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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Riding On the Métro

Getting around Paris is not as hard as a lot of people think, especially those who are unaccustomed to light rail systems or don't speak french. The Paris Metro goes basically everywhere; within Paris proper, stations are never farther than 500 meters of where you are or where you want to go, and all one needs to navigate is the ability to read and to follow directional arrows. :)

But first, let's do a little history. :)

Though plans for the Paris Metropolitain, or Metro, were first conceived in 1845, construction on the Métro de Paris did not begin until 1896, under the supervision of civil engineer Fulgence Bienvenüe, for whom a major transport station was named in 1933, Montparnasse-Bienvenüe. The first line (ligne) of the new railway opened in July of 1900, and was, appropriately enough, designated Line 1. Called Maillot-Vincennes for its terminal points, its wooden cars ran from Porte Maillot, in the northwestern corner of the city, to Porte de Vincennes, in the east-southeast. To avoid running into any of the city's numerous cellars, the new line was laid directly under the Champs-Élysées. And like the next few lines that followed, it was excavated and laid entirely by hand. It has since been extended, and now terminates at La Defense, in the northwestern corner of the city, and Chateau de Vincennes, in the east-southeast.

Like Line 1, the earliest, manually-excavated lines follow the surface streets they lie beneath; due to poorly developed methods of construction, workers encountered cellars and foundations when they veered away from main thoroughfares. This is also why some stations have platforms set apart from each other, rather than directly facing each other. The streets above them were too narrow to accommodate wide stations. Commerce, on Line 8, is one such example.

While Bienvenüe supervised what went on underground, architect Hector Guimard was responsible for designing the entrances. One of the premier artists/architects of the Art Nouveau movement, Guimard studied at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts National School of the Beaux-Arts) in Paris and held a professorial position at the École des Arts Décoratifs (School of Deocrative Arts) until he began work on the Metro, where his station entrances are but one of a long list of accomplishments.

In order of interest, Guimard's Metro designs can still be seen at the entrances to Porte Dauphine, a terminus for Line 2 and the only surviving enclosed entrance out of what used to be five, at the avenue Foch entrance; at the corner of rue des Lavandières-Sainte-Opportune and rue de Rivoli at Châtelet on Lines 1, 4, 7, 11 and 14; Abbesses on Line 12 at la place de l'Hôtel de Ville; boulevard Saint Michel and place Saint André des Arts entrances at Saint-Michel on Line 4; at rue Chardon Lagache, Chardon Lagache Line 10; avenue du général Leclerc entrance to Mouton-Duvernet on Line 4; rue de Rivoli entrance at Tuileries on Line 1; avenue Kléber entrance to Boissière on Line 6; Denfert-Rochereau on Lines 4, 6 and RER Line B; and Port-Royal on RER Line B. Of those, the most elaborate are at Porte Dauphine, Châtelet, and Abbesses.

All in all, the Paris Metro is comprised of 15 lines (not counting the RER) covering 124 miles (199 km) of track and dotted with 368 stations, of which 87 are correspondances (transfer stations). As well, the Funiculaire at Montmartre is considered part of the Metro system, though it sits above ground and merely takes you up to the top of La Butte. Its roughly 3,500 cars carry 6 million Parisians and tourists every single day and are kept moving by approximately 15,000 RATP employees. That's a lot of track, so you can pick up maps of the Metro for free at most Metro stations, in both full and pocket sizes. Individual tickets are 1.40 euros, or you can buy a carnet or "book" of 10 tickets for roughly 11 euros. If you're going to be in Paris an entire week or more, you might consider investing in a Carte d'Orange for zones 1 and 2. For one week (Coupon Hebdomadaire) of unlimited riding running from Monday thru Sunday, the cost is around 16 euros. For one month, from the first to the last day of the month (Coupon Mensuel) it's around 52. If you walk more than ride or are only in Paris a short time, carnets are the way to go. A single Metro ticket will generally get you all the way across Paris, though if you go through an RER station, you will need to use another ticket. In general, trains run from 05:30 (5:30AM) to 00:30 (12:30AM). If you plan to be somewhere late at night, you should plan on taking a taxi home or plan your route carefully, paying attention to when the last train leaves your starting and transfer stations. Then be early, because the Metro tends to run on time or ahead of schedule.

As for travelling on the Metro, be prepared to walk and follow directions. Directions are given by the terminus points of each line, so if you're travelling on Line 1, your stop is either in the direction of La Défense or Chateau de Vincennes. There are signs posted at the entrance hall to each platform with the terminus point at the top and the stations at which the train stops listed beneath it. If you see your station on the list, that's the direction you want to go in. If you don't, that's not the right train. Each platform bears signs hanging from the ceiling which tell you the line number and direction, and each train also has the direction it's headed for marked on the front, usually in a lit panel.

To travel across the city, all you have to know is the Metro station you're starting from and the station where you want to descend, or de-train. Once you have that information, find those two stations on your Metro map. For example, I live in the 15e arrondissement, and my Metro stop is Boucicaut, on Line 8. If I want to have lunch with Marie-Pierre, I have to descend at Bérault, near the end of Line 1. Since I'm dealing with 2 separate lines, I need to find a station where they intersect, which they do at Concorde. So I get on Line 8 at Boucicaut and ride it to Concorde, where I descend. Once I step off the train, I have to find the signs that tell me where to go to change trains. Sometimes it's a single sign at the end of the platform labelled "Correspondances," and once I get up the steps, there are different hallways marked with white signs with blue lettering that have numbers with circles around them, followed by a name - the line number and terminus point. Sometimes those signs greet you as soon as you get off the train. The lines are also color-coded, so more and more of the plain blue and white signs are being replaced with color-coded signs. It's sort of a potluck, and sometimes I have to retrace my steps, but if you stay calm and read the signs, it's fairly straightforward. At Concorde, I find the sign that tells me which way to go for line 1, and then when that divides, I follow the signs for Line 1 Chateau de Vincennes, because Bérault lies in that direction. Once I reach the platform for Line 1 Chateau de Vincennes, all I have to do is get on the next train that comes along and get off at Berault. If I'm not sure I'm on the right platform, I can look overhead for the signs that say Line 1 Chateau de Vincennes and read the front of the arriving train, which says Vincennes, to double-check.

The more lines running through a station, the more confusing that station can be, but with a little patience, you'll do fine. Just don't walk down any steps or hallway marked "Passage Interdit," which is the french literary equivalent of "Do Not Enter"! Just stay calm, read the signs and follow the arrows, and soon you'll be riding the Metro like a Parisian - who sometimes get confused by their own transportation system, so don't feel badly if you don't get the hang of it right away.

Bonne chance!

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