Paris: Sur le canal

By Megan Singleton

The French capital locks in extra charm for Megan Singleton.

Built to carry drinking water in the early 19th century, Canal Saint-Martin now carries tourists. Photo / Thinkstock
Built to carry drinking water in the early 19th century, Canal Saint-Martin now carries tourists. Photo / Thinkstock

A 20-something French girl with doe eyes and an accent that dances softly between French and English could take you anywhere in Paris and you'd think it was brilliant. But this backwater canal ride under the city's streets and through locks is a lovely way to spend a Parisian afternoon, whomever is your guide.

We boarded the open-top canal boat at Marina Arsenal, just off the Seine, and met the elegant Marie. She was our guide for the two-hour journey along Canal Saint-Martin past historic landmarks, peppering her seductive commentary with interesting facts while the wartime music of Edith Piaf played.

This 4.5km canal was built on Napoleon's orders to ensure a fresh water supply to the city's northeast, but had been neglected and just escaped being filled in during the 1960s. It was restored and became this off-the-beaten-track attraction.

Within moments of leaving the dock we enter a long, eerily lit tunnel punctuated by large circular skylights in the pavement above about every 100m under the Place de la Bastille.

The street sounds of Paris are quiet as Edith sings. I make out lichen-encrusted walls and plants that have grown through the damp stone ceiling. The light from the tunnel mouth ahead reveals the first of four double locks we will pass through.

There are nine locks between the Seine and the Bassin de la Villette where we will disembark, some 26m higher than where we started.

The iron footbridges looping over the green water under chestnut trees soften the otherwise industrial feel of this canal. It was made famous when Amelie stood here in the movie of the same name and skimmed stones down the lock.

On fine days, friends and families stroll its banks, kids play ping-pong on permanent tables on the waters' edge and old ladies gossip on park benches, silk scarves protecting their hair from the breeze.

On Sundays between May and October streets either side of the promenade are closed to traffic leaving cyclists, lovers holding hands and dog-walkers to take over.

We cruise into the eclectic 10th Arrondissement, which once was a gritty, working-class neighbourhood. But, as with all neighbourhoods built along waterways, it has been revived and is home to young artists, musicians, multi-ethnic residents, restaurants and chic new bohemians.

Nicknamed bobo (bourgeois bohemian) these youngish things have moved into loft apartments and new businesses have opened. Around the famous Hotel du Nord are back streets filled with Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan shops selling food and spices, hip fashion boutiques and popular cafes and bars like Chez Prune and Le Verre Vole whose outdoor tables buzz with locals.

You cruise only one way, so I'd suggest starting at Marina Arsenal and strolling back along the promenade to people-watch on a sunny afternoon.

CRUISING THE CANALS

Cruises run twice a day in each direction from Marina Arsenal (facing 50 Bd of Bastille. Station: Bastille Exit Opera) and Bassin de la Villette (13 Quai de la Loire. Station: Jaures).

Departures: 9.45am and 2.30pm, taking two and a half hours.

Cost: €16 (NZ$25.30) per adult; €13.50 if booked online.

Megan Singleton travelled to Europe courtesy of Singapore Airlines () and got to Paris with Rail Europe.

- Herald on Sunday

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