Over Under Paris
At the breadth of civilization, the most powerful kingdoms thrived when they had access to a large freshwater river that could fertilize and water their crops, as well as provide clean drinking water and channels out to sea. In the modern world, rivers serve their ecological purposes, but they are far from imperative if a city is to thrive. Nowadays, a mechanical river where the flow is made up of people, rather than water, is what makes a civilization great. I speak, of course, of the metro. Dating all the way back to the 19th century with the London Underground, metro systems have since evolved to be a status symbol of a society, bolstering not only social mobility, but physical mobility as well. The Paris metro is one of the primer metros in the world, boasting 16 lines, 303 stations, and moving over 7 million passengers every single day. Having been inaugurated in 1900, the Paris metro is one of the oldest systems of its kind on the planet, and one of the most impressive.
Line 6 is one of the first 10 lines completed before 1920. Its tracks stretch for 13.6 Km between Charles de Gaul-Étoile and Nation, from east to west respectively. Together, lines 2 and 6 run in a circle along what used to be one of Paris’s old walls, the wall of the ‘Fermiers généraux.’ While not a defensive installment, this wall was built to enforce tax policy when entering the city. Today, however, it facilitates movement in the modern age, to and around some of the most popular sights Paris has to offer, including the Eiffel tower itself. Line 6 comprises over 25 stops, and the length of track as it exists today was opened in 1909, after the eastward Nation stops were added to the original line 6. Coincidentally enough, line 6 is the 6th busiest line in all of Paris.
Arguably the most famous stop in all of Paris, Bir Hakeim is named after a battle in WWII in which French Free Forces, alongside British and Commonwealth soldiers, made a heroic defensive stand at the oasis of Bir Hakeim in the Libyan desert. Though this battle was technically a loss, the ferocity displayed by De Gaulle’s Free French forces were legendary enough to name the metro stop of the Eiffel tower after.
The Eiffel tower is of course the main attraction of the stop, but the most impactful part about it wasn’t just the tower itself, it’s how seemingly the entire city convened on the 14th of July to celebrate the liberation of the French people from a disconnected and uncaring monarchy. Bastille day fireworks at the Eiffel tower are an experience that I will never forget. Hearing the crowd chanting “Paris! Paris! Paris!” in unison was such a beautiful shared human experience, because they are celebrating one of France’s many triumphs for human rights. It makes me think about the state of my own country, and how things are rapidly deteriorating in the United States. Human rights, something the French Revolution fought so fiercely to establish and defend, are under fire in my home, and slowly being eroded. It also filled me with apprehension. It was a reminder that the revolution was bloody and it was difficult, but nearly 200 years later it made one of the most interconnected and enriching experiences in my life, and in all Parisian’s lives, possible.
Keeping with the theme of revolution and sacrifice brings us to Picpus and its cemetery. It is the only private cemetery in Paris that is still operational, and it holds many secrets, both dark and triumphant. This Cemetery was created at the height of the reign of terror during the French Revolution, and serves as the final resting place for over 1,300 souls who were senselessly guillotined. They now rest spread out over two mass graves. The rest of the cemetery is reserved for any and all descendants of these 1,300 individuals, should they wish to be buried there. Picpus is also the resting place of the great and honorable Marquis de Lafayette, who also has family buried within the harrowing mass graves.
Visiting Lafayette’s grave was a conflicting experience as an American. It is no secret that, as mentioned before, the US is going through an identity crisis where human rights are slowly but surely being suppressed, and as a young adult who is coming of age in this period of internal turmoil, I cannot help but think about all I can do, all I should be doing in order to play my role in stopping this. Great men like Lafayette did not stand idly by, they saw the way the wind was blowing and they exerted their greatness on the world in order to drag it kicking and screaming into a more enlightened era. Seeing the single American flag flying above his grave, in a Cemetery for the French revolution, I could not help but feel a swell of pride in my chest. Not for the United States as it currently stands, but for the ideals of freedom and the pursuit of human rights that men like Lafayette set in motion.
The metro stop that is home to the famous Arc de Triomphe, but even more famous is the military parade on Bastille day. Again, I have a dubious relationship with America at best. Long gone are the days of night time paratroopers liberating towns from authoritarian Nazi rule, the US military holds a very different connotation nowadays. That’s why seeing a military parade for the first time ever was conflicting to me. It evokes in me a sense of unease, thinking not only of American military blunders, but the French one’s as well. Still, I had to remind myself that the celebration was not a blanque-cheque of military worship, rather a celebration of brave men and women who defied an entire royal military and stormed a literal fortress in order to scratch and claw their way towards a new and more free future.
Raspail is the metro stop where the second largest cemetery in Paris is located. Surpassed only by Père Lachaise in size, over 30,000 people are buried in the 19 acre cemetery. This was the first stop where I simply stumbled upon something so historically significant, it was a very impactful discovery for me. So many notable people were buried there, including a previous French president, and the first ever self-proclaimed anarchist. Seeing the visitors to the cemetery had an impact on me because I never would have thought that so many individuals would be interested in visiting the graves of those who died, in some cases, hundreds of years ago.
It made me think of the legacies we lead, and how even if no one intentionally sought out some of those graves, maybe there were a few that caught their eyes and compelled them to investigate their story in more depth. It also made me think of my own legacy and what I would be remembered for. Some of the burials there belonged to decorated World War veterans, and others belonged to thinkers and doctors. There are so many ways to be remembered and to contribute to society. Which one, when all is said and done, will I choose?
Nation is the metro stop named after the famous Place de la Nation. Place de la Nation, formerly called Place du Trône-Renversé, was home to one of the most active guillotines during the French revolution. The Picpus cemetery holds many of the bodies from this guillotine site as it was close by, and that is actually how the cemetery got its start. They simply dug two large holes in the gardens of an existing church, and dumped the bodies inside. It was only after the revolution that it was converted into a resting place for the families of the victims. It is harrowing to know the truth about what happened there, where so many lives were taken, but it also brings a sense of comfort once you visit.
Where once the sharp blade of the revolution enacted its enlightened justice, now serves as a beautifully furnished park where flowers grow and children enjoy their summer days in the sunshine. It almost felt wrong to mourn in that spot, as if I was letting the spirit of terror win without appreciating how life and love will always reclaim the territory that violence and fear vacate. Yet it was not wrong to mourn, at the same time. We must always be vigilant and acknowledge how we got where we are today, without whitewashing the violent truths of the means that brought us here, so that each time we take a leap of progress, we can learn from the generations before and do so in a better way than them.
Beneath this seemingly unremarkable metro stop lies a sinister secret. The catacombs of Paris begin at Denfert-Rochereau, and there are even signs in the stop itself that point you in the direction of the claustrophobic crevasses where countless corpses now rest. Beginning as a quarry in the 19th century, the Catacombs of Paris came to be when the many cemeteries around the city were causing health problems due to incidents where bodies in nearby cemeteries would burst through crumbling basement walls. Generally, the city was simply being crowded by dead people. This led to many notable cemeteries being dug up and the remains of the bodies transferred to an old quarry that was (at the time) located a safe distance outside the city boundaries.
The project was overseen by the city’s head of quarries, and they even had several ossuaries where the walls were adorned with femurs and skulls, with the rest of the fragmented bones being sealed behind these macabre facades of death. The catacombs inspire an uneasy, yet comforting feeling regarding death. Venturing into its dark depths truly forces one to come face to face with the idea of their own mortality; I’m sure none of the souls resting there ever expected their final resting place to be turned into a tourist attraction of cultural and historical significance, yet here we are.
Pasteur as a metro stop opened in 1906, while additions were being completed to merge and expand the metro lines into the early ruminations of how it exists today. Along this stop is the school of Lycee Buffon, an academy that is named after Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon. Georges-Louis was a noble of medium stature, socially, and the school was named after him due to his pursuit of many academic disciplines. Today, the school is both a junior high and a high school, totaling around 1,700 students across both academies. When first coming across this school, I thought it to be some sort of historical building, or perhaps a place where official government business was conducted. I was shocked to find out via a small plaque that rests on the school’s walls that it was, in fact, a school.
Named after the original road Parisians would take to travel from Paris to Italy, Place d’Italie is one of many historical stops along metro line 6. One of the most notable landmarks near the stop is the Manufacture des Gobelins, named after the noble family that resided within the area. This fabric factory was set up as an old French institution that would be the official supplier of carpets, tapestries and textiles that the French nobility and monarchy would regularly consume. Its original inception was supposed to provide France with a domestic production of these goods, as before, many tapestries and carpets would be imported from outside the country.
Nowadays, the area is home to many immigrant communities. What was once a center for the manufacture of goods for the royal family is now a humble community center for immigrants in one of the most international cities in the world.
Cambronne is one of the few above ground metro stops along line 6. It’s also home to one of the most important organizations in the world, UNESCO. A UNESCO world heritage site is a site of great historical or cultural significance, and for one to have a place declared a world heritage site is a great honor. Some significant sites I have visited in my life are the city center of Lyon, a beautiful city. There is also, of course, the Everglades, which is a world heritage site that is near and dear to my heart. I wholly respect the mission that UNESCO embarks on in order to protect the most important sites to humans in the world, and seeing the headquarters where it all happens was a very personally fulfilling experience for me.
Trocadero is a huge and bustling stop in the heart of Paris. It boasts amazing views of the Eiffel Tower and sports numerous museums all around the area. The gardens of Trocadero were originally created to house a Paris World’s Fair, and they now serve as one of the most picturesque backgrounds in all of the city. While I did not personally visit the surrounding museums, Trocadero was one of the experiences that truly defined Paris for me. Seeing everyone congregating in order to indulge in the culture, history, and beauty of the city was inspiring to see in person.
Metro Line 6, like all the lines that snake and burrow beneath the streets of Paris, is full of life, history and culture. It did not hit me how vast and detailed a city like Paris is until I ventured up and down the line, looking in every nook and cranny I could find. It showed me that in a vast and sprawling metropolis, there truly is something for everyone, past, present, and future. Only time will tell what can withstand the entropic march of progress, and what monuments along this line are lost to progress. I cannot wait to bear witness.
“Site History.” Catacombes, https://www.catacombes.paris.fr/en/history/site-history#.
“Introduction.” Lycée Buffon, https://www.lycee-buffon.fr/en/introduction.
Bureau, Paris Convention and Visitors. “Place De La Nation – Paris Tourist Office.” En.parisinfo.com, https://en.parisinfo.com/transport/90899/Place-de-la-Nation.
Bureau, Paris Convention and Visitors. “Cimetière Du Montparnasse – Paris Tourist Office.” En.parisinfo.com, https://en.parisinfo.com/paris-museum-monument/71295/Cimetiere-du-Montparnasse.
Bureau, Paris Convention and Visitors. “Cimetière De Picpus – Paris Tourist Office.” En.parisinfo.com, https://en.parisinfo.com/paris-museum-monument/71410/Cimetiere-de-Picpus. Anido, Julien. “Visit the Gobelins Factory: Un Jour De plus à Paris.” Un Jour De plus à Paris | L’incontournable Des Visites Culturelles Et Touristiques à Paris. Balades, Visites Guidées, Découvertes Insolites… Visitez Paris Autrement !, 29 July 2020, https://www.unjourdeplusaparis.com/en/paris-culture/visiter-manufacture-des-gobelins.