenonceaux, France, is one of the most dazzling mazes in Europe. Of course, I lose my way getting there. At the train station in Paris, a tall man calls out to inform me that I am looking at arrivals and not departures. Luckily, we are going to the same train, and in the most French turn of events ever, the man, Marc, reveals he is a hot-air balloon pilot while making me coffee out of his bag. Is he ever lost? Marc says the only time he’s lost is when he’s high up in the air. I don’t especially know what he means until later, when we exchange information and are chatting online, and he sends me a photo of the balloon above the cloud cover.
Diane de Poitiers lived at the castle, as did Catherine de Medici. De Medici, in fact, evicted Poitiers, a mistress of her husband, King Henry II, once he died. I am against the hoarding of this much wealth, but I feel for Diane de Poitiers, whose room is lovely, with a velvety sky blue four-poster bed and a wall-to-wall tapestry depicting, among other things, a bonneted woman stabbing a stake into a sleeping man’s temple and later holding his severed head over a basin. The castle is built over the water, part of it atop a bridge that spans the river Cher, whose series of gothic arches double in the water. Ample gardens, designed first by Poitiers, and then de Medici, feature box hedges, diagonal paths, flower beds, urns, fountains and yew trees.
The maze is a bit away from the property, built centuries after de Medici’s death. I have never been to a hedge maze before, and as I follow the signs through warming sunlight and a trilling forest, I am dumbstruck. Two thousand yew trees make up its winding paths.
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It is early still, and quiet, and the needles of the yew trees are silver with frost. No one else is here. Everyone has gone to see the castle. The ground crunches underfoot, and I make my first choice between two paths as if I were stealing away with treasure. Having come unprepared for the French winter, I am wearing all my clothes one over the other. The tops of the hedges are razor-sharp and curve this way and that, fitting into one another like a puzzle. They are up to my chin. At the center, I can see the elevated wooden platform of a gloriette.
I wonder if I will grow desperate to escape, and if I am above throwing myself over the hedges to do so. I am not. The question is how long until I do.
I turn around, and the path splits into four. I have been here before. I am a child of the ’90s, raised on Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth,” so dutifully, I make a mark on the ground. I walk through jolts of light, caress the needles of the yews I know to be highly poisonous if consumed, and somehow, when I look up, I have made it to the middle. Impressive! From the raised platform, I see four caryatids directly across the maze from the winged lion statues guarding its entrance. I think I am advancing in a way that will lead out, but instead I arrive, over and over and over again, to the gloriette. I tongue my cheek in frustration. Beneath that, my pleasure is immense. A line that is traversed repeatedly until it becomes a path is called a desire line. To be confounded by desire, then, is happiness of the highest order.
Navigating space is a voyage at sea. A friendly ship appears. “Vous avez besoin d’aide?” a woman calls. “Non, merci!” I call back. “Ah, merde!” I hear the same woman exclaim, as she comes to a dead end. She is the top of a black wool hat, blue eyes, ambling along. Suddenly I think I see where the hedges part — where the woman is now joyously exiting. I hurry in a line to the spot. When I exit, I double over, hooting beneath the caryatids, which I now see are pockmarked by time, faces and hands missing, but I smile up at the one white giant, holding a club, wearing what looks like a cloak with a lion head attached.
A different sort of maze exists underneath the city of Paris. Most of it is closed to the public, but that doesn’t stop lovers of the labyrinthine from sneaking in.
I meet Léo Kavernicol there, 65 feet below ground in the Parisian catacombs. She is a cataphile, an urban explorer entranced by the secret catacombs — a network of subterranean ancient stone quarries, tunnels and galleries that sprawl for more than 170 miles in a sort of negative of the city above. No high-minded noblewomen inspired this place. The catacombs were born in the 18th century, when some of the abandoned limestone quarries began to weaken and parts of the city caved in. Overflowing cemeteries meant the bones of Parisians, some of them 1,200 years old, had to be relocated. As officials dug tunnels to connect the quarries and reinforce them, and to give a resting place to the dead, they created, inadvertently, a maze.
There are only a few areas of the catacombs accessible to the public. Among them is the ossuary where six million Parisians find their resting place. The entrance is in Montparnasse, 131 steps down a spiral staircase. At each revolution, the sound of the city recedes. We are standing by a shadowy recess branching from the tunnel that is closed off by a locked gate, when we hear a tinny knock. It seems to come from above ground. Léo smiles. That’s the sound of someone stepping on the manhole cover above.
Léo is just a nickname. Cataphiles never use their real names, Léo tells me. Venturing into the secret catacombs is illegal, and cataphiles are always hiding from cataflic, catacomb police. The world of cataphiles is populated with other words: Cataclasts are those who pollute the space; katacleans are the efforts of cataphiles to restore and clean the space. There are parties, too: Kataloween, katarnavale. Léo has cataphile friends from all walks of life: “There’s a guy working for the minister, we have policemen friends … any kind of people, firefighters, lawyers. This is nice.”
Léo exudes a breezy cool. Both sides of her head are shaved, she has baby bangs and a spike pierces her chin and ends in a silver point. She tells me she once stayed underground, about a mile from where we are, in the secret catacombs for 10 days. She lounged as a good friend cooked, drank beer, made jokes. She built a bench out of limestone rocks.
“When you make a sound there,” she says, “it has nowhere to go.” The noises coming from her person bounced against the walls of the tunnels and returned as if coming from somewhere else. It seemed as if her own footsteps didn’t belong to her and someone was walking just behind. The tunnel then forked into four different directions. Léo lost all sense of where she was, including where she had just come from. Panicked, she tried one way, retraced her steps, tried the next. Finally, she found her guide: “It was the fourth one, of course, the good one — it’s always the last one!” Léo laughs.
The map that most Parisian cataphiles build on goes back to World War II, when the doctors Jean Talairach and René Suttel made a drawing of the underground tunnels beneath Paris to give to the French Resistance. Using what he learned from mapping the catacombs, Talairach, a neurosurgeon, would one day begin the work of mapping the brain. Since then, variations of the pair’s map have been passed between cataphiles from trusted hand to trusted hand. If maps need to be updated, Léo says, it’s all word of mouth. Cataphiles’ maps are full of annotations, though some just keep the ever-changing information in their head.
The French government keeps its own maps, but they are geological in nature. Cataphiles create maps for the purpose of navigating the tunnels and chambers. The first map Léo received from her guide remains her favorite, though she owns about a dozen, made by different people. To receive a map from a cataphile is to participate in a sort of initiation.
Walking down the narrow corridor that will lead to the ossuary, I hear someone ahead speaking German, and the voice rebounds in the tunnel, arriving wet and echoey to my ears. I glance over my shoulder, turn, and turn again.
If it weren’t for the German, I might have begun to head in the wrong direction. My own steps sound muffled, as if I’ve wrapped my shoes in cloth. Water dips in places from the roof of the tunnel, pooling below.
No one can actually get permanently lost in the ossuary, because — as you make your way by walls of bones, arranged many years ago by quarrymen in the shape of crosses, hearts and, once upon a time, a miniature Eiffel Tower — the circuitous paths have been blocked, so there is only one way forward. But before the ossuary was altered, someone did get lost. Philibert Aspairt entered the catacombs in 1793, and wasn’t found until 11 years later. His tomb is in the quarry gallery where he took his last breath. Later when I find the coordinates, I see that I have been sleeping in the hotel right aboveground. Which means that when I admired the view out my window, I was staring at his grave. Cataphiles see Aspairt as a protector of the catacombs, and so I am not afraid. In my mind, I name him patron saint of the lost.
In the ossuary, on the roof of the tunnel, there is a black line painted on the ceiling so modern-day guides can ferry curious Parisians in and out of this wet underworld. It reminds me of the red thread Ariadne gave to Theseus when he entered the maze to fight the Minotaur.
The corridor winds, and I come across stone placards that bear the names of the streets above — some of which don’t exist anymore.
It is a delight to be unmoored from the world. Léo and the cataphiles understand this, too.
It is midnight when I land in Barcelona, and if you can believe it, I lose my way in the airport. Somehow I end up in the area for connecting flights. The immigration officers are annoyed with me and, instead of escorting me, give me verbal directions to a hidden stairway. At one in the morning, in the deserted airport, where travelers sleep in fragile configurations and all the shops are closed, I know I am out of options. I choose a wall and keep my hand on it, just as I would do in a hedge maze. I inspect the abandoned desks from which, in daytime, gate agents lord over exhausted travelers, I look behind every column as if the secret stairs I am looking for might be mouse-size or hidden behind trap doors. Finally, I see a janitor, and I am so happy to encounter someone awake that I abandon the wall and run to her. Her hair is up in a ponytail, her nails painted neon green, visible through her translucent plastic gloves. She says she will take me to the secret stairs. We walk together, her pushing the bin of trash on wheels, me pulling on my small suitcase. When we finally arrive, I want to hug her, but refrain.
Making my slow way to the Parc del Laberint d’Horta the next morning, I start to wonder if I might be allergic to actually trying to get anywhere. I know the maze is somewhere, and I have all day. This is where the terror-edge of being lost bends to leisurely joy. I stroll by the old house of the Catalan nobleman Joan Antoni Desvalls, now fallen into disrepair. The maze that I am here to see was built in 1791, designed by the Italian architect Domenico Bagutti. The park feels like a beautiful, secret ruin; everything has an abandoned air. A stone swan spouts water in a fountain, and I follow a cement spiral staircase down to a tiered cascade. Beyond it, large leafy plants open in an island in the middle of a pond; birds flit before me, and everywhere I look there seems to be more coves with falling water. Dry maple leaves, pulled by wind, rake the ground. I think there is no other life than staring at this dappled light on moss, on falling water, on so many shades of green, and then, up and down more stairs.
Unlike at Chenonceau, the maze here is full of visitors. It is Sunday, and even before entering, I hear riotous exclamations, exhortations and, hilariously, veiled threats. Over the cypress hedges, which are about seven feet tall, I hear, “This way!” and “We’ve been here before” and “God help you if we stay the night.”
A curved wall frames the entrance to this maze: Ariadne giving Theseus the famed ball of red thread in bas-relief.
I am not prepared for how emotional I will feel. It happens rather quickly. I am watching strangers try one way and then, in seconds, return cackling — telling me, “It’s not that way, take it from us.” I grow teary and happy. Everyone is lost. I am maze-roving as children run past me, their parents telling them to be careful, to take care not to get too lost. I pick a way and notice a couple are following me. I lead us to a dead end. I want to tell them they’ve picked the wrong leader, but I don’t. Instead, I smile and say, “Your turn!” More dead ends. We blunder farther afield, and I am basking in the sunlight, in this verdant confusion, when we decide to follow a third couple. Onlookers yell down from a balcony, telling people which way they are supposed to turn. It is all so riotous; I am falling in love with everyone. A young girl with braided hair skips past me, yelling back to her parents, “We’ve arrived, we found the exit!” but I’ve just been there, and I know it’s a dead end. I am walking in circles, and I run into the same couples again and again.
I see the first couple who followed me, and this time I follow them. They tell me they think they know where the center is. We veer left, and left, and then into a clearing. The hedges here grow tall and curve in, kissing in an arch. At the center of it all is not a Minotaur but a statue of beautiful Eros with curled marbled hair and a cloth over his groin. Eros’s left arm is severed, but his right leans on a log, and a satchel of arrows hangs at his back.
I watch a pigeon land on Eros’s head, and everything seems idyllic. Next to me on the bench is Óscar, a librarian, in wool and a beret. He says he used to come to the maze as a child, and then as a teenager. With friends, he would hide, waiting until the park closed. By moonlight they would trespass into the maze, carrying bottles of wine. He pauses to call out to his son, who is running with other children along the paths of the maze. He seems to be able to pick out his child’s voice from the cheery din of people getting lost.
In the middle, there are eight possible paths, each framed by a high hedge arch. Óscar and I weigh our options. A man in fleece enters the clearing from one of the archways, talking to a woman.
“There is no way out. We have tried all the ways.”
“Really?” I say, butting in.
“Yes!” they both exclaim. “We’ve been at this for 20 minutes, hombre.”
Óscar straightens, deciding to try. He invites me to join, but I decline, wanting to dwell a bit longer at the center. I watch Óscar leave and think about what it is I love so much about being lost. It’s not the puzzle that interests me but how the bright confusion I feel is besieged by a wonder that multiplies. Here in the middle, at the revolving door of leave-takings and arrivals, I find a community of the lost.
When I get up to try the paths, I half-jokingly tell a woman, red-lipped and blond, that I am using her as a marker and beg her not to move. She laughs at me each time I return, pointing the way to the next path I am supposed to follow. As each one leads to a dead end, I think of Léo trying all those different paths to get back to her guide in the catacombs. Indeed, it is the last path I try that begins to lead out. I can tell it’s the right way by the sheer excitement of everyone around me — the voices not too far, gasping in delight, that mean I will soon be out. I have been three wondrous hours lost. I walk slower, look up at the hedges, grieving, laughing. Walking anywhere is a leap of faith, and, arriving, when faith returns.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras is a writer who was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. Her memoir, “The Man Who Could Move Clouds,” was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. Joakim Eskildsen is a photographer from Denmark. His monograph “Cuban Studies” will be published by Steidl this year.