France

Paris: le métro

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My dear blog readers, if you are not tired of traveling with me this summer, I would like to invite you to visit Paris. I still think that it is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. My first story about Paris is its métro:

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L’Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris was the main reason why le métro was built. The Paris Exposition Universelle was to be a showcase for French innovation and technology. Exhibits were to include one of the first moving walkways and a big-screen projection by the Lumiere brothers. And as part of the Expo, the city was also organizing the 1900 Summer Olympic Games. Not only were millions of visitors expected, it was also hoped many of them would want to travel from the main exhibition site around the Eiffel Tower to the sporting events in the suburbs. It became urgent to build at least one subway line.

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The construction contract was given to a Belgian industrialist and archaeologist Edouard Empain. He founded a company called the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer Metropolitain de Paris. The person in charge of the project was Fulgence Bienvenüe, a well respected civil engineer.

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On July 19, 1900, at 1 pm, after only twenty-two months of work, Line 1 of the Paris métro was opened to the public and began to carry Expo visitors to the Olympic Games on the outskirts of the city. The project had worked, and Bienvenüe was commissioned to go ahead with the plan to build five more lines, including one, Line 4, that would require him to tunnel under the Seine.

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It was impossible to drill into the silty riverbank around Saint-Michel without damaging an existing overground railway line, so Bienvenüe pumped in ice-cold salt water and froze the ground solid. Even so, it took ten months of digging to complete 14.5 metres of tunnel through the silt, and this was without even starting to dig under the Seine itself.

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Paris wanted everything to do with the 1900 Exposition Universelle to look spectacular. The new métro had to be impressive. A competition was launched to find a designer for the station entrances. Twenty architects applied, but typically for Paris, the job went to a man who hadn’t even entered the contest: Hector Guimard. When Line 1 opened, its first users must have been startled to have to descend into tunnels through what looked like a tangle of vines, guarded by towering twin lamps. Today, it is hard to imagine that some people wanted to get rid of them almost immediately.

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In 1904, a daily newspaper, Le Figaro, demanded that Paris get rid of “these contorted railings, these hump-backed standard lamps that point out the subway stations like enormous frogs’ eyes”.

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These days, the métro may be very proud and protective of its Guimard architecture but almost half of his 141 station entrances have been destroyed.

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Source: Stephen Clarke, Paris Revealed. The Secret Life of a City.

And now let’s go for an evening walk around the Saint-Michel subway station:

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