The Extraordinary Story of the Paris Metro, Past and Future

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The Extraordinary Story of the Paris Metro, Past and Future
Metro! That’s the title of the exhibition currently running at the Cité de l’Architecture (Palais de Chaillot) until June 2nd. It takes you on two fascinating journeys: back through the history of the Paris metro and forward into the way the Grand Paris Express project is transforming the city. The project’s motto is “Grand Paris on the Move” and not for nothing has it been dubbed “the construction site of the century.”  As you enter the exhibition’s small opening room, you are surrounded by film footage of Place de la Concorde in 1897. It shows horse-drawn carriages alongside flickering pictures of workmen digging up the streets to create tunnels for the new-fangled marvel that was soon to open in the city: le métro. It’s the first of many touches which enliven the exhibition. The seating for later film clips includes an old wooden carriage which if – like me – you are “d’un certain âge” you will actually remember! One clip shows an elderly passenger recalling his nervous excitement at traveling on the metro as a six-year-old. His nose was pressed to the window as he thought of the worries of his neighbors that traveling underground was dangerous because “it might all collapse.”    The Cité metro construction at Marché aux fleurs, 1907, Agence Rol. Bibliothèque nationale de France. There’s a section on the metro as depicted in films. To watch the clips, you sit in a seat just like those in today’s stations – brightly-colored scoops of plastic, tilted at a comfortable angle. The comic short from 1984 called Barres by Luc Moullet is a quick-fire series of the ruses people used to avoid paying for their ticket. In Diva by Jean-Jacques Beineix (1981), the camera follows a character riding his moped into the Concorde metro station, down the stairs and on to the train! Nouvelle Vague directors took advantage of the new lightweight cameras to film characters out and about on the metro and clips are shown from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part (1964) and Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) where thieves operate in a crowded carriage.  The first half of the exhibition tells the story of the metro from its beginnings.  A modern transport system was desperately needed by the end of the 19th century, when the population of Paris was five times greater than it had been a century earlier. The solution was masterminded by Chief Engineer Fulgence Bienvenüe, whose name lives on in the Montparnasse-Bienvenüe station. His motto for the project was the grandiose statement: “By the lightening stolen from Jupiter, the offspring of Prometheus are driven through the underworld.”    The first station, Vincennes-Porte-Maillot, opened in July 1900 and by 1908 one writer underlined the metro’s popularity by describing ‘the unceasing stream of travellers that at certain times pours out of Paris’s underground’.    Vintage postcard, exit of the Porte Maillot metro station, around 1900
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Lead photo credit : The Abbesses metro station. Photo: Steve Cadman/ Wikimedia commons

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.