Paris: Canal St Martin Area
We didn’t know this part of Paris very well, and so were happy to spend a little bit of time exploring on our last trip. As is the case everywhere in Paris, there are interesting stories and history around every corner, the old interwoven with the more modern. One example, is the Artisan Church (see here https://vivsfrenchadventures.wordpress.com/2015/08/22/history-hiding-in-paris/ )
Canal St Martin and its neighborhood weren’t well-known for years, except for decaying warehouses, even though it featured in a number of movies, such as Hotel du Nord (1938), was painted by Alfred Sisley, and sung about by Edith Piaf (Les mômes de la cloche).
Then came the popular movie Amélie in 2001, with its title character skipping stones at the locks of the nearly 3-mile-long canal, and the tree-lined waterfront in the 10 th arrondissement started to revive. Some business owners compare it to Shoreditch in London, now one of London’s most distinctive and unusual areas (and successful), with new things being created.
Here, for example, Paris’s former state funeral parlor, which made all the city’s coffins in the 19th century, reopened in 2008 as a massive art space. Old buildings became boutiques, restaurants and new apartments. This area, which had been home to mostly laborers, became hip and trendy and young people are vying to buy a place overlooking the canal.
The canal connects the Canal de l’Ouroq in the north, via the Bassin de Villette, to the River Seine. It runs underground between Republique and Bastille. Napoleon 1 ordered construction of the canal in 1802 to create a waterway to bring Paris fresh water. It was dug from 1802-1825, and was also well used for bringing in many other goods and food. Two ports were created on the canal to unload supplies: Port de l’Arsenal and Bassin de la Villette. But, traffic dwindled and in the 1960s the canal narrowly escaped being filled in and paved over.
We walked north along the canal a bit, from Gare de l’Est, cutting through Jardin de Villemin (opened 1977), which was part of the former military hospital Villemin. The pretty garden is well used for picnics, kids playing, and people listening to music: the day we walked through, a brass band was playing in the bandstand. A plaque in the park commemorates the more than 700 Jewish children from the 10th arrondissement, who were taken between 1941-1944 by the occupying Nazis. The plaque is placed there to remember that these children never had the chance to play in a park again. Another significant piece of history. The old convent des Recollets next door is now a large art/architecture space, which sadly we didn’t have time to visit.
It’s fairly quiet and peaceful on the walkway next to the water, and very nice to have the shady trees. Along the canal we passed fishermen, an outdoor exercise area, lots of colorful graffiti, a small garden carefully tended, a couple of locks, some curved iron bridges, and facades of interesting buildings. They were quiet during the day, but later that evening many came alive as clubs, especially popular with young folk. Young people sit on the edge of the canal, and impromptu music groups are common.
A couple of barges, called Canauxrama, chugged up and down the canal, an MC explaining the sights to the throngs of tourists aboard.
We ended our walk where the canal starts: at Bassin de Villette, to which it’s connected by a double lock. Here is the big intersection at Place de Stalingrad (a metro runs over the top), with the Rotunda on one side, and many cafes, bars and restaurants lining it. For example, Le Jaures is pleasant with tables under the trees. Opposite is the Brasserie Le Rond Point, which has good, reasonably-priced dishes and many regular locals, including a couple of disabled folk who come to watch TV and are carefully helped by the staff. Nice to see.
This area is bustling, lively with people from many cultures and countries it seems. Lots come to Villette to walk, run, stroll, skateboard, scooter, buy icecreams, sit with a cup of coffee at one of the cafes along the Bassin etc. The big open space in front of the Rotunda by the fountain often has events and when we were there, there was a small fair on energy conservation. In the early evening a band played South American-type music and a few people danced, in particular one very cute little girl, who was really dancing very well.
We realize there’s more on offer in this part of the city, so we’ll have to plan to be back!