Full steam ahead

And we’re off! Lockdown has been lifted, and the desperate scramble for holiday places begins. Maybe you’ve spent months dreaming of exotic climes, or a germ-free country break away from the confines of a disease-ridden city. Me? I’ll always choose the train as my vacation vehicle to transport me somewhere green, though with the frantic peak holiday months of July and August soon upon us, I think I’ll sit tight for now and scoot off somewhere later in the year.

But you needn’t be tied to a travel itinerary to fully appreciate the beauty of Paris’ railway stations, worth a visit on their own merits. We’ve already dipped our toe in here, but this time we’ll don our curiosity specs and take a look at Gare de l’Est up close. We’re not heading there for a hardcore trainspotting sesh you understand (though if that punches your ticket, go right ahead) but to have a wander around the building itself, appreciating its architectural charm and rich history.

One of the six major stations in the city along with gares du Nord, Lyon, Austerlitz, Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare, it was built by architect François Duquesnay, who wasn’t known for much else. He sadly departed for the platform in the sky at the end of 1849, the year the station opened, so never lived to see it used to its full potential. Originally conceived to serve the Paris-Strasbourg line and called ‘Embarcadère de Strasbourg’, it soon expanded its service to serve the city of Mulhouse near the German/Swiss border, and was renamed ‘Gare de l’Est’ in 1954. Significant further expansion and renovation happened in 1885, 1900 and 1931, and today the station welcomes nearly 38 million passengers a year, carrying them mostly eastwards to major French and European cities.

The intricate mouldings on the façade depict many of the cities it serves, and its crowning glory are two magnificent statues representing Strasbourg on the western side, and Verdun on the east. If you’re hanging outside the main entrance to have a look, you’ll either be standing on the place du 11-Novembre-1918 or further back on the rue du 8-Mai 1945, both so named in memory of the two world wars. And it’s WW1 in particular that’s at the heart of the station’s history, as it facilitated the mobilisation of huge numbers of French troops towards the Western Front (the statue of Verdun remembers the longest and bloodiest battle of the conflict that ended in French victory). Head inside to the main hall to have a look at Albert Herter’s gigantic mural Le Départ des poilus, août 1914 (above), depicting the infantrymen’s departure with the artist’s son centre, holding his cap, rifle and flowers aloft.

In happier times, the station lays claim to having been the starting point for possibly the world’s most famous train journey, the first voyage of the Orient Express in 1883 from Paris to Istanbul (then Constantinople). The luxury service ran from the capital until 2007 (and stopped entirely in 2009) and inspired enough legends, stories, films and documentaries to fill one of its own carriages. There is still a privately-run version in operation using original carriages from the 20s and 30s, though you’ll need serious coin to afford an overnight cabin. Maybe a gold-plated corona mask is included in the price…

However you decide to travel this summer, don’t forget that the journey is just as important as the destination, and keep yourselves and your loved ones safe along the way. Bonnes vacances!


Train of thought

Way back in long-forgotten normal times, my favoured mode of transporting myself around the city was on foot. Clad in a pair of comfy adventure shoes, I’d whizz around the streets (no flâneur-ing for me) darting from errand to errand, leaving crowds of dawdlers in my wake. Sometimes though, time and distance would prove too much for even my athletic paws and I’d have to rely on the metro to magic me where I wanted to go instead. Under lockdown law I’ve have no choice but to rely sole-ly (ha!) on my trusty pieds and I’ve already worn out one pair of trainers as a result. A very strange thing has happened my friends, a very strange one indeed. I actually miss the metro.

Rush hour push-and-shove, unsavoury characters with wandering hands (or mouths; a friend of mine was bitten on the behind on the metro once), urine-scented platforms, or the living hell that is line 13 – what on earth is there to get so sentimental about? Well yes, excellent point, but no one’s perfect. It’s easy to be negative and point out its flaws, but even easier to take the whole thing for granted. Rendering pretty much the whole of Paris (intramuros) accessible within a 40-minute time frame for a mere pittance (er, yes it is compared to many other cities in the world) is nothing short of a luxury when you think about how long the journey would take by car. So here goes a blog-ode to the Paris metro, whose hallowed platforms I have not graced for months on end, and am unlikely to for the foreseeable future (not being essential in my case).

It’s hard to imagine the city without it, but metro-less it was back in 1845 when the first ideas of an underground transport system were being bandied around. The ultimate aim was to extend the existing (overground) rail system, though the powers-that-be fell foul of the charming French habit of endless circular talking about stuff without achieving a single thing, and it wasn’t until, incredibly, 1898 that construction began (hopefully Brexit negotiations will follow a similar pattern). Even the likes of Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant and members of the Eiffel Society (yes, the tower guy) weighed in with their two centimes’ worth.

Civil engineer whizz Fulgence Bienvenüe (pictured above) was given the momentous task, later known as Le Père du Metro. (Yes, the Montparnasse metro station is named after him, it doesn’t mean ‘welcome’. You can pay your respects there, or at Père Lachaise cemetery.) He had help from Jean Baptiste-Berlier, the chap responsible for Paris’ pneumatic tube postal system, and well, you can see the connection there. Intense and difficult construction of the initial 10 lines, mainly due to the challenging soils under Paris, was mostly completed by the 1920s, with the first line, line 1 obviously, opening on 19th July 1900.

Line extensions linking the inner suburbs began in the 30s, much to the distaste of true-blue intramuros Parisians (are they ever satisfied?). WWII scuppered further plans, and many stations never reopened after the conflict. Forget your images of plucky Parisians huddled together on metro platforms sheltering from the bombing above, in reality Paris was never bombed much in the first place, and most stations were far too shallow to make efficient bomb shelters anyway. Modernisation and extension began again in the 50s, and in 1977 the metro became a real somebody with its own mascot, Serge the Rabbit, who loves to tell us to ‘mind those fingers!’.

Roll into the station ‘today’ and the 215km-long system comprises of 302 stations (including one of the world’s largest at Châtelet) and 16 lines. The 2nd busiest in Europe, it shunts around 6.5 million people a day (outside of pandemics) and is due to add another 200km of track to its network by 2030(ish) with four new lines as part of the ambitious Grand Paris Express plan. The paper tickets will disappear from daily life next year, and the drivers will soon follow suit.

It might not work as well as you want it to all the time, but we must give credit where credit is due. Not only does it wonderfully spirit us from A to B, but it gave the world the word ‘metro’ (a contraction of its full name La Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitan de Paris – phew) and exported its rubber-tyre system to build other metro systems all around the world. Plus where would the cityscape be without Guimard’s beautiful metro entrances inviting you into the city’s bowels?

Until I can descend once again, I’ll be watching Youtube videos of metro journeys on my favourite lines from the comfort of the Granny Flat (yes, very much a thing). I’ll also be preparing a post on the wonderful stories behind the metro stations themselves, but hey, it might take a while. In the meantime, remember kids M is for ‘metro’, but also for ‘mask’…

Post originally published 12/05/2020

Making an entrance

Greetings readers from the warm embrace of the Granny Flat, where hot chocolate powder and thermal socks have been solidly dominating proceedings. Thankfully the snow has abated, though the rain ahead is hardly a welcome replacement. Given I’m lucky enough to be working from home these days, I don’t have to venture out too often into the soggy mists, though once in a while stew stocks need replenishing and a spell in the outdoors just can’t be avoided.

Now as much as a bracing stroll is good for the soul, when it comes to self-meandering around a chilly capital, sometimes it’s just the most sensible idea to get down. Not in the James Brown sense you understand (although that may help to raise the body temp somewhat), but ‘get down’ into the bowels of the city, and let the wonderfully efficient metro (most of the time) scurry you around the place, all warm and toasty like.

Now I’ll wager a vin chaud that like me, those who regularly use the metro normally enter the city’s belly, head down and hurrying, without a thought for the magnificence of the portal marking the opening of this underground world. And like me, you’d be a lot poorer for it, ignoring a whole host of aesthetic pleasures and historical texture that could make your mind, and life, a whole lot richer. So next time those grey steps into the concrete underworld beckon, take a thought for the souls who decided that a fancy-pants ‘metro’ sign would make everyone’s day more the nicer.

As with most things in the capital, the collection of metro signs on display is delightfully mismatched, though each marker is a unique product of its own time period. Modern styles tend to make up their own rules (line 14 has been churning out the best examples since 1998) and the future is likely to include quite the kaleidoscope of varieties. But cast your eyes around the rest of the metro infrastructure pointing out the older lines, and you’ll find three distinct styles emerge.

The most modern is the mât jaune, or ‘yellow mast’; that nocturnally glowing M nestled in a circular surround. Cropping up from the late 60s, this canary beacon was intended to resemble a radio antenna, and you never know perhaps it is, listening to our every metro manoeuvre grand frère style. In the red corner are a collection of similar designs, declaring either ‘metro’ or ‘metropolitan’ in a rectangle surrounded by ironwork of various artistic expressions. The most prominent of these are the Val d’Osne mast, recognisable by its ornate frieze (see metro Saint Paul) and the art deco Dervaux style (metro Trocadéro for example), whose much simpler form was a result of the move away from decorative embellishment that took hold in the 1930s. Most variations of the red/dark green design sport a globe lamp on top (Lamarck Caulaincourt pictured), attracting eager travellers down into the depths.

But anyone who’s anyone knows that the real king of the metro portal is Hector Guimard, whose botanically-inspired art nouveau entrances are as quintessentially Parisian as a croque monsieur. Plenty are still available to appreciate, though of the original 141 that were constructed in line with the birth of the metro in 1900, only 86 remain. Though Guimard and his style are much revered today, his critical reception in his day wasn’t quite so positive, with Parisians lacking in enthusiasm for the design when it first emerged (do they like anything when it first appears? Eiffel Tower and Pompidou Centre, here’s looking at you). A victim of media vilification, much of his work was demolished as a reaction against him, though happily there are still come cracking examples to make a beeline for.

Five styles were originally created, from simple railings to elaborate glass pavilions, of which sadly only three remain. Those at Châtelet (a reconstruction) and Abbesses (originally located at Hôtel de Ville) are the best known, but by far the most complete and impressive version is situated at metro Porte Dauphine (an absolute must-visit if you’re on your way to the Bois de Boulogne), a glory to behold with its fan shaped awning and floral paneling intact. They certainly don’t make ’em like they used to.

So in these meteorologically uncertain times, when a metro ride is in order, make sure you take a moment to look up, maintaining necessary vigilance for dog poo spotting of course. In return, the metro gods may even give you a seat…

Post originally published 03/03/2018

On the right track

Kim Station 2Hey you! You with the terrible sunburn over there. Have a good holiday? Great! Me? I’ve still got a week in Sardinia to cope with, as my milky English skin can’t cope with the August rays on the beach (it’s a hard life). This month though I have been holidaying in a fashion, kicking about in Paris trying not to complain too much about the city’s face-melting heatwave, and making the most of the deserted streets (for my guide to a super Paris stay-cation, click here). I’d have been in touch, but I couldn’t risk you spilling your cocktail all over my blog, so for both our sakes, I’ve left it until now. But now, here we are, a wee pick-me-up post to cushion the blow of the rentrée let’s call it.

So, modern holidaying often requires being stuffed into a metal tube and catapulted through the skies to somewhere hot and sunny for a couple of weeks. Well, that’s the case for most of us, but the clever French have refined their holiday game to quite another standard. Most vacationers largely avoid the lo-cost cattle-esque aerial option preferring to head to the south of their own glorious country, where the sun shines bright and the need to master tricky foreign phrases dissolves into the sparkling blue sea. Air travel is possible from north to south, but any savvy traveller here knows that the car and plane are for chumps, and that the train is where it’s really at; one of France’s proudest, chest-puffing achievements.

Kim Station 1Being from the UK, my train-travel norm is paying hundreds of pounds to take the most long-winded and illogical route on an always-late train from one depressing station to another, without even the promise of a seat. Jeremy Corbyn has just made it political, for Christ’s sake. France offers quite the opposite thanks to the lightning fast (ok, not quite) TGV and a well-ordered nationalised rail network, meaning it’s possible to get from Paris to Montpellier (747 km or 464 miles) in a shade under 3 1/2 hours. To travel the same distance on a train in the UK (lost for words as to why you would though) would take at least twice as long and cost at least twice the price. Madness.

Kim Station 3Next time I’m on a TGV, I’m going to head to the bar carriage, order a glass of wine and ‘cheers’ the inside wall in appreciation of this seamless efficiency, that after nearly eight years of living here, is easy to take for granted. But this is a blog about Paris rather than train appreciation, (thank God), so I’ll turn my gaze instead towards the city’s major stations that quietly and skilfully assemble and disperse the nation’s passengers from and to all corners of the country, in a display of relaxed and scenic effortlessness.

Out of Paris’ six major station hubs (including stations at Austerlitz, Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare), it’s the big three gares Nord, Est and Lyon that deserve a visit even if you’re not planning on going anywhere. All 19th century constructions (Lyon was the latest, completed in 1900) pay homage to the cities their tracks serve, with the most ornate being Gare du Nord, featuring sculptures along its top edge dedicated to individual towns or cities, including some of the trains’ European destinations. Long regarded as a less than attractive or inviting part of town (and that’s being extremely kind), it’s sad that most passengers try to flee to the nicer parts of Paris without truly taking in the stunning architecture of Europe’s busiest station.

Kim Station 4The charms of Gare de l’Est and Gare du Lyon are often similarly ignored as visitors and commuters alike pass by their beauty thanks to underground train links, but the latter’s imposing clock tower still strikes me quiet as one of the most stunning structures in Paris. If (somehow) the combination of aesthetics and travel isn’t enough to steam your train, then the larger stations are becoming shopping malls in their own rights (but remember, it’s all about doing, not having!), and you can hardly argue with the pull of that trio in destination terms.

So I might not be able to take the train to Sardinia, but I’m sure my journey will be the poorer for it. After all, isn’t how you get there half the fun?

Colour me happy

IMG_2624I’m a girl who likes to have a bit of colour in her life (and no, I don’t mean ‘blue’ movies…), though Paris isn’t playing ball at the moment, coating each May day in grey clouds and dull drizzle. Luckily a comprehensive redecorating programme of the Granny Flat is underway, with paint colour tester patches springing up everywhere, but leave her loving arms and venture outside in these times of questionable weather, and everything feels a little bit beige.

If you’re scouring the streets for happier hues, then the metro is usually the last place you’d think to find them, what with all that concrete casing, those grimy white tiles, and the icy cold stares of packed-in commuters. But for another month, that’s exactly where you need to go looking as RATP play host to another artist in their RATP invites… exhibition series, furnishing selected metro and RER stations with photographs from Belgian artist Harry Gruyaert.

BELGIQUE. Boom. 1988. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum photos

BELGIQUE. Boom. 1988. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum photos

Now if we’re talking colour, he’s a chap who has devoted his artistic life to the study of it; he was one of the first pioneers of colour photography way back in the 1970s. Whilst us amateur snappers may rely on the black and white setting to give us that professional edge, Harry sees colour photography as more physical and affecting, exploring all of the different shades, tones and intensity that he can find.

BELGIQUE. Anvers. 1992. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

BELGIQUE. Anvers. 1992. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

Starting his career in Paris taking photos of the fashion industry, Harry was soon drawn towards travel, and the exhibition adorning the walls of the metro platforms in his career’s first port of call show the results of his work in his native Belgium, Morocco and London. Not only do you get the chance to explore the aesthetic journey he has taken, but you literally follow him on his physical journey as his photographs are arranged into four distinct sections and seven metro stops, meaning that you get to travel too if you want to see the entire collection.

BELGIQUE. N1 Malines-Anvers. 1988. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

BELGIQUE. N1 Malines-Anvers. 1988. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

Part 1, Maroc, (Luxembourg, RER B) is the culmination of 40 years of travel through the rural landscape of Morocco, the artist enchanted by the inexhaustible palette of colours laid out before him. At station Jaurès (line 2) the inspiration comes from just across the channel in a series of photographs called TV Shots, which capture his London experiments disrupting TV sets and zapping through the various colour TV programmes of the era, influenced by the time’s Pop Art movement.

FRANCE. Fort Mahon. 1991. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

FRANCE. Fort Mahon. 1991. © Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

Part 3, Made in Belgium, can be found spread over three stations (Hotel de Ville, La Chapelle and Saint Denis Porte de Paris) and has its roots in the country of Harry’s youth. It displays his work there in the late 1970s, where he tried to put his painful past behind him and endeavoured to find the different nuances in a less-than-vibrant landscape. The final part, Rivages (shores), located at Saint-Michel and Bir Hakeim, captures the subtle shades of nature’s colour wheel between the sea and the sky at some of geography’s lesser exotic seashores.

50 Shades of Grey is so last year, colour’s where it’s at. The exhibition sticks around until 15th June. For more info, click here.

A metro-ode to Paris transport history

IMG_2203So I’m a woman and therefore allowed to change my mind as often as I want. Now before you menfolk start rolling your eyes, I’m sure you’ll thank me for this happy affliction. This post was originally intended to be about where to find the most delicious seasonal tucker in the cutest streets of Paris, but that can sit for another day. This is France after all, and if you can’t find decent food around the place then you probably don’t deserve to have taste buds.

IMG_2207Instead I found a hidden gem, completely unrelated to Christmas (which let’s face it, begins to grate like nails down a chalkboard after a while). It came about as I was snaking my way through the city on the metro, forced underground by the chilly drizzle. As the train ambled into my home station, a flash of vintage colour caught my eye – unusual given that the platform is currently under construction and therefore a bloody mess. But underneath the layers of grime twinkled forgotten memories of the past, that practically begged for further investigation.

IMG_2217See, my station Marcadet-Poissonniers actually used to be separated in two, with unconnected stops at Marcadet on line 4 and Poissonniers on line 12 (christened after the above-ground roads which bear their names), that were eventually connected to form the twin station in 1931. As a result, in a bit of a bodge job, the old single-titled platforms had to be renovated and the old signage hastily covered up to make room for the new, swanky double-barrelled name. Forget removing the old and replacing with new, the out-of-date tiles and hoardings were simply boarded up.

IMG_2211Recently though, as renovations have started (and we’re just talking on the platform of line 12 here for the time being), all of that framework has been taken down and the old (albeit crusted with years of dust) glory revealed once again. And not just the old ‘Poissonniers’ tiling either, there are old advertising posters and official information notices that have remained hidden for all these years. There’s even a list of ghost metro stations that didn’t quite stand the test of time.

IMG_2213It’s at this time of year we all have a tendency to scratch back through the year’s calendar and reflect on the past, and it was an awesome vintage treat to see Paris revealing its bygone layers in a similar way. There were old holiday posters, flyers for concerts past, adverts for cars once modern, now classic, and official literature produced by RATP typists of yore, sadly all ripped and half-fallen, but still bathed in the vibrant colours and archaic print of the era.

IMG_2216It’s hard to know exactly when they were pasted for the eyes of commuters gone by, but the tiling certainly dates back from the 30s and the advertising has a distinctive 50s artistic flair. Some of the stations on the closed list met their end as early as 1939, and those that reopened didn’t feel commuter footsteps again until the late 60s.

IMG_2208I’m harbouring a wish that a bit of spit and polish will bring the old decor back to its original splendour, but it’s likely that given the presence of the antiquated station title signage, it’ll be a case of tear it down and start afresh. For the moment, I get to hop off the metro and into a glorious time warp, reminding me that this transport system that is so easy to take for granted has a colourful, event-filled past just like the rest of us. If you happen to be in the ‘hood in the next few weeks yourself, I hope you’ll take this rare trip down metro memory lane too.

The art of the underground

Kimwinnogrand1Last week was a busy one in Granny Flat HQ, so apologies for the delayed post. But there are two very good reasons for this. Last week’s major time-sucker was a stunning two-for-one bonus showing of ‘My First Migraine‘, enjoyed in complete surround sound with a team of hammer-and-drill-wielding builders who went to town renovating the façade of my building as if their lives depended on it. Secondly I’ve been distracted by a new cream-topped yoghurt dessert with a salted caramel butter centre that’s just appeared in my supermarket, akin to liquid gold on a spoon. It’s been a roller coaster week.

Kimwinoogrand4So I’ve been depending on the metro more than usual to save time, rather than tackling the hour long walk from work to home that I like to indulge in to keep me ol’ buns in check. Regular travellers through the bowels of the city know you’ve got a few socially acceptable options available to you whilst you pass the time holed up in your carriage. Read, snooze, listen to thumping tunes and to hell with the other passengers, examine your fingernails… i.e. any activity that promotes avoiding the ultimate public transport sin – making eye contact with your fellow commuters.

Kimwinnogrand2But hurrah! Rather than depending on staring at inane adverts for stuff you don’t want or need as you wait patiently at various stations along your route, RATP (those public transport dudes who like striking) have brought the culture underground and provided us with a magnificent black and white photo exhibition to look at, which started in mid-October and lasts all the way until February 8, 2015.


The art is on display in the following stations

A retrospective of the American photographer Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) and put together in association with the Jeu de Paume, 16 stations around the city display huge billboards of his famous photographs on their platforms, depicting life on the street of 1960s America (check out the map to see exactly where). It’s the 4th time Paris’ major transport organisation have exhibited throughout their transport network since 2013.

You’ll come across curly-haired, pointy glasses-wearing dames gossiping in the street, a smiling President Kennedy unaware of what the near future would hold, trilby-sporting commuters on their way to a Mad Men style day at work, and a monkey in a Cadillac (probably) cruising down the strip, amongst other vintage delights. It might be a world away from Paris, but it sure beats staring at the used chewing gum on the metro floor.

For more info, direct your mouse here.

No no, no no no no, there’s no limits

Navigo passI was a child of the 80s, so I hope you’ll let me have that title… So, I hope everyone has recovered from the Bastille Day weekend and had a suitable red, white and blue time, wherever in the world you may be. Sadly I have been struck by the illness wand lately, hence the long overdue post. But Granny Flat worked her defensive powers, and now I am as right as rain and ready to get my adventure shoes on once again (well, adventure flip-flops if the sun would stick around).

And my timing couldn’t be more perfect. As mid July engulfs us, those in Paris may have noticed the thinning crowds on the streets (not near the Eiffel Tower of course where they always stick like glue), and the general calming down of things. Indeed, holiday time has arrived, and many of the city’s residents (the ‘early shift’ let’s call them), have packed their bags and headed for warmer climes for their yearly summer break – something Parisians take extremely seriously.

From now until the dying embers of August, Paris empties out as if somebody pulled the plug in a 20 arrondissement-sized bath, and those of us who are left can enjoy the city in relative peace and quiet – as much as a capital city can ever be serene and deserted. Now is the time to explore the parts you’ve always been meaning to, without the threat of being caught up in the usual human treacle hanging over your adventures.

And the best bit is that the city transport authorities furnish your expeditions with your own set of explorer wings via the annual dézonage of the Navigo pass which means that the inner zoners can travel all the way out to the outer zones of the city (that means the suburbs and beyond – don’t get dizzy now) for no extra cost. There are some awesome locations to see as well so far out of the centre that you feel like you’ve left Paris far, far behind, and you have until the end of the dézonage, the 17th August to check them out.

I haven’t had the chance to get my tourist boots on yet and check it all out, but when I do, I’ll let you know some of the best places around to visit; countryside, village backwater and historical sights galore. You can bet your ordnance survey map on it.

For more info check out http://www.navigo.fr

The only way to see Paris in a day

IMG_1635I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about our favourite metro lines (amongst waaayyy more interesting topics I might add). I went with 12 due to its lush racing green colour and ease of seat-getting each day on my way to work. She went with 4, that hot pink rollercoaster of a line where hanging on dearly to the nearest pole is extremely advisable (another friend told me that it’s such a stop-start thrill ride due to the fact they train the new metro drivers on it – sure explains a lot).

Before you start pointing at the sheer insanity of her choice (surely only line 13 is a more-hated beast), hear me out – there’s a pretty cool philosophical sentiment behind her choice. “It’s the only line that show you a complete cross-section of Paris”, she said, “from top to bottom”. A good thirty seconds later after I tried to work out how you could ‘see’ the very essence of Paris from a deep, dark underground tube, I realised that she was absolutely right. You’ve just got to pop your head out every few stops and you’ll see all the colours, textures, smells and sounds that the city has to offer.

Porte de Clignancourt, the northerly terminus of the line, starts you off with the flea market to end all flea markets, at the limit of the peripherique. Head downwards and within a couple of stops you’ll hit Marcadet-Poissonniers (literally fish-market, what the area used to be back in the day), where I’m told all the best people in the city live… From here you’re right on the edge of the popular part of the 18th arrondissement, but far enough removed from the tourist treacle to be comfortable.

Continue south and you’ll hit three of the ‘rougher round the edges’ stops (which in the opinion of some is being quite kind); Chateau Rouge, Barbès Rochechouart and Gare du Nord, where you’ll find yourself in one of the poorest parts within the city proper, known as Goutte d’Or. Now despite what Hemingway would have you believe, poverty doesn’t really equal romance, but here you’ll get to see the real multicultural foundations of Paris in their raucous, buzzing glory.

Stop by Strasbourg-Saint Denis to check out one of the old city gates (Porte Saint Denis) and then head to the commercial, pedestrinised centre at Châtelet-Les Halles where you can wander round the wonky buildings overlooking the brand new whatever-it-is-they’re-building above the underground shopping centre, and imagine what is was like when the area was home to a stinky old cemetery.

Cité is where the seeds of the city started growing, and is home to its iconic old lady Notre Dame. Head across (well, you’ll be under actually) the river and instant gentrification will be in the air as you head into the 6th and the Latin Quarter, taking in the la-di-da bits of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Odéon (if you can find strolling space on the pavement), gazing in at the see-and-be-seens lazily grazing at the terraces of some of the city’s most famous cafés.

Montparnasse is dripping with artistic history almost as much as Montmartre, and you can scoot up the tower if you fancy trading your sewer rat’s-eye view for a bird’s-eye one. Denfert Rochereau is probably the last exciting-enough-to-surface-for metro stop what with the catacombs hiding in all their gothic glory below street level, though the markets at Raspail are a bio-lover’s dream (though as pricey as you’d expect). The line ends snaking through the residential comfort of the bottom of the 14th, bringing you to a atop at the new lower terminus, Marie de Montrouge.

So my friend was totally right. Follow the line and you’ll get to see every corner of Paris laid out for you (remember to stick your head above ground though, you’ll see naff-all if you stay on the train); the modern pockets, the way-back famous historical bits, and a complete cross-section of all of the social demographics the city has squeezed into itself. And if you spend a day metro surfing with a Navigo pass, you get to enjoy your Parisian visual cocktail for free. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to hang on (don’t say I didn’t warn you).

Navi-gone: #1: Fontainebleau

The free metro for a weekend was AWESOME no? In the 2nd most expensive city in the world (as Paris was recently declared), doing anything can be fairly pricey, so a few days of free public transport, phew, that’s like getting the keys to the city or something.

For those who are in possession of a Navigo card though (monthly public transport pass similar to the Oyster in London for the uninitiated), it didn’t really make too much of a difference to us given that we’re paid up and ready to go for the whole month anyway, but the gesture is still a wonderful thing to appreciate.

But in non-polluted, normal times, the weekends for Navigo pass holders is a bit like the pesky-pollution-solution-open-barrier policy that we’ve all been privy to for the last couple of days, given that at weekends and a WHOLE MONTH over the summer, Paris becomes entirely zone-less. For folk already living in the outlying areas of Paris, then it might not mean too much, but for those of us living in Paris proper, in possession of a Navigo pass zones 1-2, that means we get to jump on a train and explore the weird and wonderful parts of the Ile-de-France for absolutely FREE.

Now looking at the RER map and deciding on where exactly to head can be riddled with problems, given that the French language makes even the grimiest parts of the outlying suburbs sound like quaint little French villages. Doesn’t Sevran-Beaudottes sound simply charming? It really, really isn’t.

A bit of research and guidance if you’re wanting to head out on a pleasant day trip into the country is extremely useful. So here I am. Now that we’ve exited the cold tunnel of winter misery and entered into a happy, sunny Disney-style spring, then the time for exploring the green fringes of the city is nigh. And the first stop in this balmy March weather you should head for is Fontainebleau, just over an hour away from the city.


For Navigo holders, you can take the transilien out there and jump on a bus from stop Fontainebleau-Avon direct to the Chateau (the palace and the park are on the UNESCO world heritage list), and spend the day either taking in the history and walking around the vast grounds, or head to the delightful town for a spot of sunday market shopping (they even sell kale!). For those who have a more active adventure in mind can explore the vast forest and give your lungs a break from the airborne ills of the big city.

It’s a very popular spot, so even car drivers might want to consider using the public transport option as the queues back into Paris after a sunny day can be a nightmare. More delights to be found along the RER network perfect for a day trip out of the city, coming soon.

For more information, check out http://www.fontainebleau-tourisme.com.