Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Intestine of the Leviathan

As I mentioned earlier, I first arrived in Paris in July. Verushka Kozolva had provided me with the telephone number of a young woman named Claire (for legal reasons, I can’t give her last name) who could serve as my guide to the catacombs. Her grandfather had been a member of the French Resistance during World War II, when both the Nazis and the Allies had used parts the underground tunnels to their advantage. In time, he had passed his knowledge of the catacombs along to his son (whom Verushka had befriended during year she and Kiki Strike lived in Paris) and his granddaughter.

Claire was vacationing in Romania during my first week in France. While I waited, I downloaded maps of the catacombs from some very impressive websites, but I didn’t trust them (or myself) enough to begin my explorations without an experienced guide. Instead, I tried to get in the mood by visiting other underground attractions around Paris. My first stop, of course, was the sewers.

Anyone with a particularly sensitive nose should steer clear of the sewers. It’s not that they smell the way you’d expect them to smell. If I had to describe their unique bouquet, I’d say it was a mixture of pond water, mold, kitty litter, and garbage can on a hot summer day. But if you’re able to breath through your mouth, the sewers are well worth the trip.

Dig deep beneath any street in Paris and you’ll find an arched tunnel made of brick or stone. In fact, the sewers follow course of the streets so precisely that they form a mirror image of the city above. (You’ll even find street signs to guide your way.) There are more than 1,300 miles of tunnels—some are enormous, more than 12 feet across, and others too narrow to enter. All are gloomy, dark, and dangerous. With a little rain, they become roaring rivers of filth, and toxic gasses are known to accumulate, killing the unprepared in seconds.

Despite the peril, there are many tales of those whose desperation or dimwittedness has led them to pry open one of the manholes that line the streets of Paris and drop into the darkness. Perhaps the most best know is that of Jean Valjean, hero of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables. (It was Hugo who famously referred to the sewers as “the intestine of the leviathan.")

I, of course, chose to visit Le Musée des Égouts de Paris. It’s a strange museum built around a working part of the sewer system not far from the Eiffel Tower. You’ll see and smell everything you need to make the experience worthwhile, and you’ll learn to pity the people who lived in the days before the sewers were built. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the museum is that you're often on your own, away from guards and tourists. It would be easy to slip into the tunnels and make your way through underground Paris.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

-cool, reading this reminds me of the Nancy Drew game: danger by design. Nancy gets to go into the catacombs of Paris and you as her, get to scuba dive through chambers to find some finden clues

4:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nancy Drew was an amateur....

6:12 PM  

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