Canal de l’Ourcq: Paris’s Bastard Child

By Paul Prescott

Once infâme for the flotsam of drugs, crime and homeless awash on its shores, Paris’s red-headed stepchild has been reborn. No longer a place reserved for adventure tourists or locals with a death wish, this branch of the Seine that stretches from La Rotonde at the Place de la Bataille-de-Stalingrad to the Parc de la Villette has sprouted into an area that is no longer limited to intrepid explorers. The banks are a perfect place to invest an entire day and, what’s more, are also child-proved so that children of any age can come and play.

The trip to the Parc de la Villette isn’t too far to hoof it, but why not grab the bull by its handlebars and mount a Vélib? There’s a stand at the end of the Quai de la Loire (between the Métro station Jaurès and the Place Stalingrad) and the paved embankment provides a safe bike path for as far as you’d like to ride, beginning, like our excursion, at La Rotonde.

La Rotonde de la Villette, built in 1788 as a kind of customs office to collect taxes on goods entering the city, squats so securely on the Place Stalingrad that the elevated tracks of Métro line 2 have to swerve around it. Here you’ll find the trendy bar/restaurant 25° Est, which has been offering a nice selection of cocktails and food since the summer of 2007. With a delicious range of planches (think cutting boards laden with cheese, veggies and/or cold cuts), lunch menus and a happy hour that starts at 3pm, the reasonably priced fare is more than fair enough. Sit on the terrace or smoke on the roof and enjoy a great view of the Bassin de la Villette while the kids distract themselves watching bateaux mouches slink through the nearby écluses (locks).

If you’re tempted to ride the waves yourselves, the offices for Canauxrama are next to the 25° Est, but remember that the shortest trip will take a 2½-hour bite out of your day and that the cruises get a little monotonous after the first 30 minutes. A better alternative might be to take the ferry that links the two MK2 movie theaters facing each other on opposite sides of the channel. Passage across is free for cinema ticket holders and only 15 cents for those without.

Just beyond the movie theaters, the cement cedes to dirt and you’ll stumble upon an area where the locals like to play pétanque. Besides being one of the few sports you can do while drinking (in fact, some would say it’s a requirement) pétanque is a bowling sport, closely related to bocce ball, which started in the south of France. While extremely prevalent across the Mediterranean coast, the game sees its fair share of Parisians who also enjoying playing with their boules.

Get a Pastis (the must-drink for pétanque participants) at the Bar Ourcq, right across the street. One of Paris’s latest “in-places”, the Bar Ourcq is a hippy-chic locale that offers drinks and munchies, as well as a nice selection of teas for those not in the mood to imbibe. The drinks are cheap by Paris standards and, for a 1€ deposit, you can have it in a plastic cup to carry across the street where you can sit on a bench and watch the action. Want to try your hand at pétanque? No problem, the bar has a barrel full of balls you can borrow free of charge. It’s a rainy day? The Bar Ourcq has Wi-Fi access and a limited selection of board games for the kiddos, not to mention live music on weekend evenings.

From there, continue your promenade along the quay and pause a moment to enjoy the last drawbridge still inside the city limits. The Pont Levant de la rue de Crimée (Rue Crimée Drawbridge—built in 1885) is interesting in that the pulleys on the four hydraulic columns literally lift—like a woman hiking her skirt to shriek at a mouse—the bridge to allow boats to pass underneath. After witnessing this marvel, keep on riding (or walking) until you reach the Parc de la Villette, which straddles the channel and is a whole other story altogether.

The Canal de l’Ourcq has matured in recent years from a wild child into a cool kid who’s fun to hang out with, though still rough enough around the edges to avoid the pampered reputation that has spoiled many trendy areas in Paris. Hurry up and adopt this bad boy before the Canal de l’Ourcq becomes too big for its britches.

By Paul Prescott (Paris Inspired Website)

All photos ©Paul Prescott

25° Est (French site)

Bar Ourcq (mostly French site)

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