Ghosts, graffiti, and greenery: Exploring Paris’s abandoned Petite Ceinture railway line
In 1851, the first train of the Petite Ceinture steamed along the first complete portion of its tracks. By 1869, the “Little Belt” railway encircled the city. The black steam engines transported passengers until the 1930’s, when they fell out of use, in favor of the bus and Metro lines. But the trains kept chugging along, transporting only freight, until the 1980’s. Then, they disappeared. The tracks were left to themselves, a quickly forgotten circle in the middle of the city.
Although it was a typical part of life for several generations of Parisians and tourists, you don’t see as many images or read as many accounts of the Petite Ceinture as you might expect. My favorite accounts are from the 1870 Siege of Paris, when curious and bored Parisians would ride Petit Ceinture trains to vantage points where they could see the firing on Prussians the distant forts that surrounded the city.
In his Tableaux de Siège, Théophile Gautier offers an interesting account of such a ride, including his morbid thoughts on what seemed to be riders’ least favorite stretch: a long tunnel running nearly unbroken from near the modern-day Porte de Bagnolet Metro, to the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
Because it was underground, people lost valuable vantage points. But true to his reputation as a brilliant writer, Gautier pointed out that when you traveled through the part of the tunnel that ran beneath Pere Lachaise Cemetery, you were passing below the dead. Neat…and potentially the start of a nightmarish vision. Even cooler, yet creepier: Gautier pointed out that if you were riding in one of the open-air second storeys of some wagons, any drip of condensation that might fall on you would have touched perhaps illustrious dead bodies.
Although its trains and importance are long gone, many Parisians still live, work, or pass by the tracks of the Petite Ceinture every day. Some sections are elevated, while others are at the bottom of steep gullies.
A majority of the line has never been destroyed or repurposed, and, with a little updating, could still be used today. Some parts of it have even been incorporated into a modern-day suburban train line and a transportation line for the Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est train stations.
But a lot of the Petite Ceinture is abandoned. Over the past few decades, Parisians have taken notice and started claiming sections of it for their own. From urban explorers, to graffiti artists, to artists squats and collectives, today the Petite Ceinture is more than just rusty tracks and abandoned stations whose loveliness lingers; in places it’s a home, a hideaway, an art gallery.
In the north of the city, one former station now houses La Recyclerie café, and community events are regularly organized on the nearby tracks. Near the tunnel that Gautier wrote about, an old station was a concert venue and has recently been converted into a pub. In other areas, parks, nature trails, and community gardens have been set up. But most of the line remains relatively unfrequented by people. Plants and animals reign among the old metal.
My husband and I love history, and my son loves trains, so exploring a stretch of the untouched Petite Ceinture had been an idée fixe of ours for a while. Then, a few months ago, my husband found out about a secret access point used by urban explorers (and, it turns out, locals, too). Now, from time to time we’ll take to the tracks, on our own or with friends.
Earlier this year, it was announced that more stretches of the Petite Ceinture will be made accessible to the public. Hopefully the space will stay mostly as it’s been. There’s a magic to it the way it is now. My son loves to walk on tracks that used to be reserved for a train — a combination of breaking the rules as he knows them, and of getting closer to something he loves. My husband reveres this refuge of greenery so near the heart of the city. And I savor the feeling of being so close to another time, of almost seeing ghosts along the line.