Taking the Bus in Paris: A Very Parisienne Love Affair

Taking the Bus in Paris: A Very Parisienne Love Affair

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Buses crossing the Pont Saint-Michel
Buses crossing the Pont Saint-Michel/ Mossot/Wikipedia

It took me until 2013 to really fall in love. It happened opposite the Luxembourg Gardens on my way to the Porte de Clignancourt flea market. It was a Saturday morning and I had walked a hundred yards or so from my rented studio on Rue Royer-Collard (5th arrondissement) when it happened. Not a coup de foudre– I did not immediately and recklessly lose my heart at first sight, I’d always believed in “try before you buy,” and although undoubtedly handsome, well, “books and covers” and all that…

However I can’t deny that I was nervous; this was quite a big step into the unknown for me and I had absolutely no experience on how to approach this without making an utter fool of myself.

He was standing on the pavement smoking. Did I just ask him politely? Or should I throw caution to the winds and barge in? He was much younger than me (then that wasn’t that unusual) and I certainly didn’t want his pity or polite patronising. He finally looked up as I dithered on the pavement, and raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Is this the right bus for Porte de Clignancourt?”

He stubbed out his cigarette with a nod and boarded the bus. The number 85. I followed him on and asked for a return ticket. He realised instantly that I was a virgin, and handed over two identical tickets. I was so bemused that I ignored the machine where the ticket should be stamped and made my way to the back of the bus. How very odd: no return tickets!

Paris bus near the Louvre
Paris bus near the Louvre by Mariordo/Wikipedia

I had boarded the 85 at the terminus and as it made its way down Blvd St Michel and across Pont St Michel, along the Rue de Rivoli, past the end of the Louvre and onwards and upwards, skirting Sacre Coeur, I started to relax. What a fantastic way to see Paris! Why had I never done this before? In the 18 months I lived in Paris at the end of the 1960s I had never, ever taken a bus. I knew the metro system like the back of my hand and dived into its murky depths daily without a thought. Even being tear gassed in St Sulpice metro station, during the May manifestations had not deterred me. (Badge of honour really, although I was not that keen on being physically whacked by an over enthusiastic officer in the CRS giving chase. We had all scattered like pellets from a shotgun from the exit of the metro, eyes and noses streaming, attempting blindly to get as far away as possible from the men in black indiscriminately striking out with their batons.)

Buses had appeared to me then like chugging dinosaurs, packed, slow, and God only knew how you knew where they were going. They seemed to be full of old people hugging shopping bags. (I looked down at my lap– thank God, no shopping bag, but a rather smart, and decidedly not, old lady, leather number.)

Coming home from the flea market, the bus began smoking and coughing alarmingly. It was absolutely heaving with bodies, the aisle jammed with Saturday shoppers and without ceremony the conductor pulled to a stop and told everyone to get off and wait for another bus.

Aah, I thought, so this was the problem with Parisian buses; they broke down and you had to walk. After the bus had disgorged half its passengers, the conductor promptly closed the doors and started off again. I had been wedged into an inside seat and I looked at my neighbour questioningly. “Just too many people.” She explained nonchalantly. “The bus doesn’t like it.” We continued on to the Luxembourg Gardens without further incident, but I still wasn’t sure how frequent this occurrence was and wondered if this was to be my one and only foray on a Paris bus?

Paris bus
Paris bus by Kneiphof/Wikipedia

After all I had never been thrown off the metro and sometimes it had been so packed with bodies it had been difficult to breathe. And I still knew the metro system-some of the lines indelibly marked in my memory. Convention to Odeon. (And Le Tabou.) Change at Montparnasse. Convention to Place de la Concorde, and thence to the Champs-Élysées. (Where for the princely sum of one franc, there was a cinema that played only English films on a loop. I sat through Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? twice in one afternoon.) Ligne 12 also went on to Abbesses, the lovely Art Deco station that leads to Sacre Coeur.

BUT could you compare traveling underground to actually seeing the buildings and streets and people change in front of your eyes on a clean and cheerful bus?

Once back in my studio, I googled everything I could about Paris buses. Bus tickets were the same as metro tickets and interchangeable. Ten tickets cost just over 14 euros and could be bought from machines in the metro stations or at the counters with a credit card. The staff would also supply you with a map. Metro lines on one side, bus routes on the other, street names included. Bus tickets had to be validated in the machine next to the conductor, but could, on a different bus be re-used if the next journey started within 90 minutes of the original journey.

I turned into an anorak overnight.

Joan of Arc statue on the Rue de Rivoli by Jastrow
Joan of Arc statue on the Rue de Rivoli by Jastrow/Wikipedia

Not content with my map, I stopped at every bus stop in the vicinity of my studio and took mental notes and sometimes, shame overcomes me, wrote in a little notebook. The bus stops do not content themselves with the mere numbers of the buses that stop there. Each bus boasts its own little map of its route with all the stops and the running times. And if you are STILL confused– well, that is where the wonderful conductors come into their own. I have yet to meet a rude or surly bus conductor and God knows they act not just as drivers, but travelling information bureaus, and are expected to be multi-lingual to boot. They never drive off when they see you coming at a run. Parisian conductors often will let you off at a convenient spot, tell you patiently and nicely the best stop to get off for the Champs de Mars to save a 100 metre walk and pass the time of day with you if you get on at the terminus.

And this is another one of my anorak tips.

If you live anywhere near where your chosen bus starts its journey-walk there and get on an empty bus. From the Luxembourg Gardens, the 82 goes to the Musee D’art Moderne, via the Eiffel Tower and Pont D’Alma. By the time it has worked its way around the Gardens it has already filled up considerably. (There is a shameful, but undeniable smugness in being ensconced in your chosen seat for the entire journey.)

So while I am unashamedly in love with Paris bus conductors I may just be a little more in love with the squat, green vehicles they are driving.

For more information about traveling Paris by bus, see the RATP’s official website.

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I too have fallen in love with Paris buses! In multiple trips to Paris, I had always previously only used the Metro. But since I try to pretend I “live” in my favorite city, even though I can only stay for a couple of months each visit, I decided in Fall 2014 to learn the bus system. At first I printed out the color maps from the RATP Website for my chosen bus routes but then found a copy of the booklet that includes them ALL, including where they intersect with other routes and much other useful information. I felt very Parisian using the bus as often as possible. My expat friends were amazed since they had never used a bus, only the Metro. Yes, it’s a little slower than the Metro, but that just gave me more time to enjoy the view. Try it – you may like it!

      • It is one of those things in which the world divides very sharply into two types, those who love rail (peridromophile) and the rest (buses, taxis, uber, tuk-tuks …).
        Re the point about a great way to see Paris, no, that would be walking. Generations of flaneurs and flaneuses attest to this; I ask you did Hemingway ever rhapsodise about his bus trip from rue du Cardinal-Lemoine up thru the Jardin du Luxembourg to Gertrude Stein’s house? No, because he walked it (memorably in Moveable Feast). Walking is the best way to see Paris, and for anything less than about 2km or even 3km it is likely to be quick or quicker than waiting for and catching a bus.
        Further, on a bus it can be quite tricky to be fully aware of exactly where you are–even with a map one is constantly looking for street signs or landmarks etc, and the bus either moves too fast for such orientation or is stopped where those signs are not clear! I don’t find a bus trip helps your brain learn geographical awareness probably because of their features of erratic speeds, stop-and-start motion and difficulty of knowing where you are.
        For anything longer than a walk (and sometimes I am perfectly happy to walk across half of Paris) or when time is important or the weather is rotten, then the Metro is both faster and more importantly, extremely reliable and consistent. It helps that the Paris Metro (+RER) is just about the best in the world, not least that anywhere within Paris (intramuros) you are no more than about 600m from a Metro station (and ≈80% is <400m, often from several lines).
        It's why knowledge of the Metro system (and which end of the train will be appropriate for your exit station, etc) is the badge and boast of a seasoned Parisian (as it is in NYC, London, Tokyo etc). And why so many books of various types (photography, architectural, style, city-transit for nerds, even social history!) have been published on it. Not so much for buses!
        But, Marilyn, vive la difference, and go for it if you think there is a best-seller in the topic (who knows; I am not aware of any tome on the subject so it might be a vacuum waiting to be filled and lapped up by a vast under-estimated public).

        Funny enough I find the Noctilien the most interesting aspect of the bus service, which operates in that void (0h30 to 05h30) in which all other transit is sleeping. It's kind of Chandleresque travelling in the silent part of the night, way across the sleeping city or way out into the banlieu.

        • Dear Michael,
          How I loved your passionate rebuttal of the bus system. (I think you should consider writing the definitive metro/walking book) However whilst I could not possibly disagree with your arguement for flaneurs in Paris, I think I could safely hazard a guess that you are a long way from old age and are not plagued by creaky knees. Recently my son and daughter-in-law spurned my offer of bus/metro tickets and happily walked from St Germain to Sacre Coeur and back again. Sadly I would have been a heap on the pavement half way there. Metro stairs are horrible on knees and now as an annual tourist to Paris, I prefer to see Paris out of a window on a long journey. The metro is fab for its effeciency and speed but I’m in no hurry to get where I’m going. However for shorter distances, yes, I too, walk-it is by far the best way to see and experience Paris, but for the slightly worn out generation, the bus is king.

          • Marilyn,
            Did you see that Paris has had a grand reorganisation of the bus routes? Apparently it happened over the weekend, 20th April, 2019. It reminded me of your article–a whole new Paris for you to discover:-) Below are some links to interactive maps so one can compare before/after, or highlight individual routes etc. Also a link to an article in The Local about it. The changes are a lot about linking the suburbs to the city (though I thought they were pretty good at that previously …). It interesting to see that Paris never sleeps as far as its amazing transport system is concerned, with M14 being extended and M15 being built as the first step in the huge GPX scheme.

            In response to your comment “safely hazard a guess that you are a long way from old age and are not plagued by creaky knees”, I’ll agree that I was an awful lot younger when I lived in Paris (hint: Mitterrand era). However in fact it was Paris that really turned me into a serious walker and I have kept it up ever since. I used to walk from Ile St Louis to Hopital St Louis most days, about 3km (well, I’m a bit wimpy in rainy weather when I would take the Metro but it wasn’t any quicker). At my previous position at the Villejuif cancer centre I did walk home occasionally–when I missed the last Metro at night and was too impatient to wait for the Noctilien–though admit that that was a bit of a slog at the wrong end of long day’s work. That was my experience of the Noctilien (though it wasn’t called that back then) and almost my only experience of buses in Paris.

            Anyway, let me also state the obvious: “use it or lose it” is a biological law. Walking every day might actually keep those creaky body junctions in better shape than otherwise! All these decades later I am still walking 3 to 5 km each day, alas not as interesting as Paris. I think jogging might not be so kind to joints, but I can walk all day with only mild tiredness.
            In the context of e-Scooters (Limebikes etc) I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t use them in Paris because I prefer to walk the kind of distances an e-scooter is useful for. Anything else it’s the Metro for me. We’ll see if the fad lasts; if it does I fear Millennials and future-gens might have even less mobility (ie. of the physical kind rather than mechanically-assisted kind) than today!

            https://www.thelocal.fr/20170629/relief-for-parisians-as-new-bus-map-with-better-links-to-suburbs-unveiled
            Paris unveils new bus network map for first time in 70 years
            The Local, 29 June 2017.
            https://outilanticipation.nouveaureseaubusparisien.fr/
            https://gpbus-v3.serveurlc.com/

  2. I am a major fan of the Paris bus system. Unless you are traveling at rush hour or at peak weekend times the buses are generally uncrowded and the routes can be remarkably scenic. It is a pleasure to see how neighborhoods fit together and scope out areas you might want to return to. And, a plus for those with creaky knees…. no major steps like those in the metro! Don’t forget to validate your ticket (unless you are using a pass when validation is not necessary).

    And be aware that the stop map in each bus shows outbound and inbound stops with lines linking the name to the stop. Until you ‘get’ the system you have to look carefully because a named stop may be outbound or inbound only, not both ways. Not too complicated but a little detail!

  3. Hi Sally,
    Great tip on the inbound/outbound but as you say, not too complicated.
    I refuse to comment on the creaky knees in case I incriminate myself…

  4. Michael-literally just read about the new bus routes with great interest. In my defence I have to say that walking is not a problem-hundreds of metro steps is however but I salute your walking legs anyway. I still maintain though that looking out of a bus window at the constantly changing streets and pedestrians beats being underground if you are in no hurry. I doubt we will ever agree but love to get your feedback.
    PS Although this is hideous to admit, De Gaulle was still about when I lived in Paris.
    Now you can feel sorry for my knees…

    • Marilyn,
      Actually, you have convinced me to at least try the buses next visit to Paris. Especially with the new system.
      But you ruined your chance to get sympathy for your knees when you mentioned De Gaulle–because that induced intense envy in me. That must have been an amazing dynamic and exciting time to be in Paris. I am guilty of over-glamourising it but I’d gladly swap my ‘perfect’ knees for that experience! It was the last era of old Paris before it became modern Paris (well, technically modern Paris is after 1870 but you know what I mean, perhaps this is “postmodern”?). Now, I love modern Paris but I would have liked to have experienced the transition.

  5. Ah Michael!
    To have lived in Paris in 68/69 was the best experience of my life-the excitement of the May revolution, no queues for Notre Dame or the Louvre etc and the fabulous Tabou club in St Germain des Pres- non stop English speaking films in a cinema at the bottom of the Champs Elysee for one franc-I could go on and on but would not want to turn you green… And what’s more you would have been proud of me as back then I only used the metro and knew the system like the back of my hand.
    Enjoy the bus.
    Marilyn

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