… the great prodigality of Paris, her marvelous fête, her Beaujon folly, her orgy, her full-handed outpouring of gold, her pageant, her luxury, her magnificence, is her sewer.
Maybe it’s cliché to begin my account of the Musée des Égouts de Paris, or the Paris Sewer Museum, with a quote from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, but I don’t care. Images of Jean Valjean sludging through the dark, muck-filled tunnels, a wounded Marius slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, are in part what drew me to this bizarre museum in the first place. (That, and my passion for interesting feats of engineering and infrastructure. Somebody’s got to like that stuff, guys.)
Indeed, it is a bit weird: a museum not only dedicated to the evolution of water and sewage transport in the city but located in the thick of it. That’s right — in the sewer. A flight of stairs once again separated me from the world above, this one leading me, not into the Empire of the Dead, but into that of Poop. Sounds intriguing, no? Of course, this is no ordinary sewer. With 1,300 miles of tunnels lined with both potable and non-potable water mains, fiber optic cables, pneumatic cables, and even the wiring system for all of the city’s traffic signals, Paris’ sewer network is unlike any other in the world. So, why not make it an attraction? It would seem that I, alongside the rest of the engineering geeks out there, have made it worth their while.
^ See above said engineering geeks.
Paris’ sewer network did not become the marvel that it is today overnight. While the first of Paris’ vaulted, stone-walled sewer lines was christened in 1370, wastewater had up until that point drained to the River Seine via aboveground gutters. This, as you might imagine, was not at all sanitary. Nor was it boding well for the ecological health of the Seine! As the city’s population continued to grow, diseases like typhoid were rampant due to drinking the Seine’s contaminated water. Something had to be done, and one underground line along one street just wasn’t going to cut it.
Relief didn’t come until the early 1800s. During the reign of Napoléon Bonaparte, the first vaulted sewer network was built in Paris, and, by 1850, the present day double water supply network (separate mains for potable and non-potable water) and sewer supply network had been designed under Emperor Napoléon III.
The men responsible for the design were none other than Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the prefect for the Seine Department and the designer and namesake for the massive public works overhaul that took place in Paris from 1853 to 1870, and civil engineer Eugène Belgrand. Their ideas were novel: large tunnels equipped to house water mains as well as sewage AND the introduction of pumping stations so that wastewater could be discharged downstream to avoid further polluting their precious drinking water. While the network has since been expanded by nearly 1,000 miles, much of Haussmann and Belgrand’s innovative work is still in place today.
Weird and curious souls hoping to catch a glimpse of this engineering masterpiece have been lining up for tours since the late 19th century. Initially, guided tours were performed in small boats and covered more ground. I can’t imagine gliding through the sludge in a boat… what a tour that must have been! Today, visitors are constrained to only a small segment of the expansive tunnel network — about a third of a mile in total. And, thankfully, visitors make their way through the five galleries of artifacts and informative displays on foot. Don’t look down, though; for a component of the tour, only metal grates separate visitors from the rushing sewage below!
As a city grows, the water and sewer network must continue to grow with it. Central Paris, now with a population of roughly 2.34 million people, produces 1.2 million cubic meters of wastewater for collection daily. That’s from a combination of rainwater, dishwashers, washing machines, showers and, yes, toilets. Thank God for sewage treatment plants, which have been in place in the Île-de-France since 1935! No longer is the wastewater simply discharged into the Seine, although, as one of the tour’s displays lamented, “the time lost for water treatment cannot be made up for completely. Pollution levels in the Seine are still too high.”
Still, there are hopefuls who are working to make the River Seine swimmable by 2024! Only time will tell…
Lastly, (but most importantly, let’s be real!) I bet some of you are wondering just how badly it stank down there. Well, it certainly didn’t smell like roses, but I’ve been in Métro stations that smell worse… wayyy worse!
Entrance: Pont de l’Alma, Rive Gauche, 75007 Paris
Métro: Alma-Marceau station (Line 9)
Opening Hours: Everyday except Thursdays and Fridays from 11 AM to 4 PM (winter) or 5 PM (summer)