France is most well-known for its obvious and iconic tourist attractions: the Eiffel Tower, the Alps, the glamorous riviera. But beyond all the grandeur and gloss, some of the country's most magical and breathtaking places are those that are abandoned, derelict, even falling apart. Intrepid urban explorers set out, cameras in hand, to photograph them, and we curated some of their most stunning shots here to take you on this, a gloriously haunting but ever-so-beautiful tour of abandoned France.
Wissant is a seaside community on the north tip of France, just across the Channel from England. In summer, holidaymakers flock to its broad, white beaches to bathe, fly kites and kick back. But amongst the scenic vistas and family fun, there’s a stark reminder of relatively recent history in the form of a blocky German bunker from World War 2. It topples, perhaps symbolically, into the soft sands surrounding it, and green seaweed creeps up its sides. It’s not safe to climb the structure these days, and the word DANGER is daubed on one of its walls, which seems appropriate, given the bullet marks that pockmark its outer surface.
The Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture (translation: “The Little Belt Railway”) was an overland railway line that connected the main railway stations of Paris within the city’s fortified walls. It ran from 1852, but closed in 1934. Since then, its stations and sidings are in an abandoned state, with graffiti scrawled on bridges and walls and vegetation creeping over the tracks. The future of Petite Ceinture is the subject of great debate; currently, it is partially used for freight, but most of the tracks and the once-busy stations lie totally dormant. Petite Ceinture’s supporters believe that the line’s stations should be preserved for heritage reasons and in the past, there has been talk of converting it into a tram line. For now, though, the mysterious line is out of bounds and beautiful, in its own, decaying way.
Fort D’Arches (also known as Boulanger Fort Berwick) is a military base in Pouxeux, northeastern France. It was built between 1875 and 1877, and was a part of a chain of forts known as The Curtain of Upper Moselle, which protected the area between Epinal and Belfort. These days, it’s cloaked in plants, trees and (of course) spray paint. Inside, it’s a long, winding network of eerie tunnels, whilst the exterior, enveloped in greenery, is proof of the power of nature over that which is man-made. A fort is the toughest of structures, but this one is no match for curling branches and fast-spreading moss.
Prison H15, near Lille, was a huge facility housing up to 1500 inmates at any one time. It closed down in 2011, and it didn’t take long for the rot to set in. Travellers have taken up home in the prisons’ grounds, and the sprawling interior echoes with the ghosts of its past. Prisons are never the happiest of places, and when they’re abandoned, it seems, the atmosphere takes on a new kind of darkness. All of the images below are taken by Flickr user Olavxo, who has captured the melancholy inside. The grand, glass dome in the entrance looks more like the kind of architectural feature you’d find in a department store or a landmark train station than a prison. In one room, personal records, complete with photographs, are strewn all over the dusty floor. And of course, as with everywhere that’s left empty in France, graffiti is everywhere. Once a place where people were incarcerated for crime, this cavernous space is now a palace of lawlessness.
Fort du Salbert, in the Belfort region of northeastern France, was built between 1874 and 1877 and was an important part of the Séré de Rivières system, not too far away from Fort D’Arches. In the fifties, it took on a whole new life as a NATO base, complete with a radar system known as Ouvrage G, and serious surveillance facilities. In 1972, the site’s military use was discontinued and it was handed over to the Belfort authorities. There was an attempt in the early 90s to open the fort to the public, but after asbestos was found, it was halted and the doors were closed forever. That hasn’t stopped some urban explorers (and the odd salamander) finding their way inside this mesmerising warren though. The photos below are all by Thomas Bresson, who has used brightly-coloured lamps to create vibrant and atmospheric light paintings. And that second image down definitely looks like it’s supposed to be a sinister face, doesn’t it?
Picture yourself in a cool, dark, underground cavern, with walls and ceilings made entirely of human bones and skulls. Sound like something out of a horror film? In Paris, it’s completely real. The Catacombs of Paris are a labyrinth of underground passageways made up of the bodies of more than six million people. In the 1700s, storing the bodies of the dead underground in ossuaries on the outskirts of town seemed like a clever answer to the problem of burgeoning graveyards within the city centre. It wasn’t a foolproof idea, however: ground in the area is prone to collapse and there are few tall buildings above the site of the catacombs. In the Second World War, members of the French Resistance slipped through the macabre tunnels, and Nazis settled into an underground bunker not far away. In 2004, incredibly, a fully-fledged cinema, complete with bar, seating and projector, was discovered deep within the catacombs – and no one knows who set it up. Whilst the catacombs are a major tourist attraction and therefore hardly abandoned, they have an extremely intriguing and strange past.
Located in Paris’ leafy outskirts, Piscine Molitor flung open its doors in 1929 and ushered in thousands of glamorous guests. With its Art Deco styling, white sun loungers and nautical looks, it was every inch an icon of its time. And this swimming pool even made it into literature (and subsequently on to the silver screen) in classic modern novel Life of Pi (the main protagonist in the story, Piscine Patel, is named specifically after Molitor). In 1989, the pool was closed down to make way for a new housing development, but protests from its fans kept it standing. There was no water in the pool, but it became a mecca for skateboarders, graffiti artists and ravers, all of whom made great use of the empty space. In 2014, though, Piscine Molitor was rebuilt to take on a luxury role, just like the old days. Now, it’s a dazzling hotel and swimming complex. Some might say it looks better now than it did between ’89 and 2014, but these images show what happens when an elegant landmark becomes, however briefly, a tribute to urban culture.