Rise above the tourist traps on Paris’s original ‘High Line’
On a recent trip to Paris, a determined accordion player seemed to follow my friend Carrie and me from Metro car to Metro car, playing the same wheezy melody each time. Fortunately, we recognized our symptoms and knew what to do. The fault wasn’t the accordion player’s, it was ours.
He was a sign that we had hit the tourist wall. For all its charms, we needed a break from the touristy side of Paris — that point where the queues at the museums suddenly become “too long,” and we really didn’t want to see another Eiffel Tower snow globe or Notre Dame tea towel.
Ready for a reboot and wanting to experience Paris more as the locals do, Carrie and I headed to the Viaduc des Arts and Promenade Plantée — an elevated public park that allows visitors to see the city from above it all, or at least from the rooftops.
A quick walk from the Place des Vosges, once home to Victor Hugo and other luminaries, took us by the Place de la Bastille, site of the uprising that sparked the French Revolution and now a busy traffic circle, past the neighboring L’Opéra Bastille — a modernist cube on the former site of a railway station — and then up the stairs to the park.
Now nearly 20 years old, the Promenade Plantée — known in French as the Coulée Verte, or Green Flow — follows an abandoned railway as it ambles three leisurely miles through the 12th arrondissement. Since its launch as one of the world’s first elevated rails-to-trails projects, the Promenade has in--
spired similar parks, such as Manhattan’s popular High Line, and provided an innovative example of Paris’s ongoing efforts to reimagine its past in the form of a stylish present.
At the top of the stairs, we entered through a rose trellis and proceeded along the park’s paved path, which follows an old rail bed. “This is so cool,” Carrie said, looking toward the eye-level upper floors of Beaux-Arts buildings and balconies of modern apartments.
Trains ran here for 110 years, starting in 1859, but on this winter day it was just me, Carrie and a mix of locals, reminding us we had passed into a corner of Paris for Parisians.
I could see only two other people who might be tourists, with telltale cameras out. We passed them by to find a homeless man taking a nap on a bench, a young couple nuzzling in one of the secluded alcoves off the path, a father pushing a stroller and a group of strident joggers.
The path, flanked by leafy gardens, offered expansive views of the neighborhood. The chimney-lined rooftops on the older buildings reminded me of an impressionist painting I had seen recently in Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, “Rooftops in the Snow,” by Gustave Caillebotte. Happily, on this cold but sunny day, no snow was in sight.
As the Promenade path narrowed, widened and narrowed again, backlit by the low winter sun, we quietly strolled on wooden trestles above the avenues past small arbors and long, narrow fountains.
Below, high-end arts-and-crafts workshops are housed in the brick-lined arches of the old railway, and the shops, built in the 1990s, evoke the artisanal character of the old neighborhood. Carrie and I stopped for a moment, leaned on a rail over the street, and I read from a guidebook that informed me that the brick was resurfaced and colored to match the historic houses we’d seen earlier in the day in the Place des Vosges. In keeping with our non-tourist mode, and being neither artsy-crafty nor high-end, we decided not to go down one of the graceful stairways to the street for a closer look.
Instead, we moved past a man in a track suit emphatically practicing his kickboxing, strolled the path as it cleaved tightly between modern buildings, then followed it to a wooden footbridge. The bridge arced over a large swath of green, which a sign identified as the former home of 5th-century kings known as the Merovingians, distinctive for their shoulder-length hair. It is now a public park, the Jardin de Reuilly.
On this day, instead of long-haired Merovingian monarchs named Clovis or Pepin, children enjoyed the park’s playground and groups of people sat on the grass warming up in the sun.
Up ahead, the path coursed through broad public squares and small tunnels as it dipped and rose down to the street level, making its way to a large public park with an ancient chateau on one side, the Bois de Vincennes. But the Jardin de Reuilly was too inviting and sunny to pass up, so Carrie and I found a bench where we could join the locals before we wandered to a neighborhood cafe for hot chocolate.
For a moment, we had brief tourist guilt that we were leaving undone major landmarks from our Paris to-do list. Then we realized that’s precisely the point. We were here to simply kick back and go with the flow — the Green Flow, Parisian-style.
Far from selfie sticks and slow globes, people enjoy a clear day in La Coulée Verte, or the Green Flow, a leafy elevated public park that was designed on a 19th-century railway in the 12th arrondissement. Top, a general view of the Viaduc des Arts.