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The underground labyrinth of the Paris Metro

With its twists and turns, lengthy corridors and ghost stations, the Paris Metro is much more than a public transport system — and mastering it can take a fair bit of Parisian know-how.

By: Deutsche Welle | Paris |
April 18, 2022 4:30:57 pm
Paris Metro, Paris Metro layout, Paris Metro historyParis' metro stations lead you into a labyrinth underground world. (Markus Mainka/CHROMORANGE/picture alliance)

Next stop: “Charles de Gaulle — Etoile.” If you want to get from A to B quickly in Paris, it’s difficult to avoid the city’s notorious Metro, aka subway. “Charles de Gaulle — Etoile” is one of the most well-known stations, since from there one can quickly get to the city’s iconic landmark, the Arc de Triomphe. The station is named after the famous French officer who led the resistance against the Nazis in World War II and later went on to be the first president of the Fifth Republic.

Whether president, war hero or author, a number of French figures have stops named after them. Stations like “Bastille,” named for the site of the French Revolution uprising, provide the impetus for an imaginary trip back in time to remember the country’s history.

Incidentally, Louise Michel, a late 19th-century author and anarchist, is the only woman to have a metro station named after her, although scientist Marie Curie is commemorated in the name of a station along with her husband, Pierre.

Some stops were closed for construction work or during wars but still exist. These “stations fantomes,” aka “ghost stations,” have been decommissioned and are sometimes used today as film locations. One was used in the popular 2001 film “Amelie” by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, for example.

The 1900 world’s fair

At around 227 kilometers (141 miles) and hosting 306 stations, 16 independent lines and 4.2 million passengers per day, the underground network of the Paris Metro is one of the largest in the world. The French subway was the sixth in the world to be put into operation: London, Budapest and Vienna, for example, beat the French capital to it.

The first line of the Metro was just 10 kilometers (6 miles) long, and it opened right in time for the 1900 world’s fair in Paris. French architect Hector Guimard designed the characteristic entrances in art nouveau style, which went on to become an iconic part of Paris.

Since then, the local transport system in Paris has become extensive — and efficient. Stations of a single line tend to be around 500 meters apart. Almost all Metro lines still have a driver who opens and closes the doors for passengers getting on and off the train. Only lines 1 and 14 are automated and run without human assistance, although a staff member is always on hand in case of emergencies.

‘Métro, boulot, dodo’

The Metro is an integral part of work life in the French capital. The phrase “Metro, boulot, dodo” is commonly used by Parisians to express that they live to work. Commuters take the “Metro” to the “boulot,” an informal word for work, and then back home again to “dodo,” which is baby talk for sleep.

While many from Paris use the Metro seamlessly, switching stations and lines with apparent ease, it is often an adventure for tourists, replete with difficulties. One major challenge is that the French subway is often crowded, especially during the “Heure du pointe,” or rush hour. The corridors of the Metro are then transformed into a river of moving bodies heading purposefully towards their destinations en masse.

How to ride the Metro ‘a la parisienne’

Here’s a brief crash course for beginners: The first step is validating the ticket by putting it through a slot in the turnstiles found at the entrances.

The next task is to find your way through the underground labyrinth to the line you need. Ideally you’ll already know which side of the station it’s located at, and you’ll have entered the subway at the entrance that’s closest to it. If you want to act like a real Parisian, the next move is key: You should know which door and carriage is closest to your desired exit or connecting train.

 

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Once you’ve entered the Metro car, you must be aware of the etiquette. One rule of thumb: Don’t stand in the way when people are exiting or entering. Don’t push, don’t shove, and if you’re claustrophobic, stay calm and wait for the underground sardine can to open at the next stop.

To get back above ground, keep an eye open for the signs reading “sortie,” or exit. However, one entrance and exit are not enough for most Metro stations — some have dozens, so look out for the one closest to your destination. A miscalculation can lead to a longer walk.

Once you’ve mastered the Metro, you’re well on your way to becoming a Parisian.

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