First thing’s first, there’s no part of Paris officially known as the Haute-Canal. But the area surrounding the man-made channel that runs northeast from Stalingrad Metro is fast becoming one of the hippest locales in the whole city. And a hip locale needs a name.
Maybe it is the temporary draining of the Basse-Canal – elsewhere known as the Canal Saint Martin – that has spurred its broader tributary’s gentrification. Anyhow the bobos (short for bourgeois bohemians – think something between hipsters and yuppies), that most Parisian of social tribes, are heading north in bigger numbers than ever before.
It’s hardly surprising; the Haute-Canal is ready made for invasion by the trendy classes. There’s more sky here than almost anywhere else in Paris, plenty of recreational space on the canal’s broad banks, and the architecture is a relaxed melange of industrial and modern design. Here are a few of the area’s highlights.
These traditional French barges are moored almost the whole length of the Haute-Canal. Sizable and relatively cheap to own, many have been converted into fringe art venues, able to stage and show more alternative entertainments than landlocked places in the town centre. They are testament to the notion that any experience is improved when it takes place on the water.
Most popular among these péniches is the Antipode (55 Quai de la Seine). She may not be much to look at, but there’s a spirit here that’s hard to beat. A classic French canal barge from the turn of the century, this is now a cheap and cheerful bohemian hangout on the water. Below decks, space is given over to the Abracadabra Theatre (55 Quai de la Seine), which has a constantly changing roster of theatre pieces, stand-up, and music gigs – all reasonably priced.
If you want to push the boat out (sorry), La Péniche Opéra (46 Quai de la Loire) may be more your channel. There is something delightfully improbable about stepping onto a canal barge to watch opera. It seems impossible that this most grandiose of artistic forms could be contained within such a small environment. La Péniche Opéra proves that it can. Despite the limited space, there’s no skimping on quality; the company dates back to 1982 and has a reputation that extends round all of France.
Should your penchant toward floating entertainment drift more toward the cinematic, then head up the canal to La Péniche Cinéma (Canal de l’Ourcq – Parc de la Villette). Cult classics and more mainstream films are projected here regularly.
Bars & Cafés
If there was one thing that the Haute-Canal was known for, even before its bobo colonisation, it was petanque. The dusty gravel of the canal’s banks is the perfect surface for this most French of games, and by loaning both boules and jacks to customers the hyper trendy Bar Ourcq (68 Quai de la Loire) effectively has extended its terrace to include half the Quai de la Loire. But that in no way plays down Bar Ourcq’s interior, where the tone is set by resident DJs, bar snacks are served free with the drinks, and all manner of board and card games are offered free to customers.
For a more formal experience, try Le Pavillon des Canaux (39 Quai de la Loire). Once home to the guardian of the canal this “kooky” self-styled “coffice” is that rarest of things in Paris, a freestanding house. Playing up to this, the owners have decorated it appropriately, designing its interior to a doll’s house ideal. There’s a dining room, kitchen, living room, and even a bath for punters to sit in, should they be so inclined. It almost goes without saying that the details lean toward kitsch, but the food and drink are good, and it makes a fun novelty for those seeking a brief respite from apartment-based lives.
There are no such gimmicks at the Paname Brewing Company (41 bis Quai de la Loire). This new microbrewery is too busy trying to overturn centuries of drinking tradition to make time for kitsch. Paris has long been famously awful in regards to the quality of its beer. Now, Paname offers hope where there was none to those thirsty individuals in the French capital, unconvinced that beer-making technology reached its zenith in 1664. The bar’s cavernous interior is decorated with beautiful brass fittings and furnished by long, convivial tables. It boasts a view straight down the canal that is a perfect vista for a sunset supp.
Should you be in search of a more traditional French café experience, try Le Bastringue (67 Quai de la Seine ) or La Bellerive (71 Quai de la Seine), referred to by locals as the Red and the Blue Café respectively, these two institutions represent the near platonic ideal of the French bistro experience. They have stylish wicker terrace furniture, serve an excellent plat du jour and a decent espresso that can be nursed for hours, and are justifiably popular.
At the haute end of the Haute-Canal is the Parc de la Villette. This area was once dominated by the main slaughterhouse of Paris, but don’t let that put you off: Parc de la Villette today is a cross between an adventure playground and the setting of a 1960’s sci-fi film. Designed in the mid-1980s by French architect Bernard Tschumi (who discussed plans for the park with philosopher Jacques Derrida) it is an outdoor space on multiple levels, crisscrossed by raised walkways, dotted by abstract “follies”, and home to dozens of curios, including a musical wind chamber, an old nuclear submarine, and a vast, shiny geode which houses an IMAX theatre screen.
One absolute can’t miss attraction for kids in Villette is the newly inaugurated Jardin du Dragon, a spectacular climbing frame in the shape of, well, a dragon. It’s the sort of sight that makes you wish to be young – or at least very small – again.
There’s also plenty of flat, open space in the park, making it perfect for picnics and frisbee (and other jumpers-for-goalposts type activity). All in all, it’s a triumph of civic design.
And in case you start feeling frustrated on the Canal, being close to so much water but unable to go for a dip, there’s always the Piscine Rouvet (1 rue Rouvet), one of Paris’ many wonderful municipal swimming pools. Entry is cheap and it’s designed in wonderful art deco style, with changing rooms situated on an encircling mezzanine above the pool itself.
Every Thursday and Sunday the Haute-Canal offers one of the more aesthetically pleasing food markets in Paris: Marché Joinville (Place de Joinville). Instead of snaking down the centre of a boulevard – like the majority of markets in the city – this takes place almost entirely on a single square. As such, it is a beautiful grid of scent, colour, and noise: the ripe smell of the cheese stall, the orange flash of piled clementines, and the holler of stall owners imploring you to try their produce.
And finally, a visit to the Haute-Canal would not be complete without sampling the outstanding croissants of Boulangerie Pauline (36 Rue de Joinville). Sweet, salty, flaky, and moist, they are an impossible combination of texture and taste. Do try them, if you can. The rest of Pauline’s produce is pretty outstanding as well.