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Going Underground

Adalaj Vav, Gujarat, India
Ten miles north of the industrial city of Ahmadabad, the four-level Adalaj well, built in 1499 by Queen Rudabai, offers sanctuary from the arid plain's brutal heat. Vibrantly colored wall carvings and paintings-- depicting elephants, horses, erotic couplings, and the god Shiva-- line the shaft where steps lead down to a small pool of water. Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist architectural styles are all in evidence, and the good queen furnished each level with an octagonal landing where workers and weary travelers once reclined.
Gujarat Tourism 91-79/658-9683; call for hours.

The Catacombs, Paris
Deep beneath the 14th Arrondissement, a sign reads, STOP! HERE IS THE EMPIRE OF DEATH. If that warning doesn't scare you, the grisly scene that follows just might. The skeletal remains of nearly 6 million people, including victims of the French Revolution, lie stacked in a psychedelic patchwork that trails off into dark, echoing corridors. Originally a series of Roman stone quarries, the Catacombs weren't associated with death until the city consolidated its festering and overcrowded graveyards here in 1785. When the Nazis occupied Paris, the Resistance set up headquarters in these dank passages. Not a bad hiding place considering that the seven-square-mile portion open to the public comprises only 1/700 of the original network.
1 Place Denfert-Rochereau; 33-1/43-22-47-63; closed Monday, call for hours; $5.50.

Ruakuri Cave, Waitomo, New Zealand
Wet suit, check. Helmet with headlamp, check. Inner tube, check. The three-hour "black-water rafting" trip down the Huhunui River in the Waitomo Caves is one of the more unusual adventures anywhere. Some 250 feet below the earth, headlamps provide the only light through a series of chambers dripping with stalactites and vaulted ceilings illuminated by glowworms. Be warned: At one point rafters must jump from a small waterfall into the darkness below. Guide Angus Stubbs insists they haven't lost a customer yet.
Book Ruakuri Cave tours at Black Water Café, Main Rd., Waitomo; 64-7/878-6219, fax 64-7/878-5190; three-hour tour $35.

Forestiere Underground Gardens, Fresno, California
Baldasare Forestiere came from Sicily to America in 1900 and found work building the subways in Boston and New York. After five years he'd saved enough money to start a vineyard. He purchased 70 acres of land in California, sight unseen. A thick layer of unfarmable soil, as hard as rock, awaited him. Beneath it, however, lay moist earth. So he dug . . . for the next 40 years. The result is a 65-room, igloo-like complex that includes a ballroom, an 800-foot tunnel big enough for cars, a library, a fishpond, and, most startling of all, orange and lemon trees whose branches sprout through holes drilled in the ceiling for light.
5021 W. Shaw Ave.; 559/271-0734; two tours daily; reservations recommended; $6.

Underground Tour, Seattle
Like Rome, Seattle is a town built on top of itself, but it is also built at sea level. In the 1880's Pioneer Square was not a pretty place. Toilets turned into fountains when the tide came in, and the constant rain washed out dirt streets. After a devastating fire in 1889, civic planners jumped at the opportunity to correct the inherent flaw. For three years they trucked in tons of dirt to raise the city by as much as 32 feet. Ladders led to the new, higher streets, but 17 people died when they forgot about the drop-off. Eventually, all the businesses on the lower level shut down. An eerie, sealed-off city remains, with faded signage, Old West storefronts, and ghostly hotel lobbies.
610 First Ave.; 888/608-6337 or 206/682-4646; 90-minute tours daily; $8.

David Knowles's latest novel, The Third Eye, will be published by Nan Talese/Doubleday in 2000.

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