Sunday, February 13, 2011

Paris Underground

The tunnels beneath the City of Light reveal the layers of the past.

Paris, City of Light, really is a tale of two cities. One of them is above ground, with its beloved Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. That’s the city the world sees. And then there’s the city very few us will ever see — an underground Paris, the souterrain. Below the city, concentrated on the south bank of the river Seine, hidden limestone quarries dating back centuries provided the stone for Paris’ great monuments like Notre Dame. The mining left behind a labyrinthine maze — at least 180 miles of abandoned tunnels, secret rooms and caverns, odd wormholes barely big enough to wriggle through, running directly below some of the best-known city streets.

Exploring the Parisian underground is, of course, a French history lesson. On stone walls, there is graffiti from the French Revolution. More recently, there are former Nazi bunkers — and a few feet from them, hideouts for the French resistance and giant columns to hold up edifices above, like the military hospital Val de Grace....

As we crawled, walked and loped, Daniel talked about possible dangers, the most serious of them being a sudden fontis, or collapse. That’s exactly what happened in 1774 — when a street called Rue d’Enfer collapsed. (Interestingly, the name of the street meant “Hell Street” and has been rechristened Denfert-Rochereau.) King Louis XVI, who would later lose his head in the French Revolution, ordered his architect to the underground to assess the damage. Horrified, Charles Axel Guillaumot reported back that much of Paris could collapse; it was built over fragile quarries that stretched for miles.


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