Napoléon Bonaparte, wanting to do something for the Parisians, was told by Interior Minister Jean-Antoine Chaptal that he should “give them water.” In 1802 he ordered the city’s canals built. The idea was not only to bring more water into the city, but also to transport fresher and cheaper food and provide an alternative route for barges. The final stretch of the Canal St. Martin was completed in 1825. Today it and the Canal de l’Ourcq provide a healthy morning’s promenade.
Start your walk at the Eglise de Pantin Métro station. It is just a few minutes from there to the Canal de l’Ourcq, which feeds into the Canal St. Martin farther downstream. From here to the Temple Lock near République run the towpaths used by barges until the motor replaced the horse. Now refurbished, they welcome walkers and cyclists.
Towering above the poplar trees up ahead is the Grand Moulin de Paris. The city’s last flour mill is still in use and receives much of its grain by canal. The grain barges are easily identified by the profusion of pigeons settling on their cargo hatches.
Flowing under the Péripherique and into the Parc de la Villette, the canal passes the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, whose polished Géode and angular red “Follies” gleam. The Cité, designed by Adrian Fainsilber, opened in 1986 on land previously occupied by the extensive slaughterhouses that kept Paris supplied with meat. La Villette is cut in two by the canal, which, as it leaves, is joined from the right by the Canal St. Denis.
Below La Villette is the lift bridge at rue de Crimée. Now operated hydraulically, it came into service 111 years ago and replaced earlier wooden ones. The canal widens here into the immense Bassin de la Villette. From this 52,500 square meter basin, the city draws filtered but untreated water to feed the fountains, fire hydrants and street-cleaning outlets of the capital. In the 19th century the Bassin was a favorite spot for outings, and the current renewal of the area is making it popular again. Perspiring rowers scud up and down the flat water on weekends, weaving between tourist boats. At the far end stands an old customs house, where in 1918 the first shells from the German Army gun Big Bertha landed.
The 4.5km Canal St. Martin runs south from here, descending four sets of double locks on its way to the Seine. First are the Jaurès Locks, followed immediately by the La Fayette tunnel, which takes boats under the Métro lines and boulevards. The tunnel has no towpath, and originally boats were hauled through manually. Pulleys installed in the 1920s and electric capstans beside the locks shortened the travel time between the Bassin and the river by an hour and a half.
Two outstanding examples of industrial architecture border the next stretch of the canal. On the right bank is the Point Cima, a typically functional 1930s design still housing a construction materials supplier whose sand and gravel arrive by canal. Farther along on the left bank is an old compressed-air factory. Built in 1898 and restored in 1992, it is now classified as a historic building.
The canal curves to the left and reaches the chestnut-shaded Recollets Lock, named after a nearby convent. Today, however, the lock is more famous for the Hotel du Nord, nestling behind the trees. It features in the film of the same name by Marcel Carné, though the filmmakers actually used a set built in a Boulogne studio. On the opposite side of the canal is one of the many murals in the area with a watery theme. This prize-winning 1994 painting is by Didier Bergerol.
Immediately below the locks is one of two ingenious swing bridges on the canal. When the warning lights have ceased to flash and the barriers are in place, a section of the roadway lifts and pivots, letting boats past. Often the fishermen lining the canal are joined by model-boat enthusiasts shattering the peace with their buzzing craft.
Beyond the second swing bridge is the romantic Temple Lock. Its entrance is spanned by a wood and iron hump-backed footbridge where passersby gaze down upon a scene that has hardly changed in over 150 years. A huge barge, riding low in the water, noses into the lock and the bargee tosses his bow line up to the waiting lock keeper. The lock gates close behind it and fountains of white water jet through sluices opened in the gates. If the barge is ascending the canal it runs an extra risk: both bargee and lock keeper take special care, because as the lock fills even the largest barge can sink if the water pours over the deck and into its holds. The swing bridges above the lock are controlled from the lock keeper’s office.
The tunnel running from Temple Lock to the Port de l’Arsenal reached its full length in 1906 when the last section of canal was roofed over – one of the first uses of concrete in Paris. Through newly planted gardens, the rest of the walk passes dancing fountains and over wooden decks. Even here the canal theme is followed and three low bridges give a different perspective on the scene. Metal cones three meters across, set at intervals along the way, cover vents that give light and air to the canal beneath.
The end of the walk is in sight. Just beyond the Place de la Bastille is the Port de l’Arsenal. It used to be a major commercial port, with goods arriving from all over France and beyond. Seven or eight barges could unload simultaneously and still leave room for others to pass. Where once stood huge warehouses are now beautiful gardens, and houseboats and visiting motorboats crowd the quay.
The multitude of cafés around Bastille offer welcome respite after a morning walk. During a pause and refreshing drink, reflect on a few words Jacques Chirac wrote as mayor of Paris. The quiet, romantic canals, he said, “show how architecture and urbanism can complement nature [and] create a subtle complicity between the water, the sky and the stones.”