ONE MIGHT BE FORGIVEN for thinking that exploring the sewers of Paris is rather a bizarre way to spend an afternoon. On the contrary, it’s fascinating … if a little malodorous.
Entrance to Le Musée des Égouts de Paris
The Sounds in the Boutique:
Many people have written about the sewers of Paris but few have done it better than Victor Hugo …
“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, Jean Valjean; Book II, ch.I)
And then further on …
Let the reader imagine Paris lifted off like a cover, the subterranean net-work of sewers, from a bird’s eye view, will outline on the banks a species of large branch grafted on the river. On the right bank, the belt sewer will form the trunk of this branch, the secondary ducts will form the branches, and those without exit the twigs.
This figure is but a summary one and half exact, the right angle, which is the customary angle of this species of subterranean ramifications, being very rare in vegetation.
A more accurate image of this strange geometrical plan can be formed by supposing that one is viewing some eccentric oriental alphabet, as intricate as a thicket, against a background of shadows, and the misshapen letters should be welded one to another in apparent confusion, and as at haphazard, now by their angles, again by their extremities.
(Les Miserables, Jean Valjean; Book II, ch.II)
The ‘belt sewer’ to which Hugo refers was built on the Right Bank of la Seine in the time of Louis XIV but the Left Bank was not so lucky, there the river Biévre was used as their sewer.
Pierre Emmanuel Bruneseau was the Inspector of Works for the City of Paris and in 1805 he set about exploring and mapping the ancient and ageing sewer system. Victor Hugo was a friend of Bruneseau and he wrote that, “Nothing could equal the horror of this old, waste crypt, the digestive apparatus of Babylon.” When he finished the work in 1812 Bruneseau he was hailed as “intrepid” and the “Christopher Columbus of the cess-pool”.
The Sounds in the Galerie Bruneseau:
By the middle of the nineteenth-century, Baron Haussmann was not only transforming Second Empire Paris above ground, his reach had also extended below ground. In March 1855 he appointed Eugène Belgrand, a French engineer, as Director of Water and Sewers of Paris.
Belgrand embarked on an ambitious project. The tunnels he designed were intended to be clean, easily accessible, and substantially larger than the previous Parisian underground. Under his guidance, Paris’s sewer system expanded fourfold between 1852 and 1869. He also addressed the city’s fresh water needs, constructing a system of aqueducts that nearly doubled the amount of water available per person per day and quadrupled the number of homes with running water.
In recognition of his work, Belgrand’s name is one of seventy-two names engraved on the Eiffel Tower and the main gallery of le Musée des Égouts is also named after him, as is a street in Paris.
The Sounds in the Galerie Belgrand:
The Parisian sewers mirror the streets above. Each sewer “street” has its own blue and white enamel street sign and the outflow of each building is identified by its real street number.
One of the displays in the museum that attracts a great deal of attention is this giant iron ball. The sewers are regularly cleaned using spheres like this, just smaller than the system’s tunnels. The build up of water pressure behind the ball forces it through the tunnel network until it emerges somewhere downstream pushing a mass of filthy sludge.
The Parisian sewers have always fascinated tourists and they were first opened to the public during the Exposition Universelle of 1867. At that time, they stretched for 600 km underneath the city. Today, that has been extended to 2,100 km. Every day, 1.2 million cubic metres of water pass through the system. The sewer system not only handles drinkable and non-drinkable water but it’s also home to telecommunication cables and traffic-light management cables.
It’s worth remembering that this section of the Paris sewers may be a museum but it’s also a working sewer and the dominant sounds of the museum are the sounds of sewage water passing under one’s feet!
Perhaps Victor Hugo should have the last word …
The sewer is the conscience of the city. Everything there converges and confronts everything else. In that livid spot there are shades, but there are no longer any secrets. Each thing bears its true form, or at least, its definitive form. The mass of filth has this in its favour, that it is not a liar. Ingenuousness has taken refuge there. The mask of Basil is to be found there, but one beholds its cardboard and its strings and the inside as well as the outside, and it is accentuated by honest mud. Scapin’s false nose is its next-door neighbour. All the uncleannesses of civilization, once past their use, fall into this trench of truth, where the immense social sliding ends. They are there engulfed, but they display themselves there. This mixture is a confession. There, no more false appearances, no plastering over is possible, filth removes its shirt, absolute denudation puts to the rout all illusions and mirages, there is nothing more except what really exists, presenting the sinister form of that which is coming to an end. There, the bottom of a bottle indicates drunkenness, a basket-handle tells a tale of domesticity; there the core of an apple which has entertained literary opinions becomes an apple-core once more; the effigy on the big sou becomes frankly covered with verdigris, Caiphas’ spittle meets Falstaff’s puking, the louis-d’or which comes from the gaming-house jostles the nail whence hangs the rope’s end of the suicide. A livid foetus rolls along, enveloped in the spangles which danced at the Opera last Shrove-Tuesday, a cap which has pronounced judgment on men wallows beside a mass of rottenness which was formerly Margoton’s petticoat; it is more than fraternization, it is equivalent to addressing each other as thou. All which was formerly rouged is washed free. The last veil is torn away. A sewer is a cynic. It tells everything.