Underground Paris. Not for the faint of heart…or nose
For most, Paris conjures up images of the River Seine, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and the iconic Eiffel Tower. Paris also has a number of off-the-beaten-track treasures, one of which is Le Musée des Égouts, or the Sewer Museum.
For any visitor who’s interested in engineering or city planning, or unusual tourist attractions, this is a “must-see”. Ditto for fans of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, and the musical that it inspired, as he wrote about the Paris sewers in this monumental work.
Apparently tours of the sewer system have been popular since the 1800s during Victor Hugo’s time, so the off-beat has been around in this city for quite a while.
It’s actually very easy to visit this strange underground attraction. The entrance is beside the Pont de l’Alma, with a huge blue sign on the Quai d’Orsay.
This museum is really different from your mainstream city attraction. It’s part museum, about the history and development of the sewers, and water sanitation and purification since the Romans. And it’s partly a mini-tour of a small section of the sewers here. As you walk down the steps, you can’t help feeling overtones of Hades and the River Styx. But, it turns out not to be gloomy or scary at all. It’s a self-guided tour with a brochure, and boards in the museum section, so you can stroll at a leisurely pace, reading all the sigs and really gaining an understanding of how important this complex underground system really is. Sometimes free, guided tours are available.
The first underground system in Paris was constructed in 1370 and kings and governments since then enlarged the system as the city population expanded. The current 1,305-mile network of tunnels was constructed during the reign of Napoleon III, and is considered one of Baron Haussman’s finest achievements. If laid end to end, the tunnels would reach from Paris to Istanbul, apparently. It’s amazing how much is underground in the city, which is apparent when looking at this, and from watching the tunnels when going on the train and metro. The sewers also house freshwater pipes, telephone wires, traffic-light cables, and other utilities, making it an even more efficient system, and used to have the city’s pneumatic postal network (which was shut down in 1984).
The sewer tour includes a film, photographic exhibition, and a walk through the 18-foot-high by 14-foot-wide tunnels, or on raised walkways above the actual sewage. In the past, you could do an underground boat cruise, but they were stopped after a bank heist in which the robbers made their getaway via the sewers. The museum also has artifacts from way back, including old dredging boats, filters, de-sanders and work boots. We also see huge balls, used for cleaning out the tunnels.
As we wander we gain a better understanding of the history and importance of these sewers, and get a real feeling for the atmosphere down here. What hits us first is the smell. The smell is dank and musty, just off-awful, so take a deep breath and hold it a while then breathe through your mouth a bit till you adjust. Next is the sound—the sound of rushing water, glinting under the grates; some pipes dripping with condensate, shining blackly. It’s dark down there, but is well-lit, and the ventilation is good.
An interesting feature of the Paris sewer is that it’s a complete underground network dug under streets and boulevards. No other city in the world has a sewer network quite like this one in Paris. As mega cities develop the question of waste and sewage control becomes more and more relevant and perhaps they can learn from Paris. Each street in Paris, even if small, has its own sewer. The tunnels are named for the streets that lie directly above them. That sewer collects waste only from that street. Longer streets have more than one collection basin.
Besides the history of the sewers, the museum also covers the current ecology of the river area. The quality of water is much better now, even compared to 20 years ago. Fish and birds are back in the river.
Admission charge: E4.40 for adults, E3.60 for 6-16.
Open Saturday-Wednesday, May-September 11am-5pm, October-April 11am-4pm. Closed Christmas Day and New Year’s Day and for two weeks in January for maintenance.
Address: Quai d’Orsay and Pont d’Alma
Entrance at ground level between Quai d’Orsay and the Seine. Look for the blue and white booth.
Metro: Alma-Marceau (line 9)
RER: Pont d’Alma Line C