For a panicked Briton thrown into the Parisian underground, the Paris Métro can be intimidating, confusing, and often simply infuriating. Here are the seven things you need to know – and not freak out about – if you’re planning on crossing the channel anytime soon.
Oh god the trains have handles. Literal handles. That you have to use in order for the doors to open, lifting the small piece of metal up slowly as you’re unsure if you’re going to break the train or lose your arm, only for the doors to snap open rapidly and viciously. You’re left standing confused and bemused, buffeted by the heavy station air – all while being furiously judged by Parisians.
Now don’t get me wrong, most Parisians are lovely. But when you see seasoned Métro veterans lifting the handle well ahead of time as the train coasts into the station, waiting impatiently for the hiss of the unlocking mechanism, it’s hard not to feel intimidated. Your average Briton, on the other hand, (read: me) can be relied upon to stare at the door, willing it to open automatically, only to miss their stop as the train rolls away.
It’s also worth noting that the doors open before the train has stopped moving. TfL officials would have kittens.
2. Double deckers
Some of the trains in Paris are double deckers and, here, that’s completely normal. Picturing such trains overground might be an easier imaginative leap for Tube-dwellers, but when you see one underground for the first time it’s a truly disarming experience.
These double-deckers are reserved for the busiest lines, running on the RER network, separate to (but overlapping with) the 16 normal single-decker Métro lines. Taking your seat on the upper deck is a disconcerting feeling at first, but when you’re almost guaranteed a seat and get a novelty experience in the bargain, it’s hard to complain.
3. Numbers and names
Part of the quaintness of the Tube is the line names, and the weird, almost-nationalism attached to whichever one you call home. But in Paris, the lines are just numbers. Boring, coloured numbers.
Station names, however, are amazing. Sure, there’s standard fare that you’d expect from tube stops around a capital city, with Bastille, République, Europe and Nation reflecting the squares from which they take their name. But Paris has a delightful little idiosyncrasy that London doesn’t have at all: the Parisians who mapped out the metro lines obviously had a real penchant for naming stations after famous figures.
You’ve got legendary authors, like Victor Hugo (Les Misérables) and Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers). You’ve got a station named after Pablo Picasso. You’ve got political figures, like Robespierre and, somewhat oddly, Franklin D. Roosevelt. (You can already see Macron rubbing his hands at the thought of having a station named after him in 50 years’ time.)
My stop, Parmentier, is named after the guy who discovered potatoes and brought them to France, saving thousands of Parisians' lives during a time of famine. There’s even a little statue of him giving a potato to an impoverished man. Inspiring stuff.
4. The Navigo
There’s no beating around the bush: the Parisian equivalent of the Oyster is a mess. For a start, there are two of them, with confusing and barely-existent differences between them. There’s the carte Navigo, for which you have to fill in a form and need to be a Parisian, and the carte Navigo Découverte (“discovery”), which costs €5 up front.
After navigating that little minefield, you then have to put credit on it. Whereas you might expect to charge it as you go like an Oyster card, reality is not that simple. You can only charge it for a week, or a month, constricted by the very narrowest calendar sense of each. For example, if it's Wednesday, buying a week pass doesn’t grant you seven days' worth of credit: it gives you until midnight on Sunday, at which point your credit is gone, ready for a new blue Monday. The same applies for a month – that credit drops off at midnight on the final day of the month. It’s a confusing system which needlessly complicates navigating the Métro – and no, you can’t pay with a contactless bank card as you pass through the gates.
5. Manual gates
Speaking of which, we need to talk about Paris’ metro gates. Many of them are manual, making you feel less like you’re travelling underground in a major European city, but rather like you’re passing through the turnstiles at an old football ground.
You have to push through the turnstile, and then push through the weird flappy door-gate thing just behind it. No, I’ve never incorrectly presumed that it was automatic and that my Navigo hadn’t worked before turning around and walking away. Why do you ask?
We’re all used to seeing movie posters and “this amazingly well produced photo was shot on an iPhone that you can’t afford” ads lining Tube tunnels, but Paris has taken capitalism to a new level. This is Opéra station:
The entire station is one massive Destiny 2 advert. I mean, seriously, look at the light-up logo! Talk about maximising advertising revenue per square inch.
7. Older trains and fewer peoples
Some of the trains running are old. Creakingly, achingly old. If you look in the corner of a carriage, you can see disused screens from the past with manually-operated lights telling you which stop you’re approaching, like those on the front of old buses.
Combined with the handles and some suspiciously flickering lights, you’re one steam engine away from a strangely antiquated experience. It’s cute – if a little inefficient. You can’t help but suspect that the Métro has had far less money pumped into it than the Tube over the years.
The Paris Métro certainly takes some getting used to. Yet for all its strangeness, the experience is a positive one – it’s still a fantastic way around the city.
It’s also a reassuringly universal one. In London and Paris alike, there are cramped rush hours, efficient trains and – yes – incessant reminders to mind the bloody gap.
All images courtesy of the author.