France – it’s the home of Quasimodo and the accordion, and the concept of arrogance. There are so many French things. But what is the most French? It’s a question that generations of academics have wrestled with, yet none have been able to conclusively answer, until now. I have discovered the most French thing to ever exist – and it’s not what you think. It’s actually quite obscure, being hidden away in the sewers of Paris. This is the story of an underground world – of a place few people ever see, and of something very strange that happened there.
On trying to identify the most French thing ever I stumbled upon numerous candidates. But none of them fit the bill, until I found this.
In the mid 19th century, people in Paris began to take guided tours of the underground sewer system. For a small fee locals and foreigners alike were taken through the sewers on a small boat. The dark, dank tunnels lit by lanterns, visitors were shocked by the sheer scale of this underground world.
The Sewers of Paris
Dating back to 1370, the sewers of Paris are enormous. Being gradually expanded by successive regimes, it was massive going into the 18 hundreds. But it wasn’t efficient and outbreaks of disease were common. So in 18550 work began to re-engineer the sewer network. The tunnels were expanded to over two thousand kilometres and each neighbourhood directly connected to the sewers.
The result of this is that Paris is now split in half. Enter the sewers and you’ll find a mirror image of the city, directly correlating with the above world. Individual streets even have name signs. As was said in Les Miserables:
Paris has another Paris under herself: a Paris of sewers; which has it’s streets, it’s crossings, it’s squares, it’s blind alleys, it’s arteries, and it’s circulation, which is slime, minus the human form.
The Most French Thing
Many assume this is a purely fictional account of the city, but it’s legit af. Knowing that, it’s easy to see why so many Victorians paid money to explore the sewers. Even kings and queens from other European states came and took the tour. At first tours operated just twice per month, because frankly they didn’t expect much interest. But as demand grew, more and more tours were made available. It continued this way well into the 20th century. So why did the tours stop? Well, partly for safety. Even in France allowing regular boat rides through the sewer was seen as a health risk.
One of the ways they would clean sewer tunnels was by using large iron balls. Water pressure behind the ball would force it through each tunnel. There was some fear that the ball would be accidentally released during a tour, which would have left visitors in a kind of, bizarre Indiana Jones scenario. Today the sewer is closed to visitors. If not, and you could easily navigate Paris by walking it’s underground tunnels. But you can’t. So suck it.
Three decades ago a live crocodile was found in the sewer and no one knows how it got there. It is said that during the war, the sewers were used by French resistance fighters as a hideout, just as the nearby catacombs were. Perhaps the crocodile was a member of the resistance and was left behind when the war ended. It seems unlikely, but we are talking about France here, stranger things have happened.
I’ve given this a lot of thought… probably too much thought… but I really believe that 19th century Parisians taking boat trips through the sewer, is the most French thing ever. And I felt that, for the good of humanity, I had to make a video about it.