A company called Canauxrama runs cruises up and down the Canal Saint-Martin. Currently (as of 2017) they offer morning and afternoon cruises in both directions, leaving either from the Bassin de la Villette (13, Quai de la Loire) or from Port de l’Arsenal (near Place de la Bastille). In addition, they now offer an “Atmosphère” cruise, with live singing (old Parisian chansons, of course) and commentary.
Back in 2012 I took a morning cruise, leaving at 9:45 a.m. from the Bassin de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement, because I was staying in that district at the Hôtel Abricotel. Our boat was called the Marcel Carné, named after the French film director (1906-1996) who popularized the Canal Saint-Martin through his film Hôtel du Nord in 1938.
After leaving the dock we first went upstream through the Bassin de la Villette (first photo) and a short ways into the Canal de l’Ourcq, through the Parc de la Villette and past the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie and the Cité de la Musique. At the city limits we turned around and went back the way we had come.
After passing the Rotonde de la Villette we entered the Jaurès locks leading to the Canal Saint-Martin. The metal bridge in the photo is the Métro line number 2, which is above ground at this point. I took this photo from the front of the boat on the lower level.
When we entered the Canal Saint-Martin, they told us that construction of the canal was first ordered by Napoléon in 1802, but the canal wasn’t finished until 1825. Imagine hundreds of men digging with picks and shovels, with interruptions for various political upheavals.
In the 1960s there were plans to fill in the canal and build a motorway instead, but these plans were eventually dropped after vigorous protests by the citizenry.
We went through another set of locks and then stopped briefly at a wide place in the canal to let a school class get off the boat and let another school class get on. The whole cruise takes two and a half hours, but that is apparently too long for some of the younger children, so they only do half the cruise at a time.
At the same place we passed another boat from the same company, the Arletty, which was doing the same tour in the opposite direction. This boat was named after the French singer and actress Arletty (1898-1992), who did a lot to popularize the Canal Saint-Martin through her role as the prostitute Raymonde in the 1938 film Hôtel du Nord. She is best remembered for one line in that film, which I have tried to explain in my post Atmosphère, atmosphère . . . (assuming I understand it myself).
Arletty (the person, not the boat) stayed in Paris during the Nazi occupation in the Second World War. During that period she starred in an outstanding film, Les Enfants du Paradis by Marcel Carné, but also had an affair with a German officer. After Liberation she served a 120 day-jail sentence, plus two years of house arrest and three of probation, for the crime of “consorting with the enemy”, popularly known as “horizontal collaboration”. Her explanation of this was typical Arletty: “My heart belongs to France, but my arse is mine.” (This is often misquoted as “. . . my arse is international.”)
This affair with a German officer was what gave the Austrian film and stage director Axel Corti (1933-1993) the idea for his last production before he died, his brilliant staging of Verdi’s opera La traviata in Frankfurt am Main. In Corti’s version, the opera heroine Violetta is a Jewish singer who has an affair with a German general in Paris during the occupation. At the end of the opera she dies not in her bed but on the floor of the second class waiting room in the train station at Orléans, while trying to flee from the Nazis. This production of La Traviata premiered at the Frankfurt Opera in 1991 and was revived numerous times in the following twenty-two years before finally being retired in 2013.
Back on the Marcel Carné, we soon we went through the third set of locks, the Écluses des Récollets, where we caught a glimpse of the original Hôtel du Nord, which is now just a café and restaurant since only the façade has been preserved.
After a fourth set of locks, the Écluses du Temple (which you might have seen in the film Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain), we entered a strange roofed-over section of the canal called the Voûte which goes on for 1,854 meters and is punctuated with round holes in the arched ceiling to let in some sunlight. Again I took this photo from the front of the boat on the lower level.
At the entrance to the Voûte there are signs in French, English and misspelt German, warning boat operators that no stopping is allowed and that they only have twelve minutes to get through (more than enough time, actually, assuming your boat can do six km/h) because after that the lights will change and boats will start coming from the opposite direction.
The Voûte ends at Place de la Bastille, where the fantastic new opera house is briefly visible on the left.
At the end of the tour we went all the way through the Port d’Arsenal, now a harbor for pleasure boats, and then turned around and docked at the Canauxrama boarding point near the Place de la Bastille. My last photo shows the harbor with our boat docked on the left and the Bastille Métro station for line 1 in the foreground.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2017.