Paris has a heaven, hell and purgatory. Divine comedies and divine dramas. It has the Metro, the batobus river tour and a funicular up to Montmartre so you can see the Seine, the Eiffel Tower and all the monuments from the postcards that you’ve avoided buying. Outside the city centre are neighbourhoods that are more apt to appear in the news than in tourist guidebooks: places you would never recommend for visitors to the French capital, which has such variety. There’s also a strange, magic, alternative tour: walking along old railway lines that have been consigned to oblivion but that nature has rescued.
It’s a good way to get off the beaten track, all those cobbled streets around the Sorbonne. This circuit doesn’t have the artistic prestige of the Left Bank, but it’s a good opportunity to see something that has done more for the city than many of its bohemian areas. It’s called Le Petite Ceinture, ‘the small belt’, the rails that carried freight along the so-called Boulevards des Maréchaux. It was in operation until 1934, when this traffic ended and it was abandoned.
“The rails rusted and plants grew up around them,” according to the Dondeviajar.republica.com website. But this transformation is what saved them. “In 2008, the city decided to bring back this abandoned area,” they explain, the part from Porte D’Auteuil to the Gare de Passy-La-Muette. It’s in the western part of the city, and has more than 200 species of plants and 70 varieties of wildlife –flora and fauna that have risen from the ashes of a more productive period.
This network of railway lines opened by sections between 1852 and 1869. “The initial aim was to link the terminals of different companies so as to move freight and people and thus reinforce the city’s defences –the transport of supplies and troops– in case of war,” says Abel Ruiz, who is in charge of that webpage. “At first only freight was moved, except for the Auteuil line, which for 15 years transported passengers. The line fell into disuse in the 1890s.”
Today’s itinerary provides a break for a city of 10 million residents and 105.4 square kilometres of surface. “Access is open and it can be visited all year around. There are even chairs that are adapted to the terrain and can be rented by disabled people,” says Ruiz. Tourist officials in Paris note that this green pathway, besides decongesting the city, makes it possible to relive the old country life of the region. Because the 16th arrondissement , where this stretch is located, used to be the centre of production for cereals, vineyard and vegetables, crops that are now raised in distant areas.
More pieces have been added to this “small belt”. One of them is in the 12th arrondissement : a communal garden along 200 metres of ground. The entry is at 21 Rue de Rottembourg. Another lot is between Place Balard and Rue Olivier de Serres. And the last, dating from September 2015, is located in the 13th arrondissement and goes from the Charles Trenet garden to the Moulin de la Pointe garden, with access from 60 Rue Damesme. These areas are all set among recently constructed buildings, and have vegetation that ranges from scant to abundant and overgrown.
There is a silence and a sensation of wildness that stands in opposition to the touristic feeling of the rest of the city. “Strolling through the Petite Ceinture is not like walking in an idyllic garden. Just the opposite: the surrounding walls are full of bad graffiti and the old railway paths abound in all kinds of plants,” they note in Dondeviajar, stressing the contrast. “If you travel along this road,” they say, “you’ll discover another face of the French capital that’s unknown even to many Parisians. Nature, peace and… Paris!”