At first it seemed so easy. Two quick trains and an even quicker walk, and I’d arrive at my destination. But life is rarely so easy in a big city like Paris. Even when you’re armed with a carefully-planned itinerary, the unexpected is always looming.
I realized there was going to be a problem when the lights went out on the metro train. But they came back on again a few seconds later, and we were on our way. Until the lights went off again at the next stop. And then again at the next stop. And then they didn’t come back on at all. My bad French was able to decipher enough of the crackling voice over the speaker: “There is a problem. We are trying to fix it.” (Though I suppose even a non-French speaker could have figured that one out.) The commuters didn’t seem too distressed, only a bit annoyed by the situation, pulling out their mobiles, sending quick text messages. So I didn’t get distressed. Until the speaker came on a second time and then a third time. When a small group of commuters abruptly departed the train, I knew what my bad French couldn’t figure out: We were screwed.
I followed the commuters’ lead and went straight to the metro map on the platform to try and untangle the knot of metro lines: I can transfer to line 8 at this station; which direction should I take it? And then which train should I transfer to? And then which stop most closely resembles Place de Clichy without actually being Place de Clichy so that upon arrival I can then unravel which direction to walk from there to get to Le Cimetière de Montmartre? With a new plan in mind, I headed toward line 8 and re-merged with my day.
One of the things I love about being in a place like Paris is its public transportation. I am a walker who will almost-always choose my own feet to guide me from one place to the next, but an expansive subway system alleviates my anxiety about moving through a place unknown. Get lost? Not a problem. Find the nearest metro stop — any metro stop — and you will be found. It makes meandering and exploring the far corners of a place much easier. Paris’s metro lines have long fascinated me, and I applaud the engineers who wove this intricate web in a way that (1) prevents trains from colliding; and (2) allows multiple options that even a largely-incompetent tourist like myself can eventually figure out.
Solving the magic puzzle of which train to take to which stop is an endlessly fun game for me, and so I decided to devote an entire winter day to getting to know some of Paris’s more interesting metro stations.
I begin at Bastille metro station which is located, as the name implies, right near Place de la Bastille and the location of the Bastille. It serves lines 1, 5, and 8, but I’m interested in line 1 today which was decorated in 1989 with tile murals to commemorate the bicentenary of the French Revolution.
I hop on Line 1 toward La Défense and head to Louvre-Rivoli. As the name implies, the station lets you off right near the Louvre. While the station no longer provides direct access to the world’s most famous museum, it still features replicas of artwork found there.
Rather than ride the metro one more stop, I decide to walk to the next stop (celebrating the fact that it isn’t raining). Palais Royal is also right by the Louvre, and it’s the entrance to the station that I’m interested in, not the station itself. The station is one of the eight original stations on Line 1, and the entrance on Place Colette was redesigned in 2000 to celebrate the centenary of the metro line. The ornate entrance is called, Le Kiosque des Noctambules (the kiosk of the night-walkers). It’s worth a visit, and there’s a decent café there with lovely outdoor seating to stop for a quick lunch or afternoon aperitif.
Arts & Metiers
Instead of lingering over lunch, I have to run back to my apartment in the Marais. But no worries. That sets me up for a short trek to my next stop, Arts et Metiers, which serves lines 3 and 11. The station was redesigned in 1994 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts. Now it looks like a submarine, complete with portholes, and arriving at the station makes you feel like you’ve entered an other world. Fun fact: Jules Verne was one of the inspirations for Francois Schuiten, who designed the station. Very cool!
In the afternoon, I have to immerse myself in the magic puzzle and get creative with my metro riding. I take Line 11 to Châtlet where I transfer to Line 7 so I can make a pitstop at Pont Neuf station (also known as La Monnaie — the Mint). The station is located at the Paris Mint (where I saw the outstanding Woman House exhibit a few months ago) and so it doesn’t surprise me to see that the station is decorated with huge coins and other artifacts to commemorate La Monnaie.
I do a bit of a boomerang maneuver and cross to the opposite platform so I can take line 7 going back in the direction from which I just came. I transfer at Jussieu station to line 10 and head for the station, Cluny-La Sorbonne. Located in the Latin Quarter, the Cluny-La Sorbonne is named after the Cluny Museum and La Sorbonne University. It’s a standout station because of its enormous, brightly-colored mosaics that decorate the ceiling; one is called Les Oiseaux (The Birds). Alongside the mosaics are the names of significant French people who lived in the area. The two pictures below are of the station’s ceiling (as is the top picture in this post).
I’m deep in the magic puzzle now and on to my next stop. I continue on line 10 to Sèvres Bablone where I transfer to line 12 and head to Concorde station. Here, you’ll immediately notice that the walls are covered in tile letters, almost like a giant crossword puzzle or word search. But the letters aren’t placed at random; these ones, installed in 1989 (again, the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution) spell out the Declaration of the Rights of Man. I’ve included a couple of close-ups so that those of you who speak some French can see a few words.
I get back on Line 12, a bit uncertain of heading to my next stop. I know what’s coming next. Abbesses. If you’ve been to Paris, you’ve probably been to Montmartre, and if you took the metro to get there you might have come to Abbesses station and accidentally taken the stairs. It’s worth it for the art, but it’s better to walk down than up (those who walk up will realize that they need to find someone to let them out; seems nobody takes the stairs). The reason? Abbesses is the deepest metro station in Paris. At 118 feet, that’s a lot of stairs. But the circular stairwells are decorated with bright murals of scenes of Paris, especially the surrounding neighborhood. A must see! I contemplate rearranging my plan so I can walk down instead of up, but I decide to just deal with it and give my legs a proper workout.
Rather than walk back down the stairs, I decide to exit the station and walk to my next stop. Liège is only about 15 minutes from Abbesses, and while an afternoon rain is clearly looming, it’s nice to be outside for a few minutes (plus the walk is mostly downhill). The station, which serves line 13, was originally named Berlin, but the name changed to Liège (a city in Belgium) during World War I to honor those there who fought to resist Germany during the war. Today it’s decorated with beautiful landscape tiling.
My final stop of the day is station Varenne, which is located near the Rodin museum. Not surprisingly, the station is decorated with replica’s of the artist’s statues, and I’m greeted by “The Thinker” when I step off the train.
Seeing “The Thinker” gets me thinking that I’m ready to step away from the magic puzzle and resume my life as la flâneuse. I eyeball my watch and then the map of the area and realize that if I leave on foot, I’ll be walking past the Great Canadian Pub just in time to get an IPA at their 4 p.m. Happy Hour. Sounds like the perfect ending to a pretty spectacular day of wandering.
Are you a fan of public transport? What’s your favorite metro system in the world?