If you fancy a bit of a slow city show, you can stroll along the Canal Saint Martin a bit, just round the corner from République and the Gare de l'Est, and watch the boats going through the Pont Tournant. There's a fairly regular amount of traffic on the river, as it's one of the main watery gateways to the north of France, and eventually Belgium and Holland, from the Seine. Indeed, it arrives in the heart of the capital at the picturesque Port de l'Arsenal at La Bastille.
I've always been intrigued by how this bridge works, and it was only this August, on a photo tour of the canal, that I was actually in the right place at the right time to see how with my own eyes.
I'd always looked at the place the bridge was split, in the form of two curved lines on the ground, and the space available, and the angles concerned, and said to myself: there's no way that can swivel round anywhere!
Of course I was wrong and it can and it does and it's quite impressive to watch. It actually rotates off to one side to allow the boats to pass through and is a totally different spectator experience to watching lock gates open, which you can also do here too, by the way (that'll be another post quite soon probably, as I dream of fresh spring and summer and autumn days in this cold chilly winter as I type this!).
Hot 'n' bothered tourists, poor things...
Adding to our viewing pleasure is the fact that there's one of those lovely little Eiffel Tower-like pedestrian bridges with big chunky iron girders and knobbly bits all over it right next to the swivelling bridge. This means that you can look down on the whole operation, including the people and cars waiting for the road to open up and it's quite exciting in a laid back sort of way.
On hot days you can half laugh at and half envy the passengers on the pleasure cruisers who are spending their day waiting for various water retainers to open and close. In yet another post I'll be doing something I've been threatening to do for many years: take this very boat right the way from the Basin de la Villette right down to the Basin de l'Arsenal (which hurts a bit as a theoretical Tottenham supporter) actually going under the road for quite a way! Have you done it yet?
Not interested in the Pont Tournant
The canal itself was started in 1802 by Naploeon I to provide the city with clean(er) drinking water, and to make commerce with the north easier. It linked the rivers Seine and Ourcq and was used for transporting stuff like grain and building materials. It was apparently funded by a new tax on wine, and took over 20 years of boozing to build... it's a miracle it ever got built at all when you look at it like that <hic!>...
The canal, especially the portion between République and La Bastille which is now covered, was also a major strategic barrier (i.e. problem) for government troops who wanted to be able to quell disturbances and uprisings in the rebellious eastern parts of the city quickly. Napoleon III just covered it over to solve this little problem, and it remains so today. It almost got filled in during the 60s and replaced with a highway; think how much poorer Paris would be today if they had!
Look, you can spit on people's heads as they go by
The Pont Tournant has a brother, by the way, just down the canal a bit, called the Pont Mobile, which works on the same principle. I must admit I spent about an hour looking at my main picture here and Google maps trying to work out which bit of rotating roadware my photo was actually of.
The Canal Saint Martin really is one of the hidden treasures of the city and I do recommend you have a stroll there, probably when the weather's nicer to make the most of it.
In case you're interested, you can see some of my arty iPhone photos of parts of the canal here, here and here. Comment are always welcome.