Of the more than 30 million travelers who will visit this Paris this year, many will come for the history—the Catacombs, the Sacre-Coeur, the 14th-century cathedral at Notre Dame. But they might also see a bit of under-the-radar history, and under really is the word, as this kind of history can only be found in the Paris subway system, the Métro.
First, a bit of background. Before World War II, Paris’s subways were run by two major companies, the CMP (Compagnie du chemin de fer Métropolitain de Paris) and the Nord-Sud (North-South). Each had its own decorative style. Nord-Sud was elegant and intricate, CMP simple and functional. Functionality had won out by 1930, when CMP bought out Nord-Sud. During the World War II Nazi occupation of Paris, numerous ordinances were glued to the tiled walls of the Métro, as were the usual maps, advertisements and other signage. As late as 1948, three years after the war ended, the wartime posters were still in place, and the task fell to a new state-owned company, the RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens), to get rid of them. The agency did this not by scraping away the old posters from the walls but by covering them with metal sheaths, or carrossages. These stayed in place for more than 50 years until 1999, when renovate efforts (page is in French only) led the RATP to begin removing them once and for all.
What lay underneath was a Métro frozen in amber. In June, when the train I was on—the number 12 line—pulled into the station at Marcadet-Poissoniers, at first I was disappointed by what looked like a Métro stop in sore need of repair. Then I looked closer. Soon, the station would get new tiling, along with new lighting and new benches, but the only thing the RATP had gotten around to so far was removing the carrossages—thereby revealing 50 years of history. All of it—the old timetables, the outdated Metro maps listing stations long decommissioned, remnants from a dark yet fascinating chapter in Paris’s history—could be seen again.
If you happen to find yourself in the City of Lights soon, don’t forget to take a second look at those subway walls. You might be surprised at what lies beneath.