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Notes from the Underground: The Paris Sewer Tour, Part I

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Every day Parisians flush away 1.2 million cubic meters of wastewater. It's gotta go somewhere…

 

Yes, it stinks. On the opposite sides of both the Seine and the curatorial value spectrum from the Louvre is the Musée des Egouts de Paris – the Paris Sewer Museum. The display space is part of the city’s actual sewer system, so yeah, it smells bad, although I wouldn’t call it an unbearable stench. I wouldn’t host a picnic down there either, but it didn’t smell much worse than the livestock pavilion at the Salon de l’Agriculture last February, and, as I reported then, people were gleefully eating lunch in there.

Paris’s sewers became, if not contained, the stuff of romantic legend when Victor Hugo set one of the most famous scenes from Les Misérables in them, the one where Jean Valjean goes on a trudge through the sludge carrying the wounded Marius on his back. Today, thanks to the museum, we can all follow in Hugo’s hero’s venerable footsteps. Not to mention the more numerous, although markedly less venerable, footsteps of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: one of the very first things you see is a photo of them visiting the Sewer Museum in 1992.

Figuring that since I had put so much into the system over the years it was time for me to get something out of it, I went to take the tour last week. The first section explains the water cycle in Paris, from the supply of cool, refreshing, healthful tap water to the disposal of… Well, the disposal of what you’re smelling as you learn about it. In fact, the exhibition explains this more than once, first on a series of posters, then in a 3D diorama and then once again in a series of banners, each taking you through the entire exact same process step by step.

So all right already, now I know: we get nice fresh ultra-top-quality water here in Paris. Water that’s famous for its purity and salubrious balance of calcium, magnesium and some other stuff that I didn’t note down but I’m sure is good for us. And after that water gets used to wash our hands, hair and dishes, or to flush our gutters, toilets and kidneys, then it gets gathered and filtered and aerated and deflocculated and disinfected and, big surprise, dumped into the Seine. Which, thanks to the aforementioned treatments, is not as polluted as it once was, if you’re inclined to believe everything you read on a poster in the Musée des Egouts. Two different displays make a big flushing deal of the fact that 29 species of fish can be found in the waters of our fair river, including perch, pike, gudgeon, zander, ablet, tench and carp. In case you fancy a little tench and chips, or perhaps a nice gudgeon-noodle casserole.

Speaking of zoology, yes, there are rats. The next non-human creatures you see on the tour after the Ninja Turtles and the fish are these rambunctious little rascals:

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They look remarkably clean and chipper, considering that they spent their entire lives romping in sewage.

 

Apparently the Paris Sewer Authority maintains an attitude of cheerful acceptance toward the presence of rodents in the pipes. Not only do they have the above specimens stuffed as trophies, but the next section of the tour takes visitors along an open (and, fortunately, netted-over) working sewer main with lit-up (and, thankfully, grated over) side passages, and I could see their living, breathing descendants back in there, gamboling away. I suppose it’s actually a rather pleasant existence for a rat. At least you know where your next meal is coming from.

Beyond the vermin gallery, the exhibition traces the history of sewage disposal in Paris. Here I learned that the ancient Parisians didn’t settle along a river for nothing. From Roman times through the Middle Ages, the disposal of wastewater in Paris was simplicity itself. According to the displays, it posed no particular problem for the city’s early citizens to be using the Seine as both wellhead and latrine because the amount of filth dumped into it was low enough to allow the river to “biopurify” itself. I take this to mean that drinking water from the Seine wouldn’t kill you right away, leaving enough time for the Black Plague or Attila the Hun to show up, finish the job and get credit for it.

Essentially, sewage ran in the streets, somehow making its way back to the river, until the city’s first closed cloaca was built under Rue Montmartre in 1370. Thereafter, various administrations instituted various improvements from time to time. Louis XIV had a large-ish sewer built to serve the Right Bank. He left the Left Bank to get by with the Bièvre, the Seine tributary that runs (underground today) through the 5th and 13th arrondissements, and which remained in active use as a cesspit for households, tanneries, slaughterhouses and glue factories until well into the 20th century. Somewhere along the way, the Bièvre had acquired a reputation for being foul, noxious and malodorous (probably just one of those urban legends), and it was finally covered over in 1911.

Next week: My slog through the history of sewage in Paris continues with Part II.

David Jaggard

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