Our Frommer’s guidebook described the Canal Saint-Martin area as “Scruffy Cosmopolitan,” so how could we resist? With a plan to explore it for ourselves, we hopped on the Metro station across the street and made our way to the mid-point of the canal system, Jàures station.

It’s said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and our first impression wasn’t all that positive. Rather than follow the guidebook recommendation and start at the bottom and walk to the top, I went the opposite way as we had other places in town on our list. Interestingly we ended up on a weedy canal back with a big Paris fire department on the other side, and a trash recycling plant on our side. Workers in bright green slickers were pressure washing garbage bins as we strolled in the morning light. I asked MLW to check the route, and sure enough Mr. Frommer had suggested a walk right through this section, why, I don’t know.

We crossed to the other side at the first bridge, the part where the book highlighted chic boutiques and inviting cafés serving coffee and pastry to the neighborhood young and hip. Well, there were no boutiques, and what cafés there were seemed to be serving mostly older neighborhood patrons out for a cup of coffee and a cigarette while reading the Sunday papers. There were a lot of joggers, like a whole lot, and a few cyclists doing hill repeats. We stopped at one little joint, had coffee and croissant and confused yet another waitress with my attempt to communicate in the lingua franca. I think I might be speaking too quickly, maybe I’ll slow it down for the next opportunity.

After fortifying we continued down the hill, stopping to watch a tourist boat being lifted in a lock to the uphill section of the canal. I grew up around the locks on the NY Barge Canal, so they’re nothing new to me, but I can still watch them all day long.

Napoleon ordered construction of the canal system in 1802 with the aim of providing a source of fresh drinking water to the city as a way of stemming the continuous epidemics of cholera and dysentery. The canal was dug from 1802 to 1825, from the Ourcq River, approximately 60 miles north of the city. It was funded by a much-hated tax on wine. Later it was expanded and modernized to carry barge traffic, bringing supplies in from the countryside. In the 1960’s it was almost filled in and paved over for a highway. Today it forms an outdoor space for the district, albeit a trashy one with a lot of graffiti. My take – a nice to have if you live in the neighborhood but barely worth the subway ride, and nothing like the photos. In fact, it was a good testament to just how clever travel photos can be if properly staged.

Lots of potential, and perhaps someday it will be what it could be.

Leaving the waterway and crossing Place de la République, dominated by an enormous statue and lots of competing boomboxes blasting various versions of “world music,” we headed next to the Musée des Arts et Métiers.

Yesterday we saw a monument to blind greed in the form of Versailles. Today we wandered the halls of a museum dedicate to genius. Founded in 1794 by a monk named Henri Gregoire and sited in a 16th century abbey – Saint-Martin de Champs, it was conceived as “a store of new and useful inventions.” Today it is a museum of technological innovation with more than 80,000 objects in its collection, of which 2,400 are on display. And what a display it is.
Spread over three floors, the collection depicts the technological development of instruments, materials, energy, communication, construction and transportation. We found everything from Breguet’s finest watches to the airplane that Bleriot flew across the English Channel in 1909. Along the way, telescopes, vessels for experiments, looms, a Model T, bicycles, Lavoisier’s laboratory, movie cameras, a Formula 1 car, models of brick factories, an 1897 airplane that was based on the flight of Bats, models of bridges, diesel engines, a Cray-2 supercomputer, the very camera I used to work on during college summers, the first telephones, telegraphs and televisions, mechanical calculators, automatons, Telstar, and just about every other mechanical thing you can think of. The overarching realization – these inventors in the past were geniuses. Just looking at the internal workings of a water-powered silk loom was enough to make you stop and wonder how anyone could come up with such a machine. And never mind the chamber developed to imitate the Aurora Borealis, or Lavoisier’s experiments in weigh Oxygen.

(click on photos to enlarge)

One of my favorite parts was a section devoted to the marine clocks used to determine Longitude. Sailing in the 18th and 19thcenturies was difficult, because aside from using a sextant, it was hard to know where you were or how far you’d traveled. The concept of Longitude was eventually proven by the use of very precise clocks, mounted in gyroscopic boxes that removed the effect of the ocean on the clock’s mechanism. They have a very impressive collection. 

We spent at least 3 hours, and we could go back and spend a day in every single room. The route starts at the top of the building and winds its way down, ending up in the priory of the church which was cleaned up and remodeled in 1990. The stained glass is a nice as any of the local monuments and the interior has been partly painted in bright colors to liven it up. The original unadorned apse is to one side, with a reproduction of Foucault’s original pendulum in the center. The version today in the Pantheon is a reproduction of his first, a 28-kilogram lead ball covered in brass. That one was moved here in 1855 where it swung until 2010 when its cable snapped and it was destroyed by its fall to the floor. The nave holds a large metal structure that you climb to encounter some automobiles and a nice reproduction of the Statue of Liberty. In one corner stands a rocket motor, hanging from the ceiling are three famous airplanes from the dawn of flight (including the Bleriot.) Lighting is provided by the sun shining through the stained glass. It’s a museum devoted to machines, that feels like a church devoted to the same.

By the time we got out, it was hot, as in unseasonably hot so we crossed the street and caught the Metro, preferring to do what walking we had left under the streets and in the chilly air.