You don’t have to be Moses to walk on water in Paris. Even a footloose freethinker can happily skip over the flowing Canal Saint Martin and its sources, the farther-flung Canal de l’Ourcq and Bassin de la Villette.
These unsung watercourses built or expanded by Napoleons I and III enter Paris on its northeastern edge at La Villette, site of the city’s former slaughterhouses. They curve torpidly across the edgy 19th, 10th, 11th and 4th arrondissements – in that order – until they reach the Seine at the Arsenal Marina.
I was tempted to write “spill” or “rush” but the fact is the canals flow slowly, through many locks. They’re the antithesis of in a hurry. At the right time of day the mood along their tree-lined banks matches the go-slow pace of the water.
Missed seeing the canals up to now? That’s easy. From behind Place de la République, all the way to the Place de la Bastille and the Arsenal Marina, the Canal Saint Martin runs underground. That’s one reason it’s easy to walk on its waters: the esplanade on top is a linear garden. The park and flanking roadways change name many times. Parts are asphalted and used twice weekly for open-air markets.
The market on Boulevard Richard Lenoir held Thursdays and Sundays happens to be Paris’ best. It’s one reason why, when I walk the canals end to end, I start here early on Sunday. In fact, since the new Seine-side walkways have opened on the Right Bank, I pick up the pedestrian path on the river, amble past the Arsenal, then wend my way through the market heading northeast.
For me, the serious excitement starts at the first mossy lock in a pocket-sized park under giant trees. That’s where the Quai de Jemmapes and Quai de Valmy begin. You spot your first humpback bridge 100 yards along. From here to the edge of town it’s an almost uninterrupted series of locks, placid, greenish water, sycamores five stories high – and cafes, nightclubs, restaurants and bobos galore.
Whereas the Marais was gentrified 30 years ago, the Canal Saint Martin got going around the year 2000. It’s still the land of Wannabe-Bobos – the ones who haven’t quite made it into the star-architect, starlet and multiple-starred chef empyreans.
But judging by the cigarette butts littering the embankments, the SUVs and Smart cars on the sidewalks, and the prices at the cute cafes serving silly food, the prospects are excellent. This will soon be another Place des Vosges. It’s even noisier, with fewer foreign tourists.
Since the object of my walks is to find authenticity in an increasingly gentrified Paris, my enjoyment skyrockets once I get to Place Stalingrad. This section of waterway changes name, becoming the Canal de l’Ourcq. The unpronounceable part is a river. It’s what actually feeds the canals and the wide Bassin de la Villette, another marina.
At Stalingrad and Bassin de la Villette the new park is big with tame hipsters and wilder varieties of Parisian alike, the kind covered with tattoos and equipped with portable professional sound systems. They compete with the barge-cafes, embankment-side clubs, and the multiplex movie complexes facing each other on the Quai de la Seine and Quai de la Loire.
These quays and their unpaved embankments are now the prime destination of Paris’ new generation of bobo-boules players. They’re also the city’s main binge-drinking and partying venue, a lively scene once darkness falls. That’s why I get up here in the morning, when the party crowd is sleeping off the latest all-nighter. Or I saunter over in the late afternoon, at dusk, when the locals and yuppies mix on the quays. There are sling chairs, bike lanes, and walking paths – and if you like rowing or fishing you’re equally well served. Rest up! You’ve got another mile or more to go.
Beyond the locks and pivoting bridge with bizarre decorations, the best part of the walk begins: Quai de la Marne and Quai de l’Oise. Here the aerosol artists have beautified many a wall, the low-income high-rises lend an enchanting could-be-anywhere feel, and the kaleidoscope of characters you encounter seems increasingly full of character.
Geezers come out to La Villette to wet a line: this is the best fishing in town, it’s claimed. The most prized spot is where the Quai de la Gironde and Quai de la Charente meet the quays of Marne and Oise fronting what used to be the meatpacking plant and slaughterhouse district. Anglers pull up plump pike and perch, and maybe even the proverbial lost trout that’s survived a trans-suburban swim.
Urban sunbathers hike out here too. The canals are a reflecting pool, increasing the intensity of the Parisian sun and deepening the summer’s leftover Saint Tropez tan.
The backdrop: train trestles and the reconverted meatpacking plant – once Europe’s biggest. It now houses the Cité des Sciences museum and Geode movie theater. Plus there’s the crazy Parc de la Villette with its fire-engine red garden “follies” and tatterdemalion lawns. The old slaughterhouse, La Grande Halle, a mega-concert venue, lies behind, and so does the Cité de la Musique, Paris’s ear-challenging music conservatory.
On weekends, young couples and their kiddies, yuppies and rare birds – the real working-class Parisians – turn La Villette into an open-air, inner-city resort.
After a cross-town gallop it’s a great place to hear contemporary sound pieces – and fuel up on coffee or something vinous. The hike back to the Seine on the opposite bank of the canal replays the scenery. It also stretches out your water walk by a couple more hours – if you go at the appropriate, deliciously slow pace.
Author and private walking-tour guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next memoir, published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/paris and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the