When your feet are tired from climbing all those stairs in the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, try a nice relaxing cruise along the two most fascinating waterways in Paris, the Canal St Martin and the River Seine. I love a good boat trip and jumped at the chance to take a Paris canal tour for a few hours of blissful floating through some of my favorite Paris scenery.
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Here Are A Few Thing To Know About Cruising The Canals of Paris
Exploring the Canals of Paris
I joined the canal boat at La Villette, the enormous science park and center at the end of the Canal St Martin. This is also worth a visit, especially for travelers with children who will be enthralled by the fantastic exhibits at the science museum, with a huge park and playground outside. Taking the tour in this direction means you can spend the morning exploring and then head back into the center of the city; while starting in the morning at Musee d’Orsay will give you the afternoon at la Villette.
We drifted happily along the remains of a post-industrial waterway, chimney stacks rising from the factories along the shore; under the marvelous black smoky iron railway bridge; and then to one of my favorite tiny bridges in Paris, which rises up above the canal to let the boats fit underneath.
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Explore Paris’ Culture via the Canal
The multi-colored lights of the Holiday Inn are next door, and the endless summer party along the canal takes place every warm night; you can find friends here dancing till dawn to the beat of their bongo drums. The basin de la Villette widens out to the rotunda at the end – another nice cafe there – and the dramatic contrasts in the life of this vibrant city are highlighted by the homeless people living in cardboard leaning up against the stone walls across the water.
Two of the major cinemas are located on either side of the canal here, and if you buy the tickets from one, you can take a free boat across to the other – a short trip worth the price of admission. Mainstream new release movies are shown in their original version. Here you can also find out about which metro stations changed from original German names – did you know there used to be a Paris metro stop called ‘Berlin’? You may also hear about the crazy city taxes and the effect this had on the citizens, which also explains why inside Paris is so much more expensive than outside Paris.
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The Locks of Canal St Martin
This brings us to the first lock; a small but pretty one with the water flowing over the wooden gate and trees stretching above you, arched with a small delicate iron footbridge. The lock is in two parts; the second part brings you under the railway bridge; where people line up along the stone wall to watch the boat slowly lower as the water level drops beneath it. The first small tunnel is a surprise; but wait until you get to the end of the canal where the tunnel stretches for 2 kilometers!
This part of the canal has a spooky history; you will hear about the ‘lock of the dead’, and find out why the macabre butchers of the past may have served up more than animal meat to customers.
Next, you pass Point Ephemere, one of the most popular bar and performance venues along the canal, next door to the fire station where we timed our trip perfectly to watch an emergency rescue practice drill being performed (with a dramatic escape on the fire ladder!).
BOBO Paris From the Water
The prettiest part of the canal is to follow; it’s the center of BOBO (BOurgeois BOhemian) Paris, radiant with brightly-colored gifts and clothes shops and overflowing bars. The tiny Bar Quai de Jemmapes is still my favorite – although a French friend loves the Hôtel du Nord, which provides one of the cultural anecdotes for the tour guide. The movie of the same name is the reason for the most famous movie quote in all of French cinema; apparently equivalent to Casablanca’s “Play it again, Sam”. I won’t spoil it, though. You will have to take the tour to discover the French equivalent.
Drifting merrily along through the numerous locks, you can sit back and relax; enjoy watching the people along the sides of the water as they play in the parks or drink in the bars. Finally, you will discover why the canal was buried; and the ever-present social unrest of earlier political times… maybe still relevant in these turbulent days. And if you’re lucky, the ghostly clarinet may sound in the canal tunnel while you pass through, illuminated by eerie green light from the vents into the park above.
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Meeting with the Seine
Passing beneath the Place de la Bastille, the canal boat floats out onto the Seine River, where the open water is a welcome change after the dark confined tunnel. Here you pass the many architectural wonders of the city, from the Cite and the Cathedral Notre-Dame on to my favorite bridge, the Pont Neuf (home of the lovers in the famous film, which is stunning to see from underneath).
The nearby Pont des Arts is always packed with tourists and sightseers who stop to enjoy a picnic on the bridge and provides an easy passage between the Left Bank and the pyramid and treasures of the Louvre. (Remember, as with most of the major museums there is free entrance the first Sunday of every month.)
The tour ends – if you take the afternoon boat in this direction – at the Musée d’Orsay, where you will probably have time to catch the highlights of the exhibition before strolling down one of the pretty side streets of the Left Bank to find yourself something for dinner.
I like exploring the area between Rue de Seine and rue Dauphine, there are so many hidden gastronomic delights tucked away on these narrow streets, especially wander along rue de Buci, and Rue Mazarine, for the seafood restaurant with beautiful mosaics, and a beguilingly authentic-looking French bistro tucked in amongst the plethora of options along the main drag. Go out into the side streets and see what tastes you can discover!
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