Taking a cruise down the Seine on a bateau mouche is a well established fixture on the tourist Paris landscape, but taking a cruise down Canal St Martin brings a new perspective on things.
For one thing, canals are - by constructional necessity - very snug affairs - and are designed to take one way traffic with very little elbow room. I confess that just looking at the boat in the photo made me feel a trifle claustrophobic and the thought of passing through the 1km tunnel under Place de la Bastille that links the canal to the marina at Bassin de l'Arsenal is a prospect that I would not care to contemplate.
Canal St Martin is very laid back, and so seeing it at a gentle pace is very much in character with the setting. However, because there are several locks along the canal where the boat has to pause for quite some time until the water levels equilibrate, the progress is understandably slow, and I imagine that Little People might find it somewhat dull compared to the unimpeded progress that boats can achieve on the Seine.
La Grisette is a charming sculpture in Jardin Jules Ferry, which is one of the string of parks which overlie the tunnel linking Canal St Martin with Place de la Bastille.
If the poodle hairdo and raised skirt look like an illustration by Toulouse-Lautrec, then that's because that's exactly the era she's evoking. A 'grisette' is a term for an independent, working class woman who often engaged in liaisons with artists and other bohemian types. This statue was sculpted by Jean Descomps in 1909, and was placed in the area that would historically have been frequented by the original grisettes.
Paris Arsenal - also known as Bassin de l'Arsenal - is a port at the southern end of Place de la Bastille which links Canal St Martin to the canal to the Seine. Originally designed as a commercial port facility, it fell into decline in the 20th century and has since been redeveloped as a marina, housing both pleasure boats and permanently moored houseboats.
It is a very pleasant spot to loiter on a sunny day, watching people at play on their boats.
The Arletty (pronunciation here) is one of four boats that are used by the Canauxrama company for canal cruises on the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris.
The boat was named after the French singer and actress Arletty (1898-1992), who did a lot to popularize the Canal Saint-Martin through her role as the prostitute Raymonde in the 1938 film Hôtel du Nord. She is best remembered for one line in that film, which I have tried to explain in my tip Atmosphère, atmosphère . . . (assuming I understand it myself).
Arletty stayed in Paris during the Nazi occupation in the Second World War. During that period she starred in an outstanding film, Les Enfants du Paradis by Marcel Carné, but also had an affair with a German officer. After Liberation she served a 120 day-jail sentence, plus two years of house arrest and three of probation, for the crime of “consorting with the enemy”, popularly known as “horizontal collaboration”. Her explanation of this was typical Arletty: “My heart belongs to France, but my arse is mine.” (This is often misquoted as “. . . my arse is international.”)
This affair with a German officer was what gave the Austrian film and stage director Axel Corti (1933-1993) the idea for his last production before he died, his brilliant staging of Verdi’s opera La Traviata in Frankfurt am Main. In Corti’s version, the opera heroine Violetta is a Jewish singer who has an affair with a German general in Paris during the occupation. At the end of the opera she dies not in her bed but on the floor of the second class waiting room in the train station at Orléans, while trying to flee from the Nazis. This production of La Traviata premiered in 1991 and has been revived numerous times. It is now the oldest production at the Frankfurt Opera that is still being performed. (Next performances: 15, 22 and 30 December 2012, 1 and 6 January 2013.)
Next review from July 2012: Hôpital Saint-Louis
A company called Canauxrama runs cruises up and down the Canal Saint-Martin.
Currently (as of 2012) they offer four cruises a day, two in each direction, leaving either from the Bassin de la Villette (13, Quai de la Loire) or from Port de l’Arsenal (near Place de la Bastille). I took a morning cruise, leaving at 9:45 a.m. from the Bassin de la Villette, because I was staying in that district at the Hôtel Abricotel.
Our boat was called the Marcel Carné, named after the French film director (1906-1996) who popularized the Canal Saint-Martin through his film Hôtel du Nord in 1938.
After leaving the dock we first went upstream through the Bassin de la Villette (first photo) and a short ways into the Canal de l’Ourcq, through the Parc de la Villette and past the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie and the Cité de la Musique. At the city limits we turned around and went back the way we had come.
After passing the Rotonde de la Villette we entered the Jaurès locks (second photo) leading to the Canal Saint-Martin. The metal bridge in the photo is the Métro line number 2, which is above ground at this point. I took this photo from the front of the boat on the lower level.
When we entered the Canal Saint-Martin, they told us that construction of the canal was first ordered by Napoléon I in 1802, but the canal wasn’t finished until 1825. Imagine hundreds of men digging with picks and shovels, with interruptions for various political upheavals.
In the 1960s there were plans to fill in the canal and build a motorway instead, but these plans were eventually dropped after vigorous protests by the citizenry.
We went through another set of locks and then stopped briefly at a wide place in the canal to let a school class get off the boat and let another school class get on. The whole cruise takes two and a half hours, but that is apparently too long for some of the younger children, so they only do half the cruise at a time.
At the same place we passed another boat from the same company, the Arletty, which was doing the same tour in the opposite direction.
Soon we went through a third set of locks, the Ecluses des Récollets, where we caught a glimpse of the original Hôtel du Nord, which is now just a café and restaurant since only the façade has been preserved. At the lower end of these locks is a revolving bridge which is the site of a famous film scene (actually it was shot in the studio, but it was meant to be here) in which Arletty delivers her line about Atmosphère, atmosphère…
After a fourth set of locks, the Ecluses du Temple, we entered a strange roofed-over section of the canal called the Voûte (third photo) which goes on for 1,854 meters and is punctuated with round holes in the arched ceiling to let in some sunlight. Again I took this photo from the front of the boat on the lower level.
At the entrance to the Voûte there are signs in French, English and misspelt German, warning boat operators that no stopping is allowed and that they only have twelve minutes to get through (more than enough time, actually, assuming your boat can do six km/h) because after that the lights will change and boats will start coming from the opposite direction.
The Voûte ends at Place de la Bastille, where the fantastic new opera house is briefly visible on the left (fourth photo).
At the end of the tour we went all the way through the Port d’Arsenal, now a harbor for pleasure boats, and then turned around and docked at the Canauxrama boarding point near the Place de la Bastille. My fifth photo shows the harbor with our boat docked on the left and the Bastille Métro station for line 1 in the foreground.
Next review from July 2012: Arletty
The canal trip down through the Canal St. Martin can be done in both directions. For convenience I did it from the Stalingrad end, in the n-e corner in the 19th arrondissement. The trip finishes at just after the Bastille after 2 1/2 hours. In between, you pass through a part of Paris that many people would not see on a normal tourist tour, past the St Louis hospital, opened in 1612 and the Hotel du Nord, famous for the old film. Past the Geode at the Cité des Sciences and out as far as the peripherique ring road. The last kilometre in the tunnel is eerie. We were lucky with the weather and stayed on top the whole trip. Prices vary and are quite a bit cheaper if you book online beforehand. Children under 4 yo are free.
Prices on day : Adults 16€, Seniors and students 12€, Children 4-12 8.50€
Prices online : Adults 13.50€, Seniors and students 12€, Children 4-12 8€
The reductions are only available for the morning trip that starts at 09h45 from both directions
Nearest metro to the Canauxrama jetty is Jean Jaures.
UPDATE - I have also added a travelogue for the boat trip on the canal.
Canal Saint-Martin is a 4.5 km long canal in the eastern suburbs of central Paris that links Canal de l'Ourcq to the Seine. It was constructed in the early 19th century by order of Napoleon (the one who didn't need a number) with the intention of providing a transport link and additional freshwater source for a burgeoning Paris. The lower reaches of the canal (at Port de l'Arsenal and Bassin de la Villette) were constructed as port facilities to offload goods transported from upstream.
In these days of high speed travel, we tend to discount canals as anachronistic modes of transport whose main significance is as backdrops for tourist photo opportunities. Yet we forget that canals were one of the keys that served to unleash the Industrial Revolution in a pre-engine era, and hugely significant to the evolution of Europe as we now know it.
The advent of the 20th century, when the rise of rail, road and ultimately air travel eclipsed other more traditional forms of transport did not bode well for canals, and Canal St Martin slipped into inner city decay. At one point, the possibility of infilling the canal to construct a highway was seriously mooted, and it was not until the turn of the millenium that a renewed focus on urban upliftment lead to the 'gentrification' of what had become a sadly neglected and rundown area.
Today's Canal St Martin is a far cry from its former dilapidated self. Lined with slightly bohemian cafes, bars and restaurant, it is laid back and vibey, cosmopolitan and slightly edgy, its cool credentials endorsed by its inclusion as a location for the movie 'Amélie'. The canal is flanked by pedestrian paths (which sometimes incorporate cycle paths) and the lower reaches are punctuated by a series of well maintained public spaces incorporating small parks, playground and recreational facilities (see my sports tips on petanque and table tennis). And whilst it doesn't quite have the same picturesque quality or venerable antiquity of, for example, the canals of Amsterdam, it is somewhere that offers something for virtually everyone and a place where you'd have to try very hard not to have a good time.
And finally, a word of practicality. Much of the canal path - particularly the upper reaches - is cobbled rather than smoothly paved, so walking or pushing a pram or pushchair (stroller) is not quite the relaxing experience you may be anticipating!
There are a series of five locks (about one a kilometre) along the Canal St Martin, which were built to allow barges to negotiate the height difference between Canal de l'Ourcq in the north and the Seine in the south.
Locks are effectively small compartments along the canal which are isolated by gates. Once the gates have been closed, water can be pumped into (or can be released from) the lock in order to equalise water levels with the surrounding canal, thus allowing barges to gain or lose altitude along the canal in a series of 'steps'.
Lock operation takes some time - usually about 15 minutes from entering to leaving - which makes barge travel on this section of canal a leisurely (some would say 'slow') process.
One of the pleasant walks in Paris, especially at the weekend when you're not stifled or agressed by the pollution of the traffic, as the canal does follow a very busy thoroughfare. The quai de Valmy and quai de Jemmapes are reserved for pedestrian traffic on Sundays.
The canal was originally constructed in the early 1800's as a link with the Canal de l'Ourq to bring fresh water into the city, now running into the Seine after passing under the place de la Bastille.
Consider taking a cruise on the canal as an alternative. See website below for cruises. Site is in French or English.
Good starting points for the walk are the Jaures at the north end or Republique in the south, metro stations
The canal dates from 1825. Barge traffic has almost disappeared, but the canal is still a very pleasant location for a stroll (it is about 2 miles long).
The canal narrowly escaped being turned into a boulevard during the barbaric modernization of Paris in the 1960s.
Two famous movies take place near the canal, Hotel du Nord, and Amélie.
Easy, romantic and comfortable half-day, covering just 4.5 km (3 miles). There are two boat-providers: canauxrama (with modern, plush boats) go from the Arsenal (09.45 and 14.30); pariscanal leave from Musée d'Orsay (09.30 , 14.30). Both boats finish (and return from) at le Parc de la Villette. Both have commentaries in French and English.
We chose pariscanal because it starts on the Seine and passes several landmarks en route to the Canal St Martin. On the canal, you go through 19th century locks and swing-bridges; and also through a 1 km long tunnel, directly under the Place de la Bastille; arriving just 26 m higher than from where you started. The commentary described the many local areas (Parisians' Paris) through which we passed (lots of popular history): some neat stories in the English version, and jokey ones in the French! We passed folks strolling on the canalside under the chestnut trees, pretty boutiques and retro-style cafés; plus a bit of Paris-plage (deck-chairs and sand!).
The kids found the first few locks exciting (but got bored with them afterwards!) but thought the tunnel was the best bit. They got interested again when we arrived at the Parc de la Villette (Musée des Sciences, la Cité de la Musique, cafés, and modernist play-area). We grown-ups just enjoyed the intimate peacefulness of it all.
Most of tourists don't visit this part of the city but it is a wonderful walk along the Canals (St Martin and La Villete) with some colorfoul houses, nice cafes, tematic shops and you are on the way to the "City of the Science" - La Villete.
This is very lovely especially in the spring when the trees are in full leaf. There are steel bridges which cross the canal and places to sit along side it. You can find some cute shops and restaurants on the streets that run along side the canal.
Scenes from a famous French movie, Hotel du Nord, were shot in the Hotel du Nord, which is located at 102 quai de Jemmapes.
CORRECTION 4/21/07 from Beatchic@vt.com: "Hôtel du Nord was not filmed at the actual hotel, it was all studio. :( I'm writing a book about film sites in Paris and came across that tidbit myself. However, you have to admit they did a great job of making it look like the original!" Thanks for that info, Mary.---Forestqueennyc
Website for the hotel is http://www.hoteldunord.org/.
It's a very cute website, even if you don't want to stay there.
For barge trip and informations about the movie see the weblinks.
Located very near the canal St Martin in Paris, the Baxo is a unique lounge bar restaurant which will make you discover in a very original “bobo“ and cozy environment sumptuous authentic dishes. The Baxo also welcomes you to share a glass with friends in a trendy and warm ambience.
From the Roman times on Paris was provided with water by a well that was found by the Romans, at the Left Bank of the Seine. For many centuries that was sufficient to supply the people of Paris with water. In the Medievals though, a growing shortage of water became a big problem. The solution to get more fresh water into the centre, was the Canal Saint Martin, dug during the regime of Napoleon Bonaparte, and opened in 1825.
It has a length of 5 kilometers, starting in the Bassin de la Villette in the Northeast of the city, and ending up in the Seine, close to the Place de la Bastille. The part of the canal that is visible is only half of the complete length, because the part between Place de la République and Place de la Bastille is covered by roads. The part that ís still visible is an absolutely gorgeous part of Paris.
The difference between the highest point of the canal and the lowest point is 25 metres. This is the reason why 9 locks were built in the canal, all with huge wooden doors. All along the canal there are very tall, rough trees surrounding it. And every hundred metres there are beautiful little pedestrian bridges.
The area is a very quiet one compared to the rest of the city. This makes it a great place to relax by walking along the canal, or by sitting at the waterside.