Monday, January 27, 2014

Paris Under Paris

…Paris has another Paris under itself; a Paris... which has its streets, its crossings, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation….Crime, intelligence, social protest, liberty of conscience, thoughts, theft, all that human laws pursue or have pursued, have hidden in this god-forsaken place. 

That's Victor Hugo in Les Miserables describing the dark world beneath the City of Light, which is one of the most extensive undergrounds in the world. Ten stories deep in some places, it's honeycombed with hundreds of miles of metro, sewer, and catacomb tunnels. Water is everywhere -  in reservoirs, canals and even the Bievre, a once-beautiful river that cut across the Left Bank of Paris to empty into the Seine. There are old mines and abandoned quarry galleries, whose stone built many of the great monuments of Paris, including the Louvre and several successive walls of the city. Crypts of churches, bank vaults, the foundations of the ancient Louvre palace, the wine museum of Paris and the elevator equipment for the Eiffel Tower all share space in the underworld. Connected by streets that mirror those on the surface, it's littered with dead ends, and legends abound of people who descended on a lark never to emerge.

And then there are those who are officially there forever. They reside in the Catacombs, the final resting place for the bones of approximately 6 million Parisians past. The first citizens of the Catacombs took up residence in 1786 when their remains were transferred from the Cemetery of the Innocents in central Paris. In use for nearly 10 centuries, the cemetery had become a health hazard for the city's living residents. For two years, night time convoys of carts, loaded with bones covered with black veils, traversed Paris. They were accompanied by a procession of priests in surplices singing the service for the dead. By 1814, the catacombs had received and stacked the remains from all the cemeteries of Paris - rich and poor, young and old, revolutionary and royalist alike. 

Off limits to the public, the underground is illegally visited nightly by an unknown number of cavistes who explore and map the tunnels, paint its walls, party in its galleries, and scuba dive in its reservoirs. Every year, however, another l.4 billion people enter the Paris underground legally, descending into one of the city's 300 metro stations, and riding on 214 kilometers (133 miles) of metro track that crisscross the underworld.  

Before the advent of the metro in 1900, the caverns were a perfect environment for growing mushrooms, known appropriately as champignons de Paris. Once the metro arrived, mushroom cultivation was moved out of the city.

Several years ago, I read in a guidebook that these famous champignons de Paris were still being grown under the city. The book, which seemed quite reputable, said that the entrance to this "secret spot" was located in the emergency room of the Cochin Hospital in the city's 14th arrondissement, an area riddled with underground caverns. I invited my good friend and long-time accomplice Marcelle to come along. She was somewhat doubtful about the accuracy of my information, but was as always game to explore something different. Since it was my idea, I was the appointed spokesperson, even though Marcelle, being French, would surely have explained things better.

In the Salle de Urgence, it looked as if everyone had more pressing business, so we began to look on our own for this secret entrance. Finally, a nurse came over to ask if she could help us. "We're looking for the elevator to the mushrooms," I said. Assuming, perhaps, that my French was bad, she replied. "Les champignons, les champignons? You have a fungal infection?  You need to see a dermatologist."  "No, no," I said, "not that kind of fungus. Mushrooms, champignons de Paris, they grow in the galleries under the hospital and we're looking for the elevator." "Excuse me?" she said - at which point, Marcelle stepped in to better explain the situation. The nurse listened, joined by a couple of orderlies. Even though Marcelle's French was, of course, impeccable, our nurse looked even more confused. "There are no mushrooms," said one of the orderlies, firmly enough so we knew there was no sense in going on. With one more furtive look around, we left with our mission unaccomplished. 

A search of available literature on the subject has yielded little information and illegal entry into the underground is not our forte. However, just last week I discovered an organization of volunteers that conducts an official two-hour, by appointment only tour - 100 steps down beneath Cochin Hospital! Marcelle has written to the organizers to arrange our visit.

Does the secret mushroom world exist? I'll keep you posted. Or as the French would say, a suivre.

If you want to visit the Paris underground, but don't want to risk an encounter with an officer of the law, here are some official visits:

To read about other adventures that Marcelle and I have had, see the following Travel Oyster posts:

A bientôt,

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Love of Paris

There was a foot of newly-fallen snow on the ground when we left Michigan. The temperature was -15F (-26C), but the howling wind made it seem much colder. The departure board at the airport was littered with cancellations, but our Air France flight to Paris was marked "on time." That was a bit optimistic and turned out not to be true. Our plane was not on time, mostly because the electronic equipment on the first two fueling trucks froze up. The third one worked, but very slowly. 

Once on the plane, there was another delay when the passenger count came up one person short of the number of passengers checked in. Someone checking in and then not getting on the plane is a red flag in today's security-conscious airline world, so the count had to be taken again and each passenger checked off by name. That seemed to resolve the problem, and with one more de-icing of the plane, we were off - just three hours behind schedule. Eight hours later, after dinner, a film, a couple of hours sleep, and breakfast, the pilot announced that we were cleared for landing in Paris, where it was a balmy 54 degrees (12C).

We arrived at our apartment late in the afternoon, which gave us enough time to unpack and unwind before meeting a friend for dinner. A Thai restaurant was suggested, but when in Paris, especially your first night in Paris, it's French food you crave. So off we went to a nearby bistro for a hearty lamb casserole. 

Ordinary life goes on even in Paris, which meant that my first day was earmarked for setting up the apartment and shopping for food and supplies. But when it's 60 degrees (15C) in Paris in January and the sun is shining, ordinary life can wait. 

A long serpentine walk brought me in the late afternoon to the Hôtel de Ville. Besides being the city hall of Paris, the Hôtel de Ville often has great exhibits, free to the public. Right now the facade is adorned with an iconic photograph of two lovers kissing with the words: "Brassaï Pour L'Amour de Paris." The line to get into the exhibit was not long so I decided to go. 

Brassaï, who was born Gyula Halasz in Brasso, a Hungarian town that is now in Romania, came to Paris in 1924. He took the name Brassaï to honor his home town.  He became a French citizen and until his death in 1984, he took black and white photos of the adopted city that he loved. He specialized in Paris by night, roaming the city, photographing the famous and the infamous in cafes, bars and brothels. In his photos, the monuments of the City of Light often emerge out of a misty darkness that renders them romantic and mysterious.  His images, many of which appear in the exhibit, beautifully capture Paris in the mid-20th century. It's a great exhibit and if you're in town, be sure to see it.  If not, click here to see a sample of Brassaï's work. 

When I left the Hôtel de Ville, darkness had fallen and a light fog had begun to settle on the city. The photos in the exhibit showed, I thought, a Paris that was no more, but on my walk home, I passed a cafe on a small, dark street. There, at a table in the window, were two lovers kissing. 

A bientôt,  

(All photos featured above by Brassaï are in the public domain)