ONE OF THE MORE unusual sights in Paris at the moment is the recently drained Canal Saint-Martin.
The double lock at the upstream end of the Canal Saint-Martin
Opened in 1825, the Canal Saint-Martin is a 4.5 km stretch of water connecting the Canal de l’Ourcq to the Seine.
From the Bassin de la Villette at its upstream end to its junction with the Seine at Port de l’Arsenal downstream, the canal comprises nine locks and two swing bridges and from one end to the other it falls some 25 metres.
For the final 2 km at its downstream end, from Rue du Faubourg du Temple to Port de l’Arsenal, the canal runs underground passing under Boulevard Richard Lenoir and Place de la Bastille.
The double lock looking downstream to Place de Stalingrad
On Monday, 4th January, work began to drain and clean the canal and to do some renovation work to some of the locks.
To get things underway a dam was installed at the upstream end of the canal. Once the dam was in place the lock gates along the canal were opened and some 90,000 cubic metres of water drained from the canal into the Seine.
The dam separating the Canal Saint-Martin from the Bassin de la Villette
The canal has a large fish population and so some 10 cm of water was left in the bottom of the canal initially so the fish that didn’t manage to escape with the flow of water could be rounded up in nets and transferred to the Seine.
Once a waterway supplying Paris with fresh water, grain and other commodities to support a growing population, the canal trade eventually dwindled and the canal came close to extinction.
Today, with its romantic footbridges and mysterious vaulted tunnels, the tree-lined Canal Saint-Martin conveys passenger boats and pleasure craft and has become one of the key tourist spots in Paris.
In contrast to its romantic image though, the canal takes on a different aspect once the water has been drained.
The canal was last drained and cleaned in 2001 and during that operation 18 tonnes of fish were recovered and 40 tonnes of rubbish gathered. The haul of garbage and occasional treasure could be even more this time around.
The other day, I walked along the Canal Saint-Martin from the Bassin de la Villette to Rue du Faubourg du Temple where the canal enters the 2 km tunnel before it reaches the Seine. It is this above-ground stretch of the canal that is being cleaned.
Looking downstream to the tunnel entrance at Rue du Faubourg du Temple
Anxious to capture the cleaning operation in sound and since I couldn’t get close to the canal from either the Quai de Valmy on one side or the Quai de Jemmapes on the other, I chose to record from the top of the footbridge crossing the canal close to Rue du Faubourg du Temple.
The recording doesn’t last for long and it isn’t perfect – but it is historic since these sounds are only heard every ten to fifteen years!
Sweeping bottles in the Canal Saint-Martin:
All the detritus from the canal is being transferred by road to barges on the Canal St-Denis that will take it on for disposal.
At a cost of €9.5 million, the cleaning and renovation work will take three months and the Canal Saint-Martin is due to open for business again on 4th April.
Looking upstream from Rue du Faubourg du Temple
THE WEATHER IN PARIS in early November has been quite exceptional, more like late summer than late autumn. It’s the ideal weather to stroll around Paris and search out places I haven’t been to for a while, places like the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th arrondissement.
Stretching from the Place de Stalingrad to Porte d’Arsenal, the canal was born in the mind of Napoleon I as a means of supplying much needed fresh water to the city. The building of the canal was funded by a tax on wine – a case of turning wine into water then!
As well as supplying fresh water, the canal was also a working thoroughfare supplying Paris with grain and other commodities. The canal trade eventually dwindled and the canal came close to extinction but today, the canal and the surrounding area, is a vibrant, rather chic place to be.
The Hotel du Nord, on the Quai de Jemmapes, stands close to the canal. The hotel has been here since 1885 but it’s perhaps best known as the star of the film of the same name. The 1938 film, directed by Marcel Carné and starring Annabella, Jean-Pierre Aumont and Louis Jouvet, was shot on location here.
Standing in front of the Hotel du Nord today it’s very easy to slip back in time to 1930’s, black and white, Paris. Inside, with the zinc bar, the white tiles on the walls and the black and white mosaic tiles on the floor the feeling is enhanced.
Inside the Hotel du Nord:
Today, the Canal Saint-Martin is a waterway largely for tourist boats. The canal has several locks to be negotiated, which ensures that no journey along the canal will be made in a hurry.
Navigating the locks is usually watched by people who gather on top of the bridges and it was on top of one of these that I recorded the process.
Navigating a lock:
The process is simple. The lock fills to allow the boat in and then empties to allow the boat out at a lower level. The lock gates operate by hydraulics and the water operates by gravity. Today, no heavy-lifting is required, it’s all done at the push of a button.
And I can reveal that in this neck of the woods the earth moves! Well, not quite, but the roadway certainly does.
At the locks where the road is at the same level as the boats, one of them has to give way to the other and the road always loses this contest. The traffic is stopped and the road swings out of the way.
Once the boat has passed, the road swings back into place … at least until the next time.
A walk along the Canal Saint-Martin is always interesting at any time but especially so in an unusually sunny November.