A walk in the underground railway tunnels of Paris opens up a world of art to Sukanya Ramanujam
Think of Paris and you think of the Eiffel Tower, walking along the banks of the river Seine, admiring the classic buildings, sitting in a cafe on the left bank and watching the world go by. However, it is December and I have half a day. Absently, I follow a bunch of people down a staircase to the magnificent parallel world of the Parisian metro. The metro system is more than 100 years old and still expanding. I see new stations added in the last four years that I haven't been there. As I walk aimlessly, I come upon a dazzling mosaic frieze on the wall with the name of the station ‘Saint-Michel Notre Dame’ written on it. As I walk down the long corridor, I see more mosaic art — developed by Claude Marechal in the 1980s. I pull out my camera and start to photograph the mosaics.
Apart from being one of the oldest metro systems in the world, the Paris network also boasts some unique station designs — representative of the history of the location or local associations. One other feature I love about the metro is that around certain major stations you can walk your way from one station to another entirely by foot. You just have to pay attention to the signs! So I head to Cluny La Sorbonne, which I remember has a unique design. Located close to the Sorbonne, the vault of the station is decorated by a mosaic panel called ‘Les Oiseaux’ (The Birds). The ceiling also has mosaic signatures of some of the most famous personalities of France. I can make out Robespierre and Le Cardinal Richelieu; some signatures are squiggles, others look like mathematical equations. Once again, I bring out my camera. I change lines and take the train to Louvre Rivoli. Located close to the museum, it is also designed as an antechamber to the museum displaying works of art and other artifacts. I next visit Concorde, where the walls look like a giant has filled in a crossword puzzle with the alphabets spelling out the Declaration of the Rights of Man. This was the station that inspired Ezra Pound to write ‘In a station of the Metro’ in 1913. I next remember Arts et Metiers, located close to the museum of arts and crafts. This metro station is probably the most uniquely designed stop in the entire world. I am standing in a place that looks like a space capsule from a science fiction novel. The design was inspired by Nautilus, Captain Nemo's submarine from the Jules Vernes book, complete with portholes and massive levers on the ceiling.
The next station I head to is Pont Neuf - La Monnaie, close to the building that houses the Paris mint. True to the spirit of money, the station is decorated with coins. I am having more fun than I could have had in a museum but station hopping is proving to be tough work and I am more or less exhausted by now. I head to the last stop I can think of — Bastille. True to its name, the station has frescoes of images linked to the French Revolution. There is also a bit of graffiti but today’s graffiti is tomorrow’s art, so the French don't grudge it — especially on a fresco about the Revolution. I have spent roughly three hours underground and I feel I might turn into a mole if I stay any longer. Paris is the city of art but I have been reminded that in this city you don't have to head to a museum to experience art and history. You just have to take a ride in the metro.
Arm yourself with a free metro map and get a day-pass that gives you unlimited rides and RER network. If you plan to stay at the city centre, a ticket covering zones 1-3 will be sufficient. Alternatively, you can get a Paris Visite pass (For 1,2,3 or 5 days) that also covers the bus network, with discounts at various attractions.