With its swinging footbridges and tree-lined quais teeming with people on long hot summer afternoons, the Canal Saint-Martin is yet another example of how appealing Paris is when it lives up to its clichés. Rooted in the city’s industrial past, today the canal offers plenty of opportunities for biking, sightseeing, and enjoying Parisian life at its most relaxed.
Saint-Martin is one section of an 81-mile waterway network, including Canals Saint-Denis and Ourcq. Commissioned by Napoleon in the early 19th century to provide Parisians with clean drinking water, the canals also kept the Seine free of industrial boat traffic.
Connecting to the Seine just east of the Ile-Saint-Louis, Saint-Martin runs underground between Bastille and République. It ends in the 19th arrondissement, where it meets Canals Ourcq and Saint-Denis. The latter flows down from the northern stretch of the Seine at the Ile de Saint-Denis. Both are fed by the 68-mile long Canal de l’Ourcq, which runs north-east of Paris.
The populaires neighborhoods that sprung up around Saint-Martin served as inspiration to a number of artists before World War II. Its most famous reference point is in Marcel Carné’s 1938 classic “Hôtel du Nord,” starring Arletty. The film was shot in a life-size studio replica of the canal, but the original hotel still stands at 102 quai de Jemmapes (Mº Jacques Bonsergent).
The canal network has become the focus of a 6-year, $85.7 million preservation and development project, launched by former Mayor Jean Tiberi in 2003. In addition to renovating the canals, which were in need of major repairs, the Mairie de Paris is developing recreational programs that appeal to both locals and tourists.
On Sundays, the quais of the 10th – between Valmy and Jemmapes – are closed to traffic from 10am to 8pm during the summer and 10am to 6pm the rest of the year. Bikers can also follow the canal-side bike path, starting at République, before turning onto Canal Ourcq, and pedalling out of the city for a day trip. Parc de la Bergère offers a nice backdrop for a picnic lunch. The path ends a few miles out of Paris, near Claye Souilly..
Canal cruises enable you to explore the one-and-a-half mile subterranean section of Saint-Martin, only accessible by boat, and to pass through the canal’s four double locks as they rise and the gates open. (Traditionalists will be glad to hear that time hasn’t quickened the process.) “Paris Canal” cruises have been operating on Canal Saint-Martin for 28 years. Boats cruise past the major sights of the Seine as well as along the canal. The “Canauxrama” tour offers a variety of special options, including lunch and cabaret cruises, in addition to their standard cruise along Saint-Martin.
Canal Cruising Details
PARIS CANALCruises last roughly 21/2 hours. The morning cruise departs at 9:30am from the Musée d’Orsay (Mº Solférino), arriving at Parc de la Villette (Mº Porte de Pantin). At 2:30pm the boat heads back from the Parc to the Musée d’Orsay. Boat-hire for a day-cruise or reception is also available. From mid-March to mid-November, 19-21 Quai de la Loire, 19e, Mº Laumière, http://www.pariscanal.com
CANAUXRAMA Bassin de la VilletteThree boats – the Marcel Carné, Alliance, and the Arletty – drift quietly between Parc de la Villette and Port de l’Arsenal, via the Saint-Martin Canal. Departure from 50 bd de la Bastille (M° Bastille) at 9:45am and 2:30pm. Additional high season only departures from 13 Quai de la Loire at the Bassin de la Villette (Mº Jaurès) at 9:45am and 2:45pm, 13 quai de la Loire, 19e, Mº Jaurès, http://www.canauxrama.com
Exploring on Foot
If you’re not a biker or short on money for a cruise, Canal Saint-Martin makes a great place for a leisurely walk. The canal-side path runs from République to Parc de la Villette. You could bring a picnic to eat along the edge of the quais, or pop into one of the tiny bars or restaurants dotting the canal. If you can handle the cobblestone, the section of the quai that’s closed on Sundays is good for skating.