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Features: Fortean Traveller

Underground Paris

Carolyn Waudby finds war, skulls and adventure when she descends beneath the streets of Paris.

underground paris
For every city, with its cathedrals, restaurants and swanky shops, there is a dark underbelly. Urban populations leave a huge trail of detritus, including their own human remains, and a closer look at the way the inhabitants dispose of the waste trail will often reveal more about a metropolis than its glossy veneer. Paris is no exception, and forteans can discover a more interesting side to the ‘City of Light’ by exploring its sewers, catacombs, crypts and cemeteries.
The remains of six million people are collected here

The sewers

The Paris sewers – les égouts – proudly declare themselves to be “the smelliest museum in the world”. Descending by staircase below the streets and Métro into the low-lit waste system of Paris, you are greeted by the whiff of something not very pleasant and the deafening sound of rushing water. A guided route reveals some of the 500km (300 miles) of damp tunnels with giant dripping pipes overhead.

Like most old cities, Paris once used its river, the Seine, as both drinking water and waste outlet. From the Middle Ages, open sewers running down the middle of streets collected effluent and poured it into the Seine. This worked well until the 18th century, when the city grew to the point that the river’s own ecosystem could not break down the quantity of waste, leading to death and disease. The stomach-churning filth of Paris at this time is the backdrop to Patrick Suskind’s 1984 novel Perfume, recreated in the 2006 film, in which central character Grenouille works for a riverside tannery – a common 18th-century polluter.

Napoleon Bonaparte decided to tackle the problem, on the one hand as part of his ambitious restructuring of Paris, on the other because he wanted to give Parisians the enduring gift of clean water. A 30km (19-mile) vaulted sewer network was built. In 1850, Baron Haussmann, the architect of Napoleon III’s broad, straight boulevards, with engineer Eugène Belgrand, took up the project, designing sewers that carried effluent far downstream from Paris, plus a separate drinking water system.

In 1878, the sewer was 600km (370 miles) long and used the principle of gravity, with pumping stations placed in neighbourhoods where necessary. Each street had its own sewer and the tunnels were big enough to walk and work in. The project was completed in 1894 when it became compulsory to send all waste water to the sewers – “tout a l’égout”.

Victor Hugo used the sewers in the plot of his famous 10-volume novel Les Misérables, published in 1862. Hugo’s friend Emmanuel Bruneseau was commissioned to carry out an exhaustive survey of the network, providing the novelist with a detailed firsthand account of this subterranean world.

In the novel, Jean Valjean carries a friend wounded on the barricades in the 1832 riots through the sewers to safety. Hugo writes that Valjean’s “first impression was of being blind… a wafting, fetid smell reminded him where he was.” The pair arrive at the main sewer ring at around 3pm. They set off again, seeing light in the distance, but find it impossible to get out: “The arch was blocked off by a strong grille.”

Each sewer is marked with a replica of the street sign above it – truly a city beneath the city. Fortunately, you do not come into close contact with effluent on the tour, although the most fascinating part of the experience for me was looking down through a grid at the wastewater flowing below carrying discarded remnants of life above – an empty cigarette packet, a disposable nappy, an Evian bottle and numerous unreadable tickets.

Among the many exhibits are wooden ‘flushing’ boats and giant wooden balls, which were rolled down the sewers to act like giant stop-cocks, trapping silt but allowing water to pass through.

Since I have a rat phobia, I was very relieved that we didn’t encounter any vermin other than stuffed specimens behind glass – and, bizarrely, giant furry rats on sale in the gift shop.

The catacombs

The entrance to the catacombs in the Montparnasse area is within an 18th-century city wall and was once dubbed ‘Hell’s Gate’. Those of a nervous nature or weak heart are advised not to venture any further, as a spiral stone staircase takes you 20m (66ft) into the Earth – deeper even than the sewers. The catacombs form part of gypsum and limestone mines dating back to Gallo-Roman times.

In the first century BC, limestone from these quarries was used to make sarcophagi, and in later times the buildings of Paris. Excavation was finally forbidden in 1813. And just as the Seine was unable to cope with Paris’s growing waste, inner city cemeteries by the end of the 18th century had become overcrowded. Rampant disease in the Les Halles neighbourhood let to the mass grave of the adjacent Cemetery of the Innocents being entirely exhumed and its remains moved to the quarry under the Montsouris plain. In 1786, the quarries were consecrated and declared the official ossuary of Paris. Carts covered with black cloths and escorted by priests chanting the office for the dead rumbled across Paris by night to deposit remains from cemeteries throughout the city.

Louis-Etienne Héricart de Thury, engineer-in-chief of the mines from 1776 to 1854, had the bones thrown in chaotically then arranged in a ‘decorative way.’ The transfer of bones took place until 1860 and public access to the catacombs was granted from 1810.

Just as in the sewers, the galleries leading to the ossuary follow the street patterns above, and also bear names. The bones lie beneath the houses. Before entering the catacombs, you pass beneath a lintel declaring Arrête! C’est ici L’Empire de la Mort – ‘Stop! This is the Empire of Death.’ Other such cheerful reminders of mortality – including Virgil, Horace and LaMartine – are everywhere. Tibiæ and fibulæ are stacked neatly in piles, with skulls sandwiched between them in neat patterns. My partner, a hardened fortean, found it somewhat ghoulish; I less so, perhaps because I was trying to make notes and read the maxims inscribed on the walls in the almost non-existent light.

The remains of some six million people are collected here, and although individuals can’t be identified, it’s ironic that members of the French nobility have ended up side by side with the revolutionaries who exterminated them. The catacombs are said to house victims of the Reign of Terror, including Robespierre himself, executed on 27 July 1795, and Louis XVI’s sister, Mme Elisabeth, who went to the guillotine exactly a year earlier. Other illustrious inhabitants include comedian Scaramouche, and poet and academician Jean de la Fontaine, who both died in 1694, and Madame de Pompadour, courtesan to Louis XV and friend of Voltaire, who died in 1764.

In 1871, the catacombs saw the death of a number of Paris Commune insurgents who took refuge in the tunnels and were massacred when troops blocked the exits. Almost 30 years later, at the end of the 19th century, Parisians were scandalised by a secret concert held in the Crypt of the Passion. Forty-five amateur musicians played Chopin’s Funeral March, Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre and Funeral March and Beethoven’s Eroica for a select audience. A xylophone was used to create the sound of rattling bones…

As you leave the ossuary, you pass through several high, cavernous chambers that remain from the quarrying, shored up with concrete to prevent their collapse. Eighty-three steps take you back to the surface where, in a strange turnabout, your bags are searched as you leave, rather than as you enter.

The cemeteries

After a spell underground, you might find yourself craving daylight. Père-Lachaise is said to be the most visited cemetery in the world. It also played a significant part in the Paris Commune; 147 communards cornered here surrendered and were shot and buried on the spot. But anyone who was anyone is buried at Père-Lachaise, including Edith Piaf, Maria Callas, Isadora Duncan, Max Ernst, Chopin, Jim Morrison, Balzac and Molière.

Named after the Jesuit Père de la Chaise, Louis XIV’s confessor, it was laid out by the architect Brongniart in 1804, incorporating a tree-covered hill and cobbled avenues. It is Paris’s largest green space, covering 44 hectares (110 acres), and a haven for wildlife: 5,000 trees, 25 species of bird, numerous cats and even colonies of bees all thrive in this necropolis. Père-Lachaise has also been linked to black magic rituals.

As any connoisseur of French cinema will know, sex and death are national preoccupations, and Père-Lachaise seems to marry the two perfectly. The presumed remains of forbidden 12th-century lovers Heloise and Abélard were moved to a white marble, neo-Gothic tomb in the cemetery in 1817.

One of the most popular monuments is that of Oscar Wilde, a giant Jacob Epstein sculpture of a naked sphinx, commissioned by a female admirer of Wilde’s poetry. The sphinx not only bears Wilde’s face, but it once sported huge genitals, which were considered offensive and ‘removed’ by the head keeper (who, legend has it, used the phallus as a paperweight).

Another popular grave is that of 19th-century spiritualist Allan Kardec, upon whose bronze bust visitors place their hands for divine insight – even though a plaque states this is exactly what Kardec would have frowned upon!

Paris’s second most infamous cemetery is that of Montparnasse, where Sartre, de Beauvoir, Baudelaire and Beckett are buried. It gained notoriety for an outbreak of necrophilia. In 1849, one Sergeant François Bertrand took to digging up corpses with his bare hands to have sex with them. He even chewed some of the bodies, the youngest of which belonged to a seven-year-old. Bertrand was caught, and convicted on 15 counts, but only served a year in jail. However, he committed suicide a year after his release.

Today, Parisians use the cemeteries of Père-Lachaise and Montparnasse for the down-to-earth pursuits of meeting friends or going for a stroll, perhaps taking to heart the advice offered in the catacombs: “Heureux celui qui a toujours devant les yeux l’heure de sa mort et qui se dispose tous les jours a mourir” – “Happy is he who always keeps the hour of his death before him and spends every day dying.”

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underground paris
Author Biography
Poet, journalist and lecturer Carolyn Waudby doesn’t normally dabble in things fortean, but often finds herself in strange places with her sidekick, FT columnist Dr David Clarke.


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