The top of my Cubs baseball cap still carries rust-covered smudges from a cast-iron pipe I almost ducked under. At 6-1 in a thick-soled pair of walking shoes, I presumably stand taller than most Frenchmen stood in the late 14th century when the first vaulted sewer was introduced in Paris, or even in 1850 when engineer Eugene Belgrand designed the sewer network that still serves the city in 2009.
Our guidebooks told us that the Paris sewer tour is one of the city’s top attractions. While I would not disagree, I should put this claim into perspective. When I visited Paris with my family over the holidays, my three grown kids wanted to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, too. A couple days before Christmas, we walked to the tower and encountered very long lines of tourists waiting patiently for their elevator ride to the top.
By contrast, no one was standing in line at the sewer tour’s ticket booth late Christmas Eve morning. We walked right up, purchased our tickets and down the stairs we went to begin our self-guided tour.
Overhead we viewed the pipes mentioned earlier, including lines for the city’s drinking water. Even after my sewer tour, I drank water from the faucets in my brother-in-law’s apartment and found it to be some of the coldest tap water I’ve ever tasted.
Underfoot and adjoining the walkway, we saw and heard the rushing water of the sewer. The odor was noticeable, although not nearly as bad as I had expected from an open sewer. My older son wore his winter scarf over his nose and mouth for a stretch of the tour. I’ve entered recently vacated public and private restrooms that smell far worse than the Paris sewer, however.
Odor and disease became huge issues that brought about the city’s first sewers. When the city paved its streets about 1200, an open drain for wastewater ran down the middle of them. Until that time, wastewater was dumped into fields or unpaved streets and eventually filtered into the River Seine, which supplied Paris with drinking water, too. When the original stone-walled sewer was built almost 200 years later to collect wastewater, it was taken to a brook and still drained in the open air.
At the very end of the tour, we found the obligatory gift shop. The clerk, who appeared to be an actual sewer department worker, reluctantly tore himself away from the book he was reading to sell some novel souvenirs, such as water carafes with a Paris sewer logo and sewer rat stuffed animals.
While my two young nieces did not accompany us on our sewer tour, my brother-in-law bought each of them a toy sewer rat. They unwrapped the stuffed rats with glee on Christmas morning.