Monday, September 22, 2014

The Paris Metro

Andrea and I recently returned from a ten-day vacation in Paris.  Everything about Paris impressed me, but one thing that I really felt was worth a blog in and of itself is the Paris Metro.

Metro is short for "Metropolitan" and is Paris' underground rail system (or "subway" as we would term it).  I've seen similar systems in other cities but nothing to match the Paris system.  It's amazing.  It's also incredibly clean, fast, and safe.

Part of what makes the Metro so convenient is the sheer number of lines and stations.  They say in Paris you are never more than 500 meters from a Metro station.  In my experience it was rarely more than a couple of blocks.  And once you enter a station and pay your way through the turnstiles you can now get to anywhere in Paris in a matter of minutes.

I bought a book before we left, "Discover Paris by Metro" which is a great book to have with you if you know how the system works.  It does not, unfortunately, explain the system at all.  So I thought I'd do that.

Paris is completely criss-crossed underground by subterranean rail lines; Fourteen of them as of this writing. When you descend into a Metro station typically that station will access one, two, or even more of them (most are just one).  There are trains running in both directions, named for the end of the line that they are headed for (each line has two ends, which are stations).  They don't use directions like "north" and "south" because the lines snake around the city in various directions.

For example: We were staying in an apartment near the "Porte de Vincennes" Metro station, which is on Line 1.  Line 1 runs from the "Chateau de Vincennes" station at one end across the city to the "La Defense" station at the other (the stations are named for nearby streets or points of interest).  So there are two platforms at our local station, one marked "1-La Defense" and another marked "1-Chateau de Vincennes".  There is also a map of line 1 on the wall (at the station and inside the trains).  If I know we want to get to the Louvre, and that its nearest Metro stop is "Palais Royale, Musee de Louvre", I can see that that's in the direction of "La Defense" from where we are, so we hop on that train and hop off at the station we want.

And I do mean "hop".  The trains run just about every two minutes so in general when you reach your platform you'll wait a very short time for the next train.

But let's say you want to go somewhere which cannot be reached by your local train.  Again, line 1 was the only line served by my local Metro station, but let's say we want to go to "Bir Hakeim" which is the closest station to the Eiffel Tower.  The "Bir Hakeim" station is on line 6, not line 1.

No problem.  You look at your Metro map (buy one, or there is one on the wall at every station) and find a station that serves both line 1 and 6.  There are two, "Nation" and "Charles deGaulle Etoile".  We pick the closest one and head that way.  When we get off at, say "Charles de Gaulle Etoile" there will be signs pointing us to the two different platforms each for lines 1, 2, and 6, because those three lines cross there.  We want 6, and so we pick the platform for the train going in the right direction for us, and get off at "Bir Kakeim".  But we never paid anything at our transfer station because once you are in the system you're good to go for as long and as many stops as you like.  When you leave the system then your ticket dies and you need another.

Alternatively, you can buy a weekly or monthly pass.  These are great because you just "scan in" at the turnstiles and you can go anywhere, anytime.  These passes also work on the buses, the surface light rail (the "Tram") and the trains (RER) to more remote areas like the airport and Versailles.  You "recharge" your pass for a Monday - Sunday period, online or using machines in the Metro stations.  There is also a clerk in every station to help you and most of them speak English.

The only other detail to consider is how many "zones" to make the pass valid for.  If you're just going to travel around Paris proper, buy zones 1-3.  If you're going outside Paris (Charles De Gaulle airport, Orly airport, Versailles) then buy zones 1-5.  Either way, it's an incredible deal.

You're probably thinking "yes, but how will I know the closest Metro station/line to a place I want to go?" That's where the book I mentioned above really shines.  There are sections for each line, explaining what is near each station as you go, and there is an index in the back where you can look up various attractions and it will tell you the line and station you want.  So if you know how the system works, the book fills in the rest.

One more resource you may find helpful is a metro planning site sponsored by the RATP, which is the rapid transit authority for Paris.  You put in any starting address and any destination and it will recommend the stations, trains, and changes to most efficiently get you there and even a little walking a map for the last bit when you arrive.  Here it is: Make sure to click on "EN" in the upper-left corner for directions in English.  (This site does not work very well in the US, so just use it once you get into Paris.)

The tool allows you to specify the fewest train changes, or the least amount of walking.  Choose the latter; the only thing about Americans in Paris is that you're going to get quite footsore.   Just walking through the Louvre will leave your feet throbbing.

Don't be intimidated if your route involves lots of train changes.  You won't wait much at all since the trains are so frequent.  If you get on the wrong train, or one in the wrong direction, just get off at the next stop and take the next train going the other way.  Once you get the hang of it, it really is child's play...  and the trains are so fast that it almost feels like you've got the transporter from Star Trek.  Enter at one station, emerge at another.

Don't rent a car in Paris. The traffic is terrible, many of the streets are quite narrow, and you'll just get frustrated.  Take the Metro.