The underground labyrinth of the Paris metro | Travel through

Next stop: “Charles de Gaulle — Étoile”. If you want to get from A to B quickly in Paris, it’s hard to avoid the city’s famous metro, also known as the metro. “Charles de Gaulle — Etoile” is one of the best-known stations, as you can quickly reach 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 became the first president of the Fifth Republic.

Whether president, war hero or author, several French figures have charts named after them. Stations such as “Bastille”, named after the site of the uprising of the French Revolution, provide the impetus for an imaginary journey through 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 named after a station along with her husband, Pierre. (Read too: Planning a summer getaway? How to spend 5 days in Paris under 35,000)

Some stops were closed for works or during the wars, but they still exist. These “phantom stations”, also known as “ghost stations”, were decommissioned and are sometimes used today as film locations. One was used in the popular 2001 film “Amelie” by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, for example.

Those who ride the Paris Metro can see some famous landmarks depending on the line taken (Thibault Camus/ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance)
Those who ride the Paris Metro can see some famous landmarks depending on the line taken (Thibault Camus/ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance)

The World’s Fair of 1900

With around 227 kilometers (141 miles) and 306 stations, 16 independent lines and 4.2 million passengers per day, Paris’ underground network is one of the largest in the world. The French metro was the sixth in the world to start operating: London, Budapest and Vienna, for example, surpassed the French capital.

The first metro line was just 10 kilometers (6 miles) long and opened just in time for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. French architect Hector Guimard designed the characteristic entrances in an art nouveau style, which has become an iconic part of Paris.

Since then, the local transport system in Paris has become extensive – and efficient. Single-line stations tend to be about 500 meters apart. Almost all subway 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 work without human assistance, although an employee is always available in case of an emergency.

‘Subway, boulot, dodo’

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

While many in Paris use the metro without any problems, switching stations and lines with apparent ease, it is often an adventure for tourists, fraught with difficulties. A big challenge is that the French metro is often crowded, especially during “Heure du pointe”, or rush hour. The subway corridors are then transformed into a river of moving bodies that purposely head towards their destinations en masse.

How to ride the metro ‘a la parisienne’

Here is a short crash course for beginners: The first step is to validate the ticket by placing it in a slot at 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 already know which side of the station you are located on, and you will have entered the metro at the nearest entrance. If you want to act like a true Parisian, the next step is crucial: you must know which door and car is closest to the desired exit or connecting train.

After entering the subway car, you must be aware of the etiquette. A rule of thumb: don’t get in the way when people are leaving or entering. Don’t push, don’t push, and if you’re claustrophobic, stay calm and wait for the underground sardine can to open at the next stop.

To get back to the surface, keep an eye out for signs that say “sortie” or get out. However, one entry and one exit is not enough for most metro stations – some have dozens, so look 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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