Travel Post: Paris and the Subterranean Weekend

On Saturday, the floods having retired somewhat (I sent out a dove to check), I decided it was time to start my proper underground exploration of Paris. And with garbage strikes allegedly over, but rubbish nonetheless still piled high on the streets, it seemed timely to investigate the sewers of Paris.  (My hostess warned me that it might be smelly, but I pointed out that right now, I was probably as used to smells as I was going to get.  It’s not that Paris has been unremittingly stinky, but with the warm weather, one does detect a certain aroma as one passes the rubbish bins…

I began making my way down towards the seventh arondissement, but then realised that I was going to be too early for the sewers, and decided to stop by the Rodin museum on the way.  As you do.


Actually, as everyone does.  That was a very full museum.  I didn’t spend a lot of time inside, but the gardens were lovely.


I enjoyed wandering along the leafy avenues, looking at roses and inspecting the occasional sculpture.


A very peaceful start to the day.


The museum itself was less exciting to me, mostly because it was very full of people.  (And because I’m a little bit tone deaf about art, to be honest.)

But really, who wants to look at beautiful sculptures and roses when one can tour the sewer systems of Paris?  Well, probably most people, but not me.  I walked down to the Pont d’Alma, which meant I got to pass Les Invalides and also wave hello to the Eiffel Tower, so that was nice.

What's that in the distance?

What’s that in the distance?

La Musée des Égouts de Paris is opposite the Pont d’Alma, and under the ground.  Because yes, you really do tour a portion of the (extremely extensive) sewers of Paris.

At first, the smell is mostly one of dank dampness.  Without that, I think the sewers would be rather lovely, with their high, arched ceilings of dark stone.  They are very well-built, and there is no question of needing to bend over to walk through them.  (They were built by the first Napoleon and extended by his grandson, and both Napoleons evidently felt that even the sewers should reflect the glory of France in their architecture.)

There is a lot of information about the history of Paris and its waste (as well as a history of its drinking water and how this is now managed – this is the first time I’ve seen ‘don’t waste water’ displays outside Australia, incidentally.  I learned a fair bit about how sewers work in Paris, and where the clean water comes from, and what happens during floods (the floor was quite wet from the recent floods, in fact), but mostly I was fascinated by the atmosphere, which is crying out for stories (and eventually got one).

A cleaning ball for the Paris sewers.  Alas, most of my photos of the sewers didn't work very well, but since I kind of loved the cleaning balls, I'm glad this one did.

A cleaning ball for the Paris sewers. Alas, most of my photos of the sewers didn’t work very well, but since I kind of loved the cleaning balls, I’m glad this one did.

Interestingly, they say that the Seine’s own filtering system coped quite well with human waste right up until the high Middle Ages, when the population really got going.  The display talked about the different solutions that had been attempted over the years before the sewers were built, some of which you can still see in the streets, I realised – Philippe Auguste had streets designed with a central gutter, and over the last few days I’ve walked down cobbled streets where the gutter (or its remains) are still there.

We walked down some rather narrower – and actually quite foul smelling – passages, and then found ourselves in another, larger area, where we got to read about how the sewers were built, and also about Victor Hugo.  Hugo is, of course, the main reason I knew about the sewers – in Les Misérables, Jean Valjean rescues Marius by carrying him through the sewers, and apparently Hugo was a friend of one of the sewer inspectors, so  his description of the sweres is pretty accurate.  In this section, there was a very loud sound of rushing water beneath our feet – I’m not sure whether the water always rushes like that, or if this was a result of the floods.

Altogether, this was a really interesting tour, and introduction to some of Paris’s infrastructure.

I returned to daylight and a niceish chocolate shop (Michael Chaudin, from my list.  Quite pleasant, but not in my top five.), followed by a rather unfortunate lunch, and then decided that I might as well continue my underground tour by visiting the Catacombes.  These are in the 14th arondissement, only a couple of kilometres away, but my feet hurt (my feet have been hurting all week, poor things – I blistered them nicely on my first day in Paris and they never got better), so I took the Metro.

And then, I queued.

They will tell you, if you visit the Catacombes, that you must be prepared for a 2km walk under the ground, and that there will be no toilets.

They do not tell you that this is preceded by a queue in which there are also no toilets, nor any places to sit.  And this queue can be two hours long, or at least, it was that day.  In retrospect, Saturday was probably a stupid time to visit such a popular destination.

I have no shame about sitting on the ground, which was useful, and I will say that the wait was worth it.  And fortunately, I had a bottle of water, chocolate, and a book.  The elements of life.  I was good.  (And I think I started a sit-down movement, at least in my corner of the queue – go me!  Because once one person is sitting on the ground, it’s less embarrassing for others to follow suit…)

The catacombs have an interesting history.  They are partly an attempt to shore up Paris, which stands on ground that has almost a honeycomb of chambers underneath, dating from Roman times, and also the Middle Ages.  And now of course, with the metro and the sewers, it must be even worse.  They apparently discovered this when, one find day in 1774, a row of houses on the aptly-named Rue d’Enfer were abruptly swallowed up by the ground.


So they sent architects in to shore things up, and then decided, since the graveyards were overflowing (literally and disgustingly into people’s basements, I gather) that these new underground chambers could become a giant ossuary.


Stop! This is the Temple of Death

And then they decided to arrange the bones in artistic patterns, with occasional meditations on mortality in between.


So you walk through an underground maze lined with sculptures made from femurs and skulls (the rest of the bones are, presumably, behind them).


And occasionally you stop and read poetry in a variety of languages, reflecting on death.

That which one sows Can produce life Only through death

That which one sows
Cannot take life
Except through death

The effect is striking and macabre and strangely peaceful, I thought.  Though the people near me kept shrieking about how creepy it was, which was a little irritating.


I eventually stopped and waited for them to get well ahead of me.

Bones from

Bones from the ancient St Laurent cemetary, deposited in 1848 in the Ossuary of the West and transferred in September 1859.

Actually, the most creepy part of the catacombs, now I think of it, is the ticker thing that keeps count of how many people have gone into the catacombs and how many have come out.  I can’t help wondering who didn’t come out before that was installed… (now there’s a possible Paris story…)


Eventually, I reemerged into daylight, and decided to walk back to my B&B (alas for my poor blistered feet!), as public transport was, in this case, likely to involve even more walking.  So I hobbled my way back down towards the fifth arondissement,  where I promptly got distracted by a completely magical clothing shop on the Rue Mouffetard (so magical that I can’t find it online, even with Google Maps) full of vibrant and gorgeous garments which I was unable to resist.

And then I ended the day with a very authentically southern Italian parmagiana di melanzane, followed by glorious violet gelati from Gelati d’Alberto, and then tottered home to comfort my feet.  Sorry about the foot theme.  I really have spent the last ten days discovering all the ways feet can hurt.


On Sunday, I decided to make like a good little church musician and headed to Nôtre Dame for Mass.  This turns out to be the best way to get into Nôtre Dame without a queue, provided one goes early enough.


The Mass was in Gregorian chant, which was fun – by the end of it, I had just about got the hang of how to read the music.  I have a feeling it was Latin Rite, as there was a notable lack of women anywhere involved.  It was quite fun realising that they use the same chant for ‘Our Father’ that they do in Australia, however.


I left, admiring the queues I had avoided, and headed for La Crypte Archéologique.  Because sometimes, one just needs to spend the weekend underground.

Paris before there was Paris

Paris before there was Paris

La Crypte Archéologique is an archeological museum directly opposite Nôtre Dame with both Roman and Medieval remains in situ.  The site includes the smallest of the Roman Baths, and the remains of an 19th century foundling hospital, but also some fantastic maps and plans of what Paris looked like before settlement and during its various eras.

Roman Lutetia.  The red star marks the place where I was staying!  (I can tell, because when you blow the picture up large, you can see the Arènes de Lutèce).

Roman Lutetia. The red star marks the place where I was staying! (I can tell, because when you blow the picture up large, you can see the Arènes de Lutèce).

All very useful stuff.


I came back out of the Crypte into the light and was promptly drenched – it was absolutely pouring with rain, and naturally I had no umbrella.  I decided that this was the moment for an early lunch, so I ran across the bridge off the Île de la Cité, and across the road, laughing as one does when one is completely saturated, and took refuge in Café le Petit Pont.

This turned into officially the most hilarious lunch I have had in Paris.  I arrived, soaked to the skin, and the waiter promptly, and with great flourishes offered me a seat outside and almost under a drainpipe.  My mouth must have dropped open, because he laughed and immediately ushered me inside and put me at a much cosier table, in a corner just in front of the bar.  This turned out to be the box seat for a command performance of extreme silliness by the waiters and the chap behind the bar.

They were, evidently, filled with exuberance after the previous evening’s victory in the soccer, and this expressed itself in a game of kick to kick with a soccer ball in the café (leading to several broken glasses); sparklers in the drinks (leading to a napkin fire that everyone seemed to find hilarious but not actually worth putting out for a while); singing; dancing; and, once they realised they had a highly amused audience (the café was relatively empty, and I was the only person who was lunching alone), ever-increasing acts of showing off.  And ridiculous, over-the-top flirtation from the chap behind the bar (aided and abetted by the waiters, who were eager to tell me that he was studying physio and thus did very good massages).  I politely declined all offers, and he cheerfully moved on to chatting about where I had learned French, and about Australia.  Sadly, it appeared he had been to Australia, which is a pity, because if ever there was an appropriate time to make up tall tales about Drop Bears and kangaroos roaming the streets, this was the occasion.

The food itself was pretty ordinary – not terrible, but kind of student food, filling and basic and cheap – but it was still one of the more enjoyable lunches I’ve had in Paris.  And it was warm and I had time to get dry, and I also collected a high five from a couple of the waiters on the way out, so I suspect I was nearly as enjoyable a customer as they were waitstaff!

It was still raining, and none of the little tourist shops near me were selling umbrellas, so I had a think about what to do next.  I’d wanted to go back to the Marais for more museums, but it was too far in the wet.  On the other hand, the Musée de Cluny was only a block or two away, which was manageable even in this weather.

The Musée de Cluny is the Museum of the Middle Ages, and should therefore be of extreme interest to me.  Alas, I’ve been three times before, and been bored all three times.  I have no idea why.  To be honest, I’d given myself permission to skip it this time, and if the weather had been better, I’d have done so, but it wasn’t, and I didn’t, and this turned out to be the time when I was really glad to have gone.

On my way in, I saw that they were doing guided tours of the Roman Baths (the Baths at Cluny being the largest ones in Lutetia, at the opposite end of the scale from the ones in the Crypte), and that there was a concert of medieval lais at 4pm.  Lutetia is something I really want to know more about, and I like medieval music, so I bought tickets to both, and started my tour of the museum.

Which, this time, I really enjoyed.  I have no idea why things that I found utterly dull last time were of interest this time – perhaps it was simply that I went in on the principle that I might as well enjoy what I could where it was dry, rather than starting with a feeling of being obliged to be excited?

Saint Denis.  With optional head.

Saint Denis. With optional head.

My favourite things were still the tapestries – not just the unicorns, but the Saint Martin ones, which have very strange beasties in them – and the breastfeeding madonna.


The tour of the Roman Baths was fun, though the tourguide spoke incredibly fast, and I missed a lot.  There were only seven of us on the tour, and I think the others were all French, and students of architecture.  We did get to go into closed-off sections of the museum, including the bits where the hypocausts were – so, for the fourth time this weekend, I found myself underground in Paris.  It was that sort of weekend.  It was really interesting, and I think I’m beginning to learn to distinguish between Roman building and early medieval, though my eye is not really good for this sort of thing.


I then went and looked at more tapestries before the concert.

The concert was wonderful.

It was a short one, which will happen if you have only one singer and a harpist, and I think they did six or eight pieces, some secular, some religious.  The harpist introduced us to the genre, explaining that it came from England, along with the harp, and unlike previous French song, which was mostly repeated verses, Lais were ‘unique, irrégulaire, bizarre’.  I don’t think you need me to translate that.

One of several exhibits aimed at vision-impaired visitors.  Braille description, and a sculpture that you are allowed to touch.

One of several exhibits aimed at vision-impaired visitors. Braille description, and a sculpture that you are allowed to touch.

The singer was excellent, as was the harpist, and it was interesting the way the music came together  – there seemed to be interludes for harp, with no discernable starting point for the verses.  Indeed, I had the impression that the singer delayed the start of a verse at one point because of background noise, but this was more from the glance she made at the harpist than anything in the music, which was seamless.  I got the impression that perhaps the harpist does little interludes in a particular key for a bit and then the singer comes in when she is ready and has the audience’s attention.  This would certainly be a useful model for music intended to be performed at dinner or other potentially noisy events.

Anyway, it was lovely, and I left very happy, and having decided not to go to Nôtre Dame for their special music mass that evening, because it couldn’t possibly live up to this.

I was near another chocolatier on my list, so I dropped into Franck Kestener, who turned out to be my favourite chocolatier so far (Genin does better pâtisserie and confectionery, but Kestener’s chocolates are incomparable, in my view).  Kestener uses lots of herbs in his chocolates, and lots of textures – I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the sunflower seed chocolate as much as I did, and I loved the rosemary ganache and especially the lemon thyme.  I’ve already reviewed him in my chocolate post, so I won’t continue here, except to say that if you are in the Latin Quarter, you should definitely make a point of visiting.


I began to walk back through the Jardins de Luxembourg, where someone was giving a piano concert – Chopin – under the trees, and stopped to listen for a while.  Lots of lovely, unexpected music that day!


Then I walked back to my B&B, past this bit of street art.


The poem is by Yves Bonnefoy, and reads as follows (I’ve attempted a translation, but it is not perfect – I really don’t know how to translate the final line properly).

Regarde ce grand arbre
Et à travers lui
Il peut suffire.
See this great tree
And through him
It may suffice.
Car même déchiré, souillé,
L’arbre des rues,
C’est toute la nature,
Tout le ciel,
L’oiseau s’y pose,
Le vent y bouge, le soleil
Y dit le même espoir malgré
La mort.
Because even torn up, defiled
The tree of the streets
It is all of nature
All the heavens
The bird rests in it
The wind moves it, the sun
Tells it still to hope, despite
As-tu chance d’avoir l’arbre
Dans ta rue,
Tes pensées seront moins ardues
Tes yeux plus libres,
Tes mains plus désireuses
De moins de nuit.
If you are lucky enough to have the tree
In your street
Your thoughts will be less arduous
Your eyes more free
Your hands more eager
Even by night.

I also spotted this bit of wall, and was now sufficiently well-up on my Parisian history to know what it was and when it might have been built.  And sure enough, there was a plaque: Reste de l’enceinte Philippe Auguste – XII siècle (remains of medieval wall around Paris built by King Philippe August in the 12th century).  I so envy Europeans their recorded history…


After a brief rest at the B&B, I left again, and headed out for a dinner and the sound and light show at Nôtre Dame.


Alas, both of these things were a little disappointing.  The sound and light show in particular managed to be both trite and repetitive and also theologically infuriating.

Saint Denis again, with some of his friends.  I'm a little obsessed with Saint Denis at present.

Saint Denis again, with some of his friends. I’m a little obsessed with Saint Denis at present.

And I have that bloody chant in my head now and will never be rid of it (and I’m transcribing this four months later and I STILL have that chant in my head.  Gah.).


The atmosphere was incredible, though. Such a pity.

It was all about Mary, which is fine in itself, but if you are doing the whole adoration of Mary thing, you should at least give her some agency – if she never even says ‘yes’ at the Annunciation, then what is the point?  And the Magnificat is important and also should not be left out.


But no, she was just a pure and passive vessel, with mediocre illustration, and I walked out after twenty minutes, into the most golden light I’ve seen in Paris.


Once again, everyone was out taking photos, not just the tourists.


The light on the wet cobblestones was particularly beautiful.


But the sun was setting, so I walked back to my B&B, where I spent the evening sending my German penfriend, A, who is a theologian, furious texts about the terrible theology I had just been subjected to (she entered into my feelings thoroughly!).


And listening to my neighbour watching the football, of course.

(Oh la la!)


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3 comments for “Travel Post: Paris and the Subterranean Weekend

  1. Heath Graham
    October 15, 2016 at 11:34 pm

    Phew, *I’m* exhausted!

    We missed the sewers and catacombs, but love Cluny.

    • Catherine
      October 16, 2016 at 8:57 am

      I had a LIST.

  2. lsn
    October 26, 2016 at 11:01 pm

    Lists are important, yes.

    Theology apparently less so.

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