About 10 years ago, Norman and I were staying in part of a converted workshop in a courtyard in the 14th arrondissement. One day, as we walked towards the Porte de Vanves on a Saturday morning to visit the flea market, we crossed a bridge over a disused sunken railway and I took a picture of a cat on the tracks, all alone in its private domain.
It was the Petite Ceinture (the Little Belt), an old railway line ringing the city that predated the Metro by about 50 years.
We lingered on the bridge, looking down into a quiet green world. We’d heard that urban adventurers would climb over the fence and down the embankment to walk along the tracks and even into the tunnels. On another walk in the area, we did see some people down at track level.
On a later visit, when we were staying in a borrowed studio in the 16th around Christmastime, we crossed a level part of the Petite Ceinture nearly every day. It had been turned into a recreational trail, winding its way through Passy. The tracks were gone, but the right of way remained.
On this year’s trip in January, we were in Ménilmontant to visit Patrice Rambaud, an artist whose work I enjoy. We were early for our appointment, and noticed that just beyond the building there were steps going down to the old track. We followed them down and found a short stretch of track popular with dog walkers (mind your feet), with the remains of old platforms on either side, little flowerbeds in raised boxes, and a box for compost.
We mentioned to Patrice that we had explored the sunken line, and he suggested we check out the part in the 14th, the bit we had seen all those years earlier, which is now open to the public.
A few days later we took the bus to Avenue Général Leclerc. The former Montrouge station is now a pleasant café, and steps behind it lead down to the tracks. It was a cloudy weekday and there seemed to be nobody about. The walls at the bottom of the stairs were covered in graffiti. The line immediately went into a tunnel. We approached it warily. I had read online that this bit of line was soon to be closed for a few days for improvements to the lighting. That struck us as a Very Good Idea.
We debated whether to continue. The tunnel had several sets of arches on either side, which hid parts of the space from view as you walked through. The sight of some other walkers in the distance gave us more confidence and we went through the tunnel without incident and onto the main part of the pathway. At that point, the space broadened out, there was more vegetation and less graffiti and we began to enjoy ourselves.
After about a kilometre, we came to another tunnel that was fenced off and a metal staircase led upwards to street level. A group of young men were clustered near the steps, but a glance at their book bags showed that they were just lycéens from the local school hanging out at lunchtime.
Our walk continued through a recently completed and whimsically designed linear garden over the buried line. A sign explained that the tunnel underneath was home to the largest colony of chauves-souris (bats) in Europe. A children’s climbing structure paid homage to these creatures.
The Petite Ceinture was built in the 1850s and 1860s, but not all at once, and a variety of different interests were involved. One purpose was ostensibly military: a ring of fortifications had been completed in 1845 (the Thiers enceinte) and the army needed to move troops from one part of the fortifications to another.*
But a more pressing problem than troop movements at the time was that Paris’s eight main railway stations were owned by separate companies, with lines that did not connect. This was merely a nuisance for passengers passing through Paris, but it was a real barrier to the movement of goods by railway.
The first bit to be completed, in 1852, was in the northern part of the city, where huge freight yards converged on the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l’Est. This line was then extended around the eastern part of the city to link the Gare du Nord with the Gare d’Austerlitz. Part of it was in a tunnel under Belleville. The short open stretch near Ménilmontant that we saw was part of that eastern extension.
Meanwhile, a different company built a passenger line connecting the Gare St-Lazare with Passy and Auteuil on the western side of the city. That was the part we saw in the 16th.
The final part was built in the 1860s and circled the southern part of the city. It was opened in time for the 1867 Exposition. The section we saw in the 14th belonged to this stretch.
The following map of the completed circle includes the schedule for passenger trains in the late 1860s. The pink circles are the stations.
This final stretch included a many-arched bridge where the line crossed the Seine at the “Point du Jour” (I explained the origins of this name in an earlier blog). The bridge, also known as the Viaduc d’Auteuil, is shown in a couple of postcards in our collection.
A blog devoted to this bridge includes an odd little film clip taken during the 1910 flood, during which rubbish was thrown into the Seine from the bridge because the routes to the regular disposal sites were under water and the authorities feared that the build-up of garbage would cause disease. This bridge was one of the few that was still well above the water line; it was also at the farthest downstream point of the city.
The bridge was damaged in the Second World War, demolished in 1959, and replaced with the Garigliano bridge in the 1960s.
Clearly not all of the line was at or below street level – there were some elevated stretches, and I hope to visit them on our next trip. The viaducts on either side of the vanished Point du Jour bridge have gone, but one stretch of elevated line can be reached from a flight of stairs where the line crosses the rue de Vaugirard in the 15th, shown in this screen capture from Google Street View.
At first, the line was simply called the Ceinture, until a “Grande Ceinture” line was added in the 1870s and 1880s, also ringing the city, but about 15 km farther out, serving communities such as Versailles. It too carried freight and passengers. Some bits of this line are still in use.
Passenger service on the Petite Ceinture ended in the 1930s, although parts of the line continued to be used for freight until the early 1990s. Then the whole thing was sealed off and left undisturbed, other than by cats, bats, and a few urban adventurers. The vegetation closed in and wildflowers proliferated.
Years went by. What to do with the space? There were meetings. Studies. Consultations. More meetings. More studies. Much talk of biodiversity. Some talk of commercialization. The question of reviving the circle line for its original use was mooted, but abandoned in favour of regular surface transit (part of this line is still identified as “PC” on the bus map). For many years, a botanist who worked for the city was allowed to give guided walking tours along parts of the line.
The first bit to reopen to the public, in 2007, was the trail in the 16th, perhaps because it was at street level and easily accessible. Then a bit in the 12th with a garden. Then a longish stretch in the 15th. Then the 13th. Then the 20th. Then the 14th. Each arrondissement seems to have dealt with its stretch of the line in its own way, which makes the open stretches interestingly varied. It also means that finding out about access may require one to consult the mairies of different arrondissements.
Of the more than 25 stations of the Petite Ceinture, a few survive. Some were down beside the tracks, some perched over them. Some, like the Montrouge station and the Passy Station, have become cafés or restaurants.
A few survivors are buried behind new facades, like the former Ornano station, now La Recyclerie.
To us, it seems that the Petite Ceinture benefited from decades of benign neglect. The flowers flourished. The bats found an undisturbed place to hang out. Cats could sun themselves without fear of dogs. I hope that opening up the spaces will not destroy what charmed us all those years ago – the prospect of a hidden world where life continues at its own pace above or below the busy streets of Paris.
Text and contemporary photographs by Philippa Campsie; postcards of Ornano Station, Point du Jour bridge, and Montsouris from our postcard collection; map and postcard of Ménilmontant from Gallica; images of La Recyclerie and rue de Vaugirard from Google Street view.
*The Petite Ceinture was indeed used to move troops during the turbulence of the Paris Commune in 1871.