Some years ago, on our first stay in Paris, I read about a boat ride on Canal St. Martin. We decided that it would be a perfect first-day, recovering-from-jet-lag activity for that trip: two and a half hours of sitting and floating through an interesting part of Paris. It was, indeed, a perfect first-day activity, and a walk along Canal St. Martin has become our favorite walk in Paris. So today, our first real day back in Paris, we walked Canal St. Martin.
The canal starts at the Seine River, just upstream (east) from Ile St. Louis and Ile de la Cité. Bassin Arsenal, where there are quite a few pleasure boats (and from which one of the two canal boat rides starts) forms the first stretch of the canal, then it goes underground for about a kilometer, emerges and passes through five locks up to Bassin La Villete. When we first discovered Canal St. Martin the area around it was more working-class than much of Paris; in the intervening twenty years, it has become more gentrified, but still retains a good blue-collar feel.
Napoleon ordered the construction of Canal St. Martin in 1802. At that time, this was truly a blue-collar part of Paris, and one reason for the canal’s construction was that it provided a barrier to the eastern parts of the city, from which rebellions against the current regime always arose (much of the French Revolution was fueled in Faubourg St. Antoine, east of where Canal St. Martin was later constructed).
Today, Canal St. Martin is a testimony to Paris understanding that a head-long rush to progress isn’t always a good thing. There remains no real economic need for the canal and, indeed, in the early 1960s a movement arose to fill it in and create a highway in its place. Cooler heads prevailed and today Canal St. Martin, with its many pedestrian bridges, automobile bridges, locks and areas to just sit and enjoy life, is a beautiful and restful oasis in the middle of a very busy and noisy city.
Bridges on the Canal
After dinner Friday, we strolled around the area in which we were staying, turned down a little street, and saw this:
It was a gathering of Harley-Davidsons, their owners, and enthusiasts. The whole lot of them, in full regalia – leathers and all that – were standing around, looking at Harleys, talking about Harleys and drinking champagne from flutes. France – crazy and wonderful.