diamond geezer

 Friday, July 13, 2018

À PARIS: la Petite Ceinture

Paris has the ultimate urban disused railway, a 20km loop abandoned by trains and reclaimed by nature. It's called la Petite Ceinture (or "small belt"), and once circled the city just inside its Napoleonic walls. Over the years it evolved from supplying the military to full passenger service, before reverting to freight only and then losing its trains completely*, creating an overgrown corridor accessed by wildlife and trespassing flâneurs. But recently there's been a move to open up certain sections to the public, for walking or as environmental features, the aim being to release 10km by the end of the decade.
* Technically it's much more complicated than that, and some sections do still have trains, and if you want a full history there's this, this, this and this.

I tracked down the longest section currently open, which is an elevated walkway in the 15th arrondisement. This mile-long public park, which opened in 2014, kicks off near Parc George Brassens, close to the HQ of phone company Orange. If it looks a bit unimpressive to begin with, that's because the railway is actually in tunnel beneath your feet, as the path skirts and then ducks underneath an enormous primary school. But at Rue Olivier de Serres it emerges into a cutting, and hey presto there are fresh steps down, even a lift for disabled access, because Parisians are taking this reclamation seriously.

What we have here is a combination of path and railway. One of the tracks has been removed and become a wide path suitable for walking (not cycling, because no bikes are allowed, and dogwalking is barred too). The other track remains, fractionally overgrown but left as a deliberate reminder of what this used to be. Continuing west the rails occasionally disappear, and the path sometimes becomes wooden decking, but most of the way the two run side by side, even with a set of old points exposed and intact further along.

In hardly any time you're out of cutting and onto the level behind a row of Parisian tenements, then gradually elevated until the remainder of the walk is along a viaduct. And that's rather cracking, as every now and then you get to look down over a residential sidestreet, even a main thoroughfare, and watch life playing out below. You get to eye up plenty of architecture too, from thin 19th century houses and massive offices to blocks of modern flats. There are a lot of flats, Paris being one of Europe's most densely populated cities, and some living behind shuttered windows don't seem entirely comfortable with people wandering by.

I passed benches and tables where young Parisians were out having lunch. I passed older strollers with walking sticks. I passed the remains of Vaugirard Ceinture, one of 17 surviving station buildings, and a few old railway signs on the approach. I passed beds of roses, and other pretty flowers. I passed a bee hotel, and several signs pointing out local wildlife. I passed a trio of musicians who wanted me to take their photograph. I passed kilometre markers, painted onto the path to three decimal places. And at the far end I didn't pass a fence warning of electrified rails beyond, instead retreating down a final set of stairs to Place Balard.

It's a fun walk, of constitutional length rather than any particular challenge. The fact it retains sufficient elements of railwayness only adds to its charm. It's rarely gorgeous, because why would the suburbs of Paris be that, but it's green and atmospheric all the same. If more stretches can practically be made safe and public, that'd be great, although urban adventurers might mourn their gentrification. And no, London has nothing, even potentially, to compare, because we still run trains on most of ours.

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