Canal St.-Martin and Clairefontaine, Paris

Along the Quays of Canal St.-Martin, Paris

Along the Quays of Canal St.-Martin, Paris

Paris, late October

I think Clive and I are like most travelers in that when we think of canals, Paris is not the first place that comes to mind. Granted there are canals throughout Europe, in England and of course Amsterdam, and doing a barge trip in Burgundy is on our ‘we hope to someday’ list. But we hadn’t quite realised how fascinating, and (at least in my opinion) in some ways creepy, the canal network is right here, in the heart of Paris.

In our continuing quest to get out walking while seeing a new part of the city, we took the métro to Stalingrad, in the 10th arrondissement on the eastern side of Paris. Then we spent an inordinate amount of time crossing and re-crossing avenues until we found Blvd. de la Villette. If there were CCTV footage of the intersection, it would show many minutes of a couple going back and forth, checking their “Paris par Arrondissement” maps, looking up at buildings hoping to see street names, and finally getting oriented to where they wanted to go.

Clive said we should write our own walk book. Many métro stations have multiple exits and many intersections have six or eight streets (or twelve, in the case of Etoile) coming together, and our guidebooks seem rather high level when they say, “from métro X, proceed down Blvd. Y.” That said, once we found the right way it was only a matter of minutes before we left the noisy intersection and were walking on peaceful Quai de Jenmapes, along the Canal.

Locks and Footbridges and Quays, Oh My

Everyone knows the Seine River flows through central Paris, and I love its great bridges and quais. For years I’ve also seen pictures of Canal St.-Martin, and neither Clive nor I had an understanding of the Parisian canal system and how its waterways are connected above and below ground. We wanted to walk along the canal and see a neighbourhood that’s off the usual tourist track and still has some 19th century factories and warehouses, mixed with modern housing and urban life.

Students and young people were sitting on the quays, soaking up the autumn sun. It reminded me of the movie “Amélie,” in which there’s a scene of Amélie skipping stones here. The canal was opened on Napoleon’s orders in 1825 and shortcuts a big loop in the Seine. Today much of the traffic is slow-moving tourist boats. It’s a nice place to take your time and stop for a baguette sandwich or a coffee by one of the locks, public gardens, or iron footbridges arching over the canal.

Sunshine on the Quay, Canal St.-Martin

Sunshine on the Quay, Canal St.-Martin

On and Off the Canal

I looked up at a large building complex as we were strolling along and was surprised and excited to see the symbol for Clairefontaine and Exacompta, my most favourite writing and notebook paper in the world. There was a large entrance gate and I walked inside to a courtyard, but sadly, there was no attached retail outlet. Fortunately Clairefontaine notebooks of all shapes and sizes are sold in many librarie/papEtries throughout the city, so I will get my usual fix elsewhere.

A quick look at the Clairefontaine website told me that their papers are actually made in the Vosges mountains and the Netherlands. There’s a building next to the courtyard on Canal St.-Martin that looks like a small factory, but we couldn’t tell if it’s currently in use or not.

Exacompta and Clairefontaine, Canal St.-Martin
Exacompta and Clairefontaine, Canal St.-Martin


Just off the canal we walked through a modern housing estate which looked empty until we heard children’s voices and laughter coming from a primary school. I took a quick picture though I felt a bit uncomfortable doing so, as I imagined I’d feel strange if someone walked up my mother’s street in New Jersey and took a photo of her house for no apparent reason. We were struck by the huge size of the estate and this enclave of high-density living in the heart of Paris, well inside the Périphique.

Housing Estate near Canal St.-Martin, Paris

Housing Estate near Canal St.-Martin, Paris

We also found a beautiful garden in the courtyard of Hospital St.-Louis, a block off the canal in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. This is worth a visit if you like gardens (or are looking for public restrooms, which the hospital has well-hidden on the ground floor).

Connecting Water Tunnels (Shudder, Shudder)

Canal St.-Martin connects Bassin de la Villette, in the far northeast of Paris, with the Seine. Much of the canal is above-ground, which is where we walked, but some of the network goes in underground water tunnels. The most interesting part of the day was watching a tourist boat emerge from a tunnel into a lock, the lock fill with water, and the boat continue its journey above ground in the canal.

We’re not sure if this boat started in the Seine itself, or maybe the basin called Gare de Arsenal near the Bastille. Tomorrow we’ll explore that end of the waterway. On a Paris map, the distance between Arsenal and Canal St.-Martin looks frighteningly long to me, and I can’t imagine traveling underground all that way. (Then again, you won’t find me in the catacombs, either, though the métro and Eurostar tunnels are fine.) It made us wonder about the mEtro network, not to mention buildings with enormous foundations, and how complicated it must be to avoid disrupting anything that’s already underground when digging for new or upgraded construction.

The underwater tunnels seem kind of creepy to me, but the people we saw on the boat today were all smiling, so I’m sure they enjoyed it. At the southern end of Canal St.-Martin, by Blvd. Jules Ferry, we walked above ground on gardens built on top of the canal in the 1860’s. You can see air vents at intervals on the ground, but I was still glad we were walking “up here” and not riding in a boat “down there.”

Here’s a series of four pictures taken while watching the lock fill:

1 – Tourist boat emerging from tunnel, low in the lock

Tourist Boat Emerging from Tunnel, Low in Lock

Tourist Boat Emerging from Tunnel, Low in Lock

2 – Clive watching the lock fill with water

Clive Watching the Lock Fill with Water

Clive Watching the Lock Fill with Water

3 – Lock now full and boat at canal level

Lock Now Full and Boat at Canal Level

Lock Now Full and Boat at Canal Level


– They’re on their way, continuing north

They're on Their Way, Continuing North



All in all, this would be a perfect destination for a unique day out in Paris, if only the Clairefontaine building had a shop. 

2 Responses

  1. I like those canals too. I’d love to live in the area of the Canal St Martin but, as you might expect, prices are very high there.

  2. […] greeted us; visiting the local café to catch our breath and make a short shopping list in a little Clairefontaine notebook; purchasing the necessities including the all-important first baguette and pain de campagne […]

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