Le Petite Ceinture: An Evening on Paris’ Abandoned Railway

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We cannot think of anyone better than The Hostel Girl, our fellow cultural nomad, to uncover one of Paris' most mysterious urban treasures with.


It must have been around 1.00pm when I threw my iPhone down in frustration onto my bed at Generator Paris. For years now I had been searching the internet for access points to Le Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture. Each search result I pulled up igniting a small flicker of hope that would be dimmed once more as I realised I still had no clue how to access this abandoned railway.

 

Le Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture, or Le Petite Ceinture for short, was built between 1852 and 1869 with the intention of improving the efficiency of the railway system in Paris. Immediately the steam trains of the new railway belt became the best way to travel around the city.

However, soon after came the development of the metro system which made Le Petite Ceinture all but obsolete, and by 1934 the line closed to passengers. In 1993, the little belt was completely abandoned. Since 1993, the tracks have become an inner city haven that even few Parisians know about. Friends of mine who were born and bred in Paris had no idea what I was asking for when I begged them to show me; even those who regularly visit the illegal sections of the catacombs!

 

So once again, on my last trip to Paris, I had resorted to Google. But there’s some mysteries that even Google can’t answer. Luckily, I found myself standing in front of Sarah, who works at Generator Paris, trying miserably to correctly pronounce Le Petite Ceinture en Francais as she stared back at me wide-eyed with no idea what I was asking from her. At least, that’s how it seemed at the time. Later she told me, “I didn’t understand because I was so surprised. No one has ever asked me that question, in the two years I have worked there.”

 

Eventually, her wide eyes of confusion turned to understanding and then shock. And then, in a rush of pens, and maps, and fingers on keyboards, and Google maps she wracked her brains to find a way to tell me exactly how I could access the abandoned tracks from a place close to where she lived. Fortunately for me, explaining how to get onto Le Petite Ceinture is apparently as difficult as trying to find instructions on Google.



“You know what? I finish work at 5.00pm. So we can meet here, at reception, or I can meet you at Bel-Air metro station at 5.30pm and take you directly?”

 

Now it was my turn to look wide-eyed. Here was a girl I had never met before, who had to help strangers and guests all day long plan their perfect days out in Paris from her reception desk at Generator. Here was a girl I had never met before offering to spend her Friday evening off work with a guest looking to spend her perfect day in Paris. I broke into a toothy grin and I’m pretty sure my eyes grew even wider as I questioned her, “Are you sure? You’re absolutely sure?”

 

“Yes. It’s my district. I grew up there and I want to show you - no one has ever asked me before so I want to show you! Also, make sure to be on the right side of Bel-Air. I will meet you there. If not at 5.30pm, then at 5.35pm.” Needless to say, I skipped out of reception and spent the rest of the afternoon skipping around Paris until at around 5.55pm it was my time to climb. Thankfully, I was not the only newbie to this particular example of urban exploration.

Sarah, she explained, had been accessing Le Petite Ceinture from a low fence on Rue Auguste-Cain for as long as she can remember. But today she’d brought with her a fellow Generator staff member and good friend of her’s, Philippe, who like me had never visited the abandoned tracks.

 

The sun had set and the sky was the blue-black haze that always comes before the night in a city as bright as Paris. Together, Philippe and I threw ourselves into scaling the 6ft fence. Sarah was there every step of the way; to make sure we put our toes into the right crevices, twisted over the metal barbs safely and dropped on even ground on the other side.

 

And then, we had made it. Surrounded by the type of silence that only comes from an area that time has forgotten, we took our first steps onto Le Petite Ceinture. 

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