It is said that the entirety of the ancient world’s knowledge could be found in the Royal Library of Alexandria (Egypt), built in the third century BCE. That might be so, but for what sometimes seems like the entirety of the modern world’s promulgators of, places for and perks from knowledge, all you need do is take out your Métro map, nestle into a quiet corner and wish yourself bon voyage through the encyclopedia of station names*:
Following the famous? (You may have to look some of these folks up, and we’re leaving out ones whom even your French fellow commuters might not know!) Alexandre Dumas, Anatole France, (Bibliothèque)-François Mitterand, (Bobigny)-Pablo Picasso, Bolivar, (Champs-Elysées)-Clemenceau, Charles de Gaulle-(Etoile), (Chaussée d’Antin)-La Fayette, Emile Zola, Félix Faure, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George V, (Javel)-André Citroën, Michel-Ange (of Sistine Ceiling fame), Pasteur, Pierre et Marie Curie, Robespierre, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, etc.
Jumping for geography? Alésia, Anvers (French for Antwerp), Argentine, Crimée (Crimea), Danube, Europe, (Gare d’)Austerlitz, Montparnasse-(Bienvenüe) (as in: Mount Parnassus, the home of the Muses in Greek mythology [Fulgence Bienvenüe (1852-1936), by the way, was a civil engineer known as the Father of the Métro. Without the accent on the “u,” his name is the word for “welcom” – literally “well” + “come.”]), (Place d’)Italie, Pyramides, (Réaumur)-Sébastopol, Rome, (Sèvres)-Babylone, Stalingrad, plus those in Portes (below), etc.
Mapping monuments? Assemblée Nationale, Bastille, Bourse (Stock Exchange [also the word for the similar-sounding “purse” and, logically then, for “scholarship” in the Palais Brongniart, an interesting building, although now devoid of all those frantic gesticulators, as trading has become electronic), Château de Vincennes, Cluny- La Sorbonne, Ecole Militaire (Military Academy), Hôtel de Ville (Paris City Hall; to say nothing of the stations named for neighboring mairies, or “city halls”: Mairie d’Issy, Mairie d’Ivry, Mairie de Clichy, Mairie de Montreuil, Mairie de Montrouge, Mairie de Saint-Ouen, Mairie des Lilas), Invalides (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Invalides), Opéra, Palais-Royal – Musée du Louvre, Trocadero, etc.
Rooting for religion? Abbesses; Cardinal Lemoine; Eglise (Church) d’Auteuil; Eglise de Pantin; Filles du Calvaire (Daughters of Calvary); La Chapelle (different from Porte de la Chapelle – see below); Madeleine (at the Madeleine Church, named for Mary Magdalene); Notre-Dame-de-Lorette; Père Lachaise (near the legendary, superstar-accommodating cemetery named for Louis XIV’s confessor, Père (Father) François de la Chaise [1624–1709]); and of course the passel of saints who, through circumstances beyond their control and epoch, gave their names to the streets that gave their names to the stations: [Saint- ->>] Ambroise, Augustin, Denis (different from Basilique de Saint-Denis and from Strasbourg-Saint-Denis), Fargeau, François-Xavier, Germain-des-Prés, Georges, Jacques, Lazare, Mandé, Marcel, Michel, Paul, Philippe du Roule, Placide, Sébastien-(Froissart), Sulpice, plus those in Portes (below); Temple (as in: Knights Templar); Trinité, etc.
Ponts ‘n Portes The eponymous ponts (bridges) mostly cross the Seine (on the other side of which real estate prices freefall in comparison to their Parisian counterparts just several steps away): [Pont ->>] de Levallois-Bécon, de Neuilly, de Sèvres (known for its 18th-century porcelain-making activity), Marie, Neuf (which, completed in 1607, under the reign of Henri IV – thus the equestrian statue of him thereupon – and despite its name, meaning new, is the oldest still standing bridge in Paris, its walkways having hosted little merchant- and artist-boutiques until 1854)…The eponymous portes (doors) were really that: gateways in various defense or tax walls surrounding Paris, the most famous of which was constructed by Philippe Auguste: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wall_of_Philip_II_Augustus,_Paris – look for traces of it around the city, per various Internet sites): [Porte ->>] d’Auteuil, d’Italie, d’Ivry, d’Orléans, Dauphine, de Bagnolet, de Champerret, de Charenton, de Choisy, de Clichy, de Clignancourt, de la Chapelle, de la Vilette, de Montreuil, de Pantin, de Saint-Cloud, de Saint-Ouen, de Vanves, de Versailles, de Vincennes, des Lilas, Dorée, Maillot.
Here are some with pleasant sounding and/or evocative names: Chemin Vert (Green Pathway), Gaïté (Gaiety – when it still meant “cheerfulness”), Jasmin, La Défense, Nation, Ourcq (per a nearby canal: this is just a great name, with fun spelling!), Poissonnière (Fishwife; different from Marcadet – Poissonniers, the second word of which is fishmonger), République, Rue de la Pompe (well, there must have been a pump there), Télégraphe (ditto a telegraph office), Villejuif (Jew Town?), etc.
And some associated with fascinating stories (maybe we’ll share more in upcoming articles):
- Picpus (12è arrondissement) – In French history there has probably been no greater Americanophile than La Fayette – who named his son Georges Washington La Fayette (notice the Frenchified “Georges”) and a daughter Virginie (as in the state from which La Fayette’s mentor Washington and friend Jefferson hailed). La Fayette is buried in Paris’s Picpus Cemetery (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picpus_Cemetery) next to his aristocrat wife, Adrienne de Noailles, whose relatives lie in a mass grave, adjacent to the cemetery, that contains some 1,300 victims of the Reign of Terror (among its several locations, the guillotine had operated in the nearby Place de la Nation). La Fayette lies in American soil, which he brought back from his glorious 1824-1825 tour of all 24 U.S. states (many of which have towns named La Fayette!). The American flag placed on his grave on July 4, 1917, by General Pershing’s aide, Colonel Charles E. Stanton (as he declared, “Lafayette, we are here!”) has never been taken down – even during the German occupation. Every July 4, the U.S. ambassador holds an extremely moving ceremony there.
- In the 1800s, it was Montmartre (which did not become part of Paris until 1860) that hosted the likes of Salvador Dalí, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh. Then, suddenly, the “artists’ colony” moved south, installing itself in the studios, workshops and cafés of Montparnasse. What happened? Line 4 of the Métro happened! Completed in 1908, it allowed for an easy north-south commute, exposing these former patrons of the Lapin Agile cabaret to the charms of, among others, the Closerie des Lilas café. They liked what they saw, and stayed. Now, scattered throughout Montparnasse’s 6è and 15è arrondissements, some studios and workshops of turn-of-last-century artists have become vest-pocket museums.
If you read French, you can get the story behind each of the 300+ station names in:
* This is a very, very incomplete list. There are 303 stations!
Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.