You really get to know a city when you have time to stroll, unhurried, along its walkways without a particular mission other than to enjoy the surrounds and feel the vibe of the place. In between our adventures out of the city and museum missions it’s lovely to relax with a promenade out and about with the locals.
We’ve strolled along the Canal St Martin from the Metro station at the newly redesigned Place de la République up Quai de Valmy as far as the Stalingrad Metro station and back down the other side along Quai de Jemmapes. This area in the 10th arrondissement is particularly trendy and hip. On a sunny winter afternoon the banks of the canal are lined with hardy picnic-ers wrapped up in coats and scarves and sporting the latest model sunglasses. Certain cafes, like Chez Prune, are the in-place to hang out, as are the cool designer boutiques along the Quai and in the side streets. I can confirm they are very appealing, worth a return visit. The area has a vibe not unlike trendy Cuba Street in Wellington (NZ).
Even the local shags (I’m talking winged birdlife here; les oiseaux) find this a pleasant place to sit and preen in the afternoon sun. As I was snapping a few photos people asked me if I knew the name of the bird…errr, wasn’t sure how to translate Shag into French. Apparently they are Cormorants (Phalacrocoracidae family).
Originally the canal served a more utilitarian purpose than being a hip hang out, it was developed on the orders of Napoléon I to bring fresh water into Paris from the River Ourcq. Digging started in 1802 but with France’s military needs having soaked up the available manpower the canal wasn’t completed until the end of 1808, three years past its due date.
Not that far from Place de la République is Père LachaiseCemetery in the 20th arrondissement. I do prefer to wander around here in winter. Somehow the leafless trees and cold air deepen the sombre peace and quiet you find here and besides, you get a superb view back to the city from certain points. The history of the cemetery itself is interesting; originally a large block of land on the outskirts of the city, having been owned at one time by Père Lachaise. In 1804 Napoléon I ordered the acquisition of land by the state to provide adequate burial space for the city which at the time suffered serious overcrowding problems for its deceased citizens. The stories of its inhabitants are every bit as interesting as the cemetery itself. Wandering along the rough cobbled paths is like browsing through a history book. Even aside from the famous characters who are permanent residents here (Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Chopin, Edith Piaf) the names you encounter tell stories in history. We found the memorial stone to one Dr Paul Brousse, a French socialist, who had lived and practised medicine in the 17th arrondissement. Our street is named after him.
Another, possibly more energetic stroll if you wish, is along Les Berges de Seine (the banks of the Seine), in particular the stretch from the Musée d’Orsay to Pont de l’Alma. These are the newly re-designed public spaces for leisure activities. They are below the road level (Quai level) right beside the water; there are fitness stations, deckchairs, rope hammocks, kids play areas, green spaces and often special events and activities. All this (and the redevelopment of the Place de la République) are part of a much appreciated “city spaces project” driven by the current mayor of Paris. Even on the cold grey afternoon when we promenaded along Les Berges there were plenty of people out enjoying the space. It will be a hot spot in the summer for sure. I can’t finish the description of les berges without adding that the construction of the stop banks for the Seine, essentially the quays that run along the side and integral to les berges, was undertaken on the orders of Napoléon I. In 1802 the Seine had overflowed its banks causing serious flooding so the construction of the quays was to prevent future flooding. The works started with development of the Quai d’Orsay and eventually by 1812 three kilometres of quays had been constructed in 10 years. These have to be one of the best features of Paris in terms of beauty and benefit.
And there you have it; 3 leisurely strolls around about Paris and a brisk trot through the history of Napoléon I’s public works programme at the same time. Bon weekend.