Exploring Barcelona’s Sewers
I met her on the internet. One particularly rainy, Doctor-Seuss-adventure-levels-of-boredom-like-day, I threw out a message in a bottle to ask if anyone knew someone who did urban exploring (tip: this is a great, FREE way to enjoy a city). Soon, a friend contacted me and introduced me to his friend. In the interest of not making anyone feel violated while I talk about their private life on the internet, let’s call her Bilby.
Under a city
I don’t really like the phrase “urban exploring,” is sounds too politically correct. However, it is the umbrella term for breaking into abandoned factories, sewers, underground rivers, catacombs, metro stations, and all manners of mines. Once, when I was fourteen, I was taken on an expedition in the sewer system of our idyllic suburb. It was awesome (proof: we all got grounded). I occasionally wonder if I’m the only one from the group who doesn’t blame the experience on being an idiot teenager.
Then, when I went from being an idiot teenager to an idiot adult, another friend took me to an abandoned chalk mine outside of Paris. It was a vaulted underground cavern system, used for upwards of twenty years for parties. Its soft, chalk walls had been carved into rooms and beds and ladders and covered in graffiti. But that’s another story for another time.
I don’t know if I would call my occasional foray into exploring the dark and forbidden a compulsion exactly, I’m definitely not an expert but luckily my guide is. Out there, there are whole communities of people dedicated to mapping out every inch of the ground under your feet. If you look hard enough, you can find them.
Enter Bilby. While her name suggests a tiny man with big-ass feet (and actually means a tiny mouse with big-ass ears) Bilby was a girl. Her ears and her feet were of average size, but her curly hair was so boingy and springy that she should have been a child star in the ‘50s. She had agreed to take me with her to the bowels of Barcelona. I arrived, late as usual (disclaimer for the internet from now on: I’m basically always late) hoping that this wouldn’t be the time that my lateness annoyed someone enough to leave.
Luckily for me, she was still there. She was sitting behind the hedge of an abandoned country club pool, in front of an opened manhole, wearing a very conspicuous orange vest. As I walked up to her, I saw that her hair was covered in black cobwebs and her tanned face was smudged with mud. She had cleaned out the sewer for me, she explained, grinning.
The plan was to find the underground river of Barcelona, the Malla, which runs under what is now the financial center/downtown. I was told I was lucky: this was new to Bilby, too, and it isn’t usually this easy to find an opening. Perfectly harnessing my neurotic, un-athletic jew-ness, I nervously stalled for time before going down into the manhole.
Luckily for me, Bilby turned out to be one of the most interesting humans I had ever met. She told me that she began popping manholes about a decade before, starting when she was taken to explore an abandoned mine. She’d traveled everywhere, from Europe, to Australia, to America, learning about the history and geography of each city she went, but from the ground down. She tended to stay away from causing trouble in countries too far East or too far South.
We went in and climbed down. I quickly realized that although the objective was to find an underground river, the adventure today was going to be to explore a sewer. Yes, a real sewer with runoff from a real city. My editor’s voice that I’ve never actually heard (we have an email relationship) rang in my ears. “Wear a condom” he said/wrote “…on everything.” I told him not to worry, because I was exploring a river, which was different (duh) and would most likely be beautiful and sparkly and junk.
Remember, I had explored a sewer before. I recovered from the information quickly, as I realized I didn’t care. As soon as we were underground, Bilby seemed to get ten times happier. She loved water. She’d been in almost any kind of abandoned, old, underground structure you could think of, but her one true love was the flow, the roar, the movement of water.
Sunlight shone through a grate, illuminating the round tunnel that led further into the system. As we walked with the light at our backs, the cobwebs showed the complete absence of human presence. When I asked why, Bilby reminded me that people didn’t generally like sewers. After all, it was a very normal human reaction to shy away from poop and giant alligators. Bilby herself had originally sworn not to explore them. However, the rewards outweighed the ickiness, and as long as you weren’t stupid, the ickiness wouldn’t kill you.
Just as I was wondering what these rewards were, we found them. So far, it hadn’t been that gross or that amazing. There were no piles of human waste, but there was also no buried treasure. Until, of course we came upon the stairs.
Stairs, seemingly stairs, which were made of rich brick-red stone, under a high ceiling supported by what looked like insanely dangerous monkey bars.
Other than that, exploring the sewer can be more or less described as walking down a very long and dark-ish tunnel, and occasionally coming upon a big room. Anything gives any semblance of space seems infinitely more out of place underground, and therefore feels like Coronado’s City of Gold.
As I followed Bilby deeper and deeper into the sewers, I asked her as many questions as possible and absorbed all the rogue underground sewer knowledge I could.
In case you ever decide to try this yourself, here are some things you should know.
- Don’t be an idiot. Some other gems of common knowledge include: there’s no cell phone coverage down there, this is still illegal, and don’t go too far in if you don’t know the system well.
- Be prepared for rats. Luckily for me, I think rodents are cute and I am dangerously unconcerned about the plague. I mean, it’s not like I was going to adopt one and name him Splinter and teach him karate. I did have a tiny heart attack, however, when I heard Bilby’s voice up ahead in the darkness announce “I found some rats…they’re coming…”
- You’re definitely going to get wet and dirty. More specifically, get ready for damp cobwebs in your hair and, worse, that awkward wet-sock feeling. If you’re prepared, you’ll wear beat up hiking shoes with slits cut in the back (to allow your socks to dry afterwards). In extreme cases, you’ll have waders. In the community, the question “does it breach?” is used to ask whether the water comes higher than your waders or your boots.
- You almost learn more about a city from below than from above. I listened to Bilby talk for hours about the Roman-inspired architecture of the sewer tunnels, which dated back to the ‘60s. She could tell because the stone walls looked like wood planks, a casting system which was used more than 50 years ago.
Through the sewers, you can learn about the history of a place, the street layout, the geology, the weather, and current politics.
- Come out where you went in. This is particularly true for sewers; there seems to be this quaint idea of being able to explore a sewer and then pop up from a manhole in a posh uptown area. Unfortunately, manholes are in streets and streets have cars. Even though you will come across other ladders going up to other manholes, try to resist the temptation to get smushed by a car.
- If you need to orient yourself, there are some tricks. If you have a phone with GPS, you can try to find an opening (NOT a manhole) and get as close to the surface as you can with your phone: this will give you reception. OR, if you know the system a bit already, find a piece of trash and leave it as a marker in a storm drain to be able to find later.
- Close the manhole. This leads back to the whole venture being dangerous. Yes, you may be a seasoned badass (or in my case, a nerd hanging out with a seasoned badass). However, children usually aren’t, at least not enough to survive falling in a manhole. Also, this is (again) illegal. If a worker comes across an opened hole, he will close it, usually for good, eliminating your way to get back down.
As I said, Bilby was an incredibly cool individual.
As we surfaced in the Barcelona sun, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone more grateful to be out in the fresh air, to be able to wash her face in a fountain down the road, to smell a Eucalyptus tree in a local garden. I walked down the mountain to the city with her. The reason why Bilby is amazing is in part due to my own shortcomings. She served as a reminder that yes, you can travel and float around and be free. What’s more, you can do it for free. You don’t need money to travel. Truly – you don’t. You just need to be brave. Bilby was kind enough to agree to impart some wisdom:
ON EXPLORING UNDER A CITY
“I’ve been obsessed with going in and out of holes for one third of my life: drainage tunnels breed strange wonderfulness. Mud, algae, ochre, calcite, tidal fudge clumps, crystals sloppy drippy mess! If you step easy with your feet, no obstruction is necessarily a deadly hazard. Perhaps [you’ll find] gaseous tidal fudge, perhaps un-gated, un-laddered vertical drops, but with limbs and brains and natural fears, slopping kilometers into the dark is as safe as pie. Laying flat-backed on a cool stone beside/above a decent staircase, underground, with sandwiches, lost in thought – maybe with a friend, and maybe with a beverage – ahhh, bliss.” –Bilby
On Hitchhiking & Traveling Broke
“Incredibly vulnerable situations sometimes reap great, unexpected things.
Finding foam to sleep on makes a Bilby happy. Having thumbs is a great benefit.
There are hundreds of thousands of motor vehicles out there right now with only one human inside, perhaps 4% of them are willing to share that space. Perhaps 93% of them will, from a great distance, try to determine if you are feminine or masculine and decide to stop of not. Three out of five of that 4% will likely slow down, swerve, u-turn or hesitate then stop on their way back. “Pity hitches” have strange mentality.
Sometimes the interior locking mechanism of a vehicle is well hidden/obscured. The muscles in your legs are the best for opening heavy things. Money is EVERYWHERE in the western world. Food is in so much excess you can literally stumble across it with the scent on your nose.”
Stay tuned for my “Adventure Ladies” series, focusing on badass pirate/explorer/cartographer/carnie/artist/hitching/trainhopping women who are enough to inspire you to get off the internet and go into the sun. Or, well, into the sewer.
All photo credits go to: me!