• Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic

“YOU DON’T MIND CLIMBING STAIRS, DO YOU?” a friend asked when she heard my wife Ann and I would be spending a week in a small apartment overlooking Canal Saint-Martin in Paris. She knew it well. Like other lucky members of the Unitarian Church of Montreal, she, too, had previously won the stay during BidNite, an annual church fundraising auction. The week cost less than a couple of nights at a mid-priced Paris hotel. But you have to know what you’re getting into — or, rather, what you’ll be climbing.

Ann and I arrive on a steamy morning in July — Bastille Day, as it happens. We had tried and failed to pack lightly. And so, by the time we heave our way out of Gare de l’Est train station, through the narrow streets of the 10th arrondissement, past a line of close-cropped plane trees and across a footbridge that arcs high above the canal, we are a little tired. Claire Desmichelle, a psychologist who lives in the apartment for most of the year, is waiting to greet us and explain its small idiosyncrasies. We ring the bell by the building’s front door, and she buzzes us inside. Then we start to climb.

The first 19 steps aren’t hard, even for a semi-sedentary writer in his fifties gripping luggage in each hand. The steps curve onto a landing that leads to the next 19 stairs. And so on.

And so on. By the fifth set of steps, my hands feel as if they are being ripped from my arms and my heart is rehearsing for some percussion extravaganza. Surely, I think, this must be the final flight. I’m wrong. Claire’s apartment is six floors up, off a landing where tall plants grow oblivious to the poverty of light, 115 steps above-ground.

Bienvenue à Paris,” she says, giving me a concerned look. For the next week, she will stay across the canal in an apartment that contains her consulting office, while we inhabit the flat bought many years ago by her Aunt Geneviève — now a Montréal Unitarian. Claire had cleared space for our food in her little fridge and moved her personal effects out of the miniature bathroom.

“Could you be careful,” she says, “when you water the plants on the balcony?” I step outside to make sure I understand and the city takes my breath away. “If you pour too fast,” she cautions, brandishing an elegant watering can the size of a large wineglass, “you’ll hit the people down below.”

I find it hard to focus on herbs and geraniums when, straight ahead, the hill of Montmartre leads up to the pale stonework of Basilique du Sacré-Coeur and, off to the left, the Eiffel Tower rises above a forest of roofs and chimneys. I crane my head and even glimpse the dome of the Panthéon across the Seine.

Claire leaves us to settle in. We unpack and read about the neighbourhood. I’d been surprised, lugging our bags from the refurbished Gare de l’Est, at how spruce, even chic, the 10th arrondissement now seemed. Visiting Paris as a young man in the 1970s and early 1980s, I’d found the areas surrounding the northern and eastern stations to be scruffy at best. The canal itself — one of the great engineering projects of Napoleon’s era — was still industrial back then. As its commerce dwindled, some halfwitted planners wanted to drain it and install a freeway.

That risk has passed, thank goodness, and in summer, the canal comes alive with long, slender tourist boats that keep their occupants waiting at each of nine locks, the watery equivalent of staircases. Impressionist painters such as Sisley and Monet loved the effects of light on the canal and Paris’s grimy stations. They might be shocked to see how the area has been cleaned up and transformed by bistros, boutiques and boulangeries. Part of the movie Amélie was shot here. It’s where Paris parties. Well, a good chunk of youthful Paris, anyway.

As Ann and I slip onto Claire’s narrow, flower-filled balcony that night, we think it is the national holiday that makes the air ring with laughter, guitars and the occasional pop of a cork. And, indeed, July 14 is the only time we see fireworks light up the sky above Sacré-Coeur. But every day at dusk, young and not so young people gather along the canal with picnic baskets and bottles of wine, disturbing the peace of its resident ducks as evening stretches far into night.

An idyllic spot? Not altogether. Each morning, we notice a couple of people sleeping rough on an aging mattress tucked under the canal’s footbridge. A few hundred metres to the north, an entire village of tents signifies that hundreds of luckless people are now making their home along the banks of the canal. Makeshift clotheslines hang between the tents. At night, low fires burn. Paris has tried to banish the homeless from the city’s core, but some of the homeless have other ideas.

This is a neighbourhood familiar with strife. Between the 13th and late 18th centuries, public hangings took place a stone’s throw away. After the Massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572, the body of a Huguenot leader, Gaspard de Coligny, was left on public display — a gruesome warning of the price of religious dissent. Thirty-five years later, King Henri IV established a plague hospital here, a safe distance from court and cathedral. Ann and I are staying near where thousands of Parisians, one way or another, had suffered agonizing deaths.

You wouldn’t know it from the tranquility of Hôpital Saint-Louis now. Still functioning as a hospital specializing in dermatology, it contains an inner quadrangle built of brick, slate and stone, that rivals the much better-known Place des Vosges in its graceful symmetry. We relax there one hot afternoon with only two French families and a few strutting songbirds for company.

It’s possible, you see, to have a wonderful time in Paris at the height of the tourist season. The trick is to avoid the other tourists. I say this not out of any spirit of snobbery — everyone has an equal right to enjoy the city. But the only time we venture onto Île de la Cité, the throng of visitors is so overwhelming that I don’t even attempt to shove into Notre Dame. There’s no point trying to see a great building or a magnificent work of art when you can’t contemplate it at your own pace. Far better, in summer, to avoid the three-star attractions and to linger in out-of-the-way haunts like Hôpital Saint-Louis.

Even Père Lachaise Cemetery is uncomfortably busy, though it’s large enough for any visitor to get happily lost. And besides, the crowds gather only around the graves of the famous: Jim Morrison, Frédéric Chopin, Oscar Wilde. Deceased politicians and bureaucrats are ignored; it’s the artists, who often suffer misery and penury in life, who triumph in death. “Marie! Marie!” a woman sobs at the tomb of French actress Marie Trintignant, who mothered four sons by four different men before she was beaten to death by her final lover in 2002. “The curve of your lips changed the world,” one admirer has scrawled in red on the monument to Oscar Wilde.

The long walk from Père Lachaise back to Canal Saint-Martin takes us through several neighbourhoods — one block contains three Arabic bookstores, another has three Turkish restaurants. Paris is perpetually changing. As its days of riot showed in 2006, social change is often difficult. Yet standing on the balcony of what had quickly come to feel like home, I feel optimistic about the great city’s future. A park across the canal is constantly packed with young families, young lovers, young men talking or playing soccer — not to mention middle-aged Chinese men and women doing Tai Chi and older people smelling the roses. The park is a vibrant haven.

And now I understand why the French rarely suffer from obesity. After a week spent climbing the canal’s footbridge, climbing the Métro’s endless staircases, climbing the hills of Père Lachaise and the back side of Montmartre, the 115 steps up to the apartment offers little challenge. I approach them with a Gallic shrug, knowing that a couple of minutes’ exercise will give me the best view in town.

Mark Abley is a writer based in Montréal. He described the south of France in his book Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages.