Beyond the dirty old métro : discovering the Parisian underground

Tiny white and green trains, endless corridors and a lot, a lot, of people. Welcome into Paris’ metropolitan network. “The first memory I have of it is the smell” explains Sabine, a 25 year old History student at Nanterre University “I was sixteen when I first took the metro here. It’s definitely not a very pleasant memory”. Used every day by more than 4.5 million people, the Parisian underground is just a port of call for most of its users. Sabine grew up in Bourgogne, a French region famous for its wine and she came three years ago to live in Paris for her studies. “Now, I realise that the metro is not just crowds, dirt and noise” she admits “while it is still not my favourite means of transport, I kind of like it now. I love how unexpected it can be”.

Carriages and top hats”. Most people have forgotten that the metro is itself a little miracle and it is not as bad as most of the Parisians would describe it. “It works well most of the time, it is fast and relatively clean” says Sabine “You can reach any place in Paris in less than 45 minutes. Isn’t that amazing?”. Useful? Yes. But it is also an incredible piece of industrial and artistic masterwork. As Julian Pepinstere, the president of ADEMAS, an association that organises tours of the metro explains “there is something unbelievable about the metro, it was created in the 19th century and 120 years later we are still using it”.

Julian is working for the RATP, the public company that operates the Parisian underground and he is passionate about the metro. “The carriages, the top hats and the monocles are not there anymore but the metro is still here” he says “it is constantly evolving and at the same time manages to make infrastructures from the beginning of the XXth century work for us”. His interest about the metro began when he was 8. “I was lucky enough to get in the cabin with the conductor” he recalls “the metro always fascinated me. From a kid’s passion it became an adult obsession”. A passion that lead him to work for the RATP. “The metro is like a living, breathing museum. Or like a good bottle of wine that’s just keep getting better with age” he says.

Copper. The Parisian metropolitan system was inaugurated in July 1900 during the World Fair. Its architecture was influenced by the Art Déco movement and had become one of the symbol of the French capital. But behind the cliché there is a lot to discover about the 16 lines and the 245 stations that forms the metropolitan. It might not seem like it, but taking the metro is actually a great way to discover the city. “Most of the route of the lines number 2 and 6 are outdoor. If you are visiting the city you should definitely take them” suggests Sabine “the view of the Eiffel Tower when the 6 is crossing the Seine is really beautiful”.

While you are wandering around you might even discover hidden gems. Like for example the Arts et Métiers station, where the walls are covered in copper in an homage to the Arts and Crafts museum located nearby. Some of the stations have a theme, like the Louvre station, but it is up to you to discover which ones. So, you want to know everything about the Parisian underground? You have two options. One is legal, the other, well, not so much.

Old trains. Once a month the ADEMAS association meets near Paris biggest metro station, Les Halles, for a four hour tour in the metro. With 30 others people, you will be able to discover the history and the way the metro works. “For each tour there is two speakers” explains Julian “the goal is to show what people don’t see everyday, and we even go where the public is not allowed”. For example, closed stations and even an air raid shelter from the 30’s. And for once, you will be taking the metro to go nowhere and to learn, for example, that the lines 12 and 13 were built by a different company than the others and that is why the station designs are different. “After those four hours you’ll know more about the Parisian underground than any RATP employee” advertises Julian.

ADEMAS used to organise tour of the metro during the night. “We were using old vehicles from the 40’s” remembers Julian, “but we had to stop those after a minor incident”. Apparently a fire started in one of the wagon and the RATP decided not to allow the association to use the tracks at night. The old trains can still be seen at Versailles, were the association stores them, and once a year they take them out for a ride in May. “It is always a big success” says Julian.

Illegal adventures. While for most people, the four hour tour might be enough, some decided to take a more radical approach in order to discover the metro. Much like those who are partying in the catacombs at night time, some decided to go into the underground at night to discover it by themselves. And most of their adventures are available online for all to see. The website is used by those “night walkers” to tell their adventures in the metro. You will learn how they went in by using old canalisation pipes, how you should be really careful when you walk on the tracks because you risk death by electrocution or worst, to be hit by a train, how the Parisian underground can be a really beautiful place, and also how to avoid… security guards.

As you might have guessed going into the metro at night is perfectly illegal. The RATP has not much to say about the subject. “Circulation on metro tracks is strictly forbidden, during daytime and nighttime, for obvious security reasons” explains an official of the public company “it is a criminal offence and the wrongdoer will be sent to a police officer. Just like any other railway company, the RATP does not tolerate any incursion on its tracks”. Scared? You should be. When it comes to breaking the law sometimes it is best to leave it to the professionals.

Madness”. And they definitely are professionals. At least in their field of, hum, work. Interested in a visit with those people ? It is going to be hard to get in touch with them. Most of them do not like the press and will test you if you want to discover the hidden parts of the metro. Most of them are untraceable and are hiding there true identity. One of them, Dsankt who describes himself like a “worldwide hobo”, express his love for Paris’ underground on sleepycity: “On my first trip to Paris I arrived into Gare du Nord and entered the dense maze that is the metro. Despite the crowds, the noise and the distinct odour of piss, I was in love. The kind of love which inspires one to risk life, limb and deportation to get up close and personal”.

Anonymously, he published several blog notes and pictures about his trips in the underground. In a blogpost, Dsankt remembers being nervous when he first stayed after the metro was shut down. “We gingerly stepped down between the metal rails just off the end of a platform wondering what madness had possessed us to do so” he recalls “we’d never done Metro like this before and this scary new world was full of elements we didn’t understand at all”. What was a scary experience at first quickly became a game for Dsankt. While reading about his illegal trips in the metro, you will find yourself learning about how the underground works. And even more interesting, about the ghost stations.

Stations with no exit. Ghost stations of the Paris metro are stations that have been closed to the public and are no longer used in commercial service, conferring a sense of mystery to it. Some stations were constructed but never actually used, and today still lie inaccessible to the public, while others were designed but were never serviced by a metro line. Dsankt and his friends quickly decided they wanted to visit them all. “With time, we would conquer them all” he writes. Molitor, Arsenal, Saint Martin… All of those are stations that Parisians will never use. The strangest of them all is certainly Haxo. It lies on a unused connecting branch between the lines 3bis and 7bis. For Dsankt  “it is barely a station at all, in fact only one platform was built and only part of the platform is adorned with those gleaming white tiles”. Beautiful pictures are displayed on the website, so you can visualise the strangeness of a station that has no exit.

The work of Dsankt and his friend is an incredible proof that the unexpected and the adventure lies everywhere, even in what could be se as the most common or boring thing. While going by yourself in the metro at night might not be a good idea, you can still take a tour with Julian during the day. And feel like an adventurer at night, while reading Dsankt tales on his website.

Fabien Jannic