Friday, 18 September 2009

Paris: the dark side

Eiffel Tower, Paris (pic. from Wikimedia)Arriving late on Friday night at our hotel near the Eiffel Tower, we decided that a meal and a bottle of good red French wine was the best way to start our ‘dark’ weekend in Paris.

Saturday dawned very overcast, which actually added atmosphere to our plans. I had a full English breakfast with delicious French black pudding, Susan my wife, was not too sure about her stomach with what lay ahead, so had croissants and tea for breakfast, we finished in time for the taxi at 9 o’clock.

I handed the driver a piece of paper with the address on, my French is ‘petite’ and my pronunciation even worse. The address was Les Egouts de Paris, Quai D’Orsay. He smiled and looked us up and down. I just smiled. We were going to the Paris Sewer Museum. Paris’ sewerage system is quite unique and when you’ve visited it you may know more than the average French person does.

All the sewers have a street sign and number above them and run parallel to the streets above, like a subterranean world opposite to the topside world of people and their lives. Beneath their feet is a world of the 3 p’s; pee, pooh and paper. In the Middle Ages before the sewers were built, the citizens would throw the contents of their night time guzzunders out of the window after shouting ‘gardez lou’.

The city has 2,000 plus miles of sewers but the museum is only 500 or so yards long and this is a long enough distance to walk, remembering where you are. You will see the ‘egouters’ [workmen], working at maintaining the fabric and keeping the flow going with their flusher trolleys. During the tour you will also see the old and the new tools and machinery that make and made their job easier.

Tourism down below started in the 1800’s and by 1858 tourists rode on carts. In the 1970’s you could travel by boat but now walking is the only way to see it all. When Victor Hugo wrote ‘Les Miserables’ he used the sewers for some of his scenes. Did tourism influence the book or did the book influence tourism? On your visit spend some time reading about this underground world, you will not be bored.

One good tip is to take some Lavender Oil down with you, dab it on your clothes round the chin it helps sweeten the air! And Susan didn’t feel ill at all. If anyone mentions alligators, smile to yourself because someone has to keep these urban myths alive, if it is a myth! On surfacing we sat and watched the Parisians knowing what we all had in common.

After lunch we got a taxi down to the River Seine as we were going on the two island walk. The islands walk gives you the feel of early Paris because this was the birth place of ‘The City of Lights’: Paris. The guide will show and tell you all about the old heart of this city, its architecture and early famous and infamous citizens. The film ‘Paris When it Sizzles’ was shot on the same island as the gothic Roman Catholic Cathedral Notre Dame. France has a number of churches named ‘Notre Dame’ but this is the most famous and most spectacular. To meet the leaders for this walk go to Metro Pont Marie [line 7] but check times first.

When you have finished the walk you’ll be tired and thirsty - I know we were. Go to the tip of Isle of St. Louis behind Notre Dame on a street called Quai d’Orleans, look for Berthillon’s, this is a cafĂ© where William Holden and Audrey Hepburn were filmed during the making of ‘Paris When it Sizzles’.

Try and linger here ‘till after nightfall and enjoy Notre Dame in all its lighted, shadowy and mystical glory. The sewers are memorable but this memory will outshine them

Sunday morning and today we both had the ‘full English’ to set us up for the day, going underground again. At least adverse weather need not affect this weekend away and the nights are romantic, particularly tonight.

Photo of the Paris Catacombs by Deror avi, sourced from Wikimedia.comToday we are going to 1 Place Denfert - Rochereau, 14 Arrondissment, 75014 Paris, home to some of Paris’ famous catacombs. Paris and district is honeycombed with worked-out quarries and tunnels most of which are forbidden territory to the general public. This does not stop the determined troglodytes from using these to explore, live, hide drugs or just party in. There is even an artistic movement called La Mexicaine De Perforation using the catacombs.

The 17th and 18th century was the time when the catacombs were used as a depository from the over-full graveyards of Paris, which had become disease ridden. The cemeteries were emptied at the dead of night and the bodies left in the catacombs with a prayer read by the priest for their souls. Don’t worry though it is biologically safe down there now. The bones were stacked or laid out for what some call a ‘Romantico-macabre decoration’. There are sculptures on some walls and some strange sights such as walls of skulls.

In the 18th century many emperors and royalty visited the catacombs so during your visit you will be following in the footsteps of the grand and famous. More recently they were used in WWII by the Free French Resistance Fighters. The catacombs are so vast and complicated that a full map of the catacombs is still in the process of being drawn. The most up-to-date in depth details of the catacombs can be found in the catacombs or on the internet, just Google Paris Catacombs. I have only scratched the surface and I could rabbit on about what I have read and seen - it could fill a magazine. Admission fees range from 3.5 Euros to 7 Euros depending on age, children under 13 are admitted free.

After spending the morning underground we decided to take a taxi down to the Seine and spend the afternoon and early evening taking in the atmospheres of the many cafes along the banks.

We had booked our dinner table for 8.00pm and in keeping with our ‘dark weekend’ we had chosen to dine at ‘Dans Le Noir’ –‘Dine in the Black’- located at 51 Rue Quincampoix, 75004 Paris. I still could not get my tongue around the pronunciation so gave the taxi driver a piece of paper with the address written on it. This restaurant is one of 3 unique diners in Europe, London and Moscow being home to the other 2.

These restaurants are unique as you dine in complete darkness. Before entering the dining room your coats, handbags, and other personal belongings are placed in lockers. Before being taken to your table you are asked to choose what you would like for dinner and here is another surprise: your choices are limited to vegetarian dishes, meat dishes or fish dishes. You are asked what your preferences are, your dislikes and any allergies you may have. From there the chef will create your surprise meal. Once you have chosen your preferences you will be taken into the dining room, which is in complete darkness. The room being in complete darkness is no handicap to the waiters and waitresses as they are all blind. When your meal arrives only the aromas from the dish can excite your taste buds, then comes the sensation of eating the mystery food. If you asked for fish you may think you are going to be served salmon, but your meal could actually be shark. Eating in complete darkness heightens your senses and this is certainly an experience to remember and is certainly romantic – as long as the person you finish the meal with is the person you sat down with at the beginning.

Don’t forget this is mainland Europe where eating late is normal and this can last up to 2 hours, but what a way to finish a ‘Paris with a difference’ weekend – Vive La DiffĂ©rence.

Graham Alibone


Lindsay Townsend said...

Wonderful to see Paris in a completely new way, Graham! I'm planning to visit them all in time. Thank you for this original, inspiring piece.

Mona Risk said...

What a fantastic blog. And here I thought I kmew Paris like the palm of my hand as I stopped counting the number of times I have been there. My best friend from high school lives in the heart of Paris. When I visit we walk for hours but I haven't been to Les Egouts de Paris or Les Catacombes, and I haven't eaten at that restaurant. I am fluent in French and will make sure I put these places on my agenda for our next trip, hopefully next year.

Jane Richardson, writer said...

What an amazing experience! Talk about something off the beaten track...! Wonderful post, Graham. :)

Jane x

Melanie said...

Hey Dad
Thank you for the fantastic Blog.I am very proud to you.
Take care...
Lots of Love and Greetz from Germay

Savanna Kougar said...

Graham, it is a fantastic blog. I've never had the opportunity to visit Paris... and I've always wanted to... definitely my loss.
The catacombs reminds me of a RELIC HUNTER episode I saw where they were in the catacombs, of course. And I've heard tales about being in with the skulls and skeletons.
Dreamy dining in the dark, sounds exquisite... though, I don't think I'm that brave...
After all, there was that murder episode that took place in a similar dark restaurant in CSI Las Vegas.
Although, I confess, my fear has nothing to do with that episode.

Celia Yeary said...

Graham--delightful! We've been to Paris a few times, but never saw the sewer or the catacombs. My husband spent his GI days stationed in France not too many years after the Korean War. He and his Army buddies "did France" from one side to the other. He absolutley loves Paris to this day--but he has many memories there I cannot share. I only listen to his "stories." Celia

LK Hunsaker said...

What an interesting blog about bits of Paris I hadn't heard. I've eaten in a dungeon but never in complete dark. I think I'd pass on that one. ;-)

Pete said...

Well written, awaking interest to have "dinner in the dark" but not in the sewer. Hope to see more publications of your work on the net.

Take it easy and keep on writing.

Margaret Maguire said...

Hi Graham, I really enjoyed reading your travel piece. Very interesting and differente from the usual holiday. I dont fancy eating in the dark though, I like to see my food. Well done!