JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Few cities in the world are more identified with their subway systems than Paris. The Metropolitan de Paris is one of the busiest in the world, after Moscow. It carries more than four million riders a day on some 16 lines. There are over 300 stations. To ride it is a visual carnival, a living history, an urban love story about the chemin de fer, or path of iron.

Recently, I had a chance to find about all these things on the le metro.

So, it's Friday night on the Place St. Opportune in front of the Chatelet stop, and this is the oldest line in Paris. And this is one of the very first stops, built for the expositions of 1900. I'm going to meet Mark Ovenden. He's the author of the book "Paris Underground."

(Soundbite of horn honking)

Mr. MARK OVENDEN (Author, "Paris Underground"): So, I'm Mark Ovenden. I'm an English guy living in Paris. I've been fascinated by the underground since I was a young boy. My mom took me on the underground somewhere on the outskirts of London. So, I was fascinated by transit systems that go under the city, and I've written quite a bit about some metro systems from all over the world in my first book.

So, well, I know, I'll go live in Paris and do a book about the Paris metro. If only it were that simple.

LYDEN: Mark Ovenden's book, (unintelligible), concerns himself with the design, graphics, map and details of the metro, from the obscure to the better known, like the lacy iron archway over the Chatelet stop.

Mr. OVENDEN: Well, line one, when it opened in 1900s, was opened with a lot of entrances like this in the art nouveau style, built by an amazingly young architect called Hector Guimard. And he had the idea of building things out of this wonderfully laced wrought iron that looks like it's kind of grown there almost organically. This metal has grown from the ground the way that trees grow or the plants grow. Its very organically looking form, quite advanced for its time, really.

LYDEN: And you know what I love, it actually makes a beautiful contrast, you know, since Paris isn't the greenest really of cities. It gives it a little sense of nature.

Mr. OVENDEN: It does do that.

LYDEN: The metro opened for the World's Fair of 1900. Before that, visitors of Paris had to ride a horse and buggy to see the sights, even the Eiffel Tower. Embarrassment. Line one rectified that, connecting all the major Parisian attractions.

Mr. OVENDEN: It went under the Champs-Elysees, it went alongside the Louvre Museum, it went past the Hotel Deville and down to the Bastille and down to the park.

LYDEN: Chatelet is Le Metro's Vanity Fair. It's the world's biggest metro station, with five city lines and three suburban routes running through it. We descend a few flights and are all but mowed down by a platoon of fare jumpers, some loaded with shopping. Fancy not paying today, Mark calls out. He estimates one in 20 people jump the turnstile.

Mr. OVENDEN: And they always have a certain little smile on their face that they've achieved something. You know, ha, ha, ha, good for us.

LYDEN: In fact, today, I couldn't figure out why my ticket wasn't working, and I guess I had saved an old ticket. I couldn't really tell.

Mr. OVENDEN: That's not the reason why people don't do it. They do it because they don't want to pay.

LYDEN: But two ladies just pushed me through.

Mr. OVENDEN: Yeah, really, yeah, yeah, yeah.

LYDEN: We'll come back to Mark Ovenden, but first let's meet another aficionado of the metro. He's been obsessed since he was three years old. Now, he's 11.

Mr. ADRIEN VENTURI: (Through translator) It's a kind of magic place. You go in one door and you come out another. And so it's kind of a magic place.

LYDEN: Diminutive and articulate, Adrien Venturi has more than a-fifth of Harry Potter about him. His eye glasses similarly enhance his curious intelligent face.

Mr. VENTURI: (Through translator) I don't know many other people who know the metro or who love the metro as much as I do. And in school when the teachers are planning a trip, they always ask me, where should we get on the metro? Where should we change? They know that I'm kind of the expert.

LYDEN: Adrien calculates where he wants to take me to his favorite routes.

Unidentified Woman: You have a ticket?

LYDEN: Me?

Mr. VENTURI: Let's go.

LYDEN: And we ride together.

(Soundbite of train moving)

LYDEN: As Adrien Venturi confidently leads the way, we're very soon on line 14, a newly expanded east-west line that connects Paris's two largest railroad stations.

Mr. VENTURI: (Through translator) There's a particularity about this line. In between the station Chatelet and Gau de Leon(ph), it goes very fast because it's a long distance.

LYDEN: Is this your favorite line?

Mr. VENTURI: Yes. (Through translator) Because it's modern and because it's fast and because they have the double doors that open up. Because it's bright.

LYDEN: Above ground, the station stop, Madeline, refers to the church that looks like the Pantheon, built to honor Napoleon's troops. But we're in the world below, in a revamped terminus that's as gleaming and sleek and labyrinthine as can be.

Mr. VENTURI: (Through translator) These are escalators that go from all the way to the top, all the way to the bottom down to the Line 14, which is the most modern.

LYDEN: And we're looking at one, two, three, four, five escalators running three flights. And then because there's a reflection, it looks like there's even, you know, six and a seventh escalator.

We sit for a while in the bucket chairs that are perched on many platforms. They look just like ice cream scoops, come in many colors and were designed by a modernist French designer named Joseph Andrew Marc(ph). Then it's back on the train. It gets so crowded and I get so crunched I just have to ask:

When it gets this crowded, it doesn't bother you?

Mr. VENTURI: (Through translator) No, it doesn't bother me. I find it normal because everybody - it's what we call a common transportation. It's for everybody's used so it's normal that it'll be (unintelligible).

LYDEN: But, boy, is it packed, especially in central Paris. This is a human-driven train system. At any one time, 600 conductors deliver hundreds of thousands of passengers to those more than 300 metro stops. And tunnels are being expanded in the system's periphery to the north and south from Aubervilliers to Port d'Orleans.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

LYDEN: One of the drivers on a north-south line, Line 12, is Elodie Mura. I'm in her cab with her as we leave Port du la Chapelle(ph). She (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

Ms. ELODIE MURA (Conductor): (Through translator) Here, you have this big ring that you have to activate. You have to do it, well, like, every 10 seconds or so. Because if you don't, well, if you don't touch it, then the train automatically stops in case, you know, the driver has heart attack or anything that goes wrong for him, so that the train doesn't go on its own.

LYDEN: And she keeps her eyes out for people who might be tempted to jump in front of her train. According to the Paris Metro Safety Department, 100 to 120 people a year commit suicide this way.

Ms. MURA: (Through translator) Actually, I think about it every day because it can happen any time, you never know. You can have colleagues that can spend their entire life driving and it never happens to them, hopefully, and others to which it happens several times.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

LYDEN: Down in the depths of the Paris metro where light and dark flash by in checkerboard patterns can be glimpsed something else which distinguishes this system: ghostly disused stations. Many closed for bomb shelters during World War II. It's like looking at the subway equivalent of a Flying Dutchman. There are about 80 disused stations, known as station phantom(ph) or phantom stations.

Metro historian Julian Pepinster has the key to one in central Paris called San Martin, closed in 1949.

Mr. JULIAN PEPINSTER (Metro Historian): There is a second door just to make things more difficult.

LYDEN: Pepinster joins Mark Ovenden and me 20 meters below ground. He's co-author with Ovenden of the book, "Paris Underground." He's an employee of the metro system and he's president of the Metro Historical Association, (unintelligible). He's a metro (unintelligible).

Mr. PEPINSTER: You're asking much, much, many questions but if you're not careful you're going to fall down the stairs while you're asking questions and your show will be a show at the hospital. So...

LYDEN: It's eerie to see an enormous, ghostly, metro station with the world oblivious to its existence - or maybe not. Graffiti taggers have obviously had their way here.

All Paris metro stations are lined in rectangular white tiles, meant to enhance the light. Pepinster leads us to huge brightly colored bas-relief enamel posters, advertising posters. In the first, a profusion of French food stuff emerges from the wall. You can touch the fromage.

Mr. PEPINSTER: (Foreign language spoken)

LYDEN: Um-hum, okay.

Mr. PEPINSTER: That's (unintelligible).

LYDEN: So - use it in soup, use it in...

Mr. PEPINSTER: 'Cause it's potage verite(ph), soup, creamy soups, (French spoken), savory desserts, sauce (French spoken), well, creamy sauces, (French spoken), delicious pastries, (French spoken), food for the children.

LYDEN: But then Pepinster and Ovenden point to another bas-relief advertisement, which captures a moment in time both arresting and disquieting.

Mr. PEPINSTER: (French spoken) - bleach in French is called (French spoken).

LYDEN: It's a woman holding up a sheet.

Mr. OVENDEN: Oh yeah. Remember that year, 1949, 1950 and look at that woman.

LYDEN: She's black. She's African.

Mr. PEPINSTER: Yes, she is black. Because at this time, at this epoch, France still had its colonies in Africa.

Mr. OVENDEN: (unintelligible) sign, like, here is a black woman. You can see her hand...

LYDEN: Her hand.

Mr. OVENDEN: ...but she uses bleach and becomes white.

LYDEN: Really quite (unintelligible)...

Mr. PEPINSTER: (Unintelligible) - that would be something quite politically incorrect. That wouldn't happen now. It's already a little tough to talk about it.

LYDEN: Although time has stopped here, the metro trains running nearby have not. Watching lighted trains from afar in the darkness, it's as if you can hear Paris's heartbeat regulated by its central nervous system, Le Metro.

(Soundbite of train)

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Back at Chatelet, the summertime merriment of life on the metro dispels all darkness. At any one time, scores of performers roam the metro. For sheer, beguiling irresistible effect, the acoustics are particularly good at Chatelet. The Ukrainian Musicians of Lvov perform five days a week.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Of course, this is a folk song of young love. That means (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Here are a few reflections from riders pulled at random from around Chatelet station, who admire the breadth, the depth, the dazzle and the drama of Le Metro de Paris. Michael Rogue lives near London. He was pondering the construction of the metro.

Mr. MICHAEL ROGUE: You literally would pick up the roadway, great big hole, you'd lay your track along it, you'd build archways over the top and then you'd refill the ground and put the roadway back.

LYDEN: Tariq Rustafa(ph) from Rabat, Morocco loves to ride when he visits his son in Paris.

Mr. TARIQ RUSTAFA: But not in a great holiday, you know. I prefer in the middle of the years where it's no much tourists, you know.

LYDEN: And Monsieur Dikay Frank(ph), who works in film, out and out loves it.

Mr. DIKAY FRANK: (French spoken)

LYDEN: It's fast, it's crowded, it's got music, people ask you for money - you find all that on the metro.

Mr. FRANK: (French spoken)

LYDEN: (French spoken) - you've got all that. Pick a line - my favorite: Line 4 - pick an architectural feature: a station fitted with Guimard's lacy green cloaks over each entrance, circa 1923. Consider the cream-colored subway tiles, the secret phantom stations abandoned since World War II. The sweating, coiling body of the Paris metro. For the Euro 60 it costs for a ride, well, who's to say where you'll end up? Now, that's a subway ride.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: For more on our story about the Paris metro and to see National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez's photos, please go to our website, NPR.org.

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