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Walk around the outer arrondissements of Paris and you will often spot railway bridges criss-crossing the streets, but no trains ever pass. Why? Because the bridges belong to the Petite Ceinture, or “Little Belt” – a railway line built in the 19th century to supply troops manning the city’s new fortifications. It finally closed in the 1980s but over the past 15 years, sections have reopened to the public. Now the Petite Ceinture is becoming a linear park brimming with wildlife for Parisians to enjoy.
The original line stretched from Auteuil in the west to Ivry in the southeast, opening between 1852 and 1854. Auteuil was a smart, semi-rural suburb and the new railway soon became a speedy commuter line for bourgeois passengers, as well as freight.
In 1867 the Left Bank section opened, forming a circular railway. By now, the rural villages behind the fortifications had been absorbed into new arrondissements and urbanized. The Petite Ceinture, in addition to its freight traffic, became an important passenger line for commuters. It was, in effect, a precursor to the métro.
The Belle Époque saw the heyday of the Petite Ceinture. It was now serving the abbatoirs (slaughterhouses) at Vaugirard and the massive Citroën factory, both on the Left Bank, as well as the huge abbatoir complex at La Villette. The train was increasingly popular with passengers, including tourists visiting the Universal Expositions of 1889 and 1900.
But in 1900 the métro opened and as it expanded, passengers on the Petite Ceinture dwindled. In 1934 passenger services stopped altogether although the railway continued to be used for freight for another 50 years. Over time, a section running south from Auteuil was incorporated into the RER C.
By the early 2000s the closed line was in a sorry state: overgrown, walls covered in graffiti, and the tunnels squatted by homeless people. You could still get on to the tracks if you knew someone who knew an illegal way in. It was a bit like getting into the Catacombs illegally – in fact, one of the disused stations on the Petite Ceinture is allegedly an illicit entrance to the Catacombs.
Revival began with the opening of La Recyclerie in the 18th arrondissement. This is a thriving eco-center with a popular café-bar in the former Ornano station and a chicken coop and community garden on the platforms. Sustainable living workshops are held regularly and the restaurant is a convenient pitstop on the way to or from the Marché aux Puces, five minutes’ walk away.
The Ville de Paris and SNCF (who still own the line) are collaborating to bring back sections of the railway into public use, with a deliberate emphasis on biodiversity and managed “wildness.” Around 5km is accessible but sadly it is not a continuous path. If you want to walk along one of the longer stretches of the line, probably the best section is between Place Balard and Rue Oliver de Serres in the 15th arrondissement.
The line here is elevated but there are lifts at various points, making it accessible to people with reduced mobility. It is also one of the most visitor-friendly sections, with lots of interpretation boards explaining the management of the wildlife along the line (in French). Different habitats have been created, including grassland and natural woodland, to attract a diversity of wildlife. There are over 200 species of plants, birds and animals, including endangered species such as the flycatcher, and reintroduced elm trees. The hollowed, decaying trunks of dead trees are left to become microhabitats for fungi, microrganisms and insects. There are no streetlights along the Petite Ceinture (it is closed at night) so that the animals and birds are not disturbed by artificial light during the night time. Walking this section gives a pretty good idea of the philosophy behind Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s vision of “greening” Paris.
The elevated line brings a whole new perspective to the city as you look down on the street traffic and across into people’s apartments.
At the end near the Rue Olivier-de-Serres you can see the most recent conversion of a station building: the former Gare de Vaugirard reopened in 2020 as a co-working space. The platform is now a terrace where 21st-century digital workers sip lattes in front of their laptops. Many of the former stations were demolished but some of those remaining have been repurposed with an emphasis on arts and culture: Le Poinçon in the 14th arrondissement (un poinçon is a ticket punch – think Serge Gainsbourg’s song “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas”) or La Flèche d’Or in the 20th, a major music venue in the 2000s, closed in 2016 but acquired by new owners, in the planning stages to reopen. Le Hasard Ludique in the 18th is a mixed arts and cultural venue holding concerts, club nights and workshops while La Brasserie d’Auteuil is a stylish restaurant and rooftop bar befitting its 16th arrondissement location.
Another long-ish section worth walking is in the 12th arrondissement, between Rue des Meuniers and Rue du Sahel. Again, there are access points for people with reduced mobility. This stretch also intersects with Paris’s other repurposed railway line: the Coulée Verte.
The third long section is between 77 Boulevard de Montmorency and 27 Boulevard de Beauséjour in the 16th arrondissement. Otherwise, shorter stretches of the line are accessible throughout the outer arrondissements: just keep your eyes open for a telltale green city park sign near a bridge. Each has its own character: one of the nicest is just below Rue de Ménilmontant – only a couple hundred meters long but the platforms have been boarded over, with seats for relaxing away from the city bustle. The section in the 14th arrondissement sits entirely in a deep cutting. You can hear the noise of the city above but you are hidden from view and feel far removed from it.
Anywhere along the Petite Ceinture the public path can stop abruptly in front of a gated or even bricked-up tunnel. Looking down into the blackness is guaranteed to send a shiver up the spine. It’s not difficult for a fit person to scale the gates and people do walk the sections that are still off limits: If you are tempted by the thrill of this, take a flashlight and be warned that it is still trespassing if you are caught.
One day, maybe, the entire railway will be open to the public. Until then, we must be satisfied with the sections that are already open and those being restored. And enjoy this unexpected wildlife haven in the heart of the city.
Full details of locations and opening times can be found here.
Lead photo credit : The garden of La Recyclerie (C) Pat Hallam