Friday, January 23, 2015

Canal St. Martin - Not a No-Go Zone





At a dinner party the other night at the Maison des polytechniciens several of our French friends were talking about the supposed "no-go zones" in Paris.  In case you haven't heard about it, after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the American TV network Fox News, broadcast repeatedly the completely false information that Paris has zones that are so completely Muslim, and ipso facto so dangerous, that non-Muslims, not even the French police, dare enter them. Their "expert"  - with a map of Paris behind him - even described some of the zones as places that were more like Iraq or Afghanistan than Paris. After being subjected to several days of ridicule by the French satirical program Le Petit Journal and half the internet, Fox News issued a complete apology to all the people of France. Their information was wrong and they were sorry for the errors.  But, as our French friends said, damage has been done, witnessed by the fact that even after Fox's apology, the internet is still full of forums with people asking if it is safe to go to Paris. The mayor of Paris has announced that she is considering suing Fox News on behalf of the City of Paris. (Click here to see the segment on Le Petit Journal with subtitles in English.)

Several of the "dangerous" areas on Fox's Paris maps are not far from our apartment. So, in the interests of journalistic honesty and to give Travel Oyster readers a first-hand view, I decided to risk life and limb and spend the day in one of the Fox News NO-GO ZONES!

I chose the Canal St. Martin area in the 10th arrondissement, just a short walk from my apartment. It's a traditional working-class neighborhood that has become more upscale in recent years.  City Walks Paris, which perhaps Fox News would have done well to read, describes it as: "lined with hip cafés and chic shops...the picturesque and trendy Canal St. Martin area is full of bohemian delights."

My walk began at the Place de la République, the starting point for the recent solidarity walk following the terrorist attacks. The huge square, with eleven converging streets, covers almost eight and a half acres (3.4 ha.) A gathering place since the mid-1300s, the present square was recently renovated to make it more pedestrian and bike friendly.  At one end there is a glass-enclosed cafe and restaurant that's a good place to relax and take in the sights. I decided to go instead to the award-winning boulangerie Du Pain et des Idées - a most definite go zone.  This year, Le Point magazine named the bakery's Galette des Rois the best in Paris. Not a big fan of the traditional holiday galette, I had my favorite, Le chausson à la pomme fraiche.



From the bakery, I walked to the Canal St. Martin, a tranquil oasis in the middle of a bustling neighborhood. The canal was built at the behest of Napoleon Bonaparte in the 1820s, to supply Paris with fresh water. In the 20th century, canal boats plied its waters bringing food and building materials to the center of Paris.  I sat on a bench midway along the four and a half kilometers of canal that remain above ground. On Sundays the adjoining streets are closed to traffic, but as I happily ate my chausson, cars and bikes whizzed by. Trees and bushes along the waterway helped block out their sound and I sat for a while admiring the beautiful arched pedestrian bridges that traverse the canal. I walked down the canal, on the lookout for signs of danger, but saw only parents pushing baby carriages, young guys on skateboards, and older men playing boules. One of men did ask me for a cigarette, but when I told him I didn't smoke, he thanked me and went back to his game.  

My next stop was the Hôpital Saint-Louis. The hospital is just outside the official Fox no-go zone, but the short detour into a go zone is well worth it. It was built by order of King Henri IV in the early 1600s to isolate victims of the plague from the rest of the population. Classified a historic monument, the hospital's double walls enclose one of the most beautiful and least-known squares in Paris.  Designed by the king's architect Claude Chastillon in 1607, it is a forerunner to the Place des Vosgeswhich Chastillon designed in 1612. A much larger modern hospital now welcomes patients, but the square is open to all. After a walk around the practically deserted square, I wandered through several streets on my way back to the canal.  I windowed shopped and even stepped into a few stores, including Antoine et Lili with its three brightly painted storefronts.  


After all this walking, it was time for lunch.  I considered a Cambodian restaurant and a small couscous joint, but in the end I went for the traditional and had lunch at the Hôtel du Nord.  Famed as the setting for a well-known French novel and an even more famous film, it was built around the same time as the canal. It was originally a workingmen's hotel, but by the 1970s it had run-down and was scheduled for demolition. In the good French tradition, citizens rallied to save it and by 1989, its facade was declared a national heritage. The restaurant has a wonderful old bistro atmosphere and a very good 13,50 euro lunch menu. I had a puff pastry stuffed with tomato and mozzarella, followed by grilled fish with eggplant caviar. I lingered a bit over coffee and then set out again still in search of what made this neighborhood "no-go."

I wandered north and there the streets got a bit dirtier and more crowded.  The stores were a bit less chic, but even more interesting with eclectic boutiques and bazaars filled with products from all over the world, appealing to the people of the diverse cultures who live there.  What the neighborhood didn't seem was threatening or dangerous or no-go.  

As the day wound down, I made by way home and arrived there safe and sound. After surviving my first expedition, I'm looking forward to exploring some of the other no-go zones in Paris. If the expert from Fox News wants to come along, I'd be happy to hold his hand and show him the sights.

To take a photo tour of my No-Go Zone walk, click here.






   



Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor