Take a Slow Boat To Bastille

photo: valerie floch commanding the locks
The marina's command centre is really spiffy,
with an un-marine color scheme.

Paris' Year-Round Downtown Marina

Paris:- Wednesday, 17. June 1998:- If you are ever on the south side of the place de la Bastille and you look in the direction of the Seine, you will see a public marina in the section of canal known as the Port de l'Arsenal.

Its other name is Port de Plaisance Paris-Arsenal. It means you can come to Paris on your own boat and tie it up at a regular marina in the heart of the city. The port is in the Canal Saint-Martin and it is separated from the Seine by a lock, so it is not affected by the varying levels of the river.

Before paying a visit to it, I stop in at the river police station on the opposite side of the river, near the pont d'Austerlitz. This is a unit of the Police Nationale. I once ran into a booth they had at the Foire de Paris and was invited to come around and maybe go for a ride and see some floaters.

Today it is kind of overcast and I haven't got an advance invitation, so I just ask about the piracy situation. The officer is startled by the question because they just call it plain robbery like the cops on the streets; but they like the notion. However they give the impression that times on the Seine are quiet and all is 'routine.'

Across the river I see a cabin cruiser pull up to a small dock, just outside the lock to the canal. I guess there is some way to talk to the port's management from there, and there looks like a pedestrian tunnelphoto: river police with entry to marina in background in the wall of the river bank. Just downstream, a bateau mouche is loitering in the current, waiting its turn to enter too.

The floating cop-shop is directly opposite the entrance to the Canal Saint-Martin and the marina.

I cross the pont d'Austerlitz and cut across to the Pont Morland, which is right above the lock. It looks like the water in the river is about two metres lower than in the port, so I wander over to the port Captain's office, which is on the east, the boulevard de la Bastille side.

The door has a sign on it which says 'wet paint' and the paint does look wet and I get in carefully. There is a payment booth with nobody in it and when I turn around I find the command room with the door open and no formality about going in.

I guess I expected navy blue suits and three gold stripes. Instead it is shirt sleeves and bewhiskered part-time sailors showing up to ask for their mail - in German - and confirming their booking - in English - and getting their allotted berths.

This is all very informal, under the direction of Bernard Piquet, with Valérie Floch running the command centre - watching the water levels and the TVs showing what's up - or down - in the locks, and pushing the buttons to make the metal gates swing open or closed.

There is a bit of racket from marine radio too. The port's command office is situated so that it overlooks the entry from the Seine, and the TV monitors can see the rest - such as what's coming down the canal Saint-Martin from Villette.

There are two other crew members, who are not around. As the port is open seven days a week, all year round, this seems slightly short-handed, but I forget to ask about it.

The port has 176 berths for pleasure boats up to a maximum length of 25 metres, with 65 berths reserved for overnight stays. There is fresh water, electricity, toilets,photo: boats with bastille behind showers, washing and drying machines, telephones, and crane with a seven ton capacity, and a security fence.

A line of cruisers on the west side, with the column at Bastille in the distance.

This last is locked at 23:00. Visiting crews get an electronic pass card and if it gets lost it costs 200 francs. The locks operate from 8:00 to 23:00 daily and the port captain's office is open from 8:00 to 20:00 during July and August. From the beginning of October until end of April the hours are 9:00 to 19:00 and in the mid-season they are slightly longer on weekend evenings.

The east side of the port has a public park with a childrens' play area and there is a small restaurant with an outside terrace near the Bastille end. Near the port captain's office there is a small parking lot; and there is access for vehicles to the quai on this east side.

Used oil can be deposited in the part, but I see no sign of any refueling station, although a gas station is indicated outside the port on the boulevard Bourdon, on the west side.

A lady I know told me she lived on a boat in this port for several years and said it was an interesting experience. This is right in the centre of Paris, right beside the Bastille and this is not an area known to be especially tranquil at night.

This is not to say the area around Bastille is studded with sailor's hang-outs - there's the Opéra Bastille right here! - but there is a certain high level of night-life in the area. The proximity to the métro's big station at Bastille, makes it a good location for getting to any part of Paris quickly.

Going - on foot - downstream to the pont de Sully puts the Ile Saint-Louis within close enough walking distance and the Quartier Latin is not much further.

There are a lot of other rivers around Paris besides the Seine and there are a lot of canals too. While this marina is run jointly by the city of Paris and the Chamber of Commerce, it is part of France's over-all VNF, or Voies Navigables de France, system.

While it is obviously possible to go from the Atlantic up the Seine to Paris, it is equally possible to take canals and rivers from Belgium and Holland, from Germany, or even from the Mediterranean. Without going into the sea, it is possible to go all the way to Bordeaux, via the Canal du Midi - or to the Black Sea, if you have the time.

But there are no passages through the veryphoto: resto de la port centre of France, through the Massif Central. It is a place where rivers start; but do not pass through.

The nearly secluded terrace of the port's restaurant is also open to the general public during the day.

Reading the canal and navigable rivers map, gives an indication of the centres of past French prosperity. If you feel like doing this sort of cruising, you may as well bring along the history books, because this type of travel is not speedy. From Paris, count on eight to ten days to get to Brussels.

This sort of tourism is somewhat of an import from Holland and Belgium and does not have a long history in France. The marina at Arsenal only dates to 1983, but since then river holidays in France have expanded considerably and there are all kinds of other possibilities offered - from river cruises to renting canal boats and driving them yourself.

Friends have told me it can be like taking a slow boat to.... well, that is the idea. Taking a slow boat and taking it slowly.

Port de Plaisance Paris-Arsenal
11. boulevard de la Bastille, Paris 12. Info. Tel.: 01 43 41 39 32, Fax.: 01 44 74 02 66. This port can also be contacted by eMail.

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