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Five of the best exhibitions in Paris this summer

Paris is a city for art lovers, and also for people who just enjoy looking at a pretty painting. Every second street is full of galleries and museums. But where to begin? Here's our pick of some of the more interesting expos in Paris at the moment.

Five of the best exhibitions in Paris this summer
Tutankhamun's treasures at La Villette in Paris. Photo:AFP.

The Obvious One: Tutankhamun, The Treasure of the Pharaoh, Grande Halle de la Villette, until September 15th.

Everyone loves a bit of King Tut’s golden opulence. This exhibition features more than 150 objects from the Boy Pharaoh’s tomb, many of which have never been taken out of Egypt before. And it is a brief and unique opportunity to see them, as they will be returning to Egypt for the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum in 2022. Tutankhamun was a Pharaoh in the 14th century, he is thought to have died at the age of just 18. His tomb was discovered in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter and the world has been obsessed with it ever since.

The Interactive One: Coup de Foudre, Fondation EDF, Until October 20th.

This is likely to be the most fun you will have at a serious art exhibition in a very long time. Artists Fabrice Hyber and Nathalie Talec have deconstructed the traditional formal gallery space and replaced it with a playground, but one that asks very real questions. You can dress up in a skeleton or a wedding dress and dance like nobody’s watching. You can sit on the wrong side of a deconstructed rocking chair and land on the floor with an impressively loud crash (or keep your dignity, it's up to you). You can pull the strings of a giant puppet. You can write on the walls. You can stand in a black room in the middle of a lightning storm. You can laugh out loud – and you will. Your senses will be challenged, they will be electrified.

The One with a Garden: Georges Dorignac, Musée de Montmartre, Until September 8th.

When the summer sun finally arrives in Paris and you need to escape the sweltering streets and the pushing hordes of tourists, one of the best places to hide out is in a museum. And an even better place is a museum with a garden. The museum in Montmartre boasts not one but three special gardens dedicated to Renoir, as the impressionist artist actually lived there for two years in the 1870s. There’s even a café. If the sun gets too much, you can stroll inside to see an impressive exhibition of work by Georges Dorignac. Dorignac arrived in Montmartre in 1901 and quickly became part of its more cosmopolitan elements, his influences ranging from Modigliani to Seurat. For this show running, the museum is presenting many works which have never been shown in public before.

The Quirky One: Gilbert and George, Louis Vuitton Foundation, until August 26th

There Were Two Young Men is a retrospective of the work of the Anglo Italian art duo Gilbert and George, looking back at their 50-year long artistic collaboration. Dominated by a giant sculpture, the exhibition also features other pieces of the couple's highly distinctive works. It is located in the stunning Louis Vuitton Foundation, buried in the Bois de Boulogne, which is worth a visit just to look at the building. Find out more and book in advance here.

The One Everyone is Waiting For: Leonardo da Vinci, The Louvre, October 24th – February 24th 2020.

Without question the most hotly anticipated exhibition in recent years is this tribute to the Florentine master on the 500th anniversary of his death. Artist, scientist, philosopher, inventor… da Vinci was a true polymath and this exhibition aims to encapsulate the man in all his elements as the Louvre’s researchers have spent the last decade studying his life. Da Vinci died in France, which explains why so many of his key paintings are here. And the Louvre has five of the best, including St John the Baptist and that little known portrait of a woman who may or may not be smiling, Mona Lisa. These paintings will be joined by many of their siblings for what promises to be an unmissable show. Book early.    

Did we miss your personal favourite? Tell us your recommendations by emailing The Local.

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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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