PARIS – Forget Versailles, the Eiffel Tower and French fashion. When I want to be impressed by a marvel of Parisian design I head to the Musee des Egouts, aka the Sewer Museum.
Sure, not everyone gets the appeal of the city’s subterranean spectacle.
But, as tour guide Jean-Charles Pintori put it, “They are wrong!”
I happened to stop by the museum on a summer day when temperatures soared over 100 degrees, and I wondered if the gritty reality of Paris’ underbelly might be a little, well, overpowering.
In fact, it was one of the best places to be as Paris sizzled. Tucked deep underground, the museum maintains an even temperature, and the ambiance, while a little smelly in parts, is not overwhelming. In some areas, the air is quite fresh and with the artfully lit galleries and exhibits, you almost wouldn’t know where you were.
Walking past a canal, its dark surface prettily reflecting the glow of tunnel lights, I saw tiny bubbles popping on the surface, creating an effervescent sparkle. They turned out to be escaping methane gas.
Exhibits trace the history of Parisian sewage from the Middle Ages, when streets had drains for wastewater in the middle, to the current incarnation, which got a major overhaul in the mid-19th century under the supervision of city planner extraordinaire Baron Haussmann and engineer Eugene Belgrand.
The current system is unusual in that it also includes conduits for drinking water, handles rain runoff and houses telecommunications cables.
Displays of equipment, some antique, some current, show the tools used to keep the tunnels clear – workers remove about 15,000 cubic meters of solid waste per year.
It’s a tough job. Still, there are some families who have worked in the sewers for generations and are proud of their public service. Most are men, but there are about a half-dozen women.
Writer Victor Hugo called the sewers “that wonderful underground city” and used them as the setting for Jean Valjean’s dramatic rescue of Marius in Les Miserables. You’ll find a picture of the rescue in a corner of the museum along with a map showing the sewers as they were at the time the novel is set.
People aren’t the only creatures traveling these tunnels, as a glass case full of stuffed rats indicates. We paused at a storm drain to see if we could spot one on my tour. I am happy to report that we didn’t.
A display of antique swords caught my eye. Apparently at some point, someone somewhere tossed them and into the gutters they went.
As Pintori pointed out, the sewers are “the intestines of Paris. Everything comes through here.”
Modern-day Parisians are more likely to lose keys than fencing foils down storm drains. If that happens, there’s a number you can call to ask a worker to go look for your lost possessions. Officials report they perform anywhere up to 3,000 such operations per year with an 80 percent success rate.
Like all good museum tours, this one ends at the gift shop where you can buy mementos of your visit including stuffed (toy) rats.
Unlike most museum tours, departing visitors are admonished to wash their hands, to ensure they leave with nothing but memories.