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

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.