Adventures in Paris: Little Amsterdam?

A few years ago I read about an up-and-coming area of Paris with a canal cutting through it—Canal St. Martin.  I read a few reviews and it seemed worth checking out.  It was frequently described as charming and authentic, a hidden gem and bohemian.  Interesting, right?  Knowing that the canal had a series of locks (écluses) was also appealing, because our boys’ mechanical minds would enjoy seeing them in action.

Impressionist painter Alfred Sisley's works include this one of Canal St Martin, which we saw at the Musée d'Orsay

Impressionist painter Alfred Sisley’s works include this one of Canal St Martin, which we saw at the Musée d’Orsay

So one afternoon we headed over there, exiting the Metro at one of Paris’ larger train stations, the Gare de l’Est.  Since many Paris tourists seem to appreciate the walk along the canal, I’m hesitant to write anything that diminishes from its charm, but knowing that some tourists have a much less positive impression of the area, I figure it’s worth painting a picture that may help manage your expectations should you consider making the visit, yourselves.

First of all, the area around the Gare de l’Est, like the area around most large European train stations, is not a great part of town.  I wouldn’t call it unsafe—but it’s not very clean, it’s pretty crowded, and the eateries almost all leave something to be desired.  So we quickly headed toward the canal through Jardin Villemin.  This park has some sizeable playgrounds, some natural-looking gardens (meaning they’re not sculpted, and they include some areas of wildflowers), and an area of undulating lawn that’s great for picnics.  The canal is not visible from the playground area, but if you bring a picnic for the grass, you’ll be able to sit and enjoy the view of the canal just across the street.  There’s also a free public toilet in the corner of the park nearest the canal.

After some time at the playground and eating our picnic, we ventured across the street to walk the quays of the canal.  The canal originates from the time of Napoleon III and was initially very much utilitarian—providing freight transport and fresh water to central Paris, the Seine, and beyond.  Today, the water is not terribly clean, the quays are only somewhat safe for walking with small children, and the shops/restaurants in the area are generally on the opposite side of the busy streets lining the quays.  We didn’t see many great eating options, although there were numerous cafés available if needed.  Some sections towards the outer part of Paris (to the left when leaving Jardin Villemin) were relatively abandoned with nothing noteworthy to see, although as we headed back the other direction (toward central Paris), the atmosphere improved.

We had talked with the boys about the concept/mechanics associated with canal locks.  They were excited to see them—and to see them in action.  Unfortunately the only boats that use this section of the canals today seem to be those involved in the 2.5-hour canal tours offered by Canauxrama (see note below).  These boats only pass the locks four times daily, and our visit was not well timed.  We managed to get a good view of the locks where I could explain their function, but unfortunately we weren’t able to see them in use.

Along the canal

Emily was delighted to discover a series of delightful, shops at the intersection of the canal (Quai de Valmy) and Rue des Récollets.  Brightly painted and visible from the Jardin, Antoine & Lili has three adjacent (and connected) boutiques, brimming with housewares, women’s clothing and accessories, and children’s items (clothing, accessories, and toys).  The merchandise is eclectic, creative, and unique.  Emily had a heyday inside the kids’ shop while the boys and I enjoyed the canal-side playground and one of the many green iron, arched footbridges over the canal, just across the street.

If you’re looking for someplace to eat near the canal and could stand for (or are dying for) some non-French cuisine, check out El Nopal, an inexpensive burrito/Tex-Mex place that gets rave reviews.  We’d planned to hit this place on our evening there, but regrettably, we went on a Monday—the one day of the week when El Nopal is closed (note: it’s also closed from 3pm to 7pm)!  But if you’re hungry and in the area—and especially if you’re longing for a taste of home (well, at least our Texas home)—give it a try!

Go?

As I write about our visit to the canal, it seems more charming than it probably did at the time.  But I suppose that is the nature of memories.  Given the great finds at Antoine & Lili, we don’t regret the trip to Canal St. Martin.  Just know that it probably won’t offer the charm of the canals in Amsterdam, Venice, or Bruges.

Note about the canal tours:

We did not take the boat tour of the canal offered by Canauxrama, so I can’t personally vouch for their quality.  They seemed a bit too long for our boys (since our Seine boat tour, at 60 minutes, was also pushing it for our crowd).  That said, I’ve heard generally good reviews if you’re looking for some peaceful downtime in the city.  You get to experience a guided tour of “the Parisians’ Paris,” of the locks firsthand, and of the covered section (with skylights) of the canal from Port de l’Arsenal (near Bastille) to Rue du Faubourg du Temple.  This excursion could be easily combined with a trip to Parc de la Villette and the science/children’s museum, since that is one of the boarding points for Canauxrama.

 

Photo credit: Alex Thomson

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