La Petite Ceinture de Paris / The Little Belt in Paris / 巴黎环城铁路

An abandoned railway in Paris, where my passion for urbex started (although I did not know the word then)…

The cutest abandoned railway

I missed Paris these last few days, so I decided to write this report about a good memory there. As you might have heard, 2015 was not an easy year. Yet, during that year I discovered new interesting aspects of my city: I had great new urbex experiences. I would like to go back way before 2015, where it all started… « La Petite Ceinture » is the abandoned place in Paris where I first learned not to obey when there were fences or signs saying « Forbidden site, do not enter ».

Abandoned places in France: a much longer history than in China

Most Parisians who know their city are familiar with this old railway surrounding the city, even if they have not walked on it. The major difference with abandoned places in China is that the sites one gets to explore in France are generally much older than what one can find here. La Petite Ceinture was built in the second half of the nineteenth century (construction started in 1851), it opened in 1869. It was composed of 32 km of railway surrounding Paris. It used to be exclusively conceived for the transport of goods, before being opened as transportation for passengers, which had a great success. But because of the development of other means of transportation, among which the subway, the railway fell into decline over the years, the passenger transportation system closed in 1934 and the whole railway was abandoned in the 1990s, although the French railway company still used it sometimes for try-outs (subway tests, etc.). The second difference with urbex in China is that during exploration, you get to meet a lot of street artists or to appreciate their work, constantly renewed.

Why I love this place despite the gentrification processes…

In my experience, I have been around and in this place since forever. I did not know the name « urbex » at the time I started walking on La Petite Ceinture and I just went there to appreciate the atmosphere on these old train tracks, it was quite a different place, a bit like being in the countryside without leaving the city. I started to walk on La Petite Ceinture in my highschool years, with friends: my school was located in the 20th district near an easy access, and I lived in the 19th district, near another easy access… Although it was forbidden1, going there was never something that scared us (when we were under 18, the leftover seringes worried us a bit, though) and it felt almost like any nice walk in the city on a Sunday afternoon (except that you had to climb over fences, medium-size ones). I liked the train tracks a lot as well as the street art on the walls, and it was quiet. But I never really thought of taking pictures of it before, only a few in 2008.

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Street art on the Petite Ceinture, Apr 2008
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Railway Perspective, Petite Ceinture, Apr 2008
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Tunnel sign, Petite Ceinture, Apr 2008
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Painting, Petite Ceinture, Apr 2008
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La Flèche d’or, Petite Ceinture, Apr 2008

I regret it now because it has been changing a lot: getting cut in separated portions, gentrifying, getting transformed into gardens, etc. The atmosphere is different from 2000, 2002, 2006 or 2009, when we could follow the rails for long walks without finding too many walls or fences blocking the way :-(. But I still appreciate visiting this place. In 2015, I thought about taking the camera with me on the four times when I went there, and it was on different sections, so you can have an idea of what it looks like, even if you can’t completely experience its rich ecosystem… The pictures could be better but I decided not to improve them. This is basically a « no filter » post, that is why there are no photos taken in the tunnels.

20th district section: from Bel-Air to Ménilmontant

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20th district section, Petite Ceinture, May 2015

The walk in the 20th district takes you on a great trip where you can find many beautiful street-art paintings and old railway equipment, including walking on bridges or in tunnels and passing by the abandoned train stations.

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Traffic view in Porte de Vincennes, Petite Ceinture, May 2015
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Overgrown traffic lights, Petite Ceinture, May 2015
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Avron railway station, Petite Ceinture, May 2015
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Sad reference, Petite Ceinture, May 2015
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Street-art perspective, Petite Ceinture, May 2015
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Street-art, Petite Ceinture, May 2015

At some point, if you look up, you can find the Charonne railway station. That station became a very famous small concert venue, La Flèche d’Or (The Golden Arrow), where I have attended quite a lot of shows since highschool as well. Although, just like the railway, the place got gentrified a lot over the years…

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La Flèche d’Or, Petite Ceinture, May 2015
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A spot for listening to rock music while enjoying a great night view on the Petite Ceinture, May 2015

It was springtime, so the place was particularly photogenic on that day.

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Spring flowers, Petite Ceinture, May 2015

After a long tunnel, there was a big fence blocking the other side. That is really annoying these days, to find all these fences blocking the way on the Petite Ceinture. Anyway I went through the metal bars by squeezing in-between (Shadowcat power!). Another girl decided to climb over the high fence, she has a lot of potential for urbex. The others (including two guys) had to go back by the tunnel to find another way out… That was the end of this exploration.

19th district section: from Buttes Chaumont to Pont de Flandre

The exploration of this section located in the 19th district started somewhere in the Buttes Chaumont, my favorite garden in Paris, to go further on the Norheastern side of the city.

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Railway view, Petite Ceinture, Aug 2015

The walk starts with a long tunnel under the garden.

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Under the garden, Petite Ceinture, Aug 2015
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Street art in the tunnel, Petite Ceinture, Aug 2015
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Street art on the way, Petite Ceinture, Aug 2015

There is a photogenic bridge on the Canal de l’Ourcq2.

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The bridge on the Canal de l’Ourcq, Petite Ceinture, Aug 2015
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Bridge perspective, Petite Ceinture, Aug 2015
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Canal view, Petite Ceinture, Aug 2015

Soon, you arrive to a railway station called Pont de Flandre. I could not go inside because the people who squat it put locks on the doors.

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Pont de Flandre Railway Station, Petite Ceinture, Aug 2015
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Stocks of train tracks, Petite Ceinture, Aug 2015

Not so long after the station, there was a wall quite difficult to cross… So it ended there.

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Chair perspective, Petite Ceinture, Aug 2015

14th district section: from Alésia to… another urbex site!

In the 14th district of Paris, that is to say in the southern part of the city, one can enjoy the most enchanting views on the Petite Ceinture, displaying the harmony between nature and old tracks.

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Beautiful portion, Petite Ceinture, Sept 2015
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Overgrown railway, Petite Ceinture, Sept 2015

This is the most beautiful spot:

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Most beautiful portion, Petite Ceinture, Sept 2015

And what is all the more interesting to urbexers is that this hauntingly beautiful path takes you right to… another major (if not the most important!) urbex location in Paris… A future report will be published about that one too.

18th district section: the saddest discovery…

The 18th district is a district of strong social and spatial contrasts: you walk only a few streets from the noisy crowded Barbès (very lively place), going through the semi-ghetto of « La goutte d’or » (the golden drop) which is not quite gentrified yet, and you end up in the poshest areas of Montmartre. In September 2015, unfortunately, I did a very sad dicovery on the use of the Petite Ceinture. It is about a section located in the 18th district, near Porte des Poissonniers and near the most hipsterized railway station on the Petite Ceinture3, that became purely and simply a slum. In the context of serious threats of demolition of the biggest « informal » settlement in the city of Saint-Denis and following the recent destruction of other camps in the same area (93) near Paris, a – mainly Roma – population of several hundreds of people has started to use the railway space since May-June 2015 and the settlement kept expanding despite eviction threats by the public authorities. You can know more about this issue thanks to this article in English. The photo below speaks for itself, revealing the issue of housing in the capital city.

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A slum in Paris, Petite Ceinture, Sept 2015

That is sad, especially when everyone knows how many empty apartments and buildings there are in Paris…

On February 3. 2016, the police started evicting the people in the camp and on February 6., it looked like this:

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The end of the camp, Petite Ceinture, Feb 2016
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The end of the camp, Petite Ceinture, Feb 2016

To go back to more positive aspects, I also finally did my first exploration by night, it was really worth going.

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Night vision, Petite Ceinture, Jan 2016
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Night vision, Petite Ceinture, Jan 2016
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Night vision, Petite Ceinture, Jan 2016
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Night vision, Petite Ceinture, Jan 2016
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Night vision, Petite Ceinture, Jan 2016

To conclude, this urbex is very famous and very easy for beginners and for Paris lovers who enjoy hiking in the city: you will find a lot of different architectural as well as artistic designs and a lot of different types of people too. To walk on the Petite Ceinture, you don’t need much except a pair of good shoes, a flashlight, your ID card and the ability to climb on rather small fences (if I can do it, anyone can!).

If you are interested in knowing more about this place, you can visit this website by an association for its preservation or join the Facebook group « Petite ceinture de Paris », although it is in French.

 

  1. Still today, you risk a fine of 190 euros if the cops or guards catch you on it. It is not a public space, it belongs to the French National Railway Company and it is forbidden anywhere on this national network to walk on the rails.
  2. By the way, the Canal is a really good place to ride a bicycle all the way to Sevran while admiring street art all along.
  3. Located at Porte de Clignancourt, the station is now called La REcyclerie, you can make your own opinion of it by visiting the place or looking at their website.

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