20,000 Leagues Under The Street
With a few euro in my pocket, a ticket stub and a curiosity that killed Chester the cat I hopped onto a metro train. Unlike any ordinary metro jaunt, this time out I thought to myself,
“My stop is next. But hey, I don’t want to get off!” And so began a running love affair withsome of public transportation’s hidden treasures. Below ground Europe’s subterranea is teeming with unexpected sights and sounds sure to keep any explorer hypnotized. I made a running list of my favorite places below Europe’s concrete jungles. Here are a few.
Obvious front runner is Stockholm‘s trip through the bountiful. This is no ordinary subway. I whisked through a tunnel fashioned out to be a ride through a 3D Expressionistic art expo. Cobalt blue stone walls carved out of what seemed to be some rapidly descending cavern jumped out at me immediately. They were streaked with gray and blue leaves painted into the wall face.
Moments later blood orange lava seemed to be rolling down the ceilings. No, I wasn’t dreaming. This really is a magical metro ride. And I didn’t need to eat the little biscuit that says “eat me” to shrink down to size to see it. Who knew that a quick escapade to Sweden would surprise me so overwhelmingly?
Above ground one finds the Nobel Museum. And on my particular jaunt to the land of midnight sun, I was treated to a glass musician playing themes from Harry Potter outside the museum to a crowd of passers-by. But the real magic was at play beneath my feet. Below ground one experiences any of the 47 subterranean out of 100 total metro stations
known as the Tunnelbana.
For more than 60 years, Stockholm has been the home to some of the most beautiful subway landscapes one can ever possibly hope to witness. Colors burst from the rock face walls; imaging renderings of famous icons of history, cubist-inspired fantasies, psychedelic kaleidoscopes, and anything in between.
But I would recommend to any tourist to remain sober when taking it all in. I thanked myself for being about my wits when I marvelled at the parade of skulls on Africentric canvases of red, black and green at Kungstradgarden. At times the metro is one part Tim Burton and other times Rodin. And even when the concrete jungle is pounding above, below all is tranquil.
Brussels perches at the intersection of smiling, happy people (to quote REM), idyllic nature, multicultural diversity, and a taste of everything Europe has to offer. But there is one explicit rule to follow in the land of Flemish, Dutch and French. Never film in the metro stations.
No pansive canvas after another–all while dry. I could have been in a hurry to get to La Grande Place or Waterloo to see what sights await above ground. But I took in as much as I could of beautiful neon abstract pieces at Bizet. This is Tron, simply put. And then there was the simple yet touching tribute to Eddy Merckx at the station of the same name. Here one finds a road bike with a white silhouette of its legendary rider painted on the glass case above
How about Moscow’s brilliant ride through gold enameled tunnels? Want to talk about bling? This is where it’s at, Perestroika-style. There is nothing like hearing the subway train rattle through the tunnels of palatial metro halls. Gold shimmer bounces reflections off winter-steamed subway train windows. One finds a combination of the newer sleek silver trains with the digital ticker tape on the front and the older traditional trains one might expect to see circling a Christmas tree during the holiday season.
Forget what you may have heard about Moscow. It is as cosmopolitan as it gets in the world of big cities, bright lights. And the metro more than proves that. I grabbed my “Troika” metro card, slipped down the escalator into the underground to a soundtrack of classical musicians playing on the ramp, and basked in the glow of gilded hall after gilded hall. I was immediately intimidated.
Stepping into Mayakovskaya Metro Station I felt like an uninvited guest surreptitiously tiptoeing about some emperor’s palace. These ceilings arch into the heavens. And the chandeliers dangling above the incoming trains give it all the more the feel of being in an old BBC film where Laurence Olivier comes into the foreground to recite some epic lines of dialogue. Here’s yet another example of looking like a tourist. Try as I might, it was impossible not to gape.
Harking back almost 80 years to Stalin’s era, the 10 lines boast waiting halls that resemble sitting rooms for the Metropolitan Opera. Gold and bronze are truly themes here. Gold is everywhere where the ambience is epic beauty and stunning architecture. In simple terms, most of these stations look like palaces. Bronze is the material of choice for paying homage to Russian heroes and historical figures.
Russia’s military pride is evident at Ploshchad Revolyutsii where each arched entryway is flanked by Red Army soldiers immortalized in bronze. I certainly brushed up on some of my Russian history while on the quick and steady metro commute. Imagine trying to do that in New York.
Switzerland: an invigorating mix of San Francisco and the Alps. Above ground are buses tethered to cables. And below ground this is where innovation meets an element of surprise and splendor. The M2 is the first official metro train of Switzerland. These trains transport passengers completely into a future world torn from the pages of science fiction. But rather, this is completely science fact. There are no conductors here.Welcome to Lausanne,
The pristinely kept trains, with their digital ticker tape monitors are rarely late. I had a sense of being part of a Monet painting. Why? One glimpse of the aged cathedrals, sweeping snow capped panoramas of the ever-looming Alps, and the sparkling blue of Lac Leman zipping from right to left across the window pane were reason enough.
When jaunting to Lausanne Gare, the meeting point of the metro and the above ground train station, the metro train conquers the steepest incline I’ve ever witnessed. If I weren’t holding on to a pole, I’d have looked eerily like one of the dancers out of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal video tilting at 30 to 45 degrees to one side.
The tunnels are remarkable in the fact that one moment they run a smooth straight line and the very next suddenly dip or climb. That’s a given. Lausanne sits on hills and valleys that equally dip and climb. So the mere fact that a computerized metro train tunnels through each of these highs and lows with no apparent problem is impressive.
The view isn’t bad either. For a few stops the metro makes an appearance above ground. It sprints above the cityscape along Pont Bessieres. There the Cathedral looms over a vast expanse of architecture going some 5 to 6 centuries back into the past. And ahead rests the dividing line between France and Switzerland: the bluest, calmest lake I’ve ever laid eyes upon, Lac Leman.
That’s a few of Europe’s stunning contributions in a breath. Just remember to travel safely and pack a camera.
Akil Wingate is a writer and singer-songwriter based in Lausanne, Switzerland. When he isn’t writing, composing or touring, he can be found in the kitchen whipping a challenging recipe into shape. Follow him on Twitter @akilWingate
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