PARIS - It is one of this city’s best kept secrets.
During a visit last summer, my wife, Nina, and I stumbled upon the Promenade Plantée, a “planted walk’’ built on an abandoned 19th-century elevated railroad track. The entry point was an eye-catching stone-and-brick stairway on Avenue Daumesnil, a block beyond the Bastille opera house, which led us three stories high to a lushly landscaped pedestrian path. A descriptive plaque informed us that the walk stretches 2 3/4 miles from the Place de la Bastille, in the heart of the 12th arrondissement, to the Bois de Vincennes, a 2,500-acre public park on the city’s edge. We decided to follow the Promenade to the end.
High above the clamor and din of Paris, we entered an oasis of calm with a profusion of trees, flowers, and plants. What set this walk apart from so many others we have taken in Paris was its perspective on the city: We were able to view Paris at the level of treetops, church spires, and the roofs of apartment houses and public buildings.
We set off on a well-marked garden path leading under several ivy-covered, arched trellises. As we rambled, the path opened onto a changing panorama of architectural styles and tastes. On our left we were at eye-level with the steeple of the Romanesque-Byzantine Church of Saint-Antoine des Quinze-Vingts, built in 1903, while minutes later, on our right, we gasped at the sight of 12 caryatids - kitschy reproductions of Michelangelo’s “The Dying Slave’’ in the Louvre - adorning the top of a modern police station.
Soon after, we glimpsed the imposing facade of the Gare de Lyon, a big rail terminal reconstructed in 1855 by the city planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Along the way, we examined at close range the decorative moldings, ornamental brickwork, and intricate wrought iron balcony railings of some of the city’s most elegant apartment buildings.
There is an idyllic sense of solitude to this walk, and it is jealously guarded by the regulars from the neighborhood. “I don’t advertise this place,’’ one of them confessed. “Parisians don’t like to give away their secrets.’’ The people we met were an eclectic mix: a father and son arranging toy soldiers in an elaborate re-creation of one of Napoleon’s battles; a couple taking photos of their 3-year-old daughter, gussied up in vintage clothing; joggers enjoying a traffic-free run; and assorted strollers like us.
The Promenade Plantée is the world’s first elevated park. Opened in 1989, it traces the route of the former Bastille Railroad Line, which transported passengers between Paris and its southeast suburbs until its demise in 1969. The walk is a model for New York’s High Line, which opened in 2009, and for a similar projects under way in Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Jersey City, and Rotterdam.
The Promenade is widely recognized for its imaginative use of obsolete urban infrastructure. Beneath the landscaped walk, on Avenue Daumesnil, the designers transformed the 60 masonry arches of the former railroad viaduct into the Viaduc des Arts, a modern arcade for some of the city’s trendiest artisans and craftsmen.
The landscape is endlessly varied and full of surprises. One moment we were walking under a canopy of maple trees; the next we were in the open sun. At one point, two large rectangular pools suddenly appeared. Dense shrubbery was interspersed with bursts of color from a rich array of flowers and plants. We saw roses climbing everywhere. We also spotted wisteria, flowering cherry, hydrangeas, zinnias, geraniums, and honeysuckle. As a throwback to the Promenade’s origins, a railcar on a section of discarded track was converted into a giant planter overflowing with red trumpet vines.
There are entry and exit stairways along the Promenade, and we took one of them down to the street so we could browse in the shops of the Viaduc des Arts. We found craftsmen who restore and preserve original works of art; a designer and creator of made-to-order umbrellas and parasols; a producer of mechanical dolls and songbirds; a violin maker and a flute maker.
We were struck by the contrast between the mellow mood of the Promenade and the bustling atmosphere of the Viaduc’s high-end boutiques and studios. “The Promenade and the Viaduc are worlds apart,’’ our friendly waiter, Damien, explained during lunch at the busy Viaduc Café. “People come to the Viaduc for a specific reason: to buy a designer dress for a special occasion or have a valuable tapestry repaired. They come to the Promenade for pleasure.’’
Back on the elevated path, we soon entered the expansive Jardin de Reuilly, a garden situated close to what was the 5th-century vacation home of the Merovingian kings. Here we noticed a pronounced change in the path’s character and direction. We had descended again from the high ground to street level, but this time we veered away from the Viaduc onto a vast semicircular lawn. Picnickers were sprawled on the grass, while children from a day camp competed in a spirited game of soccer. Surrounding the lawn were landscaped terraces and gardens with cozy alcoves featuring female nude statues by 20th-century French sculptors. Visible close by was the restored Gare de Reuilly, a station on the former Bastille Railroad Line.
We stopped for a drink at Relais Gourmand, the garden’s outdoor cafe, and continued our walk across a raised footbridge that spans the lawn. Heading east we came upon Allée Vivaldi, a grassy, tree-lined street bounded by shops and restaurants, where the pedestrian path - suddenly unmarked - was later joined by an adjacent bicycle lane. As bikers sped past, we found ourselves below ground on a sunken walkway with high sloping hills on either side.
Had we wandered off the Promenade? We were reassured when the path led us through a series of vine-covered former railroad tunnels. Shortly after emerging, we came to a circular, wrought iron stairway leading us back to street-level at Rue du Sahel, which took us under Boulevard Périphérique (the freeway that circles the city) to Boulevard de la Guyane, a wide thoroughfare. Without a sign to guide us, we ventured a turn to the right toward a large park in the distance. Lucky for us, it was the Bois de Vincennes, our final destination.
We had walked the length of the Promenade Plantée, a remarkable experience that was elevated in every sense. Satisfied that we had discovered one of Paris’s hidden treasures, we relaxed on a park bench before returning - underground - on the Métro to our starting point at Place de la Bastille.
If you go...
What to see
Entrance at the corner of Avenue Daumesnil and Avenue Ledru-Rollin in the 12th arrondissement.
Open all year, Mon-Fri, 8 a.m.; weekends, 9 a.m. Closing hours vary with the season.
Viaduc des Arts
1-129 Avenue Daumesnil
Studios and shops of designers and craftsmen.
Where to eat
43 Avenue Daumesnil
Funky cafe in the Viaduc des Arts with an outdoor terrace. Open for breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner from 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Jazz brunch on Sundays. Lunch and dinner entrees from about $20.
Jardin de Reuilly
An outdoor cafe near the garden’s great lawn, serving
drinks, panini, focaccia, salads, and desserts. About $1.50-$9.