I didn’t mean to go all the way. But boy am I glad I did.
Get your mind out of the gutter, people. Instead, place it in a more calming, less icky waterway system known as the canal.
Last weekend, I found myself all the way at the tip of Paris in a northeastern corner—very close to its périphérique (which is essentially a connected, circular version of the West Side Highway and FDR Drive)—where I stood at the foot of its seemingly never-ending canal system.
It was only in the last few years when I started regularly visiting Paris, and then once I moved here, that I first discovered Paris’s “other” bodies of water; the Not-Seine canals. (Though, they do actually connect way up at the top somewhere.)
Said Seine, while lovely bien sur, is mostly for tourists. Or anyone over the age of 27. Or anyone who respects Mother Earth. So I guess still a lot of people, but les bobos (French for hipsters) mostly get their fill of imbibing along the water banks over at the Canal Saint-Martin, which runs through the heart of the 10th arrondissement up to the 19th. Here, there are quirky Venetian bridges to walk over (or bike around), locks that open and close, filling up and emptying out the water as canauxrama boats pass through, and, again, the aforementioned party people who sit along its edges until the wee hours.
I was delighted to discover a canal in Paris. Not only did it feel like a corner of cool that’s hush-hush, but it felt like a real piece of home.
See, as many of you know, I was fortunate to have grown up on a canal in Long Island. Despite always having to explain what, exactly, a canal is (noun:
Crabbing from the dock.
Paddle boating down to the end.
Contemplating a dive in.
Contemplating its cleanliness.
Five miles an hour.
While other bodies of water—oceans, bays, rivers, lakes, seas—get more love (You don’t hear song lyrics like “Sittin’ on the dock of the canal…” or “Letting the canal run…”), to me, life along a canal is pretty top-notch. Because the thing with canals is that they always lead to Somewhere. And we know how much I like Somewhere…
No matter what floating mechanism I took out on a canal, be it a kayak, dingy, motorboat or paddleboat, there was always something to find: an osprey standing upright in the reeds; daredevil jet-skiers looking to jump waves; horseshoe crabs mating on the shore; crab traps bouncing on the water’s surface; skimmers dipping down for fish; party boats out for sunset.
Until last year, I didn’t realize how far Paris’s canal system went or what else went on around it. Then I read about some quirky cottage-turned-cafe called the Pavillon des Canaux where you can sit in a bathtub with a glass of wine (or get 10 minute back massage or practice yoga or hear live music or any other kooky activity) and discovered the Bassin de la Villette, where this aforementioned house of wonders is located.
This bassin starts in the 19th arrondissement where the Canal Saint-Martin ends and is a much wider stretch of water; almost lake-like. It’s also where you can rent mini boats and kayaks and even (gasp!) dip your toes in the water without feeling grossed out. (Or maybe not as grossed out. Or maybe that’s just me.) It has a real summer vibe and is also where a portion of the annual Paris Plages is located. In fact, at its tip, there’s a brewery company where you can sit and drink craft beer on a platform that’s about as close to a deck as you’ll get in Paris.
Beyond the bassin, there’s the Canal l’Ourcq, along which there’s a lovely bike path that hugs either side as it curves through the massive Parc de la Villette. I only unearthed this section at the end of last summer on my way to an outdoor screening of Beetlejuice on one of the park’s many lawns. This sprawling property is also home to multiple live music venues, dance halls and more. It’s definitely a trek to find, but once you do, you’re bound to get that wide-eyed “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” feeling.
Up until last weekend, however, I hadn’t hooked a left and continued further along the bike path to discover yet another canal known as Canal Saint-Denis. Technically, there isn’t much on this canal by the way of vendors or cafes or parks, but it did feel like a super secret hideaway; far beyond the regular waterside haunts some of us frequent. I found it by accident, as one does, during an event called FestiWall, where street artists were creating art along the canal’s bridges, walls and pathways.
For a few hours, I walked back and forth along the familiar parts while holding the fest map for guidance. But having ran earlier that morning, and without any friends around that afternoon to pop a squat and get into some proper day drinking, I lost my mojo around 4p.m. and eventually decided to call it quits. I hadn’t made it to two of the spots on the top of the map at that point, but they looked so farrrrr.
In actuality, they weren’t—but maybe that’s because I found them by bike. Or when I wasn’t looking for them. Either way, there I was, pedaling a different way home when all of a sudden I found myself way up in a part of Paris I’d never been before.
Then I heard music.
Since I’m not one to avoid tunes on a sunny day, I hopped off the bike to seek out their origin. I peered over a bridge to discover more canal, along with tons more people just hanging out. I should’ve known that taking the long way, would be the best way.
There was a docking station nearby, so I ditched the bike and descended back into life along a canal.
While the sights, sounds and activities are different along these canals than those back in Oceanside, they still provide a sense of much-desired calm and refuge—especially in the summer. And they also continue to lead me Somewhere. It’s unclear whether I’ve discovered all of Paris’s canals, but I’m excited to find out.