Canal Saint Martin

Le Canal Saint Martin and beyond

In the heart of Paris’s trendy 10th arrondissement lies the peaceful and atmospheric Canal Saint Martin. Unlike some of the eateries, cafés and boutiques in the neighborhood, the canal has been there for a very long time. In the early 19th century, Napoleon I, who was as much a skilled administrator as he was a military man avid for conquest, planned for a canal network to bring drinking water to the French capital. Some of these canals, (Canal de l’Ourcq, Canal St Martin,) were connected to the Seine river and two large ports, that have evolved but still exist today, le Bassin de la Villette (located north, in the 19th arrondissement,) and le Port de l’Arsenal, by la Bastille (11th arrondissement.) Life was busy in the industrial areal along the canals, where boats delivered merchandise later stored in giant warehouses.

canal saint martin
(WIkipedia Commons)

Few tourists ventured along le Canal Saint Martin in the 20th century, even if it was featured in a few movies, including Marcel Carmé‘s iconic Hôtel du Nord, in 1938. By 2001, in Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amelie,) Audrey Tautou famously threw rocks in the murky water of the canal. By then, a lot had changed in the neighborhood, and le Canal St Martin had stepped into the {Parisian} limelight.

Canal Saint Martin
Hôtel du Nord (1938) Amelie (2001) Photo: Canauxrama

The banks of le Canal Saint Martin were rehabilitated in the early 1990s. On its way to the Seine river, it disappeared underground near la Bastille and le port de l’Arsenal as small public gardens and avenues were built above it. The old waterway became a protected Historical Monument of France in 1993. Over the next 20 years, the neighborhood would morph into one of the trendiest, most popular strolling grounds in Paris, favored by locals and out-of-town visitors alike. Who has not walked the atmospheric canal banks in the shade of the plane trees? Who has not enjoyed an improvised picnic on a sunny day; or sat at one of the many café terraces?

Canal Saint Martin

Canal Saint Martin

Canal Saint Martin

It is so pretty by the water, in spite of traffic zooming by on either side, along le quai de Jemmapes and le quai de Valmy. Is it the cast-iron footbridges, evocative of a different time? Is it the old locks (some still manually operated) providing entertainment as small pleasure boats (or one of two professional boat tour lines) tie up and wait their turn to move along the canal? Visitors and birds pause and watch. One thing is for certain: We are far, far, away from the commotion in downtown Paris.

Canal St Martin

Canal St Martin

Canal Saint Martin
La Mouette (seagull)

At night, the magic still operates.

Canal Saint Martin

My brother’s office is nearby, and I come and meet him for lunch whenever I am in town. I have seen the neighborhood change over the years, and feel connected to it, even if live 8,000 miles away. So much has happened in this area, especially in the last few years, with the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in the 11th arrondissement, or the November 2015 attacks, when people died at several locations, including the terrace of la Bonne Bière, my brother’s cantine (favorite lunch place.)

le Canal Saint Martin

Canal Saint Martin
A la Bonne Bière: l’ardoise
Canal Saint Martin
Fluctuat Nec Mergitur

Not all landmarks are sad ones. A walk along le Canal Saint Martin, for this French Girl, always includes a few favorite sights and stops.

Canal Saint Martin
The colorful façades of Antoine et Lili
canal saint martin
Invest in Made in France goods and indulge your inner Bobo (bourgeois-bohême)
All my trips to Antoine et Lili end like this…

Canal Saint Martin

Canal Saint Martin
Yes, this is the hotel featured in that old movie!
Canal Saint Martin
Paris-“Plage?”

Been there, done that,” you say? Have you actually walked the whole length of le Canal Saint Martin (or at least the section above ground,) as the waterway makes its way north towards le Bassin de la Villette? Forget the crowded Seine river banks on hot summer days. This is the place to be! The old port is the largest artificial lake in Paris. Long gone are warehouses, and the sounds and smells of the once popular Paris livestock market. Instead, you will find détente, (relaxation,) culture (a movie theater, barges hosting exhibits, cafés and even a bookstore,) pétanque games, a brand-new swimming area (inaugurated in 2017,) kayak, pedal and electric boat rentals. In short, heaven.

Once you have crossed the busy place Stalingrad, you will spot la Rotonde de la Villette, a historical building now housing a restaurant. Félicitations: You have arrived. Bienvenue dans le 19è. arrondissement !

Canal Saint Martin
Rotonde Nicolas Ledoux
Canal Saint Martin
Bassin de La Villette. The old, and the new.

Canal Saint Martin

On a hot day, sit down and enjoy a refreshing drink at le Pavillon des Canaux, an old house with a beautiful terrace overlooking the basin; or head over to the Paname Brewing Company, located in a former granary, to sample microbrews “made in Paris,” and unbeatable views of le Bassin de la Villette.

Canal Saint Martin
Maison des Canaux

Canal Saint Martin
From the terrace of the Paname Brewing Company: Thé glacé maison

The best thing about le Bassin de la Villette? It is easily accessible with public transportation. It is only a short walk away from other local attractions, le Parc des Buttes Chaumont, or le Parc de la Villette, site of the former slaughterhouses of Paris. Canal boat tours will take you there if you let them: You can explore la Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, watch outdoor movies in the summer (or spectacular shows at la Géode year round.)

Next time you stroll by le Canal Saint Martin, keep in mind there is a lot more to see along its banks than meets the eye. Who knows? You might end up spending a whole day there, by the water, where life is good, relaxing and… civilized.

A bientôt.

 

Dear readers:

The French Girl in Seattle blog has just turned 7 and will be getting a new look in 2018! If you enjoy looking at France and all things French through the eyes of this French native, consider signing up for la Mailing List (on this page,) to receive new stories first via email, or join me daily on Instagram (@Frenchgirlinseattle)

With gratitude, FGIS

All photos by French Girl in Seattle. Please do not use text or images without permission. 

 

Canal Saint Martin

 

Additional resources:

Marin d’Eau Douce. Bassin de la Villette Boat and gear rental.

Swimming in le Bassin de la Villette: C’est possible! Story is here.

 

 

 

Dear readers:

If you enjoy exploring France and French culture like a native, consider signing up for la Mailing List to receive exclusive travel stories first via email, or join me daily on Facebook and Instagram.

What did you think about this article? Let me know in the comment section below, (I love reading your messages and reply to most.) Don’t be selfish and share with a friend! Merci. Véronique (French Girl in Seattle)

27 Comments

  • Once again an excellent stroll thru a less-visited part of Paris. In fact it was my second home, after I reluctantly moved from Ile St Louis. You say:
    “Over the next 20 years, the neighborhood would morph into one of the trendiest, most popular strolling grounds in Paris, favored by locals and out-of-town visitors alike.”

    It became trendy for exactly the same reason I moved there: it was the cheapest property in Paris and as a poor scientist it was where I could afford to buy something with proper rooms, ie. other than a very small studio (though it was also right next to my place of work at Hopital St Louis). For the same reasons young people could more easily buy or rent there. Not BoBo territory (though it may be morphing into that today?) but more youthful and studenty and ethnic.

    I suppose it was less desirable because the 10th contains Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est plus, like you say, was historically filled with light industry around the canal and train lines. Though most had gone by the early 90s when I moved there and most of the ZACs (rehabilitation zones) had been completed in the 70s and 80s. Almost all of Quai de Jemmapes, from Republique to Stalingrad, consists of modern apartment blocks, except for those patches of ancient ones such as Hotel du Nord (which in reality is pretty decrepit–probably its filmic heritage saved it from demolition). The transformation of the Place de la Republique from a car-infested traffic island into a pedestrian-friendly plaza has helped.

    • Merci de votre visite. I imagine a former resident must be even more interested in the many transformations this neighborhood has gone through over the last few decades. You are correct about l’Hôtel du Nord. It was run down, set to get torn down (and likely replaced by a new building like the modern apartment block you mentioned,) when Parisians (many cinephiles,) decided to organize and fight to save the old hotel in the 1980s. From street demonstrations, (in typical French fashion,) to fund raising efforts, to media campaigns, they were active and eventually won: Even after the hotel had been renovated and turned into a restaurant, the iconic façade was preserved and became a “Historic Monument of France.” It has been protected since. Here is an interesting article I meant to share but did not include at the end of the story. http://www.hoteldunord.org/fr/historique/hist-canal

  • That scene of Amelie on one of the iconic green passerelles over the canal (and close by to Hotel du Nord) is perhaps the best known today, but I believe it may have been Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s partial homage to another famous film scene, from the Marcel Carné epic movie Les enfants du paradis (1945); if I remember correctly the scene is night time (or dusk, same as in Amelie) with Arletty and Jean-Louis Barrault on the bridge. Of course Marcel Carné also made Hotel du Nord which also starred Arletty.

    A more recent movie that features extensively features the canal is One Day (2011) starring Anne Hathaway & Jim Sturgess; they cross over the canal on one of the passerelles too but a bit further downstream, in fact at Avenue Richerand (my street). Much of the Paris segment of the movie is set around here (where the Hathaway character lives) and there is also a brief glimpse of one of the cafes involved in the 2015 terrorist shooting–at rue Alibert.

    But continuing the filmic links I want to mention something I discovered just last week. If you follow the canal right to the edge of Paris, ie. take the left (NW) turn into Canal St Denis, just beyond where it passes under the trains tracks from Gare de l’Est at the limit of the 19th arrondissement, there are three newish Metro stations. They serve the Tram 3b extension (and one also serves RER-E). Apparently their names were conferred, and insisted upon, by then-mayor socialist Bertrand Delanöe, even though they broke the rule about using geographic names (he perhaps got around this by also renaming streets around them). Anyway they are female icons: Rosa Parks, Ella Fitzgerald and Delphine Seyrig. I notice that opposite Rosa Parks there is a Passage Susan Sontag!

    When I went to Wiki to refresh my memory of Seyrig, I found this:
    “Seyrig was a major feminist figure in France. Throughout her career, she used her celebrity status to promote women’s rights. The most important of the three films she directed was the 1977 Sois belle et tais-toi (Be Pretty and Shut Up), which included actresses Shirley MacLaine, Maria Schneider, and Jane Fonda, speaking frankly about the level of sexism they had to deal with in the film industry.”

    Exactly 40 years before #MeToo!

    • Thank you for another informative comment. If you and I ever met for a drink by le Canal St Martin, we would discuss movies and popular French culture, I imagine… I will make sure to check out the area you mention, and already traveled via the new Rosa Parks station on my way to my parents’ place in the suburbs, another illustration Paris keeps changing and reinventing herself a lot more than many give her credit for. I can’t resist sharing the most iconic movie scene ever filmed by le Canal St Martin (at least for French cinephiles,) a long time before Mademoiselle Amélie stopped by to practice her “ricochets” in the canal: The “Atmosphère, atmosphère… Est-ce que j’ai une gueule d’atmosphère?” line, delivered by actress Arletty in the iconic “Hôtel du Nord” movie. The scene provides a unique peek into what the old Canal St Martin neighborhood used to look like in its working class days. It’s also a great illustration, via Arletty’s unique voice and delivery, of the famous “Parisian gouaille.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DKI0EP-RMA

  • Wow, the canal has changed so much in the last 10 years since I have been there! I loved it then and am looking forward to exploring it when I go back. Thanks for a great post!

    • Merci beaucoup. I am glad you enjoyed your stroll with me today. I live for the details and am much more comfortable spotting (and capturing) them than I am with landscape photography. I leave that part to professional photographers!

  • Love it!
    I used to live in Paris (for 20 years!) but I don’t know it very well.
    Now next time I am in the city I’ll go there for sure!
    You made me want to.
    What is the orange wall pic just before the Hôtel du Nord?

    • Bonjour Catherine. The orange wall has changed over time. It is located by le Canal St Martin, on quai de Valmy. The wall is popular with street artists who regularly paint different scenes and messages on it. It made the news after the 2015 terror attacks when a giant “Fluctuat Nec Mergitur” fresco was painted there as a tribute to Paris’s resilience (“Tossed by the Waves but Never Sunk.) It is the city’s official motto. You can look it up on Google. I have a few photos of it, but chose to share this version, captured last June, instead. Life goes on…

  • Excellent reportage sur ce magnifique coin de Paris que je connais et adore. Merci Véronique. Les photos sont très belles.

  • You’ve got me feeling nostalgique. I lived in the 11th and until 2012 my office was in the 10th near the canal. Your photos captured much of what I saw walking to and from work. We would eat lunch by the canal in the summer and play boules after work nearby. And Antoine et Lili got plenty of my euros. Thank you for highlighting this lovely corner of Paris!

  • Thanks for this great article on the Canal St Martin area. This is my neighbourhood where I own a small flat 20 steps from the Canal. All my visitors love staying here as it gives a different look to Paris. A more relaxed, local feel. The number of great restaurants has increased in the last few years as well as a younger local crowd.

    Trish
    rentaparisflat.com

  • Another great post! Thank you for sharing your way around Paris. I have noted the places in this post so to be sure to visit them when there in May. We will have a month to visit Paris (May 9th – June 9th), 2 weeks in Nice (April 5-20th), Bordeaux (5/1-5/4 & 2 weeks in Caen (late June) area. Almost forgot the Toulouse area (5/4-9th). I will scour your past blogs for more interesting places to see. I much prefer ‘off the beaten path’ type places.
    If you are at all planning on being in France somewhere during that time would love to meet up & share stories.
    Cheers!
    DiAnn

  • What would be the easiest way to get there? It is on my list when I make my first trek to Paris in September. We are staying in the 5th. The friend I am travelling with has been to Paris once in 2012 but she did not visit that area. We want to keep 2 days for just exploring and this is an area I would like to see.

    Thanks much for any advice

    p.s. loved watching your Cafe chat with Corey!

    • Bonjour Tami. If you are staying on the Left Bank, you will have to cross over to the Right Bank. An easy way to visit le Canal St Martin is to pick “Republique” as your Metro stop. The Canal neighborhood is within walking distance of la Place de la République. Hope you enjoy it! If you are looking for a lunch place when you get there, I reviewed a new Italian restaurant by the Canal on the FGIS Facebook page this week. Bonne visite.

    • FGIS is correct. However it is one of the great walks of Paris and absolutely that is what you should do. Beginning in the Leftbank go to Notre Dame and walk across the (pedestrian) Pont St Louis at the rear of the cathedral, onto Ile St Louis. Walk the length of the island on its central (almost its only) street, rue St Louis-en-Ile, right to its end at Pont Sully.

      Walk north on Pont Sully across to the Rightbank and take the riverside walk here, heading upstream about 500m until you come to the Bassin de l’Arsenal. This is the pleasure port with a few hundred peniches (barges) and assorted river boats are moored. Go up the westside (Bvd Bourdon) of the port about halfway then cross high over the water on the passerelle (ped bridge, continuation of rue Mornay) to the eastside where you can descend to Jardin de l’Arsenal (with its ornamental gardens; note this area is locked early evening).

      Walk northwards in the gardens until you exit back to the street level almost at Place de la Bastille. Navigate anti-clockwise across the Bastille–passing in front of the Opera Bastille–and turn into the Boulevard Richard Lenoir. It is a long linear park that on weekends (maybe only Sundays?) hosts the now very popular Marché Biologique (ie. organic farmers market). You are now walking on top of the Canal St Martin which was buried in the 19th century under the road (and Bastille)–you can see the air & light “chimneys” along the park.

      So you just follow the park all the way until it finishes at Place de la Republique (well, 2 blocks east at rue du Faubourg du Temple; if you have time you could deviate to the Place which is the historic and modern centre of popular protest with its statue of Marianne). Cross over the F. du Temple and voila, Canal St Martin emerges from its subterranean passage courtesy of a few locks (visible at Sqe F. Lemaitre). Wait here long enough and you’ll see the Bateaux Mouche (tour boats) use the locks to go under and all the way to Bastille and the Seine.

      Now you can walk along the paths on either side of the canal. This is now the 10th arrondissement and will take you all the way to the Bassin de la Villette which is a good place for a canal-side lunch or dinner. This is the 19th arrondissement. Depending on how much energy you have you can continue waterside along the Canal de l’Ourq. In fact it is only about another one km to the edge of Paris. At this end (ie. junction Bassin Villette/Ourq) is the famous original elevating Pont Crimée (there is a passerelle next to it that is good for photos; these days I suppose a selfie with Pont Crimée in background; this bridge will elevate for the Bateaux Mouche).

      About 500m takes you to the junction of the two canals, l’Ourq and St Denis and on the other side you will now be in the Parc de la Villette with its Science & Industrie museum (you’ll see the Geode). Right at the far end just before the canal passes under the peripherique motorway, is the famous Zenith concert hall; about 200m south in the same parkland is the new (2014) Philharmonie de Paris concert hall. At this end you can catch Metro 5 at station Porte de Pantin (next to Cité de la Musique which is directly south of the Philharmonie).

      You will have done 100% of the canal route (well excepting St Denis which heads north-west and is less interesting). I’d bet you would have bragging rights over any of your friends who claim to have “done Canal St Martin”. It’s a longish walk but easily done in a day and of course no end of places to stop for lunch, a coffee or dinner etc. Incidentally plenty take the Bateau Mouche tour–and that is the only way to see the subterranean sections–but that’s the lazy way. Walking is far superior.

      But a warning: your biggest risk will be getting diverted! I mean you could easily get stuck on Ile St Louis for the rest of the day. You must discipline yourself to keep pushing onward 🙂

      • Of course it being Paris there are no end of side excursions you could do, though be wary of losing too much of the day.

        This route up Bvd Richard Lenoir will cross Boulevard Voltaire (cutting at an angle SE/NW) and you’ll see the Bataclan music venue (on the west side) where the terrible terrorist event happened in 2015. They have installed a memorial to the 90+ victims. In fact you could divert up Bvd Voltaire to Place de la Republique, then rejoin the canal at rue du Faubourg du Temple as per above.

        There aren’t so many of the hyper-famous monuments on this route (which doesn’t diminish it at all) except perhaps those you will pass anyway: Bastille & its opera; Republique and Marianne. Another very old bit of little seen Paris is just off Canal St Martin: walk about 120m up Avenue Richerand and at its end is an entrance to the oldest part of Hopital St Louis. It is this junction that is featured in the movie One Day (see my earlier post) and there is a photo of it in the Wiki entry. In fact I just learned that

        “The south-west entrance to the hospital, located at the intersection of rue Bichat and avenue Richerand, is popularly known as the entrance to the police station in the hit French detective television series, Navarro.”
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%B4pital_Saint-Louis#/media/File:P1040720_Paris_X_h%C3%B4pital_Saint-Louis_rwk.jpg

        Anyway make sure to walk further into the hospital (open to public during daytime) another 25m or so until you pass into the oldest part, the cloisters surrounding the beautiful and calm garden courtyard, built 1611. This was my daily walk to work (within the northern side of the hospital).

        If you do take this diversion be sure to retrace your route (ie. av Richerand) back to the canal, ie. don’t be tempted by any north-western shortcut, because this (Richerand to Recolletes) is perhaps the most famous part of the canal, much featured in movies (including Amelie, Infants des Paradis, Hotel du Nord, more recently One Day) and of course has the actual (heritage-protected facade anyway) Hotel du Nord (east bank). Note that there are five of the green passerelles (ped. bridges) here and the two road bridges are “pont tournant”, ie. they swivel on carousels to allow passage of boats.

        Note at the junction of Canal St Martin and the Bassin de la Villette is the elaborate Rotonde de la Villette, which hides the original waterworks to supply water to Paris from the canals (the reason Napoleon commissioned these canals though, like so much he ordered, he didn’t live to see it completed). I believe today it still serves as the supply point for all that water you see washing the gutters of Paris (and watering the parks & gardens), an eminently sensible arrangement rather than use precious potable water.

  • Well, my dear “Aussie-on-Ile-St-Louis,” I guess you are the next best thing to my trusted “Plan de Paris par arrondissement.” These are very handy (and detailed) directions you provided. Any person able to take a good, long, urban walk should definitely follow them. Maybe you should be a travel writer? (I am somehow expecting you to reply: “Well, as a matter of fact, I have already published a book about the best Paris walks…”) – Merci beaucoup, as always, for enriching one of my blogposts with your comments. Bien à vous, FGIS.

  • Excuse me. I can’t help myself. I did go OTT this time. You can tell I am OCD about two things (at least!), 1. Paris and 2. Walking in Paris. It is without doubt the best walking city in the world and I don’t believe anyone can really appreciate the city without hours and hours traipsing around it. No accident that it gave the world both the activity and the word that describes it: flanerie & flaneur.

    It’s why your blog is so good (yes, your are encouraging my OCD:-). Who needs to read about another view of the Eiffel Tower or the other Top Ten (or top 100) in the Paris everyone already knows about?

    As it happens Canal St Martin is my old “home” area, and in this case I was able to begin the flanerie/tour on my other home zone, Ile St Louis. Double heaven. As it happens I have also just finished reading David Jefferson’s “Paris by Boat. A Boatowners’ Guide to the Seine and Paris Canals”. (It is long out of print but I bought a secondhand copy via your current hometown’s little company, you know the one that has a z in its name …). It has been overfeeding my OCD and generating wild ideas of how to afford living in Paris again …

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