I have a tense relationship with public transport in my home town of Brisbane. Intellectually I am in full support of the use of public transport; it lessens traffic, saves fuel and is better for the environment. However, buses are expensive, slow, and often unreliable. I don’t live near a train line – but train travel is also expensive, and trains outside of peak hour don’t run very frequently. So I don’t usually use public transport, because it is actually only a little more expensive and a whole lot more convenient for me to drive my car, especially to work.
Enter my new best friend – the Paris Metro. 214 km long, with 303 stations densely covering the centre and inner suburbs of the city. It has great signage and excellent maps. It runs so frequently that a timetable is unnecessary, and it is fast, convenient and simple. I don’t think there is a better way to get around Paris, if where you want to go is too far to walk. I bought a 5 day pass which allowed me to go anywhere, anytime, as much as I liked for about the same price as a single rip from home to work and back again.
The Metro was conceived in the second half of the 19th century and the first line – Porte de Vincennes to Porte Maillot, was opened to the public on 19 July, 1900 in time for the summer Olympic Games at the Bois de Vincennes. By 1913 there were 10 lines in the network, and three more added between the two world wars. It was astonishingly well conceived and delivered. The narrow streets of Paris would be impossibly clogged if its residents were required to use cars to get around. I read somewhere that there are around six million trips on the Metro every day.
The stations are sometimes named after the neighbourhood, street or bridge they are below – Place Monge, my nearest station is a good example, as are Pont Neuf, Louvre Rivoli and Bastille. Others are named for famous people – Franklin D. Roosevelt, George V and Saint Jacques. Others are just delightful because they seem a little odd – Les Gobelins and Sevres-Babylone are ones that appeal to me.
Some of the stations are worth visiting in their own right. The stop on Line 1 for the Louvre has marble walls lined with exhibits and replicas of art works, and glass cases containing sculptures. There is a war memorial on Line 8 dedicated to the staff of the metropolitan railway who died in service for France during World War I. The Varenne station has exhibits from the Rodin Museum, which is close by, including a replica of his famous Thinker. There is always something to see – and that’s not even considering the commuters.
There are also buskers on the trains, usually on lines that are near tourist destinations. On our first Metro ride there was a busker playing La Vie en Rose on an accordion – surely the quintessential French piece of popular music on the quintessential French insturment. An English speaking Frenchwoman sitting next to me on another journey was clearly over hearing the busker on the Eiffel Tower line – she confided in me with a grimace that he only had a repertoire of about six songs, and she heard them all every single day on her way to work.
There are lots of warnings about pickpockets, and dangers on the Metro in the late evening, but that could be said of any crowded tourist venue. I wouldn’t go on the Metro late at night if I was travelling solo, and like everywhere in Paris I would keep a close eye on my bag, but I am so glad I jumped in and got acquainted with this marvellous ally in making a trip to Paris just that little bit more fabulous.