La Petite Ceinture

Did you know that you can explore history and discover the secret green spaces of an old Paris train line known as ‘La Petite Ceinture’?

The little belt, as it was called, circled Paris long before the métro. A rail line built in the second half of the 19th century, it was designed to link the different train stations and provide an efficient way of transporting freight around the French capital’s fortifications. It began serving passengers in 1862 and the complete rail loop, 32 kilometres all around Paris, was completed in 1869.

Le Métropolitain de Paris, built at the turn of the century, brought about the decline of the Petite Ceinture. From 39 million passengers in 1900, during the Exposition Universelle, the traffic fell to just 7 million in 1927. Le métro soon became the preferred way to get around Paris.

The old line closed down in 1934 and entire sections of the railway were left to decay for many decades. Access was forbidden but the old ‘chemin de fer’ became a kind of ‘secret’ greenbelt enjoyed by graffiti artists and those seeking a haven of calm within the city.

In recent years stations and sections of the old line have been restored and transformed, some as modern links in new transit lines like the ‘RER C’ at Courcelles-Levallois. Other sections have been taken over by restaurants, cultural centres and urban green spaces. Full history and a chart of all the sections here on Wikipedia.

Today, you can access 6.5 kilometres of parks and cultural activities on the restored Petite Ceinture line at different spots all around Paris.

This Saturday, August 31st is the ‘Fête de la Petite Ceinture’. Entry is free with fun and games, nature walks, concerts and workshops happening at different times and places. Visit the City of Paris website for details (in French only 🧐😠).

If you’re lucky enough to be in Paris this weekend, check it out!

Do you know La Petite Ceinture? Have you ever walked along the old train line?

Paris point zéro

Embedded in the paving stones on the ‘parvis’ or square just outside of Notre-Dame de Paris on Île de la Cité is the point from which all distances in France are measured. This special paving stone bears the inscription ‘POINT ZERO DES ROUTES DE FRANCE’.

The stone is a symbol of Paris as the centre of the French universe. Just as all roads lead to Rome, all routes in France lead from Paris: more than one million kilometres of highways and byways both national and regional. Places all over the country are identified in terms of their distance from it. It is just one example of how the cathedral is the very heart and soul of France.

Officialized by royal order in April 1739, its central symbol is a ‘rose des vents’ or what we call the points of a compass.

Thousands of tourists find this discreet bronze marker and take souvenir photos of themselves or their feet by the famous stone. Thirty-three years ago this month, I was one of them. Shortly after arriving at Charles de Gaulle, armed with a few words of French and a deep conviction that living with my French fiancé would do the rest, I stood there and felt for all the world like I was at the centre of the universe.

I was far from home and far from feeling at home. That would take years. But I knew, somehow, that I had arrived. That year in Paris became the ‘point zero’ for the rest of my life.

Have you seen the famous stone in Paris? Or do you have a special time or place that became your own personal point zero?


Notre-Dame des larmes

Our Lady of tears

They gathered by Ile de la Cité in shock, hundreds and thousands of the faithful, the curious, tourists and locals. For believers and non-believers alike, the gut punch of seeing nearly 900 years of history going up in flames was too painful to bear.


The words in French expressed deep grief and shock. “On est meurtri,” said Stéphane Bern, France’s Monsieur Culture, moved to tears during an interview. Bruised, injured, struck down. That this monument, Notre-Dame de Paris, the most-visited site in France, possibly in the world, should be so ravaged by flames when it had survived eight centuries of history, come through bombings and world wars.

When its proud spire fell, the gasp was audible. Hands flew up to cover faces, the emotion beyond words. It was a knife to our collective heart.

The timber roof structure was called ‘la forêt’ as it was a virtual forest of hardwood beams, each representing a single tree. Work was underway to renovate this structure, known in French as la charpente. Although it had stood strong for hundreds of years, it wasn’t in that good shape and any work on it represented a certain risk. That is why last year, a dry run was held of simulated crisis with a plan in place to save its priceless treasures.

Dieu soit loué, thanks be to god, they were able to get most of the icons and paintings out in time.

So many tears fell around the world as this beautiful building was saved by the brave Paris firefighters through the night. This morning, they are saying that the cathedral’s structure is still sound. It will take decades to rebuild but I have faith in this country and its passion for history that it will be restored to its former glory.

Thanks to all who said a prayer or shed a tear for this grand old lady.

Do you have a memory, recent or far off, of Notre-Dame de Paris?

Histoire de voisinage

Beware of bad neighbours. I suppose that’s the lesson to be learned from the terrible fire that took 10 lives, injured 33 and left dozens of families homeless in Paris a few days ago.

I’ve posted before about the French art of hating one’s neighbour. At the time, it was funny. Hilarious, even, if you’d like to take a look. But what happened on Monday night at 17 bis, rue Erlanger in the très chic 16th arrondissement of Paris was nothing less than tragic.

It began with a problem that is all too prevalent in French towns and cities where people live so close to each other. Noise. A woman who was playing her music too loudly, too late at night. A couple who had to work the next day. And so the woman dared to knock on the door and ask her neighbour to turn it down.

Did she know she was dealing with someone who had serious mental health issues? Hard to say. What is known is that the woman with the loud music made a rude comment and refused to turn it down. The couple ended up calling the police. At first they refused to come and deal with what surely seemed like a mild dispute between neighbours. Mauvais voisinage. When the couple insisted, they agreed to make the call but took their time getting there. The police showed up an hour later, attempted to reason with the woman, then left.

A few minutes later, the loud-music woman made a comment to the male neighbour, who happened to be a fireman himself, that as he was so good at putting out fires he would certainly enjoy himself. The couple smelled fire and realized she had actually set fire to the place. What happened after that is somewhat confused.

The building blazed liked a tinder box. A recent renovation of a 1970’s building, 8 storeys high, it had an unfortunate location on an inside courtyard, inaccessible from the street. That meant that the firefighters were unable to access it with their trucks or automated equipment. They had to drag their hoses through the inner courtyard and manually raise ladders from one floor to another. A dangerous operation at best. Still, they managed to rescue the 50 people trapped and who had taken refuge on the roof. Eight firefighters were injured in putting out the blaze. It took five hours and 250 pompiers. Neighbouring buildings were evacuated and the jury is still out as to whether the building can be saved.

All because of a bad neighbour.

The woman was arrested and is undergoing psychiatric evaluation. She is 41, the mother of a 10-year-old boy (she does not have custody) and with a history of mental illness and setting fires. She had only just been released from a psychiatric ward.

This was the third deadly incendie to ravage Paris since the end of last year. It’s a horrific reminder that even rich neighbourhoods are vulnerable to crazy people. And cheap insulation (which is one theory as to why the fire spread so fast.)

Once again, kudos and gratitude go out to the brave firefighters, les pompiers de Paris.

The positive side is that residents in the local quartier have come together in a show of support. People are opening their doors to help those who’ve been rendered homeless, donating warm clothes and holding fundraisers. Perhaps people are finally getting to know their neighbours.

And it raises a question: how can we live together in harmony? In a society that creates more and more barriers and walls between people, in which each of us is increasingly isolated as we stare at our own screens, that is a tough question.

I’ve experienced before how it feels to have a neighbour dislike you on sight. It is not pleasant. The usual reaction is simply to avoid each other. That’s the easy answer. Pretend the other person doesn’t exist. Go about your business. Until an emergency happens.

Maybe we need to rethink our approach. Create more connections with those whose lives go on just beyond our doors.

Any thoughts?

Sapeurs-pompiers: France’s unsung heroes

The two young firefighters belonged to the Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris. Nathanaël, already the father of a 4-year-old boy at 27, came from north-central France; 28-year-old Simon was from a small town in the Savoie. Both had been volunteers before joining the ranks of the professional firefighters at the Château d’Eau station in Paris. Sadly, both men were killed in an explosion from a gas leak in a Paris bakery on Saturday morning.

The scenes of devastation around the site of the explosion at 6, rue de Trévise in the 9th arrondissement were impressive. Two more people lost their lives in addition to the firemen and dozens were injured. Residents in neighbouring buildings were shocked into the streets, in pyjamas, not knowing if it was safe to go home. Such was the force of the blast that six buildings are now considered at risk of collapse. Firefighters had to rescue many older and fragile residents who were unable to get out alone.

Living in a country like France where many buildings and the surrounding infrastructure are truly ‘ancient’ (as the French world for old, ‘ancien’, suggests), such accidents happen more often than they should. The recent collapse of several buildings in Marseille also put the emergency services to the test as they spent days searching for people trapped in the rubble.

So often the vital and heroic work they do goes unrecognized, and their praises are rarely sung.

The majority of France’s sapeurs-pompiers, fire and rescue crews, are volunteers. Outside of the major cities most fire services have only one or two paid professionals who head up the local ranks of volunteers. We rely upon them for much more than putting out fires: they are the first on the scene for emergency medical services, roadside accidents, drownings, floods and disasters of all kinds. They provide emergency training to local citizens, advice on dangers like wasp nests and are often on hand at large gatherings to help keep the public safe.

The word ‘pompiers’, as they are most commonly called, comes from the fellow who manned the ‘pompe’ or water pump; ‘sapeur’ is rather more complicated but has to do with the fact that in the past, often the only way to put out a fire was to destroy or ‘saper’ the building. Credit: Wikipedia.

The distinctive ‘pam pom’ of the fire and emergency sirens can be heard with varying degrees of frequency all over France. It is a sound that I used to find terrifying but which now reassures me. It means that help is on its way, and when you live relatively far from a big city or a hospital, that is reassuring indeed.

I hope I never need them but I am grateful that they will be there when I do.

R.I.P. Nathanaël and Simon.

Merci à tous nos sapeurs-pompiers pour vos bons et loyaux services!