La Petite Ceinture, the little beltway that could
By Jerry Marterer
Train on La Petite Ceinture circa 1910. Images provided by the author.
In March 2021, I wrote about how railroads changed Paris. One year later, I’ve explored the unusual transformation of La Petite Ceinture, meaning “the little belt,” a railway that preceded the Paris Métro.
As France began building railways to reach all the country’s frontiers in 1837, the stations were built around the periphery of the city toward the direction they served. For example, the Gare du Nord was in the north of Paris. The Gare Montparnasse, which served the southwest, was on that edge of the city. By 1846, Paris had six major railway stations serving all regions of France. This Paris-centric model was fine for Parisians. They could go anywhere. But rail freight crossing the country in a north-south or east-west direction had to be unloaded at one station in Paris, then hauled through a busy city to another station on horse-drawn carriages — not very efficient.
When Napoléon III came to power in 1851, he decided that by linking the train stations of Paris, he could unite France. There was a military rationale as well. Between 1841 and 1844 a defensive wall was built around Paris outside the city limits. It was named for Adolphe Thiers, then the prime minister. The new emperor’s idea was that a circular railway could quickly marshal resources to any part of these fortifications in case of attack.
Route of La Petite Ceinture.
The first arc in the circle connected two freight yards in the north of Paris. In 1854 as the circle began taking shape, passenger stations were added every several miles and by 1869 the little belt (La Petite Ceinture) of 36 stations was complete. Since the railway was built just inside the Thiers wall, it ran through the villages that surrounded Paris. Later, the city expanded its borders in 1860 by annexing these villages. At the same time, Baron Haussmann, Napoléon’s architect, was cutting wide boulevards across the city that spawned new residential development. The beltway united the new neighborhoods, particularly in western Paris where the building boom was driving construction of elegant apartment buildings. Most of the tiny stations were at street level. The two tracks ran on the surface in some areas. In others, they ran in short tunnels or below ground level in an uncovered trench. A few sections were elevated above the street. Considering that there were no motorized trucks or buses, the steam locomotives circled the city quite efficiently, for both freight and passengers.
The Paris Métro was the first threat to the Petite Ceinture. The number one metro came online in 1900, crossing the city underground in an east-west axis. During the next ten years, ten more metro lines were built, connecting all quarters of the city. They ran on electricity instead of coal. At the same time new national rail lines allowed for cross country trains to bypass Paris. The Thiers wall was dismantled in the 1920s. The Petite Ceinture had lost its usefulness and was closed in 1937.
The rail right-of-way fell into disrepair and the tiny stations ended up in various states of disuse. Someone must have noticed that the right-of-way width exactly matched that of a tennis court, so in the nicer western Paris neighborhoods tennis clubs sprung up with courts laid end to end. Elsewhere, walking trails and New York-style high lines have succeeded the railways.
The fate of the closed stations depended on which side of Paris they were located. The traditional delineation of Paris is on a Right Bank / Left Bank orientation, which is more of a north-south divide. However, economically and politically the city has long been divided on an east-west basis. Working class neighborhoods in eastern Paris were some of the oldest and grittiest. Western Paris was developing under Baron Haussmann during the time that the Petite Ceinture was being built. The stations in the west were elegantly placed in their neighborhoods and are all still in use, some as stations for new commuter lines and others as restaurants. In the east, the stations were built of brick instead of stone and were all abandoned. Some have been destroyed. Most were covered with graffiti, with no purpose in life.
However, all this is changing. Recently new interest in these forgotten relics has led to efforts to restore and repurpose them and their right-of-way for popular use. A great example is the Gare de Montrouge, built in 1867 to serve the village of the same name now in the 15th arrondissement. When I first saw it in 2003 there was not much to see. The back end was covered with graffiti and the front was hidden by a plywood wall covered with advertising. The station has been restored as a new restaurant, Le Poinçon. We recently stopped for lunch and found it worth many return visits.
Gare de Montrouge before (bottom) and after (top).
Of the 36 stations of the Petite Ceinture, 18 have been destroyed. The rest sit in the villages and neighborhoods that were once outside the city limits. The Gare de Vaugirard may get a new life since the elevated tracks have been modified as a mile-long high line walkway. The three-story brick building has held office tenants and has avoided the graffiti that has plagued other abandoned stations. The stations of avenue de Saint-Ouen and Charonne are being renovated as event spaces. The Gare Ornano was repurposed in 2014. There is a casual bar and restaurant in the station itself, and picnic tables on the quai beside the tracks. It is popular with young people and may improve the livability of this marginal neighborhood. Two other stations, the Gare d’Orléans and the Gare de Flandre, have recently been turned into jazz clubs.
It is in the wealthier western part of the city that the six remaining stations shine. They were built to blend in with the grand architecture of the era. They have all been repurposed. The Gare de Passy and Gare d’Auteuil have both become popular restaurants. The Neuilly-Porte Maillot station, standing proudly on the busy place de la Porte Maillot, is now a station of the RER commuter line. The Gare de l’Avenue du Bois de Boulogne was built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition in the Monumental style to receive the heads of state of Spain and Italy. It is now called the Gare de l’Avenue Foch of the RER line. Its below-grade tracks have been covered and a line of tennis courts follows the old right of way. The Gare de Courcelles-Levallois followed a similar pattern. Sitting on the sunny place Pereire, it was built in 1854 and was expanded to four tracks for the 1900 Universal Exhibition. It closed in 1925. The below-grade tracks were covered in 1984 as it transitioned to the RER suburban line. It, too, is trailed by a series of tennis courts in this exquisite neighborhood.
Le Flandrin restaurant in the revitalized Gare Henri Martin.
If I could be any station of the Petite Ceinture today, I would be the Gare Henri Martin. Positioned at the end of avenue Victor Hugo where the avenue Henri Martin meets the boulevard Flandrin at the tiny place Tattegrain, it has the best of all worlds. Built with pink brick trimmed with cut stone, it looks out over the peaceful square. The front of the station and its broad terrace is the home of the restaurant Le Flandrin, where the well-heeled come to be well fed. It is a place to see and be seen in the most expensive neighborhood in the 16th arrondissement. The restaurant’s voiturier (valet) parks clients’ Italian sports cars — the kind whose names end in a vowel. The average Parisian probably never walks in this neighborhood. Le Flandrin is known for the people watching as well as for the classic menu. It’s hard to believe that it’s a working station of the RER commuter line. The station part is in the back of the building and accessible from the side. The former trench behind the station is now covered and the space used for parking.
The Petit Ceinture is now history, but the concept of a modern beltway is alive, this time for moving people. In 1992 the first tracks of a street-level tramway were laid that will eventually circle Paris just inside the edge of the oval-shaped city limits. It was built section by section so that each operated independently until connected to the next. Eighty-five percent of the belt is now complete. It is easy to get on and off. It uses tram tickets as well as those for the Paris Métro and public buses. The last link, which may be delayed or not completed at all, would traverse the 16th arrondissement, known as the gratinee (upper crust) of Paris, where the riverains (neighbors) are not supportive.
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at email@example.com.