Ah Paris! What’s not to love except perhaps the throngs of visitors … long lines to get into the top attractions ….the crowded sidewalks. If you are craving some peace and quiet far away from the hubbub, jump onto one of the canal tour boats on the 19th century Canal St Martin near Place de la Bastille; ride to the Bassin de la Villette and then stroll back through one of the city’s more authentic neighborhoods.
The Canal St. Martin runs from the Seine near Port de l’Arsenal (Place de la Bastille) for about 2.5 miles towards the Canal de l’Ourcq. It is part of the extensive 81-mile system of canals and underground waterways in Paris. Although most of the Canal runs above ground, at the start of the cruise, you will pass through a long tunnel.
Along the way, the canal rises over 80 feet through a series of nine locks and two swing bridges that allow boats to glide past the embankments on Quai de Valmy and Quai de Jemmapes.
Napoleon ordered its construction (funded by a new tax on wine) in 1802 as a means of creating an artificial waterway that would bring fresh water to the city. As an added bonus, canal boats carried food and other goods to the two ports until the 1960s when city planners wanted to pave over the waterway as a highway. Fortunately, good sense and conservationists prevailed to save the old Canal.
We decide to explore the area starting with a two-hour cruise on the canal boats managed by Canauxrama. We simply wander down to the ticket office at Port de l’Arsenal early in the morning and board the boat. There are only about 10 other passengers.
The boat immediately pulls into the underground tunnel where it is cool enough for a sweater. Although the canal was once used to transport goods, today only the cruise boats and houseboats ply its waters. We see one or two tied up, waiting their turn to navigate down the canal towards the Seine.
We emerge out of the tunnel to sun-dappled streets under the plane trees that line the Quais on both sides. Leaves rustle in the wind; Graceful vaulted iron footbridges enable the inhabitants to cross from one Quai to the other. The dark, mirror-like waters reflect the buildings, trees, and people. It could be a painting by Pissarro.
The banks are lined with old art-deco buildings, some adorned with whimsical designs, now home to new restaurants, wine bars, and avant-guard boutiques. This is a very bohemian neighborhood, favored by students, artists, and musicians.
As we approach a lock, the boat slows and stops at the gate behind it is closed. Water starts pouring from small grates. Then, technicians on the side of the quai pull the lever that opens the gates; water slowly starts to pour through the crack until it becomes a rushing waterfall, spraying those standing in the front of the boat. Within a few minutes, the gate is completely open, the boat has risen to the level of the quai and cruises gently through to the other side. The process is repeated several times.
Finally, we arrive at Bassin de la Villette, the largest artificial lake in Paris. As we pass through the final lock we see the Rotunda de la Villette on our left. Once known as the Gate of St. Martin, it is part of the last remnants of the wall that surrounded Paris between 1778-1860, where merchants had to stop to pay taxes on goods they were bringing into the city.
The lake ends at the Rue de La Crimée Bridge, the last bridge in Paris that can be raised or lowered hydraulically with four giant pulleys to allow canal traffic to go through. When it opened in 1885, It was a technological marvel.
Once, this area housed the slaughterhouse of Paris and was a center of commercial traffic. Today, it is more focused on culture and pleasure. In the summer and on weekends, this area is a favorite destination of Parisians who come for the outside concerts and picnics. This is also part of Paris Plages when the banks of the waterways are turned into beaches.
On Sundays, the two streets on either side of the Canal are reserved for cyclists and pedestrians only. Two of France’s most modern movie theater complexes make their home here as does a Music Museum and the futuristic science museum with its silver dome.
Once you disembark from the canal boat you have a number of options. You can rent a bike from the Vélib bike rental program and ride back along the Quai to Place de la Bastille.
Or you can walk the two miles, stopping along the way to try out one of the many new restaurants and cafes opening in the area. At some you can just walk in and sit down, others, like Hai Kai, with its 24-year old Chef Amélie Darvas, requires a reservation several days in advance.
Or you can stop at one of the best bakeries in Paris (Du Pain et Des Idées) off Quai de Valmy to pick up a baguette for a picnic in one of the many pocket-size parks that are scattered along the Canal.
Of course, you can always jump onto the Metro at La Crimée (Line 7) and go wherever you fancy.
With all the iconic things you could do in Paris, don’t miss this adventure off the beaten track.
IF YOU GO
Canauxrama organizes multiple cruises around Paris. Check their website for dates and departure times for the Cruise on the Canal St. Martin. Reservations are recommended and you can purchase your tickets online; however, you can also just show up at the ticket office on the Quai.
Hai Kai, 104 Quai de Jemmapes, Tel 09-81999888.
Du Pain et des Idées 34 Rue Yves Toudic; Tel 01-42-40-44-52.