Not content with offering entertainment above the ground, Paris has its share of diversions beneath its elegant boulevards. There are the Catacombs of Montparnasse where the bones of Frenchmen lie hugger-mugger in countless numbers. These remains were transferred by order of Napoléon Bonaparte when it was obvious that the traditional burial ground of Innocents (near Les Halles) was already overflowing and certainly could take no more.
Then there is Les Égouts, which one can enter from the Left Bank near Pont de l’Alma. I’ve personally never entered them, being a trifle squeamish and somewhat unpersuaded that a city’s sewer system constitutes a tourist attraction. But I may be missing something because there could well be something more poetic about the Paris sewers than I can appreciate. Here is how Hugo described them in Les Misérables:
“The sewer is the conscience of the city. Everything there converges and confronts everything else. In that livid spot there are shades, but there are no longer secrets…..All the uncleanliness of civilisation, once past their use, fall into this trench of truth, where the immense social sliding ends…….Great public assassinations, political and religious butcheries, traverse this underground passage of civilisation, and thrust their corpses there…..Beneath these vaults one hears the broom of spectres. One there breathes the enormous fetidness of social catastrophes.”
There is no controversy, however, in my mind at least, about what is the greatest underground attraction in Paris. It is unquestionably Le Métropolitain. The marvellous Métro.
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The Métro is truly a remarkable thing not just because it was started way back in 1900 (Ligne 1 opened on July 19 to service both the Paris World’s Fair and the Olympics) and not only because with its 14-line (and growing) network it is an amazing people-mover. Whether the carriages are driverless or whether they are on rubber or metal wheels, the system is so much more than a sophisticated transportation device.
Get on board and take a history, art or literature lesson. If it’s driverless (as is Ligne 1), get up the front and release your inner child as the panoramic window reveals the adventure of swooping round corners, accelerating up the hills, coasting down the inclines and watching that yellow pool of light ahead expand as the next station nears.
Some stations are named after important battles (Austerlitz and Stalingrad, for example), others after famous identities (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cardinal Lemoine). And many lines terminate at the ancient gates of Paris: Porte Dauphine, Porte d’Orléans, Porte de la Chapelle and so on. The Métro is also a place of entertainment, with its Russian choirs, busking guitarists and violin quartets adding to the artistic themes of each of the stations. The radical Art Nouveau movement, in particular, evokes the roots and vines of plants rather than their flowers, is celebrated by the glass edicules (canopies) and cast-iron balustrades and signs at many of the stations’ entrances.
The Métro is even a source of education as I found at Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Along one of the platforms a glass display case celebrates the great books from the best of French and world literature, from Gidé through Camus, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Golding, and Sartre all the way to Harry Potter. Literary works can be projected onto the ceiling and there is a mosaic depicting printer Gutenberg on one of the walls.
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Each station has its own signature charm, so do some research and you will be amply rewarded.
Mind you, there can be hazards, as we found when staying in an apartment in rue Bachaumont in the second arrondissement.
Before bed one night we stood on the terrace five floors up and noted that all was quiet on the street below just as we had hoped. But well into the night, at about 5am, there was some reverberation below which woke both of us. Like the indigestion of the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk there was this faint but intrusive rumble which lasted for a few seconds, then faded and then reappeared again at roughly five-minute intervals. It didn’t sound like drills or other building works and nor was there any industrial process anywhere in the vicinity. Then it dawned … it was the awakening of the Métro system as the first commuters scurry to work and the underground gears up for the busy day ahead.
Then again, maybe we were hearing the rubbing together of legs of some giant crickets, not the trains in the Métro. After all, we were very near Ligne 3, which is apparently one of the favourite haunts of the crickets who, according to La Ligue pour la Protection des Grillons (established 1992), have settled into the Métro because of its ideal temperatures and food supply, especially cigarette butts. By now, after over a hundred years down there, I’m sure there would be some mutated giants with legs the size of Serena Williams’ and chirping volume to rival Sharapova under pressure.
Have you explored the world lying beneath the city of Paris? Let us know all about it in the comments section below.