“We don’t have Venice and its moon, nor its breeze, nor its lagoon, but we have la Seine.”
Popular song favored by Parisian canoeists in the 19th century
Canoeists were right. Paris may not be the center of the universe (some would argue it once was,) but Paris has always been a unique place, and the city has largely been defined by the famous river that meanders through it, la Seine.
Paris was born over 2000 years ago on the island known as Ile de la Cité (one of the three remaining islands in downtown Paris today.) A tribe of Celtic fishermen named the Parisii settled the area in the 3rd century BC. From the start, the Seine provided both livelihood and protection. The Parisii were able to push back countless invaders and remained independent until Julius Caesar, (who knew a strategic location when he saw one,) took over. Paris became Lutetia under Roman rule, for about 500 years. From the island, it spread to the Left Bank first, and much later, to the Right Bank. One of the world’s most iconic cities was born.
|The Seine and the island where it all started…
|Lutetia, as depicted in the Asterix and Obelix French comic book series
“Our story begins in Lutetia, the most prodigious city in the Universe”
It can be argued that if Paris has always been the center of France, la Seine has always been the heart of Paris. La Seine borders ten of the twenty arrondissements (districts.) Most of the noteworthy and iconic buildings in the French capital are either built by the Seine river, or within a few blocks of its banks, museums, government buildings, parks and monuments. They are all there, a feast for the eyes, best admired from one of the tour boats, the famous Bateaux Mouches, or Bateaux Parisiens. The Eiffel Tower competes with the river as the city’s best vantage point. When the lights magically turn on at sunset, the river banks start glowing, even on dark, overcast days.
|Les Bateaux Parisiens|
|Notre-Dame from the Seine|
|Orsay museum at sunset|
|Grand Palais at sunset|
|Notre-Dame: Even more spectacular at night|
The city layout was also largely determined by the Seine. Every year, millions of visitors learn the difference between Rive Gauche (Left Bank) and Rive Droite (Right Bank). Once you realize that street numbers were assigned from the river, it becomes really easy to find your way or locate an address in downtown Paris: If a street runs perpendicular to the Seine, counting starts by the river. If a street runs parallel to the Seine, numbers follow the river flow, and go east to west. Logique, non?
It is tempting to believe that the Seine was born on the French coast, flowing inland. It is quite the opposite in fact. The river’s spring lies near Dijon, in the heart of Burgundy, flows west towards Paris. It meanders through the French capital, then heads for the sea, finally running into La Manche (the English Channel) in the major port city of Le Havre. It is France’s most famous waterway, but it is not the longest one (La Loire is.) The reason for la Seine‘s enduring fame and success is its high navigability for most of its 780 kilometers (485 miles.) Commercial barges are a familiar sight in downtown Paris, all the way to the city of Rouen, located inland, where the river is deep enough to welcome big cargo ships.
|La péniche (barge) with a million dollar view|
There are 37 bridges spanning the Seine in downtown Paris. Like the city and its famous river, they have inspired generations of writers, musicians, painters, and movie makers. Today, pedestrians, cyclists and cars are the only familiar sights on Parisian bridges, but in the Middle Ages most had buildings on them. There were exceptions. The iconic Pont-Neuf (named “the new bridge,” it is actually the oldest bridge in Paris,) was the first not be lined with houses and the first Parisian thoroughfare to offer sidewalks. Voilà a handful of Paris’ most recognized bridges.
|Parisian bridge in the Middle Ages: Is it a wonder so many collapsed?
|A section of Le Pont Neuf (completed in 1606
and renovated in the 1990’s for its 400th anniversary)
|Pont Alexandre III, Paris’ most ornate bridge (built 1896-1900)|
|Pont au Change (1858-1860)|
|Pont Notre-Dame, built for the first time during Antiquity.
The current version was inaugurated in 1919
The Seine riverbanks, les quais de Seine, are as emblematic of Paris as the river itself. At the street level, above the water, things can get quite hectic, pedestrians rushing on the sidewalks, cars and motorcycles zooming by. Les quais de Seine are so illustrious that they became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1991.
Legendary sights include les bouquinistes, used-book sellers who have traded their wares along the river since the Middle Ages. Un bouquin, in conversational French, is a book. There are only 245 bouquinistes in Paris, manning their outdoors stalls (mere boxes) permanently affixed to the quaysides.
|Bouquinistes, Jean-Henri Pontoy (1888-1968)|
|Junior, browsing a bouquiniste’s selection on a hot summer day|
|Locked bouquiniste stalls at night|
Should you feel overwhelmed by the sounds and commotion of the big city above, you need only take a few steps down to go back to the river, and the past. Wander on les quais (the river banks.) Feel the ancient cobblestones under your feet. Follow the Seine, under a bridge, and watch the world go by. Timeless activities. Familiar faces. Parisians walking their dogs. Lovers. Painters. Fishermen. And beggars, who call les quais “home,” for a few hours every day.
|Quais de Seine|
|Paris in the springtime: Sun worshippers return|
La Seine is beautiful, mesmerizing, and alive. La Seine is also dangerous, dirty, and grim, a favorite location of unfortunate souls indulging their suicidal tendencies, for others, the perfect spot to dispose of a body. Yet, Parisians used to swim in the river, and still did 60 years ago before commercial barges and pollution interfered. In the 1940s, people flocked to the river in the summer. Where did Parisians celebrate the end of World War 2 in the summer of 1945? By the Seine, bien sûr.
Today, swimming in the Seine is prohibited, but since 2002, the city of Paris has made it possible for locals and tourists alike to gather on the riverbanks. “Paris-Plage” (Paris Beach) has proved a successful endeavor, imitated since in other European capitals. Imagine the scene: For three weeks at the end of July, Paris becomes a beach, complete with sand, lounge chairs, palm trees, street artists, crafts, volley ball, pétanque games. And pickpockets.
|Paris-Plage (author unknown)|
|Paris-Plage (author unknown)|
Sometimes, la Seine gets upset, and the water level goes up, way up. It usually calms down after a few days, under the Zouave‘s watchful eye. The old river was not always that predictable, and the Parisians know it.
|Le Zouave (*)|
No matter the Seine’s mood, the Parisians forgive. Paris needs the Seine like France needs Paris. In his will, Napoleon I wrote: “I desire my ashes to rest on the banks of the Seine, amid the French people whom I loved so much.” His wish was not granted. After his army was defeated in Waterloo in 1815, the British sent him away as far as possible from Paris, the Seine, and the French. He arrived on St. Helena, a remote island off the Coast of West Africa where he died in 1821. In 1840, the British government allowed the transfer of his remains back to France. His ashes sailed across the Atlantic to the English Channel where they were transferred on a steamship. Fittingly, the French emperor’s last voyage continued up the Seine river through the towns of Le Havre, then Rouen, all the way to Paris where he was given a national funeral. Napoleon’s final resting place is inside the dome of the famed Hôtel des Invalides… one short block away from the Seine.
(*) Le Zouave: This statue of a soldier that belonged to the French light infantry in the North African colonies was inaugurated (with the Alma Bridge it stands under) by Napoleon III in the mid-19th century. For more than 155 years, the venerable Zouave has warned Parisians about potential flooding of the Seine River. When his feet get wet, the French capital takes notice. Everyone still remembers the terrible flood of 1910. That year, the Seine reached the Zouave‘s shoulders. Quelle histoire!
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by Savoye Images Photography.