Subterranean Paris: the Sewers Below the City of Light

This post is Part 4 of a series about visiting Alternative Paris. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, click to read Heading to Paris? Pack your Post-it notes, and part 2, Catacombs of Paris: Do I see Dead People?, and part 3, Falafel, History and Remembrance: Jewish Paris. Then return here to read Subterranean Paris: the city below the City of Light.

“Paris has another Paris under herself; a Paris of sewers; which has its streets, its crossings, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation, which is slime, minus the human form.”

Les Miserables.

Word has it Victor Hugo had a friend who took it upon himself to map the sewers of Paris, which even I have to admit is a weird hobby, and also might explain Hugo’s choice of setting in Les Miserables, as Jean Valjean slouches his way below the streets, Marius slung over his shoulders.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be running from the police with a Frenchman on your back to get a glimpse what lies below. Lucky you, Paris has a sewer museum, the Musée des Égouts de Paris.

Information kiosks in the Paris Sewer

Information kiosks in the Paris Sewer

What, do I hear whining? Why would I go down into the sewers of Paris? Won’t it smell? What’s there to see? Small spaces make me anxious, crabby, eat small children for breakfast… All reasonable questions. Here’s why I think you should give the sewers a go:

  • History: there’s nearly as much history below the streets of Paris as there is above. Wild parties, hidden treasure, clean water, sewage treatment!
  • Scale: nearly 1,300 miles (2,100 kilometers) of tunnels.
  • As above, so below: the sewer system is sort of a mirror image of what lies above, including street signs. No cafés, no opera, no shopping though (except for the gift shop, where you can catch your breath in conditioned air and contemplate buying a rat key chain).
  • Curiosity: Why not? What have you got to lose, aside from an hour of your time? I guarantee you’ll learn something and live to tell the tale. The museum is informational, with placards and video terminals in French and English full of stuff about the history of the sewers, clean water, waste treatment, and items occasionally discovered down there.

Yes, it smells a little bit, but not nearly as bad as you imagine and nothing you can’t handle. Because you’re a traveler! Because the smelly bits of travel, along with the risks and dangers, and especially those quirky adventures, make for great stories afterward.

Speaking of afterward, when you’ve finished your brief underground tour, you will climb the stairs out of the sewer museum, look across the Pont de l’Alma, and take a deep breath. Find a lovely sidewalk café and enjoy a good, strong espresso or glass of wine. Stroll down to the quai Voltaire, browse the second-hand books in the Bouquinistes’ boxes and shop the artist’s stalls, all while appreciating the engineers and sanitation workers who keep the Seine flowing sewage-free, and the air above the streets of Paris fresh.

Artist stalls on the Left Bank, Paris

Artist stalls on the Left Bank, Paris

Thank you for reading these posts on Alternative Paris. My point is not to advise you to ignore the art, music and architecture that makes this City of Light glow, but to encourage you to find other ways to discover Paris (and any other place you travel) and to make it yours. Bon voyage, mes amis!

Resources:

  • Hours: 11:00 am to 5:00 pm, closed Thursday and Friday

Barbara Gabriel

Writer. Day Stealer. Chronic Traveler. Raised along Highway 61 in Minnesota, I ran away to sea & messed about in boats. I curse like a sailor and love travel, food, most people, and a well-fitting pair of boots. I try to combine those any chance I can.

5 Comments:

  1. “Quirky adventures make for great stories afterward.” Oh, yes, indeed—spot on! And thanks for teaching me a word I never knew: Bouquenistis—so THAT’s what they’re called.

  2. I love your off beat adventures. A step off of the regular path to find the true treasures.
    Yes! Hit the high points… but don’t miss the rest!

  3. Pingback: Heading to Paris? You May Want to Pack Your Post-its. | Steal Just One Day

  4. Pingback: Catacombs of Paris: Do I See Dead People? | Steal Just One Day

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