The Seine: A River For All Seasons
“As I step out for my daily constitutional around the Île Saint Louis – a ten-minute walk from where I live – I often ask myself what Paris would be without the Seine? The answer is simple: it wouldn’t.”
That’s why the first chapter of Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light features the famous river.
The Seine is all about paradoxes. It’s the source of most of Paris’ drinking water—and its civilization—and a sewer. Historically it’s always been Paris’ lifeline to the outside world, and the moat that has protected it. But it’s also been a recurrently swelling menace: periodic flooding wreaked havoc on the City of Light time and again until the Seine was tamed by high walls and dams.
All photos: copyright David Downie, all rights reserved
Before the Romans took over in 52 BC, the Seine-side Gallic settlement of the Parisii tribe consisted of mud huts. Under the empire Lutetia Parisiorum grew into a thriving center for trade, and an important outpost in Rome’s defenses against Germanic “barbarians.” By late Antiquity Paris had adopted its current name, and as the Middle Ages progressed, morphed into a capital city thanks to its strategic position on the Seine. Its symbol since the year 1210 is a ship and the Latin device Fluctuat nec mergitur–unsinkable.
Nowadays the banks of the Seine are in part car free. They provide the perfect arcing cross-town path for discovering Paris. Anyone who enjoys walking can easily follow the river for several miles, ideally starting upstream at the gardens of Bercy or the new National Library complex, and continuing past the Louvre as far as Trocadéro.
It was in the Bercy area in eastern Paris that in the 1980s workers discovered several Neolithic canoes, now displayed at the Musée Carnavalet, Paris’ municipal history museum. The site is memorialized by the name of a street: Rue des Pirogues de Bercy.
The Ancient Gauls of this area were fisher-folk and called the Seine “Sequana.” According to Julius Caesar, the name meant “snakelike.” (Tellingly, one tribe of Ancient Gaul living primarily in the upper Seine Valley was known as the Sequani).
The Seine is snakelike, meandering widely on its nearly 500-mile course from the Langres Plateau (on the edge of Burgundy) to the Atlantic Ocean at Le Havre.
Unsurprisingly the islands in the Seine in Paris, especially the larger Ile de la Cité, became the center of the Gallic and later settlements. It was the easiest spot to defend against invaders. As the Roman Empire dissolved the city shrank from its sizable Left Bank location and re-centered itself on the island, fortified by a tall city wall.
Equally understandable is why the emperor’s residence in the 4th century AD was established on this island, when Julian the Apostate adopted Paris as his unofficial summer capital. The cathedral of Notre Dame eventually became the island’s most important and imposing edifice, and still is.
The Seine may have been an effective moat but it was also the watery highway on which medieval Norsemen paddled into town. They raided and destroyed much of Paris more than once.
It was in the Middle Ages that the name “Sequana” morphed into “Seine.” Thousands of years of history flow painlessly by as you stroll or take a riverboat—one of the Seine’s famous Bateaux Mouches—across town. The oldest buildings in the city are on or near the Seine, as are the former royal residences, city hall, and many important monuments, including, since 1889, the Eiffel Tower.
Nowadays the Seine is synonymous with Romance, a favorite meeting place of lovers and young partiers on the make.
Locals also know the river is a real highway: riverboats and barges carry nearly 30 million tons of freight on it yearly.
The Seine-side expressways built in the 1960s and early ‘70s may be a blight to pedestrians but they’re a boon to commuters. They also provide a roller-coaster runway for one of the world’s great scenic drives: take a taxi on the Seine at night and experience the city’s magic as nowhere else.
No wonder the river’s quaysides and its bridges are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. If the current mayor’s plans are carried out, in 2012 a further section of the Seine’s Left Bank expressway will be closed to cars and transformed into a riverside promenade. Eventually, we’re told, the Seine will be clean enough to support more than the few fish species that currently survive. And one day, who knows, the dream of many Parisians may actually be realized: to swim again in the Seine.
The story of the Seine, its history, magic and current challenges, is told in Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light in several chapters. With luck they will need updating soon, as pedestrians and swimmers reconquer the river that is this city’s soul.