Recently the Hindu published an account of my travelling through the Paris Metro. You can find it here
Or you can read the original unedited version below
Think of Paris and you think of the Eiffel Tower, walking along the banks of the river Seine admiring the classic buildings, sitting in a cafe on the left bank and watch the world go by- all great things to do on a sunny summer’s day. However, it is almost December and the cold wind and grey skies add a somber air to Paris. I have half a day in the city of lights and I am quite torn about what I should be doing. Although I love art and history I am not in the mood to enjoy a museum. I walk around distractedly in the cold and then follow a bunch of people into one of those hundreds of staircases that take you below the ground to the magnificent parallel world of the Parisian metro.
The metro system is more than a hundred years old and to this day is expanding ever so slowly- I see that new stations have been added to the map in the last 4 years that I haven’t been there. I still continue to walk aimlessly, not decided about where I want to go when I come upon a dazzling mosaic frieze on the wall with the name of the station “Saint-Michel Notre Dame” written on it. As I walk forward into one of the long corridors that connect the maze of stations located in that area, I see more mosaic art- developed by Claude Marechal in the 1980s. People bustle around not paying much attention and I feel quite odd to pull out my camera and photograph the mosaics- even in the Mecca of tourism you can sometimes be the only person wielding a camera.
But the sight of the mosaics give me a new inspiration about what to do with the time I have. Apart from being one of the oldest metro systems in the world, the Paris metro network also boasts very unique station designs- representative of the history of the location or local associations. One of the other features that I love about the metro is that around certain major stations you can make your way from one station to a completely different station on another line by foot. You just have to pay attention to the signs on the corridors! So I head to the first station that I can remember having a unique design and I’m at Cluny La Sorbonne. The station is located in proximity to one of the oldest universities in the world- Sorbonne and also to the hotel the Cluny that now houses a medieval art museum. The vault of the station is decorated by a mosaic panel called “Les Oiseaux” (The Birds). In addition the ceiling also has mosaic signatures of some of the most famous personalities of France. I can make out Robespierre and Le Cardinal Richelieu but while some of the signatures are squiggles, some others look like mathematical equations. I’m not too steeped in the history of France to be able to recognise most of the others. Once again, as I bring out my camera, people seem to look at me in amazement as to why anybody would be interested in photographing metro stations. I try to be as discreet as possible but I feel like I have a signboard flashing “TOURIST” hung around my neck.
From there I change lines on the metro (this time by the train) and head to the next station that I remember to be the most impressive on the network- Louvre Rivoli. As the name suggests the station is located close to the museum and is also designed as an antechamber to the museum displaying works of art and other artifacts. I am crushed however when I reach the station and see that it is under renovation until the end of December 2013. Feeling a bit defeated I wonder if I should head out and visit the Louvre but I decide to give one more try to the metro system and visit Concorde station. The walls of this station look like a giant filled in crossword puzzle but the alphabets put together spell out the Declaration of the Rights of Man. I try to read a bit but then there is no punctuation or spaces between the tiles which makes the job a bit difficult. The station also inspired Ezra Pound to write “In a station of the Metro” way back in 1913.
I sorely miss being able to go on google (I don’t have a data enabled phone) and find other metro stations that I can visit. Instead I am having to rely on my own faulty memory to decide where to go next. After a while I remember the station Arts et Metiers. Located close to the museum of arts and crafts, this metro station is probably the most uniquely designed stop in the entire world. A few line changes and about 20 minutes later I am standing in a station that looks like a space capsule from a science fiction novel. In fact the design of the station was inspired by Nautilus- Captain Nemo’s submarine from the work of Jules Vernes complete with portholes and massive levers on the ceiling. I spend a few minutes walking up and down- I still am not comfortable taking photographs. I am also wondering if the French police are tracking me on the CCTV cameras- I am sure I look mighty suspicious- jumping around from one station to the next, wandering around surreptitiously with my camera. I start formulating a defense in my head in case I am confronted but this is nothing but paranoia. Camera touting tourists are not a novelty in this city.
The next metro station I head to is “Pont Neuf- La Monnaie” which is located close to the building that houses the “Monnaie de Paris” or the Paris mint. True to the spirit of money, the station is decorated with coins. I am having more fun than I could have had in a museum but station hopping is proving to be tough work and I am more or less exhausted and dragging myself along in the long corridors that connect the different lines of the metro. I have also planned this badly- leading to a lot of criss-crossing that could have been avoided with a more structured itinerary. In addition the Saturday crowds are hitting the metro line and I am not getting space to sit in the compartments. There is so much rush that even though I want to stop at Tuileries station (that houses a wonderful photographic memorial to 100 years of Paris metro in 2000) I am unable to.
I head to the last stop that I can think of- Bastille. True to its name- the station has frescoes that depict images linked to the French revolution. Unfortunately there is also a bit of graffiti but the graffiti of today is the art of tomorrow so the French don’t grudge it its place- especially on a fresco about the Revolution.
By this time I have spent more or less three hours inside the underground network and I feel that I might turn into a mole if I stay any longer. Paris is the city of arts but my experience has reminded me that in this city you don’t always have to head to a gallery or a museum or spend money to experience art and history. You just have to take a ride in the metro through time.
Tips: Arm yourself with a metro map (available for free at the ticket counters) and get yourself a day-pass that allows you to take unlimited rides on the metro and RER network. If you do not plan to leave the centre of the city, a ticket covering zones 1-3 would be more sufficient. Alternatively the railway network also sells a “Paris Visite” pass (1,2,3 or 5 day validity) that even cover the bus network in the city in addition to discounts at various attractions.