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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What Goes On Beneath the City? 9.14.11

Do you ever really wonder this? I do, but then I have been on three underground city tours in three different cities and then started looking into other underground tours in cities across the world. Most of the cities as we know them are built on a foundation of a maze of streets and hidey holes just beneath our feet. Some where the original streets of the city and some were for hiding things people didn’t want to know about: slavery, prostitution, gambling, drugs and alcohol. In the days of Prohibition, speakeasies were found in many undergrounds. Men could smoke, drink, play poker and take a woman to bed without fear of “the law” carting him away. There have always been secrets in the history of flourishing cities, but to find out what those are, you have to take a trip to where it all happened.

Why am I talking about this morbidly fascinating idea of underground tunnels and illegal activities? For one, it’s pretty amazing and the history can be better than you imagined, but for another, it’s a fun way to learn about a city from a different perspective and also do it on a budget. I have a long list of destinations that have underground tours that I want to visit. Most tours are a few hours in length, show you a whole new view of a place and also don’t break the bank. Usually they cost under $20 per person and are a fantastic way to learn new things about your destination, get some much needed exercise in and can be a little spooky, too. Why not get your heart racing with one of these tours, especially with Halloween just around the corner.

The three tours I have been on have been somewhat close to where I live. Several years ago we visited the Pendleton Underground Tour in Pendleton, Oregon. Not only is the original brothel still standing and in good repair, but your tour group goes right through it and learns cool things, like why the kitchen has pressed tin tiles on the ceiling, how false walls keep you out of jail and how a woman can attract a client when there are so many girls to choose from. Go underground and see actual artifacts from when Hop Sing was a clothes launderer and original speakeasy and learn what else went on in the underground passages. Did you know that Pendleton was the first city to have electric stop lights? I didn’t. I loved this tour and will be taking Eric to do it sometime in the next year. (Cost: $15pp – 90 minutes)

The second tour I went on was in Seattle. Seattle is famous for its underground tour, though I’m not sure why. I was quite excited to check it out, but I was highly disappointed when I went, because they use their tunnels as storage facilities, making it hard to envision how it must have been in its heyday. My husband said when he went on a tour there it was really fun and interesting, so possibly I didn’t get the full experience. I don’t remember my guide being upbeat and enthusiastic, as he did his, and that can really make all the difference. (Cost: $16pp – 90 minutes)

Last weekend we decided to finally check out the Shanghai Tunnels under Portland. It was featured on Travel Channel’s 10 Most Haunted. Though it came in at number 10, it was the only Portland site to make the list, so by simple reasoning, it must make it Portland’s most haunted site. I was disappointed that I didn’t experience so much as a cold breeze, nor did I catch anything on my camera, unless you count dust particles catching the light of my flash and presenting themselves as “glowing orbs”. I was really just excited to go down into one of the grates in the sidewalk that most people have lifts in and use for storage. I’m weird maybe, but still, it was some sort of goal. I hadn’t actually been to the tunnels before, because it was supposedly really dark and you needed to bring your own flashlight. I’m afraid of the dark and also of ghosts, but the tour has changed and even though it was dark and a flashlight was provided, I almost didn’t even need one. We learned some pretty cool stuff about kidnapping unsuspecting victims and holding them captive until they could be sold to boat captains as crew (this was know as “shanghaiing”). (Cost: $13pp – 90 minutes)

While we were enjoying pizza at one of my favorite places in Portland (that would be Old Town Pizza, for those that love a good pie) I got to thinking about other places that have underground tours and cities and which I’d put on my list to tick off when I got the chance. Here’s what I came up with.

Paris Catacombs – This is absolutely #1 on my list of must-see underground tours. While usually crowded and full of dead people, it’s super unique and steeped in history. If the walls could talk…well, then I would probably scream and flee in terror. Since they can’t (thank goodness) the map and signs will tell me everything I need to know. Bones of those riddled by disease, taken out in the revolution or sentenced to the guillotine all rest here. I’ll remember to make my reservations early, because lines can be super long and I’m not up to hanging around when I could be doing something else more fun. (Cost: $11pp – 45 minute self-guided tour. Skip the lines with a Paris Pass.)

Berliner Unterwelten – In a Berlin train station, you can enter a door that leads to a secret Nazi hideout. Well, it’s not really a secret anymore and those Nazis probably aren’t around anymore either. In WWII, the hideout was used as an air raid shelter and housed secret bunkers and escape tunnels. While part of Germany’s sad history, it’s still a pretty cool piece of history that shouldn’t be forgotten. (Cost: $13pp – 90 minute tour)

Mercat Tours – Amid all the Scottish ghost stories comes yet another buried under the South Bridge in Edinburgh. A storage space used by merchants became a place for murder victims and other illegal activities in the 1700’s. Historical? Maybe. Creepy? Definitely! Many sightings have been reported in these tiny passages, which might sound more appealing to me now than when it actually comes time to visit them. (Cost: $12 – 75 minute tour)

Central Park Underground City – There's so much to see in New York, but here's another cool thing to add to your list. Conspiracy Theorists love to talk about the "Manhattan Project". Maybe Hitler really did hide out there or the government stashed the Roswell aliens in it or Czar Nicholas III and his family escaped execution there. Maybe none of that happened, but you can still tour the underground city where there are over 60 miles of roads, an underground lake and the second largest telephone exchange in the U.S.  (Cost: $20 – 60 minute tour)

This is by no means a complete list of all the underground tours across the world. There are ones in Vienna, Roma, Naples, Jerusalem and even Seoul. Look for ones in the cities you plan to visit and enjoy a new way to see the city while saving money at the same time. Don't forget to bring your camera to capture the unseen parts of your destination, and possibly a ghost. Have you done any of these tours? What did you think?

Guess what? I have another fun post on the Ebates blog. Need some more help with your packing light prowess? Well, I've got 5 useful tips for you to help you pack small and enjoy big savings! Tell me what you think!

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