Everything But the Petite Ceinture
The mission seemed easy enough: find one of the many entrances to the Petite Ceinture, the old railroad looping around Paris’s outer limits. Constructed between 1852 and 1869, the Petite Ceinture transported as many as 39,000,000 per year in its heyday before being replaced in 1934 by a bus line. The railroad was completely closed to the public in the years that followed, and nature and vagrants gradually took over. Today, the Petite Ceinture can perhaps best be characterized by its wildflowers and matching graffiti…or so they tell me.
Armed with the hints and maps from Petite Ceinture websites, we hoped to quickly find an entrance, hop on to the tracks, and get a taste of old, rusting Paris. The off-limits status of the railroad made the quest even more exciting, as it allowed us to feel rebellious without seriously endangering our lives or—more importantly—the already precarious status of our French visas.
The day started off on a good note, with birds singing and sunlight paving our path as we entered the 20th arrondissement. Roses sprouted up alongside us with each step we took, and housewives bearing cakes and treats ran out into the street to provide us with provisions for our journey. We even began to whistle in time, having watched enough buddy movies—The Parent Trap, Stand By Me, The Three Amigos—to know that that is what one does while on this sort of adventure.
First stop: la Flèche d’Or (M: Porte de Bagnolet), a former station of the Petite Ceinture now converted into a funky café. Wide windows looked down on to the old tracks, and a set of cordoned-off stairs at the back of the café suggested access to the tracks below.
I asked the barman if it was possible to reach the Ceinture via the café and his eyes widened as though to say, “Oh no, not the stairs, anything but that!” Did he know of any possible entrance to the Petite Ceinture, I asked. He shook his head vigorously. “I don’t know anything about it,” he said, his eyes darting left and right to see if there were any onlookers. Clearly, one needed the secret handshake or a small amount of baksheesh to get this guy to talk.
Disappointed but persistent, our tireless team decided to walk the open roads running parallel to the tracks, hoping we would come across a tiny opening leading us to the Ceinture. As we walked south, Paris—city of all things romantic and beautiful—turned ugly. Very ugly. It wasn’t the kind of ugly characterized by graffiti, trash, and idle teenagers flicking open and shut their pocket knives. It was much, much worse: 70s architecture, fast food chains, and blinking neon signs advertising cheap lunch specials. It was the walk of destruction, and we, the ugly Americans, surveyed what our country’s global conquest had borne.
The walk continued, unsightly and boring, and we were only allowed occasional glimpses of the Petite Ceinture, which began to rise above street level and into the sky. And the higher the Ceinture rose, the clearer it became that we were not likely to find a hidden entrance to the tracks. Nevertheless, we ploughed ahead, thinking ourselves the modern-day Messieurs of Lewis and Clark.
The road eventually hit a park, and we snuck into its bushy, roped-off zone to search for a secret passageway. Instead, we found one shoe, a half piece of baguette, and an Arabic comic featuring American soap opera stars. Such a yield would have been quite pleasing on a normal day—who doesn’t like baguettes?—but today our mission had a much higher purpose.
Suddenly, we heard the faraway voices of French teenagers who had found their way on to the tracks. We called to them but received nothing in return but whoops and cheers.
Their calls of joy and discovery signalled only one thing: our humiliating defeat. Deflated, we stomped out of the park, back through the zone of American ugliness, and barged into a Vietnamese restaurant, where the sounds of Madonna and sizzling dough greeted us with open arms. As elusive as the Petite Ceinture may be, finding cheap fast food in the 20th arrondissement is a challenge even the worst of explorers can manage.