A Taste Of The Paris Underground


The French are delightfully perplexing. They turned the cinematic world on its head with the New Wave and then worshiped Jerry Lewis. They are the last word in style yet made sex symbols of Gerard Depardieu, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Gainsbourg. Their tourist attractions are no less fathomable. For every Louvre or Musée d’Orsay, there’s something so completely bizarre that it strains credibility.

Two of my favourites are hidden away but well worth seeking out. The entrance to the Catacombes de Paris is just opposite the Denfert-Rochereau metro station on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy.

Above the entrance is a sign that forbiddingly declares “Stop! This Is The Empire of Death”. Visitors must make their way down a narrow spiral staircase to tunnels that snake 20 metres below the city streets.

Getting there early will avoid the crowds that tend to congregate later in the day but being alone in tunnels that extend for some kilometres can be unsettling. The ossuary holds the bones of around five million people, most removed from old Parisian graveyards during the modernization of the city under Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-nineteenth century. A large proportion of the relics originated from the Le Cimetière des Innocents in the Les Halles district.

Whether Paris is sweltering in late summer or freezing with the approach of winter, the catacombs maintain a constant temperature of 11° Celcius. The tunnel floor can be wet and uneven so it’s ill-advised to attempt the walk in your favourite Louboutins. The first 15 minutes or so are fascinating, with skulls and bones arranged in extremely creative groupings. After a while, however, it all becomes a little tedious and not even my extreme fear of rats could elicit more than a tinge of unease.

Anybody hoping to snare an authentic souvenir of the catacombs will be disappointed. A security guard at the exit will search visitors’ bags and confiscate anything that should remain underground. Photography, however, is permitted.

My all-time favourite Paris tourist attraction is the Musée des Égouts de Paris, the acclaimed Sewer Museum. The entrance is easy to overlook, next to a small blue kiosk on the left bank of the Seine adjacent to the Pont de l‘Alma.

The sewers of Paris were celebrated in Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel and the truly miserable musical of the same name, and countless movies about the French Resistance during World War II. Although dating back for centuries, Paris’ modern sewer network is yet another legacy of Baron Haussmann, this time working with visionary engineer Eugéne Belgrand.

The museum is far below ground, built on platforms over a working section of the sewers. It is eye-wateringly realistic and should not be visited immediately after breakfast. The exhibits have explanations in both French and English so visitors are in no doubt of exactly what they are seeing and smelling.

It can be said that the sewer museum is a movement away from the traditional sanitised tourist attraction, providing a glimpse into the inner workings of everyday Parisians. It would be easy to dump on such a concept, to attempt to flush away its philosophical bona fides but the reality is that it’s a breath of (not so) fresh air.

In the 1980s, when negotiations were underway to build Euro Disney outside Paris, there were suggestions that Disney should also take over some of Paris’ most notable tourist attractions. It was only through the protracted protests of French trade unions and leading existentialists that this was avoided.

How the sewer museum would look today in that unlikely event can only be imagined. Perhaps a children’s ride with dancing animatronic figures set in a gleaming porcelain tunnel and a catchy theme song along the lines of “It’s A Small Turd”.

There is, however, a gift shop that has some wonderful souvenirs although, sadly, no snow globes. And, near the exit, there are toilets so that incurable romantics can leave their mark on their favourite city.

For those who always suspected that the French are wonderfully eccentric, there is no greater demonstration.

Words and photos © David Latta

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Getting There Is Half The Fun



Actually, it’s not. Especially when “getting there” translates into flying.

I hate flying. Not that I’m a nervous flyer, although I prefer being at the back of the bus rather than the front (on the understanding that planes rarely back into mountains). Rather, I hate the artificial atmosphere of the entire experience. I hate airline food. Even the smell of it wafting from the galley makes me want to heave. I hate sitting up for 12 hours and simmering slowly in my clothes. I rarely sleep on planes, even if I’m flying in Business Class. And I hate having to battle the boredom by watching movies that have been edited so they won’t offend six year olds and Midwestern grandmothers and shrunk to six-inch screens.

I’ve had some horror flights. In the 1990s, I would attend an annual tradeshow in Chicago. One year, owing to the deadline of a magazine I was editing, I had to fly Sydney – LA – Denver – Chicago in one hell-bound session. It was late at night when I arrived at O’Hare International Airport. I was already in a foul mood and even more so when I discovered my luggage had been lost. After two hours of fruitless form filling and arguments with people who didn’t give a toss, I caught a taxi to my hotel to find there was no record of my booking. I was close to ripping the throat from the hapless clerk. Happily, there suddenly appeared two colleagues, also in town for the tradeshow, who had decided over a prolonged happy hour that they would be sharing a room and didn’t need the spare. And my bag turned up the next day.

Another nightmare trip was Sydney – Bangkok – London – Helsinki. In London, I bought a new pair of socks and had a shower but, by the time, I reached Finland, after more than 30 hours since I left home, I was too dazed and disorientated to build a bonfire for my clothes.

So it’s important to find ways of surviving long flights. When it comes to new technology, I’m not exactly an early adopter. So when, at Sydney Airport before one trip, it was suggested by a good friend that I buy an iPod, I was initially reluctant, a strange reaction considering I have such a prodigious music collection. Luckily, the friend, thrice-crowned Rock Brain Of The Universe by the BBC and whose own music collection takes up a two-storey barn on his property outside Sydney, persevered.

So we raided the duty free shop for a 160Gb iPod Classic. I doubt if I’ve ever loved a piece of technology as much as this. I take it on every trip along with external speakers so I can  play music in my hotel room. I’ve graduated from earbuds to over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones that pretty much drowns out the background roar of jet engines. And it makes that time away from home a lot more survivable.

Of course, the problem comes with what to put on it. I pretty much cover every eventuality, every possible type of music I could imagine the need for. Rock, pop, 60s rhythm and blues, 40s swing and 90s neo-swing, 70s disco, jazz, blues, crooners, doo wop, French singers such as France Gall, Sylvie Vartan and Serge Gainsbourg, glitter rock, lounge and Northern soul, swamp rock and surf, soundtracks, Broadway musicals and British Invasion.

At just over 25,000 songs, there’s something for every mood. Ever the completist, I tend to go overboard when it comes to inclusions. There are 300 Beatles songs and I don’t even like the Beatles (notice how the world is divided into those who favour the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?). Bruce Springsteen gets more than 400 songs while I once had almost 500 KISS songs on the iPod until I realized they were all pretty much the same. So I replaced them with more than 600 David Bowie songs.

So while I won’t ever say that getting anywhere is half the fun, it’s a lot more enjoyable than it used to be and I travel in a better frame of mind. Which means that,  amidst screaming toddlers and seat back kickers and luggage mishaps and missed connections, horror flights are a lot easier to cope with.

Words and photos © David Latta