The city of Paris has been there for centuries. It means that for hundreds and hundreds of years the city has renewed itself and build the city layer by layer on top of itself. And the city has also extended underground: where ever you are in Paris, you are sure to have plenty of things hidden below the pavement under your feet.
In addition to one of the oldest subway networks Paris has – also one of the oldest in the world – extensive sewage system. Sewers have been a popular tourist attraction since around 1850 and they still continue to pull in interested tourists. Not everyone can take the idea of touring old sewage system, but if you happen to be down for really creepy stuff, Paris´ Catacombs – basically an underground network of burial tunnels with bones of 6 million Parisians – is a must.
Read on and find out what to expect when you decide to go deeper than 6 feet under in Paris…
Tunnels Of Death – The Paris Catacombs
Did you know that Paris has a huge and partly uncharted network of tunnels that contains the remains of 6 million Parisians? Yes – tunnels that have their walls literally filled with skulls and bones of dead people. How did that came to be and who´s responsible of such atrocity?
The catacombs are grim, but the reason for their existence is actually more practical. Paris has grown fast for many centuries. The city has been built layer-by-layer on top of the old and the urban landscape has grown to consume vast areas of surrounding fields and forests. Paris has been fully urbanised city for several hundred years.
With rapid growth arose a difficult problem: In the 18th century cemeteries became crowded and there was no room to expand. So the authorities decided to take old tunnels used to limestone mining into new use. Then they dug out the old skulls and bones from cemeteries and placed them in the tunnels. That´s why Paris has extensive tunnel network that is literally paved with human bones.
Only a part of the network has been explored and entering the tunnels is actually strictly forbidden. You would definitely get lost underground if you just entered the tunnels without knowing your way around. Only a rather small part of Catacombs is open to the public – and that´s where the guided tours are organised.
Not only tourists have been interested in the Catacombs. During the World War 2 the tunnel network was used by both: the occupying nazis and the French resistance. Catacombs even host a bunker built by nazis – but that´s off the limits for tourists and can only be accessed for real Catacomb connoisseurs. Those catacomb experts call themselves Cataphiles and they are the ultimate Catacomb fans – they´re known to spend even days underground. It´s known that numerous parties are thrown in the catacombs and even a secret movie theatre was found in 2004. However those that enter the tunnels on their own risk a 100 EUR fine – if busted by special tunnel police.
Take a tour in the catacombs. Here´s how
Where: Denfert-Rochereau station (Metro & RER-B)
How to get there: Metro & RER-B, buses 38, 68
Tour length: 2 kilometers
Tour duration: 45 minutes
Read more from the catacomb tour official website: http://www.catacombes.paris.fr/en/visit/access-opening-times-accessibility/access-and-timetables
Dive underground in Paris´ extensive subway network
Paris has the 4th oldest subway network in the world – that is also one of the most extensive. Paris´ metro includes more than 300 stations in 16 lines that span total length of 218 kilometers. Taking the subway is obviously the most common way to experience Paris underground. Around 4,2 million metro trips are done each and every day. Paris metro network is the second most used subway in the world – second only to that of Moscow´s.
The first line was opened for the Paris World Fair in July 19th 1900. The network grew rapidly an extended to it´s current scale soon after World War 2.
In fact Paris´ metro is so extensive that building more stations an lines, if needed, is difficult. More than 300 stations around the city make it hard to find room for new tunnels or stations.
What can you experience in Paris metro?
Metro is definitely the most convenient way to move around the city. Wherever you need to go in the city, you can be sure that there is a station really, really close. You can reach just about any station with only one change from a line to another. Obviously that´s exactly why everyone utilises the metro – making it nice for tourists to observe regular Parisians in their daily routine.
People observing, performers and pickpockets
Besides the regular city dwellers you are sure to encounter different personalities there. Unfortunately Paris, like many major cities, has a homelessness issue, so you´ll be sure to run into people begging for a dime on the station or in the trains. Also musicians and various performance artists often take their show to subway stations – and onboard trains as well. For example it´s not uncommon to see a 2-person team do a puppet show in the subway car on the ride between 2 stations! After their gig the performers and musicians will go around collecting spare change from the traveler. By the way, the Paris transport authority actually hands out licences for these performers. So they´re actually official entertainment!
When you travel underground in Paris, be alert, though! The metro network is the prime grounds for pickpockets preying upon careless tourists´ valuable belongings. So be awake and observe your surroundings – pickpockets work especially in crowded areas, such as subway cars during the rush hour.
Common tactic is to pick a victim and grab his attention by any means. So when you´re underground, anyone trying to confuse you is a huge warning sign. Just hold on to your belongings and step back – pickpockets want to operate fast and in secret an are not likely to get violent. Being alert is the best defence.
Catch a glimpse of a ghost station
When you ride through a 300-station metro network you might once in a while catch a glimpse of an abandoned subway station. Those “ghost stations” are not rare in the subway network and many of them have not seen passengers since World War 2.
Two stations, called Haxo and Porte Molitor have been partly constructed (missing passages to the street level) but never opened. Three stations have been closed already in 1939 and never opened since. They are Arsenal on Line 5, Champ De Mars on Line 8 and Croix-Rouge on Line 10.
The ghost stations are inaccessible for the public, but you can catch a glimpse of some of them when sitting comfortably in the metro car. If the train goes slow enough, you´ll see that being “not accessible for bublic” has not prevented graffiti gangs leaving their mark on the walls.
Actually, besides graffiti artists, there are others who want to take the abandoned stations into use. Architects and politicians have proposed turning ghost stations into nightclubs, art galleries and even gyms and swimming pools. And not all of the ghost stations have stood completely unused either – some of them have been used as homeless shelters, movie filming locations and even launching sales of new car models.
Take a tour to Paris´ sewage system
Paris is a huge metropolis with millions of inhabitants, making the amount of waste and waste water unimaginable. So you can be sure that between the catacombs and metro tunnels there are hundreds of miles of sewers too.
Actually, for such a huge city, Paris´ sewers and other sanitation systems evolved relatively late. In the middle ages people took drinkingg water straight from the Seine river and spilled waste water on designated waste fields or just straight on the street. First sewers were built few decades before the year 1400, but it wasn´t until 1855 when construction of a proper sanitation and water circulation system was ordered at scale and city wide. But modern waste-treatment and sewage system was planned at industrial scale only in 1935.
Those tourists who are not afraid to see Paris´ underside are welcomed in the sewers too! Sewer tours are organised from the Pont de l´Alma bridge. Lasting about one hour, the tour takes visitors through parts of the actual sewer tunnels and a “sewer museum”. Visitors are shown various equipment used for work in the sewage tunnels and given plenty of information about how the city of Paris evolved to it´s current scale.