Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Gone underground

On an average weekday I spend two hours in public transportation, at least one under the streets of Paris. Last Saturday I spent almost five.

I spent the afternoon exploring the Métro's tunnels, platforms, and corridors from two-thirty, when I met a group of curious fellow Parisians in the cool February sun outside the entrance to the Châtelet station at Place Sainte-Opportune, until seven-fifteen, when I climbed the steps of the abandoned Saint-Martin station into the freezing night air. The tour was organized by the Ademas and animated by three of the association's astonishingly knowledgeable public transportation geeks.

Opened in 1900, the Paris Métro may be a youngster compared to the London Underground, which has been operating since 1863, but it still has storied history. In fact, the oldest portion of subway tunnel in the world is the vaulted roof above Châtelet-Pont au Change. It dates to the 17th century, and is a recuperated portion of a gallery system originally built as flood control along the Seine. But the hundred and nine years of the Métro's history proprement dit is enough to provide several hours worth of interesting tales and detailed explanations.

Did you know that:

- The famous white beveled "subway tiles" were chosen because they efficiently reflect light. Until the 1930s the platforms were lit by dim and widely-spaced 15-watt lamps.

- The original lighting was so poor that contemporary newspapers complained that the only way to know if the woman standing next to you on the platform was attractive was to glimpse her face in the headlights of an approaching train (when, one assumes, the noise and bustle would render the discovery less than useful).

- The 12 and 13 lines were originally lines A and B of a private subway system, the Nord-Sud, built by Jean-Baptiste Berlier, the engineer passed over for the competing government-sponsored project.

- All the lines, even the ones that run on tires, are interconnected by a network of service tracks.

- All of the lines except the 10, 7 bis and 3 bis are fully automatic. The driver closes the doors and periodically presses a button to indicated his presence while the train is moving but does not drive the train, which receives stop and start signals from a centralized control system.

- Many stations were abandoned during the Occupation. A few, including Saint-Martin and Croix Rouge, were never reopened.

- In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, the stations Allemagne (the French name for Germany) and Berlin were renamed to Jaurès and Liège overnight... which goes to show that French bureaucracy can move quickly under certain circumstances.

I soaked in these and other obscure facts as best I could over the noise of passing trains. We traveled from Châtelet to Odéon on the line 4, stopping to admire the metal tube structure of Saint-Michel that was fully built onshore then sunk under the riverbed for the line's passage under the Seine. We took the Line 10 to Gare d'Austerlitz, learning that the line 10 was a "bizarre" line for reasons I can't remember but I didn't find surprising, since the French love any exception to a rule. We then took the lines 5 and 7 to Louis Blanc, where we took the 7 bis, a strange, short line that does a small loop through the eastern wilds of Paris. (I'm sure I'm remembering some of this itinerary incorrectly, but it doesn't matter.)

We stopped at Place des Fêtes, a neighborhood known for its disreputable housing projects and not the sort of place you wander by chance. The group of scruffy teenagers yelling and shoving each other at the other end of the platform probably didn't know that the station could be transformed into a fully-ventilated bomb shelter for over two thousand civilians.

This was where the tour got mysterious. We were led through a locked door up a passageway to an abandoned entrance. We got to peek up an old elevator shaft illuminated only by the daylight from a iron grill above. I took pictures with my cell phone, kicking myself for not bringing a real camera.

Abandoned entrance at Place des Fêtes

Then we were off to République, where a brief walk took us to a Métro street entrance with a short staircase leading down to doors below the sidewalk, typical except for absence of signs, the locked steel doors and the dirty appearance. I could have walked right by without noticing it, just another piece of abandoned and graffitied urban architecture. Inside, however, was Saint-Martin, one of the famous stations fantômes, or ghost stations.

The immediate inside was brightly lit and, we discovered, still regularly used by Métro maintenance staff. Two vintage tile advertisements were kept in tip-top condition.

Maizena corn meal

Is that Marianne hiding behind that brilliantly clean laundry?

Beyond a second series of locked doors things got more ghostly, however. I am not sure how the graffiti artists got in, for the station is locked and the access from the tunnel limited by high walls, but they've made much of their canvas.

We followed the tunnel to the platform where we wandered and contemplated the scene, both familiar and strange. Is this post-apocalyptic Paris? Or just a bad dream?

When the visit was over, I walked back to République a little hesitant to disappear again underground. It was five hours well spent, a guided tour I would recommend to anyone, but I wasn't entirely surprised when the next morning I woke up with a slight headache and a spotted map of Paris hovering before my eyes.


Isabelle said...

Very interesting post!
I love the Maizena advertisement, it's like a piece of poetry.

Sylvia said...

I'd love to go on this tour when I come to Paris. I hope they're still going on....

Shirlthepearl said...

Thanks so much for the insight down under:)
I've known about the Catacombs in Paris, but never knew about this tour. Sounds fabulous!! Great pics also!!