We’re going to go down, deep down.
On my travels, I’m always on the lookout for unusual and interesting side visits to complement the main events. I decided to go on a couple of quick jollies to Paris and Cologne to see Teenage Fanclub (cos, y’know, why not?), but as well as Fannie, these two cities have something else in common. Poo.
Yuk, but poo is a fact of life and the engineering devised to manage the basic necessities of sanitation is pretty impressive, especially in cities where there’s a lot of the stuff.
Part one: Paris
First Paris, and a visit to an exhibition of the modern sewage system. Organised waste management and sewerage in Paris dates back as far as the 12th century but these sewers only date back to the 19th century. During this period, under Napoleon III, the old jumbles of little streets and slums that made up Paris, was brutally swept away as Baron Haussmann planned and laid out the new streets of Paris, creating the wide elegant boulevards we see today. Under the ground, the engineer Eugéne Belgrand was creating the corresponding fresh water and sewage systems. There are even street signs.
It’s possible to follow a route around about 500m of the sewer system, but don’t worry, although it is a little bit fruity-smelling, you’re well separated from the business end of it all.
As well as the sewer, the associated tunnels also contain drinking and non-drinking water pipes, pneumatic tubes, compressed air distribution pipes, fibre optics and the cables that control the traffic lights. There are no gas pipes or electricity cables though.
There’s a fascinating exhibition that explains the history of sanitation right from the Roman period, and you can see some of the equipment used to keep Paris nice and regular. There’s loads of information and artefacts, but it was all set up on a grill over the sewer.
The water was rushing quite brusquely beneath the grill and, to be honest, it was freaking me out so I had to walk along the path at the side and lean in the read the panels and look at the artefacts and models. (2)
A lot of the machinery, real and models, and gadgets on show are involved with keeping the sewer channels clear, removing blockages and maintaining the necessary free flow of water. Most of these seem to work by pushing the sand and other solids along, using built-up water pressure, to sites where they can be removed by crane. The different pieces of machinery are designed to work in different shapes and sizes of sewer channel.
Then there are these cleaning balls that run along the tunnels squashing the debris, which is dredged out by another machine. The ball’s diameter is a little bit smaller the that of the tunnels and it’s pushed along by the water pressure behind it.
At certain points along the sewer are Le Resevoir de Chasse, reservoirs of non-drinking water which can be released to created a surge of water. Again, this helps to keep solid matter; waste, sand, rubbish, moving along. Going through these points, you can hear the water really roaring along.
There are stretches of open sewer where you can see a few things floating past, but it’s really not that pooey.
So this is the underground Paris, the hidden escape route taken by Jean Valjean and the wounded Marius, as described by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. It’s a little bit smelly but don’t let that put you off.
Part 2, to follow in a couple of weeks, will be a look at another fascinating sewer from the more distant past.
(1) Museum of the Sewers of Paris, Musée des égouts de Paris, can be found on Quai d’Orsay, near the Pont a’Alma RER station.
(2) I should say, it’s perfectly safe, the floor isn’t about to give way or anything. It’s just me. It was just freaking me out. Seriously.