Relax by the River Seine and Canal Saint-Martin, discovering some of the French city’s top entertainment on the waterways
After years of neglect, the 60km web of quays, wharves and docks that were once Paris’ arteries bringing the oxygen of trade to the city’s heart are once again at the forefront of city life and some of Paris’ best entertainment can now be sampled afloat. The canals and quays renovation project pumped life back into the city’s waterways and several decades later everything from swimming to chocolate tasting and live opera can be enjoyed on a boat.
Planning to spend a day exploring as many of those watery kilometres as I can, I’ve just stepped from the Métro near Bercy, the site where countless French movie makers flocked to film the loaded coal barges, beret-clad fishermen and women scrubbing piles of laundry on bateaux lavoirs (laundry boats) that were moored here right up until the middle of the last century.
It’s August and Paris-Plages – that brilliant project dreamt up by socialist mayor Bertand Delanöe for turning the city’s water zones into beach-type resorts complete with sand, sprinklers and deckchairs – is in full swing: in previous years it’s opened in style with an open-air cinema set on the banks of the River Seine.
Despite unseasonably cloudy weather, there’s a holiday ambience that makes it hard to believe I’m actually at the heart of France’s capital city: candyfloss and Ambre Solaire perfume the air, overheated children dash in and out of the water sprinklers and a throng of beach babes clad in crop tops and teeny-weeny bikinis decorate the candy-striped deckchairs, which stand on wooden decking fringing the water’s edge.
I stroll past La Baleine Blanche (baleine-blanche.com), an ex-cement barge that is now a hip, local venue for cultural events ranging from pop concerts to children’s theatre workshops. “It looks small on the outside, but inside there’s seating for 150 people,” barman Philippe, who is pinning up a poster for an Édith Piaf tribute evening, tells me.
La Piscine Joséphine Baker (piscine-baker.fr) is a floating swimming pool inaugurated in 1992, which juts out into the Seine on a barge-like pontoon. Stripping to swimwear, I wallow in the cool blue water of this wonderful pool, enjoying a fish-eye view of the barges, dinghies and sailing boats coasting along the Seine river, then dry myself off and head for Le Batofar. Sadly this iconic floating concert venue on a 45-metre-long barge, complete with a mini lighthouse which once warned sailors of peril along Irish coasts, has closed so I wander around François Mitterrand’s stunning Bibliothéque Nationale where it used to be moored, instead.
“When the Batofar opened in 1999 it was unique, but now there are more and more floating shops and bars and restaurants in Paris – there’s even a péniche (barge) for the homeless, called Le Fleuron,” the librarian inside tells me.
My dessert is anchored a few doors down at Le Bateau Chocolaté (bateauchocolate.fr), a café houseboat whose culinary creations are made with Caribbean chocolate. Created in 2015, this pretty barge brimming with plants is a cross between a tea salon and a shop selling lots of gooey goodies. “We have a lot of floating entertainment in Paris now,” the owner tells me. “That’s why we Parisians call the Seine ‘our 21st arrondissement’.”
Clutching boxes of home-made goodies, I cross over to the Quai de la Rapée, dive underground once more and whizz to a dot on the Métro map’s north-east corner, called Jaurès. I surface near the Canal Saint-Martin.
Built in 1825 by order of Napoleon to bring drinking water and a better internal transport system to the city, this clean-cut waterway was jammed with barges carrying cement, coal and carbohydrates to the city, but when roads took over from fluvial routes in the mid 1960s there was talk of paving it over to make a motorway. Watching dinghies and canoes, hemmed in by a solid backdrop of concrete apartment blocks, skimming across what is now Paris’ largest open stretch of recreational water I give thanks to the Gods who prevented this catastrophe.
“Nowadays everyone loves the Canal Saint-Martin and the Bassin de Villette. People come here to ride bikes, or hire a canoe, or just to picnic and relax. These water spaces are like the city’s lungs – I don’t know what we’d do without them,” the artistic director of the La Péniche Opéra tells me.
I take a tour of this quaint, state-funded houseboat moored on the Quai de la Loire, which is home to a constantly changing team of opera professionals who give regular mini-performances in a plush theatre space below deck. Next, I hop on a boat moored outside MK2, the cinema sited in an industrial building that was designed by Gustave Eiffel, and take an enchanting three-hour journey downstream.
Cameras on the crowded boat stutter like machine guns as we pass the façade of the Hôtel du Nord, where the cult French film of the same name, starring iconic actress Annabella, was filmed some 50 years ago, and then we’re gliding past the green and spacious Parc de la Villette, dominated by its space-age dome, La Géode.
From here we work our stately way through the nine locks that will gradually lower us 24.5 metres to reach the vault under the Bastille, which was built by master planner Baron Haussmann in 1906. Lit only by spooky blue lights we leave the world of honking traffic and hopeful shoppers and slide along the city’s underbelly – past the crypt containing the remains of the 500 victims of the 1830 revolution whose names are engraved on the Colonne de Juillet directly above – and emerge two kilometres downstream in the Bassin de l’Arsenal.
Once reputed for its guinguette dance bars and tough, tattooed characters, this lively arrondissement is now the home of hip brasseries and fashionable stores clustered around the city’s yacht harbour, which was created from the moat that once surrounded the Bastille fortress. Relieved to be out of Haussmann’s narrow tunnel, I treat myself to a cup of Earl Grey on the polished teak deck of floating tearoom Le Grand Bleu, named for the cult French film about world-famous diver, Jacques Mayol.
An evening breeze chimes in the masts of sailing boats and sends ripples scudding across the Arsenal basin as I zip west to Pont Neuf, my last stop, where I spend the evening on board La Péniche Le Métamorphosis (metamorphosis-spectacles.fr), being wowed by the tricks of magician Jan Madd.
When I emerge from the illusionist’s houseboat it seems equally magical to think that I’ve managed to spend the whole day afloat in Paris, a city which lies more than a hundred miles away from the nearest seaside resort.
These entertainment boats tend to move around, so always call and check their current berths.
If you’re visiting with children, they’ll love La Croisière Enchantée (bateauxparisiens.com): via easily understood mime, songs (and a lot of clowning), two elves tell them the sad tale of Quasimodo and more during this family-friendly cruise which leaves from beneath the Eiffel Tower.
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