This Paris Life

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The Bridges of Paris

Bonjour! Let’s take a stroll through central Paris. We will follow the Seine River as it winds it way through the capital city for more than 14 kilometers, and remember some of the most distinctive of the 33 bridges that cross it.


The Seine

From the beginning, the Seine has played an essential role in the development of the city. As noted in our previous newsletter, the first inhabitants chose the “Ile de la Cite” because the Seine, twice as wide as it is today, provided a natural barrier against barbaric invasions. Through the centuries, fishermen, swimmers, and wash maidens have shared this water — more or less clean — that was an integral part of their daily lives. It is by boat that Parisians obtained their wine, wheat, sea salt, wood and hay. The Parisian coat of arms, represented by a vessel with a silver sail floating along the water, indicates the commercial importance that this river had to the development of the city. Today, the Seine divides Paris into two very distinct areas: the Right Bank on the North and the Left Bank on the South. Each has a mosaic of neighborhoods, very different, yet special in their own right. Distances are calculated departing from the Seine; as well house numbers beginning with lowest for those nearest the river, and increasing, as they are more distant form.

The Bridges of Paris

If today a bridge is simply a path to cross from one side of the river to the other, it was not always so. Actually, during many centuries, the bridges provided the workshop from which hydraulic energy was derived, necessary for the functioning of the watermills and various machinery. They were also arms of the city where people built homes and businesses, held celebrations and conducted commerce…For more than 1000 years, however, Paris only had 4 bridges! They were quite unstable and were often destroyed by the rising River, or by the weight of the houses built upon them.

Do you know where the expression “monkey money” comes from? It is directly tied to the “Small Bridge”. It was a toll bridge, and the only people able to cross it for free were the street performers, and only if they succeeded in making their performing monkeys make funny faces!

The First Bridges: The Small Bridge and the Large Bridge (Ile de la Cite)
These were two wooden bridges built continuant to the other, when Paris was still called Lutece. These bridges were closed by gates and towers, and provided a rather strong fortress. The Vikings, during the IX century, were unable to break through despite a naval armada of 700 ships. It was in 866, when a sudden flood occurred, that the Large Bridge was destroyed, which allowed the Vikings to invade the city. Through the centuries these bridges were continuously destroyed by floods, and endlessly rebuilt — unfortunately without taking into account the laws of physics — in particular those dealing with the weight of its occupants. But the splendor of the Middle Ages allowed the bridges to play an important role. The large, ” rue Saint Denis”, was the path taken by the kings when entering the capital city before coming upon the Large Bridge. It was also used for foreign dignitaries visiting the city, during noble weddings, funeral marches, and victorious returns from wars.

The Oldest Bridge in Paris: The Pont Neuf; “King” of Parisian bridges.
It was originally called the Bridge of Tears, because as the story is told, when Henry the Third came to lay the first stone on May 31st, 1578, he was crying. Apparently, the previous night, two of his “minions” had killed each other in a duel. The king died before the end of the bridge’s construction, and it is Henry the Fourth who ordered the bridge finished in 1598. During its many years of construction, the bridge was one enormous, wooden scaffold made of inter-crossed planks, and it was dangerous to cross. It quickly became a refuge for thieves, who would rob the passersby before throwing them into the water. The bridge was finally finished in 1607 with the financial help of the Burgundy, Champagne, Normandy and Picardy regions, (this was prior to the country being called France), who wished to facilitate the commercial boating industry. It is in fact the first bridge to be entirely designated for traffic, and on which construction of housing was not allowed. From the Fronde to the Revolution, the “Pont Neuf” was the sight of many scuffles and daily Parisian violence. A meeting point for thieves, prostitutes and charlatans, they would share this infamous terrain for many centuries. In 1792, during the French Revolution, the original statue of Henry the Fourth was dismantled and melted to make canons. In fact, it is Louis Eighteenth, in 1817, who inaugurated the statue we admire today.

The Alma Bridge
Napoleon III ordered the construction of this bridge in 1854 to celebrate the victory of France and England over the Russians in Crimea. Originally constructed entirely of stone, this bridge was part of the grand building endeavors of Baron Hausmann with the objective of uniting the new neighborhoods on the two banks of the Seine River. Destroyed due to its narrowness, this bridge was entirely rebuilt in metal between 1970 and 1974. The Zouave statue guarding the bridge’s entry, is the only statue remaining of four representing soldiers from the Crimean war, and is actually used, unofficially, to measure the height of the river. If his gators are wet, we need to watch his pants! But nothing to worry about…in 1910, the situation was much more critical when only his head could be seen. In fact, a flood had transformed Paris into a lakeside city, which has now been avoided due to the construction of modern buildings on its downhill flanks. Close to the Alma Bridge one can admire the exact replica of the flame of the Statue of Liberty of New York City. This flame was offered by the International Herald Tribune in 1987 to celebrate the centennial of the statue, and mark Franco-American friendship. This is also the place where, still today, passersby come to place floral bouquets in memory of Princess Diana, who died in a terrible car accident in the Alma tunnel in August 1997.
The Alexander the Third Bridge
Built for the Universal Exposition of 1900, its first stone was laid in October 1896 in the presence of Nicholas the Second, Tsar of Russia. It is probably the most beautiful bridge of all Paris, and certainly the most decorated: gigantic candelabras are surrounded by cupids, nautical monsters, cherubs, lions and winged horses at each extremity. Hammered copper nymphs represent the Nymphs of the Seine with the Paris coat of arms on the uphill side and on the downhill side the Nymphs of the Neva holding the Russian coat of arms. This classified historical monument is truly a masterpiece of the decorative art and exuberant architecture so prominent during the Third Republic. It is, in fact, the first structure “prefabricated”, as the individual pieces were forged in factories then brought by boat and mounted with enormous cranes that covered the entire width of the Seine. It constituted a technical promise since it is one single arch that travels the entire width of the Seine, and has been substantially lowered so as not to obstruct the view of the magnificent Champs-Elysees on one side and Les Invalids on the other. It is a wonderful success that pleases both the passerby and the aesthete.
The “Samaritaine”
While strolling on the Pont Neuf take advantage of the proximity of the wonderful and famous department store: La Samaritaine. It is so named in recognition of a pump, which was situated at the level of the Pont Neuf that supplied water to the Louvre and the Tuileries, and its statue, which represented the biblical anecdote of the Samaritan giving a drink to Christ. After a few reasonable purchases, do not hesitate to ascend to the top floor where there is a restaurant with the most wonderful views of Paris and its bridges.
The Grenelle Bridge

Situated totally downstream, with the National Radio station building nearby, is the Grenelle Bridge. When it was built in 1827, it was a toll bridge constructed entirely of wood. It soon showed signs of weaknesses, and despite many repairs, it crumbled in 1873 after an increase in circulation due to a parade organized in honor of the visit of the Shah of Persia. It was therefore decided to rebuild this bridge entirely in cast iron in 1874. The particularity of this bridge is that it is symmetrically separated by a piece of land called “Swan Ally” where a roundabout was installed to accommodate a bronze statue — the exact replica of the Statue of Liberty of New York, –but a quarter of its size. This statue was offered to the French community by the Americans to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution, and was inaugurated on November 15th, 1889. When it was installed it faced the Eiffel Tower so as not to turn its back on the Elysee Palace. But, Bartholdi, its creator, was disappointed that it did not face the New York statue, so in 1837, at the World Fair, it was rotated to face towards America.

Stroll along the banks
A visit to Paris would not be complete without a stroll along the banks of the Seine. What a pleasure to leisurely walk along the “quais”, discovering old books on the shelves of secondhand booksellers, admiring artists’ works as they try to capture the twilight, and enjoying the spectacle of Paris’ monuments and bridges. Another means of visiting this open-air museum is to embark on the “bateau mouche”, taken at the level of the Alma Bridge, or on other boats available from the Pont Neuf or the Iena Bridge, at Notre-Dame Cathedral or near the Eiffel Tower.

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