Hello from the other side… of summer that is (and apologies for the long absence!). I sincerely hope you all survived the season intact, picking up happy holiday memories, a light bronzing, and minimal bodily singeing or sense of humour failure. Safely into the cosy months of autumn and the temperature is still relatively buoyant, but rapidly falling and taking the evening sun with it.
Those keen on grasping a last couple of sessions of waterside supping/dining whilst the warmth holds will do well to head to the Canal Saint-Martin, spanning the 10th and 11th arrondissements, as a quaint alternative to a Seine-side apéro. You’ll be waving goodbye to the thrilling show that is the river police zipping along in their patrol dingy looking for the bad guys, or sporadic fishing spectacles (not from me for a while, catfish you’re safe for the moment), but that’s a small price to pay for on-the-canal-bank relaxation.
Its southern tip connects to the Seine via the Pont d’Arsenal at Bastille and it extends 4.6 km north east, finishing up at its junction with the Canal de l’Ourcq at Jaurès. There’s banks a-plenty for strolling along, though half of the canal is actually hidden underground, covered up in the mid-19th century in favour of creating wide boulevards and public spaces up top. Those intent on embracing the flâneur spirit would do well to join it at the point between Jacques Bonsergent and Goncourt when it pokes its watery nose into the fresh air again.
Those keen to get closer to the water (swimming is a big no-no, I’ll explain later) can hop on a canal cruise and pootle along its length at leisure, with a bonus foray into the Bassin de Vilette and under the Crimée bridge further north, complete with soothing commentary. Those with a claustrophobic disposition might not be so ‘delighted’ by the subterranean section, but if you can stomach the underground prelude, a trip through four double locks and two swing bridges (and not to mention under numerous bridges) can only be experienced via gently floating boat travel, though it’s always fun to spectate from the banks too, if only to see the motorists either side turn increasingly redder as their road rotates away from them.
Originally conceived by Napoleon in 1802 to provide fresh water and a transport link to the Parisians of yore, its construction was funded by a new tax on wine. Despite its vital purpose of avoiding diseases like dysentry and cholera, the concept of turning wine into water must have played games with the French psyche back then, and not being finished until 1825, that’s a whole lotta liquid sacrifice. These days wine takes a starring role as the drink of choice for relaxing on the banks, equally on the terraces of the charming bars and cafés lining the waterway on either side (including the famous Hôtel du Nord at 102 Quai de Jemmapes, just near the canal’s ground-level bend).
Other highlights along the route include Paris’ very own ‘muscle beach’ with iron pumpers galore flexing their pecs on the municipal gym equipment near Rue Louis Blanc at the top end, plus the nearby firehouse further up near Jaurès where the pompiers partake in similar between shouts. But one of the most charming aspects of the canal is its dredging and emptying every 10-15 years (last completed in 2016) where its contents are revealed in what’s akin to an enormous aquatic archaeological dig, its fishy residents being located elsewhere beforehand of course.
Obligatory shopping trolleys, pushchairs, vélibs (shockingly plentiful), mopeds, suitcases and road signs aside, some of the more unusual sludgy discoveries have included a couple of safes, washing machines, ancient gold coins, two WWI shells, and a lone gun (dead bodies are no doubt quietly left off the list). Amongst the other 40-odd tonnes of rubbish found in the polluted soup during the last dredging (see, swimming a terrible idea) were thousands of cans and wine bottles tossed in by careless bacchanalians. There are simply not that many clumsy people in the world. Enjoy your apèro but don’t let your empty wine bottle be the spaghetti in Canal Saint-Martin’s minestrone. Please.
For canal cruise information click here.