Monday, December 22, 2008

The Darker Side of Paris

So, you've been to Paris. You've wandered the Louvre, stayed up late in the Latin Quarter and eaten Berthillon ice cream on the Ile Saint-Louis (I recommend caramel beurre salé). You've climbed the Eiffel Tower, sipped a café at Les Deux Magots, and shopped up a storm along Boulevard Haussman. You've hit all the major sites...or so you think. If you're like many of the millions of visitors Paris welcomes every year, you probably spent your touristing time above ground. But did you know there are a host of things to see below the City of Lights? I'm not talking about the metro; I'm talking about actual museums, guided tours and historical sites. These activities - which range from spooky to creepy to downright bizarre - are sure to be a memorable addition to any tourists' itinerary.

Your underground visit of Paris starts with an exploration of the "phantom" metro stations. During World War II, economic woes and a diminished ridership forced the city to close a fair number of stations. When the war ended, four of those stations - Arsenal, Champ de Mars, St. Martin and Croix-Rouge - remained closed and are known today as phantom stations. Arranging a visit might prove difficult, as the group that arranges them only organizes a few tours per year and their website is all in French. But sucess could pay off when you see a part of the city few have been privy too. An easier, albeit more frighentig, underground stop is the Catacombs. In the late 1700s, a cemetery in the Les Halles district became so full and mismanaged that it began inciting disease in its living neighbors. It was decided that the bones of the dead would be removed and relocated to underground quarries on the outskirts of town. Today, you can tour the dark, femur and skull-lined tunnels; a thoughoughly creepy and entirely entertaining tour.

Your underground visit ends in a place that might cause some to turn up their noses: the Paris Sewer Museum. Here you can discover the history of Parisian sewers, explore cleaning techniques, and walk through actual in-use sewer tunnels. Rumor has it the smell is surprisingly non-offensive.

Planning a trip to Paris in the near future? The addition of any one of these surprising tourist attractions to your itinerary is sure to make it a trip to remember. A seasoned visitor who thinks they've seen it all? If you haven't yet explored what's going on sous the city, you only know the half of it.

Photo credit: C.C.

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