If you’ve run out of things to do in Paris and would like to try something a bit different, you could do worse than paying a visit to a museum celebrating the workings of the Paris sewer system. Sewer systems are of course one of the pieces of the infrastructure jigsaw that help keep a city running. And cities would all be a darn sight less attractive without an effective one. So we should celebrate sewer systems in all our cities. Let’s hear it for sewers!
The Égouts (sewers) de Paris can be accessed by entering via a small ticket kiosk not far and across the road from the Eiffel Tower (at the Quai d’Orsay). Basically walk out of Paris along the Seine and you’ll come across it.
When I was there I was given a ticket by a man who I’ve jumped to the conclusion is an ex-sewer worker. Maybe I’m wrong, but it makes sense that when you’ve had enough of the pong and the hard work below and you still want to earn a living, you move above ground to the more pleasant environs of the river bank and the traffic.
The smell. That’s going to put a lot of people off. It does tickle you in the nose as you pass through the entrance although it becomes less offensive after a while. I didn’t get to the point where I’d completely forgotten about it, however.
History of the Égouts de Paris
The museum tells the story of Paris’ sewer system which progressed from drains laid down the middle of paved streets in 1200 in the time of Philippe Auguste, to 2100km worth of sewers today, with a system that collects 1.2 million cubic metres of wastewater every day and includes one of the biggest sewage plants in Europe at Achères.
You’ll have the choice of touring the museum as part of a guided tour (foreign language tours only run in summer) or wandering around yourself – you’re given a decent Tour Plan and it’s quite easy to find your way around.
There’s a gallery that runs through the chronological progress of the sewers, you’ll see a ‘flushing boat’ that helps clean the sewer in a particular smelly part (don’t look too closely into the water) and you’ll see some other equipment used in the cleaning and maintenance of the égouts including a giant spherical stone ball. You’ll even see some stuffed rats in a touching tableau.
Among the fascinating things you’ll learn are that from 1920-1975 visitors to the sewers travelled downstream in punts along the main sewer for a distance every Thursday and on the last Saturday of the month; for a time Clichy ended up with the water pollution passed on from Paris and that bubbles of methane up to a metre in diameter could be seen in the river there; and that these days eels, perch and carp can all be found in the cleaned-up Seine.
Why visit a sewer?
I would recommend the Sewer Museum for anyone interested in the development of cities and of Paris in particular – the exhibits here run from the Roman period of Lutetia all the way up to the computers used to manage water flow these days. Beware it’s closed on a Thursday and Friday, and bring a nose peg though!