Susan Hack turns her back on the touristy mainstays of the French capital to embark on a leisurely cruise through the city's old canals.
Splendour in slow motion along the canals of Paris
Parisians have a love-hate affair with the sightseeing boats that jam the River Seine and fill the air with their babel of commentary and diesel fumes between the Eiffel Tower and the Isle St Louis.
While visitors snap souvenir photos of monuments such as the Notre Dame Cathedral, residents board cattle cars, such as Bateaux Mouches, mainly for school or family outings that generate boredom and feelings of superiority towards cousins from the provinces.
By contrast, the capital's three man-made waterways - the Canal St Martin, Canal St Denis and Canal de l'Ourcq - transect old working-class quarters that, while undergoing gentrification, retain the allure of authenticity, even for les citoyens. The canals were commissioned in the early 19th century by Napoleon, who had the idea of linking the Ourcq River and barges carrying timber for construction and charcoal for heating to new factories in the capital that could export goods to the rest of France from ports along the Seine.
Still lined with trees originally planted to shade barge towpaths, the canal banks today function as an egalitarian public park for sunbathing, picnicking and even theatre and opera performances. There are playgrounds, petanque and pingpong courts. On weekends, kayakers, canoeists and scullers take to the water, and cyclists and joggers weave between pedestrians along the quais.
One a sunny April morning, I join two Parisian friends for a morning cruise along the 4.5km Canal St Martin. Carrying sandwiches and soft drinks purchased from a bakery, we meet six other passengers on the Quai d'Orsay where our small barge, Le Martin Pêcheur (it operates between March and October), sits moored by the famous art museum.
After shadowing the much larger Bateaux Mouches, our captain heads farther up the Seine towards the Jardin des Plantes, hooks right, then passes through a lock into Bassin de l'Arsenal, where private yachts dock at the foot of the Place de la Bastille.
We wave goodbye to tourist Paris, motoring under a stone arch into a tunnel just wide enough for two barges to pass and which runs underground for few spooky kilometres - a 19th-century workman's version of a theme park "Tunnel of Love" that's illuminated every few hundred metres by round skylights that cast beams of light onto the greenish water.
We emerge into a past-meets-present world of cobblestone banks and cast-iron swing bridges. With its nine locks and Eiffelesque pedestrian bridges, on which people pause to wave as we pass beneath, the Canal St Martin immediately seems to deserve its status as a much-loved icon, immortalised in the Marcel Carnot film Hótel du Nord and as a location for the 2001 film Amélie, whose main character skips stones, one of life's simple pleasures.
Gliding past the Quai de Valmy, we see young people chatting over drinks on the terrace of the Point Ephémère, a former factory festooned with graffiti and street art, sandwiched between a fire station and a car park. Point Ephémère, says the captain over the loudspeaker, is now a contemporary arts space, with films, lectures, DJ parties and concerts of rock, metal, French folk music, rap and electronica. The fast-forward hipness of the quarter's cultural institutions contrasts with the slow - not much more than the walking-speed pace of our cruise - and I am thankful for friends and conversation to while away time spent waiting to traverse yet another lock.
The Canal St Martin joins the 107-kilometre long Canal de l'Ourcq at the Rotonde de la Villette, an 18th-century toll station overlooking the Bassin de la Villette, once the second-largest port in all of France, and an important reservoir for drinking water before the days of indoor plumbing. Here, we disembark next to a cinema multiplex created from two former boathouses, the six screens on each side of the Canal de l'Ourcq connected by a little ferry that also serves a boutique filled with film-themed books and DVDs, and two smart cafes.
After commercial boat traffic ended in the 1960s, the neighbourhood around the Canal de l'Ourcq became notorious for poverty, drugs and faceless modern housing projects. Revitalisation started in the 1980s when the basin's surviving sugar warehouses were converted into artists' studios, hotels, cafes and a kayak-and-canoe dock run by the Paris mayor's office, says Raymond Ortiz, a sailor and cinephile from Brittany, who opened his bistro, Au Rendezvous de la Marne, on the Quai de la Loire back in 1988. Having witnessed the neighbourhood's rebirth, Ortiz, for his part, celebrates nostalgia, and his ceiling fans, blue-checked tablecloths and walls of retro black-and-white photos of the young Deneuve sisters, Brigitte Bardot and other stars lend a yesteryear feel. The menu leans towards classic French dishes, such as tete de veau, and for dessert we chose a gargantuan apple tart flambé.
A major component of the gentrification process was the creation of the Parc de la Villette, now the largest park in Paris, a 19th-century slaughterhouse (and spot for public executions) whose industrial buildings have been converted into more performance spaces, and where the city constructed a huge science museum for children, the world's largest Imax movie theatre, and the Cité de la Musique, which houses one of the world's biggest collections of string instruments, including electric guitars, violins, cellos and guitars made by Stradivarius.
As much as the culture, I want to learn more about the daily life along the canals, where we spot men, young and old, playing boules, kids rallying at pingpong tables, and an old man - carrying a sign asking passers-by not to make noise and scare the fish - casting for bream, roach and crayfish. I make a mental note to come back on a bike when I learn that the paved bike path along the Canal de l'Ourcq extends 25km past the Parc de la Villette to the green forests of the Parc de la Poudrerie at Sevran. (Experienced cyclists wishing to ride a 100km round trip can continue as far as Meuux but should bring a pump and tyre repair kits.)
Should you go to the Canal de l'Ourcq in summer, bring sun tan lotion. As part of it's the 11-year Paris Plage programme, which also takes place along the Seine, the city installs beach sand, wooden decks, sunbathing chairs, sun umbrellas, and 50 palm trees at various locations along the Bassin de la Villette. The facilities are free on a first come, first serve basis, and activities range from puppet shows and art lessons for children, to concerts and fencing lessons.
After lunch we retrace our steps, returning on foot along the Canal St Martin, heading for an afternoon appointment with Sebastian Frasque, the co-creator of Ca Se Visite, a company that specialises in "participatory" tours of non-touristy Paris neighbourhoods. During his two-and-a-half-hour "Hidden Face of the Canal St Martin " guided walk, Frasque introduces us to residents, artisans and small business owners.
A resident of the quarter, he takes no commissions from businesses and donates 10 per cent of each fee to local community organisations.
The neighbourhood around the canal is one of the most interesting in Paris, Frasque says, because of its "mixité", a French value he defined as "the respectful mixing of ages, genders and social classes". "Bobos", or left-leaning yuppies, patronise canalside boutiques and bars that occupy the former workshops for now obscure industries such as vinegar, leather belts and rattrap making.
We rendezvous with Frasque at the Jacques Bonsergent metro stop. He first takes us into a small alley, where we find an Art Deco bathhouse, built when the neighbourhood's workers' apartments lacked private ablutions. Today, the "Les Douches" houses a photography gallery.
Passing an old typewriter factory, we head next for Du Pain et Des Idées, a concept bakery in a 19th-century storefront on rue Yves Toudric that retains its original glass paintings. The owner, former fashion textile emperor Christophe Vasseur, quit his job to study bread-making, and in 2010 was named "Meilleur Ouvrier de France" (Best Worker in France) for his products, including rolls stuffed with figs, dried meat, goat's cheese, a buttery Chausson pomme with half an apple tucked inside, and escargot pastry, coiled and stuffed with chocolate chips and pistachio crème.
We eat our treats seated on the grass in the Jardin Villemin, part of a 17th-century convent that is now the headquarters for the city's Maison de l'Architecture. With its boules club, playground and a community flower and vegetable garden, the park seems to embody the mixité principle. On the grass slope leading down to the canal, sunbathers, couples and families with toddlers lounge next to small clusters of "clandestins", illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, who use the playground climbing bars as their muscle gym.
We cross a footbridge over the Canal St Martin and walk up the rue de la Grange to the still-functioning Saint Louis Hospital, which conceals one of the most beautiful squares in Paris behind its 17th-century fortress walls. I have a sense of déjà vu, and Frasque explains that, yes, King Henri IV deliberately replicated the famous Place des Vosges as a humane place to isolate patients and doctors during an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1607. Locked inside the walls, many did not survive, but their last days were spent in aesthetic beauty. The hospital today specialises in treating burns and offers another example of mixité, with neighbourhood parents and their toddlers out to enjoy the sun, mingling in Henri the Fourth's old quarantine space with patients recovering from skin grafts and plastic surgery.
The Canal St Martin is more gentrified than the Canal de l'Ourcq, but its restaurants remain laid back, the cuisine simple and unpretentious, and the prices less expensive than the city centre. The collegial esprit harks back to an era when most apartments weren't heated and restaurants were warm places where workers gathered in the evenings.
Frasque recommends Pink Flamingo Pizza, a takeaway known for organic flour crusts and creative toppings such as spinach and aubergine with lemon, or sesame, garlic figs and cured meat. There's no need to wait for the food because staff give customers a pink balloon so that the bicycle delivery person can easily find their picnic spot along the canal.
For dinner, we prefer a sit-down place and book a table at Hôtel du Nord, the restaurant located in the former hotel (of the same name) made famous by the Arlettyfilm (also of the same name), to join a beau monde clientele.
The retro space has grey and black tiled floors, a back room with red velvet curtains, bookshelves, a piano and a much-sought corner with a velour sofa. The menu includes classics such as chestnut soup and tête de veau, foie gras with an inventive courgette and vanilla jam, and delicately seasoned seafood, including a skewer of monkfish cheeks with lychees. The walls are adorned with moody portraits of handsome young men whom I mistake for movie stars, until one comes by with the menu and explains that a resident of the quarter had made the portraits. Art in the neighbourhood, it seems, is the art of life.
If You Go
The flight Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) to Paris from Abu Dhabi cost from Dh3,330, including taxes
The hotels Le Citizen Hotel (www.lecitizenhotel.com; 00 33 1 8362 5550) on the Canal St Martin has 12 bento box-styled rooms overlooking the Quai de Jemmapes, from €195 (Dh938) per night, based on two sharing. Double rooms at Hotel du Nord-Le Pari Velo (www.hoteldunord-leparivelo.com; 00 33 1 4201 6600) cost from €71 (Dh342) per night. The hotel offers guests 10 GT Windcruiser bicycles for complimentary use. The Holiday Inn Express Paris Canal de la Villette (www.hiexpress.com/hotels/us/en/reservation; 00 33 1 4465 0101) has double rooms from €171 (Dh823) per night. Prices include taxes
The info Paris Canal (www.pariscanal.com; 00 33 1 4240 9697) offers daily two-and-a-half hour cruises along the Canal St Martin for €12 (Dh58) per person