Paris: Treasures of the Canal Saint-Martin

When Paris drained Canal Saint-Martin, a treasure trove of found items revealed a unique side of Parisian life.

Scaffolds now fill the canal. Photo by Kevin McGoff
Scaffolds now fill the canal. Photo by Kevin McGoff

A popular parking station for bicycles from Paris’s Vélib’ rental service was recently discovered to be in the Canal Saint-Martin. To give it a good scrubbing, the city drained the canal in January for the first time in 14 years. As the water subsided, a treasure trove that included discarded bicycles, shopping carts and wine bottles in a quantity sufficient to capture this fall’s harvest were revealed.

Parisians missing an office chair, suitcase or their street sign can now look at the bottom of the canal to see if their former possessions are among the debris residing in the muck left behind. A testament to the strict French gun laws, only one pistol has been located to date — a paltry recovery by comparison to what one might expect in the U.S., where bodies of water are popular repositories for Americans in need of discreetly discarding a piece of their arsenal.

Canal Saint-Martin

Located in the heart of the now hip 10th arrondissement, the canal is lined with popular cafés bars and restaurants. What was once a working class neighborhood in the 19th century has been transformed to a desirable address for young professionals. The expensive real estate in this trendy area is populated with what the French refer to as “bobos” – bourgeois bohemians –  a brand Americans would call hipster. They have come under fire by their fellow cityoens accusing the bobos of using the canal as their dumpster, thus neglecting their environmental responsibilities.

The Canal St. Martin runs 4.5 km through Paris. In some areas, it actually flows through a tunnel beneath the city before emptying into the Seine. Construction was ordered by Napoleon Bonaparte to bring fresh water to the city of Paris, though it was not finished until 1825, well after his reign.

Some Velib bikes turned up when the canal was drained. Photo by Kevin McGoff
Some Velib bikes turned up when the canal was drained. Photo by Kevin McGoff

During our visit in January, the Quai de Valmy which runs along the canal a few blocks off the Place Republique was quiet on the brigh,t but chilly Thursday morning. Along with Parisians and other visitors, we were entertained from our perch atop one of the iron pedestrian bridges spanning the waterway by a couple strolling in the mud of drained canal. The young man paused for a smoke, putting to use one last time a chair and café table the canal coughed up as it was drained.

You can experience the canal from a leisurely boat trip or promenade. Tourist boats and some commercial barges navigate the nine locks, ducking beneath the arched iron bridges spanning the waterway. On Sunday, traffic is banned on the streets running parallel to the canal, making room for cyclists, roller-bladers and flâneurs.

A short walk from the Place de la République, the Canal Saint-Martin is two blocks north on Rue du Faubourg du Temple. It is only one block from the Gare de l’Est terminal. Metro stations within a short walk of the canal are Gare de l’Est, République, Goncourt and Jacques-Bonsergent.

The span of the canal can also be visited renting a bicycle from Vélib’. The service has 20,000 bikes to share among 1800 stations located every 300 meters throughout Paris. There are many Vélib’ locations along the Canal Saint-Martin, stocked with bikes that have been properly parked aside (not in) the canal.

Paris has an efficient bike rental system. Photo by Kevin McGoff
Paris has an efficient bike rental system. Photo by Kevin McGoff

If you wish to see the canal emptied and in its naked glory, plan to visit Paris soon. The project is anticipated to only a short time. By summer’s end, the water taxis will be plying their trade between the massive locks as visitors and residents again stroll and cycle along the freshly cleaned and flowing Canal St. Martin.

If You Go to Paris

Learn more about renting a bike in Paris at http://en.velib.paris.fr/

Companies offering cruises on the Canal St Martin include:

http://www.canauxrama.com/en/

http://en.pariscanal.com/

 

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