Sacre Coeur Street Performer

Sacre Coeur Street Performer

Monday, October 4, 2010

Paris Sewer System

...the great prodigality of Paris, her marvelous fête, her Beaujon folly, her orgy,
her full-handed outpouring of gold, her pageant, her luxury, her magnificence, is her sewer.
(Les Miserables; Jean Valjean, Book II, ch1)

The Paris Sewer tour was a “must-do” given our family’s collective fascination with engineering, Les Misérables and that which is generally unusual.

The Paris sewers date back to the beginning of the 13thCentury, when open troughs contributed to the spread of the Black Plague and other diseases.

In 1370, the first underground sewer was built. During the reign of Napolean
Bonaparte, in 1805, Emmanuel Bruneseau oversaw the building of 182 new miles of sewer. Bruneseau and Hugo were good friends, and since Hugo’s description of the sewers was based on information he received from his friend, the 50 pages of Les Mis that are set in the sewers, are considered to be historically accurate.

Also, during Victor Hugo’s lifetime, in 1850, Baron Haussmann developed a
technique for separating the drinking water and sewage system and by 1878 the system was 600 km in length.

At that time, tours of parts of the sewer system were already offered and sewer tourism was very popular, so some speculate that this fact may have been the primary reason Hugo included the sewers in Les Mis. Personally I like to think it more of a pure literary choice to have Valjean carry Marius through the sewers.

According to Prof. 
Robert Schwartz who maintains the fantastic site France in the Age of Les Miserables, "Victor Hugo saw the sewers of Paris as the 'conscience of the city'; a place where there were no secrets, where class distinctions became insignificant and society could be observed in a clear light” so it’s a brilliant symbol of true justice that Valjean, in attempt to escape Javert and save Marius, by carrying him through the sewers to safety.


"Crime, intelligence, social protest, liberty of conscience, thought, theft,
all that human laws pursue or have pursued, have hidden in this hole..."
(Les Miserables; Jean Valjean, Book II, ch 2).

Today’s tunnels are more than 2100 km. The tour used to be done by boat or cart but now the Musée des egouts de Paris (the Paris Sewers Museum) is self-guided walk through a section of the sewer located beneath the Quay d’Orsay on the Left Bank. The smell is not great but we all found it fascinating.

Related info

Paris in the Age of Les Mis – The Sewers, a Brief History

Wikipedia – Paris Sewers

Official Paris Sewers with logistical information

To get there take the Metro to the Alma-Marceau stop, cross the bridge, and look for the large blue sign on your left. Purchase your ticket at the small kiosk and walk down the adjacent stairs into the museum.

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