In 1971, Paris lost a piece of its soul as the teeming hub of humanity that was "Les Halles" food market was ripped out, part of a disastrous experiment in urbanism caught on camera by iconic photographer Robert Doisneau.

"/> In 1971, Paris lost a piece of its soul as the teeming hub of humanity that was "Les Halles" food market was ripped out, part of a disastrous experiment in urbanism caught on camera by iconic photographer Robert Doisneau.

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Photographer’s hymn to the ‘murdered’ heart of Paris

In 1971, Paris lost a piece of its soul as the teeming hub of humanity that was "Les Halles" food market was ripped out, part of a disastrous experiment in urbanism caught on camera by iconic photographer Robert Doisneau.

Photographer's hymn to the 'murdered' heart of Paris
Triporteur aux Halles by Robert Doisneau; detail from exhibition poster

Last year the city began an overhaul of the underground mall and suburban railway hub built in its place, the Forum des Halles, which had become a magnet for petty crime and drug trafficking, and a no-go area for locals.

With work now underway on a vast canopy and landscaped gardens that hope to draw back Parisians, more than 200 Doisneau shots capturing the riotous bustle of the market, up until its destruction, went on display at the city hall on Wednesday.

Best known abroad for classic black and white shots such as the iconic picture “The Kiss at the Hotel de Ville”, Doisneau was a tireless chronicler of everyday Parisian life — and Les Halles was a constant subject of fascination.

“There are few subjects that he covered as deeply,” said Doisneau’s daughter Francine Deroudille, who curated the show for the Paris city hall, along with her sister Annette Doisneau.

His first picture of Les Halles was snapped in 1933, a shot of two girls being wheeled backwards on a hand-pulled trolley, outside the vast 19th-century, steel-and-glass market hall known as the Baltard pavilions.

Through the 1940s and 50s Doisneau returned over and over to the market and its larger-than-life characters.

Back then, Paris partygoers would end their night at dawn, exhausted and happy, around a bowl of onion soup at Les Halles, as the ballet of trucks began delivering the day’s market fare.

Flower-sellers, cheesemongers, fishmongers, poultry vendors with their walls of fat geese strung up by the neck, were all given the close-up treatment by the photographer, said Deroudille.

“Those who wanted to get rid of the market cast it as a chaotic mess,” said Deroudille. “But it was extremely well organised, the whole thing running like clockwork.”

Most are vintage shots in black and white, in their original small format, save for half a dozen colour images.

A whole series from the 1950s is devoted to the market’s strong-armed, grinning butchers — with one veteran gazing deadpan into the camera, a knife in one hand and a cow’s head in the other.

Doisneau also shows the population of down-and-outs who would gravitate to Les Halles, curling up to sleep on the sidewalk before renting out their labour at dawn, carrying crates for a few francs.

And he shows the prostitutes, smartly dressed and clutching small handbags, leaning on the walls of Les Halles’ side streets.

A series of images, all taken from the same spot, has well-dressed men and women vaulting over a gutter strewn with market litter, on their way to the office.

Criticising it as unhygienic, outdated and unfit for the needs of a modern metropolis, the authorities under Georges Pompidou — prime minister and from 1969 president of France — called for Les Halles to be razed.

“They took the decision to murder the market,” now seen as a jewel of 19th-century architecture, says Deroudille.

As plans gathered pace for its destruction, overuling the protests of locals, artists and architects, Doisneau started visiting once a week, rising at three in the morning to travel into Paris and bear witness to what he saw as a crime.

“He put his anger into his photographs,” said Deroudille.

In 1969 Doisneau shows traders being moved out of the market, to be rehoused in a purpose-built new complex in Rungis, in the middle of a field south of Paris, which still today acts as the larder of Paris.

Two years later the market hall was destroyed, leaving a gaping hole in the centre of the city, partly, says Deroudille, because it risked becoming a magnet for the counter-culture youths who took to the streets in the May 1968 revolt.

“The whole neighbourhood has been petrified by a brutal frost,” Doisneau wrote at the time. “Paris has lost its belly, and a part of its soul.”

Doisneau shows Parisians peering at architect models for the market site — since no one knew back then what would replace it — and finally, 10 years on, the opening of the Forum des Halles in 1979.

With the future of Les Halles now back on the agenda, Deroudille hopes her father’s work will be used “not to cry over the past — but to think, about the history of a massacre, of a neighbourhood that didn’t work all that badly.”

“The intensely happy, vital, sensual life of Les Halles’ traders, deserves our attention today. They weren’t millionaires, not at all, and yet there is real happiness there.”

Attending the show preview, Paris deputy mayor Anne Hidalgo said the city had drawn the lessons from the past.

“The Baltard pavilions were destroyed in the name of an idea of modernity that wanted to do away with history,” she told reporters.

“The methods were brutal, and Parisians were not consulted one bit. These days we wouldn’t do things that way at all. A city with a gaping hole in the centre just doesn’t work.”

Details of the Doisneau exhibit, which runs at Paris city hall until April 28, are available on www.robert-doisneau.com.

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CULTURE

Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).

‘Cathedral’

The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river. 

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