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The City of Light Offers Offbeat Tours in the Dark

Times Staff Writer

In the City of Light, two of the more offbeat tourist attractions are in the dark.

The Sewers, which play a prominent role in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” and the Catacombs may not be everybody’s tasse de the. But for the hardy traveler who has already devoured the D’Orsay and lingered in the Louvre, these two sites are adventuresome alternatives.

Tours of the Sewers (Les Egouts) begin in pleasant enough surroundings at the Pont de L’Alma in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

On a recent rainy Saturday an overflow crowd was on hand when a guide in a blue-collared smock opened the entrance gate at 2 p.m. sharp for the day’s first wave of visitors.

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Sulfury Smell

Descending 20 steps, we passed a locker room containing pairs of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-size rubber boots. Then, quite suddenly, we were hit by a strong, sulfury smell that was to serve as a lingering reminder that this was no ordinary tour.

Our first stop was a museum room crammed with paintings, maps and photos tracing the two-century history of the subterranean waterway, from the days when Hugo’s fictional Jean Valjean carried the wounded Marius to safety up to the present.

After 10 minutes we were ushered into a dank cave of a theater for a lengthy slide show that supplied further details about the 2,000-kilometer, computer-run system.

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Enlarged during the reign of Napoleon III, the Sewers also house telephone wires, traffic-light cables and freshwater pipes in 18-foot-high, 14-foot-wide tunnels.

“The work is arduous and dangerous due to the darkness, the dampness and the quantity of water,” intoned the deep-voiced narrator, his heroic dialogue backed by thundering music worthy of a National Football League highlight film.

Although only a few English-translation headphones are available, they are a must for non-French speakers, who otherwise have little option but to just view their surroundings.

Another note of caution: The seats in the screening center are not nearly as plush as those at the Shubert, where the musical version of Hugo’s novel is being staged. Moreover, the place sounds and smells like a bathroom with a leaky toilet.

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Back when tours of the Sewers were first offered during the World Exposition of 1867, the highlight was a boat ride on the underground river of street drains, a sort of perverse “tunnel of love” below the banks of the Seine.

These days the up-close portion consists of a stroll along an asphalt path, then past a sweeping series of storm overflows, catch basins and mechanical sluices.

Rope netting prevents visitors from taking a tumble into the pea soup flow below, which carries leaves, candy bar wrappers and other assorted flotsam and jetsam in its current.

Tour Has Much Appeal

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To some laymen (including me), an hour in the Sewers proves that, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a sewer is a sewer is a sewer.

Yet the tour, which might seem most attractive to engineers and jaded tourists who believe they have otherwise seen all that Paris has to offer, regularly draws large crowds.

The Sewers, which are near the Alma-Marceau Metro stop, are open from 2 to 5 p.m. each Monday and Wednesday and the last Saturday of the month. Cost is 8 francs. (Because the schedule is subject to change, call 43-20-14-40 or 47-05-10-29 for more information.)

The Catacombs, despite their morbid nature, also draw steady crowds.

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The maze-like series of underground passageways, at 1 Place Denfert-Rochereau, contains the bones of several million Parisians reburied 200 years ago when the overcrowded Innocents cemetery near Les Halles was declared a breeding ground for disease.

Millions of Bones

In room after room of this one-of-a-kind ossuary, human bones--yellowed with age--are preserved in hedge-like rows. In some rooms femurs abound. Elsewhere, skulls dominate, occasionally stacked in cross- or heart-shaped patterns.

On the walls, from beginning to end, are time-honored sayings about life and death, drawn from such sources as the Bible and French philosophers.

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“Stop! Here is death’s empire,” reads a sentence carved in stone at the clean, well-lit entrance to the first vault.

As we descended the 132 steps down to the one-time quarry, several fellow tourists, unaware of exactly what awaited them, chatted idly about subway stops, dinner and other concerns. The small talk turned to stony silence after we entered the ossuary.

The Catacombs, which served as the secret headquarters of the French Resistance during World War II, may sound gruesome. And indeed, they are no place to take young children.

But for those with strong stomachs they are likely to provide a solemn, thought-provoking afternoon. Where else can one feel a stronger sense of humility than when standing before the remains of several million forebears, their bones all but indistinguishable by creed, sex or color? Somehow, life’s problems and prejudices seem irrelevant from this perspective.

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The Catacombs, across the street from the Denfert-Rochereau Metro stop, are open to visitors Tuesday through Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. and also from 9 to 11 a.m. on weekends. To check for possible scheduling changes, call 43-22-47-63. The entrance fee is 13 francs.


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