Going underground: the other Paris

by cotcom

It may be a bit off the wall - and it's definitely not what you'd call fragrant - but a tour of the Paris sewers is one of the least known and best adventures the city has to offer

What’s 2,400 kilometres long, closed to the public during half-time of the soccer World Cup, and gives new meaning to the words “bad smell”? Answer: it's Paris’s underground sewer system, and the Sewer Museum is one of the most unusual, if not smelliest (and I mean smelliest), exhibits in the City of Light.

Known for fashion, culture and passion, Paris is also home to the complex structural feat that is the city’s sewer network. In the mid 1800s, civic planner Baron Haussmann and his chief engineer and visionary, Eugene Belgrand, designed and built what now runs through the bowels of the city.

Along with the ever-present stink, the sewer is damp, dark and a little bit creepy. It’s noisy down there, with the constant sound of rushing water, and the passageways can be treacherously slippery. The sewers, or les egouts, mirror the streets above, complete with identical street signs. The vast network of sandstone tunnels today carries drinking water, non-drinking water like storm drain water, telephone cables, compressed air pipes, electrical cables for traffic lights and, well, Paris’s sewage. The system gets rid of 1.2 million cubic metres of waste water every day.

The self-guided tour takes about an hour, and there are plenty of photos, maps and story boards to look at. You’ll see the Aubriot, Turgot and Bruneseau galleries, and walk through the Duleau passageway – all named in honour of significant contributors to the development of the system.

The history of Paris’s sewers began with the Romans, who developed a relatively sophisticated water transport system. Then, in the Middle Ages, progress went backwards. Everything was simply thrown into the streets, creating a perfect breeding ground for rats and the plague. Napoleon III in the 1850s can be credited with kick-starting the modern era of the sewer.

Not all were in favour of the underground development when it was first mooted. Victor Hugo, the famous 19th-century French poet and novelist, wrote in Les Misérables that “a sewer is a mistake”, claiming “Paris throws twenty five million [francs] a year into the sea” and “There is no guano comparable in fertility to the detritus of a capital.”

The museum’s brochure warns that because it’s an actual operating part of the sewer, you must avoid touching any walls, pipes or waste water (beware the dripping ceilings). Don’t eat, don’t run, and don’t lean over the manropes. And yes, wash your hands when you’re finished.

The small souvenir shop on the way out sells books, a few T-shirts and le morceau de résistance: life-sized soft toy sewer rats, complete with tails and whiskers. Urban myth says that there are as many rats below Paris as there are people above. And of course, if you need to go, there are also some toilettes.

The Sewer Museum is awash with flushing trucks, a flushing machine and a flushing boat. There’s a water analyser, hydraulic gates, and a floating material retention device. It’s an intriguing glimpse into what is an extraordinary engineering achievement and worth taking some time to sniff around. So to speak.

Fast facts

The Paris Sewer Museum is open Saturdays to Wednesdays, 11am to 5pm in summer, and 11am to 4pm in winter (October to April). Tickets cost €4.20 and because it is a working sewer, it’s not recommended for young children. Enter at Pont de l’Alma, opposite 93 Quai d’Orsay, not far from the Eiffel Tower. Nearest Métro station: Alma-Marceau.