Waste matters on Paris tours


Sewers: Since 1867, tourists have been offered the opportunity to take an hourlong walk beneath the city's streets.

June 30, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

PARIS - In the City of Light, one should be enlightened by more than just surface beauty.

Every day in Paris can be filled with scenes so beautiful they make you weep. The rose window in Notre Dame. The flower vendors along Ile de la Cite. The slowly moving Seine flowing so smoothly between great museums and architecture. A simple, lovely winding street on the way to Montmartre and Sacre-Coeur.

But there is more - beneath the surface.

Les Egouts de Paris.

The Sewers of Paris.

If someone suggested a tour of the Baltimore sewers, would anyone do anything but turn up his or her nose?

But in Paris, sewer tours have been in operation since 1867. Researcher and author Donald Reid writes in his book "Paris Sewers and Sewermen" that it was reported in 1870 that "everyone knows that no foreigner of distinction wants to leave the city without making this singular trip" to the sewers.

Perhaps it isn't everyone today.

Even those who go have a tendency to describe the experience as "disgusting."

But enough tourists find their way to the entrance at the Pont de l'Alma, opposite 93 Quai d'Orsay in the 7th Arrondisement, to justify hourlong tours all day, every day except Thursday and Friday.

You pay 25 francs, about $4.15, for the privilege of descending beneath the streets of Paris. Once there, you are in a large rounded tunnel and met by a guide. The guides are dressed in neat, crisp blue uniforms and most of them have been sewer workers.

Most of them speak only French and, as Kjerstin Andreasen, a 24-year-old from Moorhead, Minn., discovered, they often speak an unfamiliar dialect.

Andreasen had just earned her master's degree in French here in Paris, but was finding translating difficult. She and several others were happy when Mary Lilia appeared.

Lilia said in a strong voice, "Who would like an English tour?" About 15 people, mostly Canadians and Americans, joined her.

Lilia is an intern studying for a degree from the French Cultural Ministry as a national translator guide. She gives five or six tours a day.

"I never thought I'd be giving tours in the sewers," admitted the 23-year-old from France's Basque country. "But I like doing it and I think it is a good idea."

She is a trove of information.

There are 2,300 kilometers of sewer lines. Enough, Lilia said, "to lay a straight pipe from Paris to Istanbul, Turkey."

The sewer network is 150 years old and still uses the same machinery. It is powered by water.

"There is no electricity," Lilia said. "No using of gas or petrol because the release of the carbons could poison the air for the workers."

There are 350 sewer workers, as opposed to 5,000 who work above ground cleaning the streets and watering the parks.

Those working below earn 7,500 francs a month, about $1,250, at the start of their careers. They can make up to 10,000 francs a month by the time they reach retirement, which for sewer workers is 27 years of service at the age of 50, "because of the hardship."

As Lilia says all this, she leads her group through underground passages. At the start, the tunnel is wide. There are pipes running along the wall and overhead.

The overhead pipes drip, but Lilia assures everyone that the overhead pipes are full of drinking water. Still, no one wants to be dripped on.

Among the pipes on the wall are sewage pipes, drinking water pipes and one that rattles on Wednesdays. That is the day that the National Assembly sends the bills it has passed to the official French newspaper for publication, via the pneumatic tube.

Which tube?

"Ah," Lilia said. "We do not tell you all our secrets."

Moving farther along, through darker tunnels built of large rocks, she points to the street signs and numbers and advises that they correspond to the streets and buildings above.

"If you should drop something valuable down your sink or toilet, you can call the sewer system 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and have an 80 percent chance to get it back - unless it is a storm drain," she said.

As you move along inside the sewers, the smells become intense. Definitely, a sewer.

You see an example of aging equipment, the same kind that is still used.

You walk along a canal and see a long boat that is used to push the sludge through the system. It weighs about 5 tons, Lilia said. And once it gets to the end of its circuit, how does it get back?

"Eight men on each side of it with ropes pull it back," she said, causing at least a few in the crowd to think of their old history books and how mules used to pull barges along canals.

Now, you walk over an open canal with dark, dank water and it is difficult to believe that you are very close to being under the Eiffel Tower.

Up a short flight of stairs, there is a museum. Here you do not need a guide. Here there are old photographs and drawings and information in French and English.

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