Sunday, May 17, 2015

Paris: cruising the Seine and the Canal St Martin

Our first morning in Paris; I had already booked a boat trip (I do love a boat trip, we collect them) which not only took in the section of river from the Quai d'Orsay past the two islands, but also joined and travelled the length of the Canal St Martin as far as the outlying park at la Villette - which was where we went last October to see Jordi Savall at the Cité de la Musique.

Because of a combination of meteorological, geographical and tidal phenomena the Seine was exceptionally high, something which was rather a source of wonder for the time we were there:

Trees stood straight up out of the water,

and steps led down,

to disappeared quays from which boats should have been boarded,

and people waded out to stand in the river under submerged trees on quays which weren't there, which was probably rather dangerous. (Tom took the last four photos). So when we came to the lock at the beginning of the canal, which led onto the bassin de l'Arsenal, the three metres we should have had to lift the boat was reduced to a scant half metre, and on the way back down to perhaps thirty cm (that's a foot to us imperialists). 

The trip was run by an outfit called Paris-canal - that's to their English version web-page, and the English is as funny and charming and friendly as that of their tour guide, a young chap called Nicholas. He and the boat driver, Dominique, were the only crew, and a very good one. As we waited for the water to pump through the nine locks and raise us the twenty-seven metres of the ascent, Dominique nipped down to the galley (I know all the nautical terms, me) and brought up a couple of big thermos flasks of coffee and hot water and served everyone coffee and tea in plastic cups for a euro a throw (no milk, a big box of sugar) which was very welcome as it was a chilly wet morning.

Through the marina of the bassin, which housed many smart craft of all kinds, including this one whose name pleased me,

and we entered the marvel which is the tunnel, which runs two km under the place de la Bastille. The oldest parts date from the very earliest years of the nineteenth century, there was no means of artificial lighting and so the whole length is punctuated by wells, through which the vegetation of the park above filters a strange greenish light:

Emerging from the tunnel, the boat winds its way up through the canal neighbourhoods, under the graceful little iron footbridges,

where the inhabitants loitered to watch the boat go by, beneath and beside canalside trees in their spring foliage (including one of the squares of Paulownias in the previous post)

past attractive domestic architecture, including the Hotel du Nord, glimpsed momentarily near to this elegant art nouveau building:

and of course up through its nine locks, with all their trappings and accoutrements and accumulated growth and excrescences

Later this year, Nicholas told us, the canal will undergo its periodic draining, to clean and dredge it and check that its ancient, largely wooden, structure is still holding up. At that time, he said with relish, many things are found: old sofas, fridges, bicycles, and the police open and close many enquiries...

If you're ever in Paris, and looking for a sightseeing thing to do, especially one which saves your legs a bit and offers shelter from the elements while still providing movement and variety, I can't recommend the canal tour too highly. There's so much to see and to learn in areas just a bit off the core tourist track, a slow green vein into the heart of the city.  The pace of travel on the canal is uniquely conducive to discursive talk, the telling of stories, and observation of detail both in the long and the near view, to distracting and getting distracted. Nicholas the guide, as well as being charming and easy on the eye, was an enthusiastic source of much knowledge and anecdote on a great variety of subjects: history and natural history, art and architecture, boats and water and the science and workings of them, from the volumes of water under us in the Seine in flood or the raising of the lock, to the time the Mona Lisa spent in an apartment in the Hôpital St Louis quarter, the high number of royal finance ministers who met their end on the two-tier gibbet of Montfaucon, quotes from Arletty, or drawing attention to the tiny freshwater mussels, a sign of clean water, clustered in nooks and crannies of the lock walls. He was happy to chat and answer questions and explain things in more detail, and told us happily how he loved his job, being in the fresh air, meeting people, sharing the canal with them...

In fact, we liked it so much that rather than duck down into the metro when we arrived at the end of the trip, we decided to come back on the boat too, even though it meant killing time, and having lunch, for a couple of hours in la Villette, which wasn't too bad really.

By the afternoon, the sun had come out and there were far more people on board, which was interesting for people watching. The experience of descending the locks was quite a different one, more open with more of a direct sense of the gradient and flow we were traversing. 

All in all, a good time was had by all. 

(Thanks to Tom, who took quite a lot of these photos, 1 - 4, 11,12, 14, 17, 22, I think, and the last one, obviously!)


Fire Bird said...

I love those tunnel shots. One of these days we'll get to Paris.

jo(e) said...

What a cool way to travel. It looks like you get to see a whole different aspect of the city.

Zhoen said...

Sounds the ideal way to tour the city. We took the boat tour in Chicago, which was good, but not quite as charming as this one, no tunnels or locks for a start.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Amazing, the flooded quais - I've never seen the Seine so high! And, unbelievably, have never taken that marvellous canal trip. Will do next time for sure. Thanks for great pics and commentary.

Roderick Robinson said...

I wonder if there's a twin called The Worst Of Times.

Congratulations on this little trip which almost qualifies for one of those yellow signs: Déviation. Something VR used to dread during our pre-satnav touring days, before we bought the house, and which could add an extra 50 or 60 km to the trip from Caen to Drefféac. I've always recommended two musts when visiting London - the Tower and a Thames boat trip - simply because the latter seems to invest visitors (and residents for that matter) with a new set of eyes. Your trip, however, has the added benefit of the unexpected. A good slogan for Nicholas's service already exists on packets of dehydrated soup: Just add water.

Those tunnel photos: did you let the camera work out the exposure itself or were you forced to tinker?

And another thing: how is it you always manage to have natural light work on your behalf? Silly question. I might as well have asked how does your text accompaniment always combine the felicitous with the informative, the indigenous with the exploratory, the detached with the intimate.

Just a gentle reminder of what tempted me (forced me, really) to get into blogging back in 2008.

Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying your Paris photographs Lucy :) This boat trip looks like it was a lovely way to see some of the city.

Lucy said...

Thanks people.

FB - see you there!

jo(e) - it is, and you do. As I say, I love boat trips, and have travelled the river on bateaux mouches before, but the pace on the canal is so leisurely, and the sights very different.

Z - yes, canals are different again from rivers.

Natalie - You must,it's really not too expensive, and probably most times out of season you can just turn up at the quai d'Orsay and hop on, or go up to la Villette after lunch and do likewise. I found a useful French on-line ticket site called Billetreduc which offers some interesting suggestions (and a lot of truly awful ones!) for outings, and good prices.

Robbie - always worth taking to the water when one has a chance, I think. The canal is also good for walking, though one wouldn't have such a nice guide. The tunnel shots are pretty much as they came out I think, the intelligent auto does most things better than I could do manually,and I don't tinker much with the camera itself. I may have just enhanced them slightly with Picasa but not much, and the colours and light are quite true to how it was - the boat's diesel exhaust created some interesting misty effects! I've also got a little video which I'll put up presently. Thank you for the compliments (remember Tom took quite a few of the photos); it sometimes seems this is more or less a tourism blog, but that's OK, if it stays on the right side of dull, and might even be useful and informative sometimes.

Chloe - thank you, you'd have seen lots of inspiring and colourful things I'm sure.

Catalyst said...

Ah I loved my vicarious tour of Paris though your post today, Lucy. We had planned on the night tour when we were there but then were too tired. We were told it is spectacular.

Ellena said...

Thank you for sharing this lovely 'bateau mouche balade' with us, Lucy and Tom.
I have never been in Paris but the
mask of l'inconnue de la Seine
was part of my living quarters for 65 years. Sadly it disappeared during my last move 7 years ago.

Lucy said...

Cat - that can be the problem, running out of energy to do all the things you plan there. There's one particular after-dark dinner cruise that's supposed to be really special, though expensive of course. Just walking by the river at night is always lovely though.

Ellena - I've just been reading about l'Inconnue, what a horrid creepy morbid thing, I'd have been happy to lose her! But fascinating all the stories attached to her, like the resuscitation doll. I didn't know about her except for coming across her in Rilke's 'Notebooks of Malte' (which is the total antidote to the rosy romantic view of Paris, so horrible that she's possibly the least horrible thing in it...). Though it seems clear she was a fake. One thing I thought of that no one seemed to have remarked on was the similarity to that poster from 'Twin Peaks' years ago with the drowned girls face, again, far too beautiful for any corpse found in water. Anyway, I'm sure you'd enjoy visiting Paris!