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This is the fourth in a monthly series of stories about the wonders of the Paris Metro System.
Iconic staircases are prominent throughout Paris.
- The vertical 1665 steps connecting three floors of the Eiffel Tower, surrounding you in iron lace as you navigate the unending swirl.
- The Arc de Triomphe’s 295 steps with its ultimate arc-top view of the city’s spoked boulevards (stay tuned for the Christo wrapping in September).
- The 460 steps in the claustrophobic spiral to the Notre-Dame belltower (now closed for who knows how many years).
One of the most unique sets of stairs in Paris can be found hidden in the heart of the 18th arrondissement at the Abbesses metro, the deepest station in the city. The Line 12 metro platforms are buried 36 meters below ground at Place des Abbesses near the base of the Butte Montmartre. The Abbesses/Montmartre area has the feel of a village— with its windmills, vineyards, cabarets, and artists of past and present. Although the neighborhood is sometimes overtouristed, you can still be captivated by its charm.
When you wind your way up (or down) the stairs, you’re immersed in a spiral art gallery that previews what lies above in the artistic community of Montmartre — ghosts of past artists such as Picasso, Modigliani, Braque, Van Gogh, Matisse, Valadon, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Renoir; café and cabaret scenes; the natural beauty of the countryside; and a hint of more stairs . . . leading up to Basilica of Sacré-Coeur.
As you exit the metro car to the platform, you are forewarned. There are 144 stairs to the metro exit — a challenging vertical climb. The good news is that there is also an elevator.
But, you’ll miss the photographs by Jacques Habbas and the paintings by the Paris-Montmartre Association of local artists.
The metro platforms are also a good lesson in history and artistic form and function. The station was opened in 1913 as part of the North/South network. Architect Lucien Bechmann was hired to design the interiors. (It was probably just a coincidence that his father was the chief executive of the Nord-Sud Line.)
The elegant design included curved walls and beveled white tiles with a wave-capped frieze as part of all his North/South stations. He also added an artistic system of color coding. Abbesses, as a one-line station, has signage frames of honey brown. Terminal stations, or stations with an option of transfer, have green or blue signage borders.
The corners of the signage frames present an N/S to also indicate a North/South station.
Although it’s interesting to stay underground for a while to study the details of Abbesses, a wonderful world awaits at street level.
The Outside World
The Place des Abbesses is a film-worthy square, with a traditional newspaper kiosk, carousel, Wallace fountain, and friendly cafés. (Will you see Amélie? Or Emily?)
The abbey — Dames de Montmartre — for which Abbesses is named, was destroyed during the French Revolution. But the steps to Sacré-Coeur are a 5-minute walk. And the Art Nouveau church of Saint-Jean de Montmartre rises gracefully across the street, with its unusual brick and tile facade.
For a much-needed nod to love, the Paris Wall of Love is in the garden of the Square Jehan Rictus, where you will find hand-painted blue lava tiles and the words “I Love You” in more than 250 languages.
The jewel in the Abbesses crown is the iconic Hector Guimard metro entrance. This “dragonfly” structure of glass and green wrought iron is one of only two originals remaining in Paris. (Stay tuned to Metro Magic to discover the other one.)
The entrance’s fluid Art Nouveau lines and balustrades honoring nature are a nostalgic reminder of classical Paris and make us feel as if the station entrance could easily take flight, lifted by its translucent wings, to glide over Montmartre, past and present.
Whether you go spiraling deep into the earth or take a fanciful flight, Abbesses is well worth a visit.
Lead photo credit : The Abbesses Metro Station Entrance. Photo by Meredith Mullins