Once upon a time, Napoleon III wanted a way to encircle the city by rail so that he would be able to easily transport goods and the like around the French capital. And so, the Petite Ceinture, Paris’ secret railway was constructed during the 1860s…
It was so quiet that I could hear my heart beating. Everything was silent asides from the occasional drip, drip of overhead water and the crunch, crunch of gravel beneath our boots. The silence was deafening. And the darkness. I’ll never forget the darkness.
All I could see was the light at the end of the tunnel, tantalizingly close yet so far away at the same time. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, let alone the worn wooden tracks I was traipsing along. It’s hard to believe that all of this was happening in the centre of a capital city. Well, underneath it, to be precise…
What is the Petite Ceinture? And a history of Paris’ Abandoned Railway
The Petite Ceinture (literally translated into English as ‘the little belt’) is a 19th Century abandoned double track railway that loops over 30km around the city. It trails both above and below ground, some of the longer tunnels stretching for kilometers at a time. So long, in fact, that I have been told on good authority that phosphorous mushrooms grow within the darkest recesses of some.
Glowing mushrooms are not the only secret the walls the Petite Ceinture tunnels harbour: the algae lined walls contain doors, some lead to the outside world above, others down to the hidden world of the catacombs below.
Commissioned by Napoleon iii in the 1850s, the petite Ceinture fell into disuse in the 1930s with the arrival of the metro. It was used until the mid 20th Century to transport goods before being abandoned completely, so no danger of being hit by oncoming trains… It follows roughly the same route as metro lines 2 and 6 today.
You could live in Paris for years without even scratching the surface of the city and this is one of those ‘open secrets’ that everyone seems to know about and few seem to explore. A haven for nature lovers and hipster artists alike, not all parts of the track are accessible to the public (although you will find a number of websites with official and unofficial entry points listed).
How to visit the Petite Ceinture
Once you leave the track to skip a particularly overgrown passage or an extra long tunnel, it is often difficult to re-find the tracks on the other side… although this is arguably part of the fun (or scary, depending on how you look at it) of walking the tracks.
There are officially three entry points onto the tracks that are legally accessible. Want to legally visit the abandoned railway for yourself? Here’s how to visit the Petite Ceinture near Parc Georges Brassens. Other entry points are not marked ‘forbidden’ or ‘do not enter’ but require scrambling over fences of varying difficulty and climbing through metal gratings.
Tips for visiting the Petite Ceinture:
Never ever go to explore the Petite Ceinture on your own: I say the more the merrier! Petty crime isn’t uncommon along the petite ceinture and the dark tunnels can be pretty creepy. It’s also worth noting that decades of neglect mean that some of the tracks are littered with rubbish, while rats are present pretty much everywhere.
When heading out to explore the abandoned railways, be sure to tell someone where you’re going. Lots of the tunnels are underground and so have limited or no phone signal. If you want to explore the tunnels, then be sure to bring a torch.
When we explored the tracks, we had no light and no phone. As such, we literally couldn’t see where we were walking… or what we were walking on! It should also go without saying that you should wear suitable shoes. I personally wore heels and reaaaallly struggled with both the gravel and the tracks!