Down and Out in Paris: An Underground Guide to the City of Lights
By Rachel Stella
When the Romans conquered Lutetia in 52 BCE, it pretty much put an end to the need for explorers along the banks of the Seine. By the time the City of Lights had earned Walter Benjamin’s celebrated epithet “Paris, capital of the XIXth Century,” the age of travelers had expired, only to be replaced by the throngs of gawkers captured in Lumiere’s images of the Universal Exposition of 1900.
Does this mean there is nothing more to explore in Paris? Hardly. Just go underground.
The best way to avoid the trite and superficial perception that most tourists receive from the city is simply to plunge in. And you can’t get further in than by taking a trip through the sewer system.
Beneath each street in the city is a sewer pipe of the same name. Really, the trip is a wonderful experience: it doesn’t smell, but strapping, healthy rats do scurry around quite shamelessly; and of course you can’t visit during or immediately after heavy rainstorms.
Waste is a fascinating subject and the Cartesian approach of the engineer Belgrand is well explained during the tour, available at least once every day in English. Departure is from a manhole at the Pont de l’Alma, though tickets are to be bought at the museum/boutique on the Place de la Resistance.
Still pursuing this underground view of France’s capital, you can go to the Place Denfert-Rochereau and take a tour (available in English) of The Catacombs (open everyday except Monday). This visit is shorter than the trip through the sewer (only 45 minutes) and even more gothic — the ossuary of Denfert-Rochereau is the world’s largest underground necropolis, containing some six million skeletons in a space of about one hectare.
In the short time you are underground, you won’t be covering much of the 250 kilometers of galleries and tunnels which were excavated essentially as quarries — the Louvre, for example, is built from Parisian limestone. But you will get some glimpses of French history as the guide explains when the underground streets were used, who carved the graffiti, and why all those bones are there.
A LITTLE GEOGRAPHY
Once you’ve assessed the general topography, the best way to understand and appreciate the diversity of the visual riches of this city is to walk everywhere. For this all you need is the indispensable Paris par Arrondissement, a pocket sized book with a street index and individual neighborhood maps.
Though it does show every single avenue, street, alley, mews and dead ends of the city, it’s coverage is limited to “Paris Intramuros,” or the area that used to be within walls and is now limited by the notorious “Peripherique” — 35 kilometers of beltway which circles the city and keeps the 14 million inhabitants of the greater Paris area from encroaching.
No matter what your vehicle, you will have great difficulty circling going around the loop in 11 minutes and 4 seconds, the record set by the unidentified motorcyclist known as the “Prince Noir.” Indeed, you might take as long as five hours, since recent years have seen the “Perif” used more and more frequently as a political battlefield, with the bottleneck as the decisive weapon.
Last October 18th, the city was virtually besieged by the 24 trucks and 70 vans driven by disgruntled union members of a public works company who managed to create a traffic jam 180 km long.
GETTING AROUND UNDERGROUND
This is a good reason to take underground transportation to and from the outlying airport. The express metro line which ends precisely at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy is the subject of Francois Maspero’s “Les Passagers du Roissy Express” — length of the “B” line of the RER (Reseau Express Regional). He journeyed with only a backpack, a diary and some maps, and made a detailed visit of one station and its neighborhood each day.
His published chronicle is both a fascinating sociological study of the city which no tourist ever sees, and a lucid indictment of the policies — the creation of the beltway, the lack of public transportation, the systematic displacement of public housing — which have kept Paris so beautiful and made its periphery so filthy, poor, and wretched.
Of course, there are also beautiful sites, fascinating historical monuments, and charming villages as close as 15 kilometers from the city center. But the Michelin “Green” guide will tell you all about them. We want to tell you about the alternatives. And to get you there in an alternative manner. You will need the suburban train schedule, which you can purchase at newsstands in the train stations, and proper maps.
It is still as hard to find a local map of a Paris suburb as it was to obtain maps in communist countries before the Berlin Wall came down. Though many working class suburbs still vote “red,” one hesitates to believe that this is the explanation. In any case, you can solve the problem by acquiring the “topo-guides” published by the Federation Francaise de Randonnee Pedestre ffrp.asso.fr View the GoNOMAD Photo Gallery of the Paris Underground
Read more GoNOMAD stories about France Search our directory for tours in France Find discount fllights to Paris.
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View the GoNOMAD Photo Gallery of the Paris Underground
Read more GoNOMAD stories about France
Search our directory for tours in France
Find discount fllights to Paris.