Pleasure and Pain in Paris by Valerie Helps

Valerie Helps* and photographer Geoffrey Bull continue their voyage in a small boat through the waterways of France.

Suddenly the dream became a reality. We were about to spend two weeks in Paris living on our boat de Villehardouin in the Paris-Arsenal Port de Plaisance.
We had spent a lazy summer cruising gradually northwest along the Canal de la Marne à la Saône, and through the Champagne region where we tasted and bought fine champagne at affordable prices – then moored at Nogent-sur-Marne where my daughter Francesca and her young daughter Alexandra joined us from Sydney.
We left the marina on a crisp autumn morning, accompanied by Maria and Bill, two Australian friends who arrived by train from Paris, and cruised along the Marne bordered by trees dripping gold and copper. Coffee and croissants in the saloon were the order of the day as de Villehardouin pulsated with laughter and chatter – we were all exalted at the prospect of actually approaching Paris by boat.
We went through the last lock on the Marne (St-Maurice), turned right and were finally on the Seine, the adults, festooned with cameras and ready for action, sat on the bow while young Alexandra, looking like a bumble-bee in her bright orange life-jacket remained inside.
It is impossible to describe the surge of excitement as we approached the city, gradually drawing closer to the superbly sculpted and decorated bridges and the famous landmarks on either side.
The magnificent architecture along the Parisian skyline is even more magnificent when seen from the river, though vigilance was needed from the helm as the river was alive with working barges and aggressive tourist boats (commonly known as bateaux-mouches – the largest of which carries 1,000 passengers) which generated a great deal of turbulence. Geoff and I took turns at the helm, this gave us each space to enjoy and record the glories of this fabulous city. We planned to cruise as far as the Eiffel Tower before turning back to enter the Paris-Arsenal.
Going downstream, on the Pont de Sully, there is a set of lights that dictates the passage of boats along the narrow passage between the Île Saint Louis and the Île de la Cité. They show green for only 15 minutes in every hour, from 35 minutes past to 10 to each hour – so unless one has planned the journey with care, one has to tie up somewhere to await the green light.
Bridge detail north of Paris. / The Eiffel Tower.
Our chart indicated we could moor at a pontoon just outside the lock entrance to the Canal Saint Martin (which leads into the Paris-Arsenal), but we decided to try the mooring between the pont Charles de Gaulle and the viaduct d’Austerlitz (also shown on our chart). It wasn’t too promising – just a few metal rings along a high wall – fine for larger boats but not ideal for our 11.35m craft – however, the wash from passing barges was not too serious, it was lunchtime and we were hungry, so we tied up centre and stern and settled down to a prolonged and welcome lunch, washed down by excellent red wine provided by our friends.
Neither Geoff nor I noticed the grey speedboat (a James Bond variety, very sleek and fast) as it swept by, very close, setting up a colossal wash that threw us repeatedly against the wall with a deafening grinding and crashing sound.
Before we could do anything the metal cleat was ripped out of the deck and the stern rope – strained to its limits – was about to do the same. Geoff and Bill leaned out of the saloon window and managed to catch the wildly swinging rope (with dangling cleat) to secure the boat, while I rushed out to the stern and with great difficulty, managed to untie the rope that had tightened around the cleat. This was somewhat hazardous as our boat has no rails and it was tossing and bucking like a crazed bronco.
Meanwhile, the girls in the saloon didn’t realise what was going on and were merely worried about the wine that was threatening to spill! In retrospect we both agreed our ropes had probably been too tight – had we moored more loosely we might have been able to deal with the excessive turbulence before we lost the cleat.
Pont Alexandre III. / Pont de Bir Hakeim detail. / Statue of Liberty, Ile des Cygnes.
We left immediately and dawdled around until the green light came on, then completed our lunch while cruising, though I have to admit I had lost my appetite. However, composure was restored as we cruised alongside Notre-Dame cathedral and gradually down the Seine, marvelling at the detail on the bridges as we passed beneath them and almost too soon the intricate tracery of the Eiffel Tower loomed above us – bringing back memories of the Millennium fireworks, that we watched from the banks of the Seine on that memorable night.
We turned around at the smaller replica of the Statue of Liberty and re-traced our journey past Port Grennell and back to the Paris-Arsenal. Fortunately there are no controlling lights for upstream traffic past the two islands, and we were able to concentrate more closely on the gothic glories of Notre Dame as we cruised by.
Notre Dame, Ile de la Cité.Then – more drama! As we turned across the river to the lock entrance, we saw an old man fall over the edge of the high wall into the Seine immediately in front of us. He floundered around then began to swim rather weakly as we started to swing de Villehardouin around towards him. Fortunately the water police happened to be cruising nearby – we managed to get their attention and the man was immediately rescued and was being hauled up the ladder as we entered the lock. It had been an exciting and somewhat unusual day to say the least!
The Paris-Arsenal Port de Plaisance with its 176 berths is an ideal mooring for a visit to the city. The Capitainerie staff all speak English and are most helpful, giving us a map marked with the necessities of life – the nearest boulangerie, post office, café, banks – and a resident handyman fixed our centre cleat.
The marina is a short walk to the metro, RER, buses; wonderful shops and restaurants not to mention Opera Bastille where we tried to get seats to a ballet rehearsal one afternoon. But they cut off the endless queue leaving us in the freezing street with many others and reducing my little granddaughter to floods of tears. Comfort was restored by a visit to a favourite café nestled in an enchanting little square, which serves the best cappuccino and pastries in the world.

* Valerie Helps and her photographer husband Geoffrey Bull have spent many years exploring the French waterways on their canal boat de Villehardouin. Over the past five years they have been restoring an old farmhouse in the Loire Valley region and leasing out their boat when they are not cruising.

Paris by boat

Distance covered – total 58.6km
Nogent-sur-Marne to Paris-Arsenal – 11.5km inc tunnel and 2 locks
Canal Saint-Martin - 4.5km inc 2km tunnel and 9 locks
Canal Saint-Denis - 6.6km and 7 locks
Seine from canal Saint-Denis to Paris-Arsenal – 30km and one lock
Paris-Arsenal to Maison d’Alfont on the Marne – 6km and one lock


Navicarte no 3 ‘La Marne de Paris à Vitry-le-Francois’.
‘Les canaux de Paris’ free brochure supplied by the Mairie de Paris.

Marina Fees

(subject to constant change)
Variable – sometimes free: average 5€ a night and busier ports up to 20€
Nogent-sur-Marne – 10€ a night  (all incl depending on length of stay)
Paris-Arsenal October price – 14.70€ a night  (all incl)