Adventures in Paris: sewer fun!

Paris has been around in one form or another since the 2nd century.  In that nearly two millennia, they’ve had to deal with a lot of crap.  Literally.  We decided to take the family on a tour of the Paris sewers to see just what goes into keeping the city and its water clean!

Like with the catacombs, there’s an obvious draw for our kids to anything underground.  Tunnels, caves, salt mines, you name it—they love it.  Add to that the allure (?!?!) of stinky toilets, and you’ve got another fun morning in Paris!

…Paris has another Paris under herself; a Paris of sewers; which has its streets, its crossings, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation, which is slime, minus the human form.

Victor HugoLes Misérables, Book II, Chapter 1

Our visit to the sewers (Musée des Égouts de Paris) actually required two attempts.  It has somewhat unexpected opening days and times (closed Thursdays and Fridays), so plan ahead.  But one bit of great news was that there was no line or wait to get in!  Quite the contrast to some other sites in Paris during the summer.  I guess not everyone wants to visit the sewers—go figure!

The visit includes exploration of areas currently in use for transporting clean water and waste water.  Yes, you will see some sewage in an uncovered section or two.  And yes, your two-year-old may indeed drop his pacifier into one of those sections, never to return.  But surprisingly, there was very little foul odor inside the museum.  Probably more a smell of ammonia than anything, but it was not troubling to the kids or to us adults.

The sewers are not terribly far underground—much less than the catacombs; only two floors’ worth of stairs—and then there you are, surrounded by conduits, walking through tunnels with hatches at various intervals.  If you can manage down the stairs with your stroller (you may need to fold it up), you can definitely keep your child in the stroller for the remainder of the visit.

The tour is unguided, but you’ll find displays focusing on the water cycle, including the process of water treatment and purification, plus maps and historical information about the sewers.  You’ll probably recall their importance in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, as Jean ValJean escapes to the sewers with wounded Marius, saving his life in the process.  Also on display is machinery used for navigating and cleaning the sewers (an ongoing effort), including a huge ball that is pushed through the pipes to clean them out.

The only drawback to the tour is that the displays’ texts are mostly in French.  Granted, when it comes to the water cycle, maps, and diagrams, the lack of English is non-critical, but it did somewhat limit the learning that occurred during our visit.  There’s a small shop at the end of the tour if you’re interested in a souvenir or two, as well as restrooms that can be easily accessed at any point during your visit.

The entrance to the sewers is on the Left Bank at the Pont de l’Alma, with easy Metro access from Alma-Marceau (line M9) and via RER C at Pont de l’Alma.  It’s also convenient to various other Paris sites such as the Eiffel Tower, Trocadero, Invalides, and the wonderful Rue Cler market street.

So head to the sewers for some underground fun!

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