Monday 11 May 2009

The Underground Overground

The Paris Metro system is clean, reliable and cheap, but for all that also rather dull. Being contained underground in almost its entirety and with stations looking very much alike, it cannot be said to have the vetust charm of the London Tube or the grandeur of the Moscow Metropoliten. However, there are sections worthy of investigation, with the most fascinating of all being the stretch of the Line 2 along the viaduct between the stations of Colonel Fabien and Anvers. From a seat in the Metro, in the stations themselves, along the route taken and under the viaduct, there is much of interest in this little visited arc of the city. We'll begin the ride at Colonel Fabien and head west.

Colonel Fabien
Colonel Fabien, whose real name was Pierre Georges, was a militant communist and resistant. He had earned his rank during a stint with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War and was given the task of setting up a resisting military unit in Paris to combat the occupying forces. It was Georges himself who started this armed resistance by shooting a German officer dead at the Barbès-Rochechouart station. He was later captured by the French Police and handed over to the Germans, but managed to escape and played an active part of the liberation of Paris in 1944. Unfortunately, he did not survive to see the end of all hostilities as he was killed later that year whilst examining a land mine.

Given these connections, it is not surprising to find the headquarters of the French Communist party on this Place of the same name, comfortably housed in a building designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. It also seems rather apt that both the Metro station and Place (pre-1945) were previously named Combat, a name actually derived from the fact that it was an area where people organised animal fights between 1778 and 1850.

As the Metro leaves this station, it slowly rises out towards the rooftops of the mostly modern buildings outside. The Metro is reflected in the glass windows of one such building, and you quickly get a glimpse of the Canal St Martin before you enter the Jaurès Metro station. As the iron posts of the viaduct get longer and higher, space is created underneath for sports, with New York style basketball courts, skate parks and football pitches running the length of the line between the two stations.

Named after a recently assassinated President, this is another station that changed name due to a war. Jean Jaurès was shot in the Croissant restaurant on the 31st of July 1914, and war with the Germans was declared on the 3rd of August, just three days later. It was a logical step therefore when on the 1st of August the name of this station was switched from the soon to be undesirable Rue d'Allemagne.

The Jaurès Metro station is also possibly the most attractive in the city thanks to the elegant glass canopy protecting the platforms, but most of all because of the stained glass windows of the artist Jacques-Antoine Ducatez. Installed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution in 1989, these windows represent the taking of the Bastille prison, and show the red, white and blue flags of the people marching towards the white castle.

Leaving the Jaurès station, the Metro now sweeps around a corner, giving majestic views along the Canal St Martin to the left, and its continuation, the Bassin de la Villette to the right. The Metro almost touches the roof of the Rotonde de la Villette, a building which was originally part of the walls of the tax-collecting Fermiers Généreux, reminding us that this Metro line actually stands in the footprint of these old city walls. This building predates the canal it looks out upon, and was one of the few barriers that was allowed still to stand after the French Revolution in 1789, then again during the Haussmannian reconstruction of the city in 1860. Today it sits empty, but is due to reopen in the near future as an arts centre and restaurant.

As the Metro sweeps around towards the Stalingrad station, you should get a perfect view up towards the Sacre Coeur.

The third Metro station on this stretch and the third to change name in wartime. Stalingrad was originally known as Aubervilliers on this line, but was renamed in 1946 in honour of the Russian victory at the battle of the same name.

On the right-hand side of this station almost the entire quarter is being renovated. To explore this regeneration more closely, leave the line at this station and walk along the Rue d'Aubervilliers up to the newly opened 104 Arts Centre. Not only will you see the interesting building that previously housed the municipal undertakers, but you'll also pass by a new park (the Jardins d'Eole) and get an interesting perspective on urbanism in a previously troubled and disadvantaged district.

Between Stalingrad and the next station, La Chapelle, the Metro line flies over the first set of railway lines, this time those between the Gare de l'Est and destinations in the east of the country and Germany.

La Chapelle
Opened in 1903, this station has always kept the same name. La Chapelle was previously a village between Belleville and Montmartre, and the name of this station is a reminder of a time when rural scenes could be seen on the other side of the Paris city walls. Today this station gives access to the Gare du Nord and the Eurostar, as well as the RER out to Charles de Gaulle airpot, but be prepared to walk a long way!

On the left-hand side of this station, back towards the city centre, many of the streets are now home to a large community from the Indian Subcontinent. This area provides a colourful and aromatic walk, with many excellent and very reasonable shops and restaurants. Indeed, if you ever want an Indian meal in Paris, come here and don't bother trying anywhere else!

As soon as the Metro leaves this station, it becomes a viaduct on top of a bridge over Europe's busiest railway station, the Gare du Nord. From the Metro you can see the long, snaking Eurostar and Thalys international trains, before the station disappears behind the walls of the Lariboisière Hospital. Opened in 1854, this hospital was originally built after a serious epidemic of cholera and was intended to become a model facility. It's chapel and attractive interior courtyard helped it to become recognised as historic monument in 1975.

Above the train lines of the Gare du Nord and underneath the viaduct is a concrete and weedy scrubland. The bridge constantly shakes as trains rumble underneath, whilst bumpter to bumper car traffic on either side sends out a stream of poisonous vapours. Wind whistles around the iron posts of the viaduct and every two minutes Metro trains screech past on the track above. Staying here for a short length of time would be enough to turn anybody mad, but on the ground in front of me is a wooden pallet and a blanket.

Further along towards Barbès, on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the viaduct provides shelter to the market stall holders of the Marché de Barbès, reputed to be the cheapest in the city. On these two days, the normally quiet stretch becomes a riot of colour and noise, and it becomes difficult to make your way along the narrow passageway between the two rows of stalls. At the end of this market, around the entrance into the Barbès-Rochechouart Metro station, groups of young men spend their days attempting to offload cheap, but possibly dangerous illegally imported cigarettes.

Barbès-Rochechouart is possibly the most active and lively Metro station in Paris. It is situated next to the Goutte d'Or, a district made famous by the work of Zola but better known today as being home to large communities of North and Sub-saharan Africans. The rather pretty name of the area (the drop of gold) clashes somewhat with the disheveled reality today, but it actually came from the colour of the wine that was produced here in the past. Around 30% of the population of this district are immigrants to France, making it one of the most cosmopolitan areas of the city, but also one of the most lively, with year-long festivals and events celebrating this diversity. The fact that it sits at the foot of Montmartre has also attracted the famous Bobos who can no longer afford the prices of flats on the hill itself.

As the Metro leaves the station, two buildings dominate. On the right-hand side, the well-known Tati store, screaming out its offer of the 'plus bas prix' (lowest prices) in garish neon if you pass by at night, or just endless rows of 1 Euro junk during daytime. On the left-hand side, one of the oldest cinema buildings still standing in Paris, the extravagantly decorated Louxor. Opened in 1921 and built in an Egyptian style that was very popular at the time, it had a long and successful spell in the city until it was transformed into a nightclub in the 1980s and finally closed in 1987. It was saved perhaps for reasons of historical interest, but also because it is situated in a spot that would be difficult to develop in an unpopular part of the city. It was recently bought by the city of Paris and is currently being transformed back into a cinema complex again.

The Metro now dives back underground, arriving at Anvers, the station which gives access to Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur. Streams of tourists board the train here, taking the Line 2 back to safer central and western parts of the city, but do they know what they are missing on the other side?


nathalie in avignon said...

I guess the only thing missing to this fantastic reportage is a map!

I enjoyed watching the videos, they are so familiar.

I like the stretch of metro around Bastille too. The decoration of the station is unique and the outdoor views over the basin of Port la Bastille fabulous.

Starman said...

vetust = dilapidated?
We caught the bus at Colonel Fabien and rode to Nation. It was a great sightseeing tour.
The #6 métro comes up near Bercy and goes back down around rue Nationale. The it resurfaces near Bir Hakem where it re-crosses the Seine. But of course you knew that. Sorry, couldn't resist showing off.

martha said...

That was wonderful! I have frequently stayed in hotels not far from the Jaure station and over time have come to regard this area as 'my Paris' As much as I love my island, I miss the colourful character, vibrant sounds and smells of this neighbourhood. Saaremaa'a monochrome quality can become a little boring sometimes.

Nathalie H.D. said...

Adam - oooops! Thank you for correcting my spelling in Avignon: dying and dyeing are not synonymous!

Cergie said...

Bonjour Adam, en ce qui concerne les lignes aériennes, je suis plus coutumière de la ligne 6 qui mène à la gare Montparnasse depuis l'Etoile.
Encore une pub pour une photo sur Cergipontin et une station : la motte piquet. J'ai un faible pour cette photo. Peter m'a envoyé le pendant qu'il avait pris de Barbés Rochechouart, lui pour les tags moi plutôt pour les câbles (et les immeubles environnants dans les deux cas.)
Il est à noter en effet l'amertume de Paris / l'Allemagne et le changement de noms des rues, places et stations de métro alors qu'il y a tant de références à la France à Berlin.
Lorsque ma belle-soeur et mon beau-frère habitaient quai de Jemmapes, nous avons beaucoup contourné l'emprise du métro aérien en voiture.

PS : j'ai hâte de voir le comment de Peter sur ce message !

PeterParis said...

I come a bit late... I actually made the same ride two days ago and can but confirm everything you tell! Not much can be added; it's so complete and true! I knew more or less about all this, but I'm sure that most metro passengers don't have a clue. It's a pity!

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