Paris, France is one of the densest, most built-up places anywhere, so when I read that there was actually an abandoned railroad running through the middle of the city I was simultaneously skeptical and intrigued. “La Petite Ceinture,” as the railway is called, began service in 1862 and was part of Haussmann’s radical redesign of the city. The railway carried both people and freight around Paris until 1934, when passenger service stopped due to the rise of the Metro system. The entire thing was completely abandoned in 1993.
But despite its abandonment, the physical location still exists — and is a popular adventure for those looking to do something literally off the beaten path in Paris.
(The Coulée Verte, often referred to as “Paris’ High Line” was built on an elevated section of railway that once connected to La Petite Ceinture. It too is very much worth visiting.)
There’s a lot of very vague information about accessing La Petite Ceinture, but in the course of my research I found a couple of invaluable resources: first, this blog post, which is a detailed account of one person’s visit; and second, this Google map of access points:
I didn’t check every access point on that map, or even the majority, but I did try a few and they were right where the map said they would be.
Using the map and blog post above, we set out to find La Petite Ceinture in Parc des Buttes-Chaumount, which is accessible from the Buttes-Chaumont Metro stop. Once in the park, it didn’t take long to find the railway, which is set at the bottom of a ravine and is shielded on either side by groves of trees.
After walking down the hill and through the grove, we discovered that there are two fences around the railway. The first, an old chain link fence, is falling apart and easily passable. The second, however, is more discouraging; it’s a tall, newer fence that at a glance didn’t have any gaps. After a brief search I began wondering if perhaps La Petite Ceinture had become too popular and the authorities had fixed what many bloggers described as regular openings in the fence.
A few minutes later, we were contemplating our next move while standing near the corner of Rue Manin and Rue de Crimee — an intersection at the north corner of the park. The intersection is actually a bridge over La Petite Ceinture, and while standing there we saw several people down on the tracks. In fact, we actually saw a group of teens leaving the tracks by climbing over a fence.
After seeing the teens climbing the fence it was fairly easy to find the access point, which is located just inside the park to the west of the intersection-bridge at Manin and de Crimee.
The access point is a bit of fence that has obviously been trampled down by many visitors. After we hopped over, we met another group of teenagers who spoke very little English but who seemed to be hoping we brought flashlights and were heading into a nearby tunnel. We had and were, but the language barrier prevented us from communicating that to the teens, and they left disappointed.
Also after hopping the fence, we saw another group of people who looked like they were doing the same thing we were — exploring — as well as two guys practicing breakdancing. All told, we probably saw about a dozen people down on the tracks.
We spent a few minutes exploring the tracks immediately around the access point, photographing the graffiti, and checking out the space under the bridge.
While wandering around, we also found another access point that we had previously missed:
Shimmying under the fence in the picture above would be muddier and less pleasant than hopping the fence, but it’s nevertheless another option.
After exploring for a little while, we headed into the tunnel:
The pinhole of light in the picture above is, of course the other end of the tunnel. I read beforehand about the especially dark tunnels on La Petite Ceinture, so prior to going onto the tracks Laura and I bought a small flashlight at a neighborhood grocery store. With that and my iPhone flashlight we started walking.
I’m not sure how long we walked, but after a while the other end of the tunnel barely seemed to be getting any bigger. And it was so dark that our little flashlight (the selection at the neighborhood store was limited) wasn’t making much of a difference. It was almost pitch black and staccato of dripping water echoed up and down the tunnel. Every few minutes we could hear the sound of Metro trains moving through the ground above us.
It was really quite fantastic.
Eventually we turned around. Our time was running short and unfortunately we weren’t sufficiently prepared with our merger flashlights. However, I look forward to my next visit, and the chance to explore La Petite Ceinture further.
If you go: Keep in mind that entering La Petite Ceinture is technically illegal. In all the research I’ve done I’ve never read about anyone getting in trouble, but know that the possibility does exist. Also keep your safety in mind. There are homeless camps along La Petite Ceinture and I’ve read that there have been instances of petty crime. The people I saw were harmless and friendly, but use common sense and bring a friend.
What to bring: A big, powerful flashlight.
More info: Supposedly La Petite Ceinture leads to access points in the Paris catacombs. I did not have time to verify, explore, or even extensively research that topic for this trip. There is also some question about whether these access points even still exist. But if that is something you’re interested in, it might be worth looking into. If nothing else I’ll investigate further the next time I’m in Paris.
— Jim Dalrymple II