Canal Saint Martin in Paris, Episode 119
The Canal Saint-Martin in Paris is a favorite of bloggers and gets high praise for atmosphere, scenic views, and as a place where “you just have to go”! But there are rumors and news reports that maybe all is not well in paradise. So Annie had to go see for herself and, on this episode, she also go to talk to her friend Brenda from California who took a Canal Saint-Martin Cruise in July 2015, which gave her a different perspective on the area. We discuss what we saw and whether or not we were enchanted as promised.
Places Mentioned in this Episode: Canal Saint Martin
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[5’30”] Canal Saint Martin in Paris
Background on the Canal Saint Martin
This canal is in the north-east of Paris and it is four and a half kilometers long and ends at the Seine. Originally (1825) it was built to bring drinking water to new areas of Paris. There are nine locks on this canal but only 25 m of slope. There are also ten footbridges over that distance of 4 ½ km. Altogether it belongs to a network of canals that’s 130 km long, so it’s possible to be walking along the different canal and not realize it! There are three Metro stops that will take you to various locations along the canal, they are République, Goncourt et Jaurès.
The Canal Saint Martin was extremely helpful to Paris in the 19 century until the middle of the 20th century. It was used heavily, brought drinking water to Paris but also a lot of merchandise.
So why did they build this canal? Under Napoleon Paris had a problem with bad water and distant tree and cholera happened at regular intervals. An administrator called Chabrol suggested that maybe they could go get clean water from the River called l’Ourcq about 100 km northeast of Paris. To find the funding they had to create a private company called La Compagnie des Canaux de Paris and I was done in 1818. They also created a separate company called La Compagnie du Canal Saint Martin to perform the actual work. Both of these companies were privately funded. They laid the first stone for the Canal Saint Martin on May 3, 1822 and it was inaugurated on November 4, 1825.
Then came Haussmann in 1860 and if you’ve been listening to the show your heard his name many many times because he is one who brought a lot of changes to the city of Paris. One of the problems he ran into is this canal that was in his way! So they covered the Canal Saint Martin in parts. They also had to feed a lot less water into it so that barges could go under those covered parts and starting in 1862 you have steam engines pulling barges under the covered parts (HUMANS were pulling the barges the rest of the way). Yes humans! Up until 1920 pulling barges along this canal was an actual job! It was cheaper than using horses or oxen!
By 1960 commercial freight on the canal was down to almost nothing because of heavy competition from roads and rail and slowly all the buildings that went along the commercial activity such as docks and storage houses went down significantly. In 1970 there was a project to cover it up completely and puts a freeway where the canal is today. Thankfully they gave up on that idea and so we still have the canal today. Between 1988 and 2012 the average price of rent around the area of the Canal Saint Martin went up faster than in other areas of Paris. There’s even one street called Rue de Marseille (10 ième arrondissement) where you have luxury boutiques opening up.
Today, along the Canal Saint-Martin, you will find a few note-worthy boutiques and tourist cruises. Brenda was one such tourist who took a cruise on the Canal Saint-Martin and is going to tell us all about it!
[12′ 34] What Is It Like Visiting the Canal Saint-Martin?
The only time I went was on a Sunday morning late July 2016 and I must admit I was not impressed. There were all lots of people sleeping along the banks of the canal. There was a lot of trash, I didn’t think it was up to par compared to the rest of Paris. But with so many bloggers rhapsodizing about it, it is bound to attract a lot of unsuspecting visitors. Honestly, I don’t get the draw. I’m sure if I was invited to a company party at somebody’s loft, or to a nice restaurant along there, it would be nice. But just walking along the banks is not a great experience. If you recall a few shows ago (episode 111) David Pallacheck actually said that this is the only place where he felt uncomfortable in Paris. As of July 2016, it was meh at best.
Brenda’s perception was colored by the fact that she knows the Canal du Midi very well. The Canal du Midi is a UNESCO world heritage site and most of it is very well maintained. The Canal du Midi is beautiful, the scenery around it is also very beautiful. I highly recommend that anyone who is in the area check out the Canal du Midi. Brenda and her family took a cruise on the Canal du Midi two years ago around Carcassonne. The Canal du Midi has beautiful trees planted all along it, it takes you through the countryside, it is a bucolic experience. By comparison, going to the Canal Saint-Martin was a little bit startling. But, to do it justice, the two are not entirely comparable because one is role and the other is urban.
[15’00”] How to Get to the Canal Saint-Martin
Brenda and her husband got off at the Parc de la Villette Metro station and walked through the park de la Villette which gave them the chance to see what this park is all about (Cité des Sciences, the Géode, the Cité de la Musique) and at first they were not impressed because it very much looks like a 70s all-concrete development. But then, as they got closer to their destination they saw some water attractions and other things that would have been fun to do with children. Here is an interactive map of everything that is available at the Parc de la Villette.
The cruise day got on was with a company called Paris Canal, which told them that boarding takes place near a restaurant called My Boat (in the interview Brenda says it was called The Boathouse, but that was incorrect). They had to use their GPS app to help them find the restaurant. The boat was a really large double-decker boat that probably had 100 people on it. There were no drinks on the boat, so if you go on a hot day bring your own! It was a 2 ½ hour boat trip which is a long time to be on a boat. By comparison the Bâteaux Mouches rides are more or less 1 hour. The reason why this cruise on the Canal Saint-Martin takes so long is that you have to go through nine locks. Locks take a long time.
The Locks on the Canal Saint-Martin
The mechanics of the canal are very interesting to see. You don’t think the bridge that you see ahead of you is tall enough to let your boat go under, but then the lock will do its magic and lower your boat to an appropriate height. Going between the Bassin de la Villette and the Seine River your locks are mostly taking you down.
The boat ride is narrated with a tour guide the entire way. This was a bilingual French – English tour which should not have been a problem for Brenda because she speaks really good French and English too. But this particular guy was just repeating a memorized text, was clearly pretty bored by the whole thing and mumbled a lot. So it didn’t work out so well. When the guide spoke English Brenda and her husband understood even less than when he spoke French! It is quite possible that in this case having a professionally recorded tour would have been easier.
One of the things that she did understand is that this canal was needed not only to bring water to the city of Paris but also in order to provide decent water pressure to the city. You cannot get good water pressure if you only have a trickle of water! The canal also provided water pressure because of the way the slope works.
Another thing to remember is that caused this is a very urban canal, it sometimes cuts through the back of buildings and areas that you normally wouldn’t see. You get to see the places where they’ve stashed the garbage cans and so forth. And you also see where homeless people are trying to build shelters for themselves. Paris is just like any other large cities, there are homeless people.
The Canal Saint-Martin in 2016
[Actually, a few days after we recorded this episode Annie heard a news report on how this area of Paris has gotten a very bad when it comes to homeless population. The proximity to the Gare du Nord makes it a desirable area because most of the homeless people are hoping to smuggle onto the Eurostar train and go to London. The police tries to control the situation without being too intransigent about it.]
As far as what sorts of building you will see a long this boat ride, keep in mind that you will see a lot of buildings from the 60s and 70s, this is not exactly Haussmann Paris. As a result, the highlight of the whole trip happens when you start navigating on the Seine River because that’s where the pretty stuff is! Once past the last lock into the river, that’s where things get interesting.
[26’20] Going Under the Canal Saint-Martin Tunnels
let’s backtrack a little bit and talk about going under the tunnels. You have to go through two locks before you can get into the tunnel, one right after the other. When you see the approaching entrance to the tunnel you wonder how this is boat ever going to go under there? But it does once it’s gone through the two locks. And then you go for about 2 km under the tunnel. The roof of the tunnel is not very far above your head. From what Brenda understands, men used to lie on their backs and push the barge along pushing against the ceiling with their feet. Annie had read that there were steam engines pulling the barges as well. She needs to do more research on that.
There are some lights in the tunnel, you can see a little bit, but it’s pretty dark. And every now and then you see a grate or pothole to the street that lets the air in. It takes a while to ride under the tunnel, but you don’t have to go through any more locks once you’re inside, so it goes a little bit faster.
Out of the total 4 ½ km of this canal, two of them–more or less–are covered. But the underground part goes pretty fast because you’ve already gone through all the locks and the locks are what slow you down significantly. The canal goes under Place de la République and Bastille before it ends at the Seine River.
Bassin de l’Arsenal
Once you get out of the covered canal you are in a marina where you see little barges and small boats, that’s called Boulevard Bourdon and the marina is called Port de l’Arsenal or Bassin de l’Arsenal (4th ). That was interesting seeing all the boats in this marina. Then you get to the gate to get access to the river, and that’s what everybody stands up to get a better view.
Canal Saint-Martin Cruise or Bâteau-Mouche Cruise?
The stretch between the Arsenal marina and the Musée d’Orsay takes about 15 minutes but is very fun to see. You go right past the Ile de la Cité because at that point you are on the Seine River. On the Seine River you are sailing the same area that the bateaux mouche take, although you don’t go quite as far because a regular bateau mouche goes before Ile Saint-Louis until the Eiffel tower. So instead of going all the way to the Eiffel tower, the canal Saint-Martin cruise will take you until the Musée d’Orsay which is before a bend in the river. Because of that you do see the fair bit of the Seine River as well. You go right by Ile Saint Louis, you go by Ile de la Cité, you see the Conciergerie, Notre Dame.
Brenda’s Review of the Canal Saint-Martin Cruise
Brenda’s assessment is that if you really love the mechanics of the canal, you will really like this cruise on the canal Saint-Marin. But do not do it to see the bridge parts of Paris because you would be better off going on the bâteau-mouche.
[31’22] Annie’s Review of the Canal Saint-Martin
Annie really wanted to hurry up and go see this canal before leaving Paris again, so she got up Sunday morning and she drove there with her young Parisian cousin. Her purpose was essentially to see it for herself and take some pictures. So, admittedly, this was the wrong time of day to be going, the wrong mode of transportation because it’s hard to park there even on a Sunday morning, and being in a hurry did not help either. But, we saw a lot of trash, a lot of things that were not attractive. I am sure if I had been invited to some loft for party or had gone to a nice restaurant, it would have been very different. But just walking around the Canal Saint-Martin is not great.
How Can You Tell if an Area of Paris is “Safe” or “Not Safe”?
Annie went with a cousin who lives in Paris and I asked her how she can tell if she’s going into a “nice” area or not. She says if there is a grocery store of the brand Monoprix, then it’s a nice area because that’s the most expensive groceries in Paris! Also, in general, the ninth in the 10th arrondissement in Paris are pretty good, but the 19th nearby (the canal Saint-Martin starts at the edge of the 10th and the 19th) is not near as nice.
So, one piece of advice is to visit this canal as close as you can to its end near the Seine River. Of course, some of that is covered and there is nothing to see from the surface. The sides of the covered parts of the canal Saint-Martin are not walk-able. You can walk on the streets above, but not along the covered canal. So, as it stands, and at least for people want to stroll around, I cannot recommend walking around this canal. I didn’t find it romantic or even scenic.
But that probably had a lot to do with the fact that it was full of trash and that there were homeless people sleeping along its banks. Once that problem is solved, it will definitely be a lovely place! The bridges are lovely, the locks look nice, but it doesn’t matter how often they clean up, the migrant populations living there are not keeping it nice. Or go explore around rue de Marseille (10th arrondissement) and the areas of the Canal Saint-Martin nearby. Bus #56 has one stop on rue de Marseille and the République Métro Station is nearby.
Brenda says you would be better off going to the Canal du Midi in the South of France!
In a way, it is good that France has liberal policies concerning these populations of homeless and migrant people who have a hard time fitting in. It’s good to be compassionate, but when they take over an area that is right along a major tourist attraction, it’s difficult to recommend that tourist attraction until things are better. Most visitors can tolerate some amount of trash and unsightliness, but around the Canal Saint-Martin it has gotten out of control.
And if you’d like to refer back to episode 111, David Palachek told us that the Canal Saint-Martin is the only place in Paris where he felt uncomfortable and his visit was quite recent as well. That is one of the reasons why Annie absolutely wanted to go see it, because she has never felt uncomfortable and unsafe anywhere in Paris so far. And she would go as far as saying that she felt unsafe walking along the Canal Saint-Martin (neither would Brenda), but these facts make it up “meh” kind of place or as the French put it “bof, bof, bof”.
Make this episode even better! What do you think? Did we leave anything out that you know about? Add your comments here!