Sunday, 31 August 2008
There must be something to be said for taking a trip on board one of the enormous cruisers that ply between Bastille and la Villette along the Canal St-Martin. As an experience in slow travel it may have something to commend it but the best way to see the canal is surely to walk it. That way you can set your own pace, cross from side to side where bridges permit, explore the side streets and watch the cruisers pass through the locks from the vantage point of the footbridges. There will be no amplified tour guide instructing you in what to see and, by implication, what is not worth looking at. The only guide worth following on this journey is the estimable Richard Cobb, an urban explorer with an absolute dedication to the untrodden track. The centrepiece of Cobb’s 1980 book, The Streets of Paris (with photographs by Nicholas Breach) is an exploration of the canal and its byways in which he eloquently evokes its long lost heyday as the major trading route between Paris and the Low Countries when the bars, cafés, restaurants and hotels along the quais catered to the needs of a transient working class population. The neighbouring streets were home to a multitude of small businesses, artisans and craftsmen, repair shops and hand-laundries.
Walking south from Jaurés along the quai de Valmy the first lock is marked by a canopy of trees at Square Eugène-Varlin that shelter the cheerfully named écluse des morts (lock of the dead). From the footbridge can be seen the first glimpse of the magnificent 120° curve that presents a vast sweeping expanse of waterway, wide enough to accommodate 3 Grand Union Canals. The curve gives way to the next lock spanned by the passerelle des Récollets, also known as passerelle de l’Hôtel du Nord. The hotel on the quai de Jemmapes gave its name to the famous Marcel Carné film of 1938 although the external hotel footage was all filmed on a purpose-built set. No longer a hotel it continues as a bar and restaurant.
At the southern end of the Square des Récollets is the Pont tournant de la Grange-aux-Belles, the first of two such bridges that enable canal traffic to assert some priority over vehicular traffic when they swing back to allow boats to pass through. Next up is the Pont tournant de la rue Dieu and finally, the Square Frédérick-Lemaître at which point the canal dives underground for the last stretch to Bastille. The gentrification of the canal-side that Cobb foresaw is pretty much complete by now but even if it’s no longer possible to enjoy the sight of long lines of heavily laden barges streaming north to Belgium, less spectacular pleasures are still available. In particular there are railings to lean against, steps to climb, benches to sit on and countless other locations from which one can observe and do absolutely nothing. There is space, atmosphere, water and reflected colour and light to engage the senses and a perfect sense of insulation from the frenetic turbulence of the city. No serious flâneur can afford to miss it.