Comments None

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.

Paris, la Seine, sculptureLa Seine is shown in several locations in Paris in the guise of a woman. This sculpture is near the Pont de l'Alma.

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.

Siene, bridges, tourism, ParisThe Seine: a romantic river that arcs its way across Paris.

All photos: copyright David Downie, all rights reserved

Seine, Paris, pollution, garbageThe Seine is one of the world's most scenic and best-loved rivers. It's also got its share of pollution problems.

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.

Seine, Paris, Ile de la Cite, bargesNearly 30 million tons of freight transits on the Seine each year. Yet the working riverboats seem as much a part of the scenery as the luxury houseboats docked everywhere in town.

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.

Categories Paris, Pictures of France

Comments None

The Ultimate List of Pastry Makers and Chocolatiers in Paris

Chocolate and pastries are irresistible any time of the year. But they are particularly addictive and tempting in cold weather.

paris macaroons picturePastry chef Carl Marletti makes extravagant yuletide logs of pastry, macaroons, millefeuilles and eclairs of extraordinary beauty.

That may be one reason ‘tis the season for both chocolate and pastries in Paris: the Christmas holidays and New Years are when chocolate consumption peaks, despite the fact that Paris’ now famous (some would say infamous) Salon du Chocolat is held in October.

My shortlist of top chocolatiers and pastry shops in Paris follows below.

First, a historical perspective: “The fine arts number five,” wrote Marie-Antoine Carême in the late 18th century, “painting, sculpture, poetry, music and architecture, the principal branch of which is pastry.”
Were he alive today, Carême would’ve melded “chocolate” into the art of pastry. The two cannot be dissociated.

Ephemeral, edible pastry-and-chocolate architecture has been part of the French repertoire for centuries. Like many edible arts the foundations of early French pastry-making are Italian: the word “pastry” (pâtisserie) comes from the Latin “pasta”. The ancient Romans filled giant pastry shells with live birds and much else, anything for a lark in the days of imperial decadence. No, they didn’t have chocolate. If they’d had it, the history of the world would be utterly different. Nero might’ve been a nice guy, for one thing. He would’ve gobbled a chocolate bar instead of burning Rome.

Everyone knows that Theobroma cacao – in particular the unadulterated dark variety with at least 60 percent cocoa – is great for the health, libido, mind, morale and much else. Chocolate makes people happy, fills them with energy, lifts them out of depression, and cures everything from rabies and rashes to the common cold, without undo weight gain. There’s plenty of impressive if unproven scientific “evidence” of the above, and more, much more. But most chocolate and pastry lovers do not worry about the wholesomeness of what they crave. Flavor, deliciousness, richness (or lightness) is all.

The most extravagant expressions of the art may go back to the pyramidal pyramous pastries described by Callimachus over 2,000 years ago. Pastry shop Ladurée continues the tradition today with pyramids of macaroons (widely imitated for reasons that escape me). These are the modern version of macaroons, with a crisp shell and gooey filling, sometimes chocolate, nearly always delicious if at times ludicrously complicated. Parenthetically, if you ask me, Ladurée is no longer the best of the best: there are several small, artisan macaroon makers (who also happen to be pastry chefs and chocolatiers) who do a better job, working from scratch. See my favorites, below.

In Paris I haven’t encountered many chef-pâtissiers or chocolatiers building fifteen-foot chocolate-pastry sculptures or pyramids in the style of Ancient Rome or Baroque Naples, not even for the Salon du Chocolat, though several of the city’s top practitioners do consider themselves artistes. They sculpt and mold and mount and pour chocolate the way Rodin worked with wax, plaster and bronze.

Dotted across the city are stunning delicacies of pastry and chocolate beckoning from the windows of celebrity chefs or maisons the likes of Jean-Paul Hevin, Pierre Hermé, Christian Constant, Patrick Roger, Michel Chaudun, Guy Mulot, La Maison du Chocolat, Peltier, Kaiser, Lenôtre, Fauchon, Hédiard, Sucré Cacao, Laurent Duchêne, Lahrer, Pierre Marcolini (a Belgian infiltrator) and a dozen others.

Visual and gustatory artistry meet marketing and promotional mastery in the person of Pierre Hermé. His talent in these realms is hard to beat. Under the spotlights of his chic boutique on Rue Bonaparte you quickly learn the meaning of dazzle.

Hermé was dubbed the “Picasso of Pastry,” but luckily he hasn’t concentrated on Cubist pralines and pâtisseries—not yet anyway. His shop is a must, Cacao Mecca in Paris.

Among the artistes several stand out: Patrick Roger and Michel Chaudun ought to display their wares at Paris’ Museum of Contemporary Art, but close behind the top two is Jean-Paul Hévin (some say the name rhymes with “heaven”).

Maybe these artists’ works should be displayed in the Fashion Museum? As I’ve noted elsewhere when writing about this subject, the nexus of food and fashion may well be what’s driving Paris’ booming chocolate and pastry craze. Haute couture and chocolate meet and make love – metaphorically – on fashion runways, where artiste-chocolatiers daub super-models with chocolate. Boutiques now sell the kind of chocolate lingerie formerly limited to the precincts of the Salon du Chocolat.

eclair pictureAn eclair by Paris' famous pastry chef Carl Marletti.Now for something—and someone—completely different: Everyone knows the practitioners mentioned above. Also on my list of personal favorites I include chocolate sculptor Joséphine Vannier, master chocolate-bar maker Michel Cluizel, macaroon kingpin Gregory Renard, and the maker of what might just be the lightest, most delicious, crisp yet creamy éclairs anywhere in the world: Carl Marletti.

chocolate box pictureA jazz ensemble chocolate box entirely made of chocolate: not only is it beautiful to behold, it's exquisite to eat.Marletti’s millefeuille pastry is his warhorse and justly so, but his éclairs are out of this world, and his Christmastide bûche de noel—the yuletide log reinterpreted—is also among the best in France. Both Renard and Marletti are in the Mouffetard neighborhood, one of Paris’ oldest and best food shopping streets (for cheese at the very least). Vannier hails from the edge of the Marais, near Place des Vosges; Cluizel is in the Rue Saint-Honoré, where customers are used to spending liberally for everything, including the air they breathe.

Categories Paris, French Food

Comments 1

Exploring Ethnic Paris: Oberkampf, Ménilmontant and Belleville

The center of Paris—the first 8 arrondissements—has so much to offer visitors that few stray beyond the magic circle.

Belleville, one of Paris' liveliest ethnic neighborhoods, a mix of Asians, Africans and prototypical Parisians: Edith Piaf was born here.

But Paris is much more: it has 20 arrondissements, each with its atmospheric corners and peculiar character. (See our Paris Arrondissement Map)

Three of my favorite ethnic neighborhoods—there are dozens in Paris—are in the 11th, 19th and 20th arrondissements in eastern Paris: Oberkampf, Ménilmontant and Belleville.

My office was in Ménilmontant for about 20 years. Nearby, in Belleville, Edith Piaf was born (and 100 yards from her birthplace, one of the best Thai restaurants in town has been in operation for the last 20+ years).

In this article originally published by AOL’s Gadling dot com—where I am a European correspondent—I paint a picture of this unsung but eminently explorable part of the City of Light, which includes Pere-Lachaise cemetery (where Piaf’s tomb is found—as well about 70,000 others).

Here’s the beginning of the story and link to read the whole article on Gadling:

“The good news is Paris’ kaleidoscopic, multiple-choice future is playing today not in a theater near you but in the Oberkampf, Ménilmontant and Belleville neighborhoods. That’s where Algiers meets Caracas and Istanbul via Zanzibar. Despite occasional intrusions by fanatics, the inhabitants here and in Paris’ many other ethnic enclaves seem to get along like traditional French peas in the pod.

Never heard of Oberkampf, Ménilmontant or Belleville? That’s not surprising. Outlying, in the north-by-northeastern sector of town, they’re not chic. They have no claims to fame other than as the home to Père-Lachaise Cemetery and the birthplace of Edith Piaf, the raucous crooner of “La Vie en Rose” and yesteryear’s hits.”


Read about David Downie’s Books

Take a private custom tour with us in Paris, Rome, Genoa, on the Italian Riviera, or in Burgundy

Categories Paris, France Travel Tips

Comments None

Introducing Wandering Paris


Wandering France has a new page, Wandering Paris. It features the writing of Paris-based author David D. Downie.

Detail of the Eiffel Tower, photo by Alison Harris, www.alisonharris.comA detail of the Eiffel Tower, photo copyright Alison Harris,

To celebrate the launch and the holiday season in Paris, we’re linking to the most reliable listing of Paris holiday markets.

Our favorite seasonal markets in Paris are in the following locations:

—39 Avenue des Champs-Elysées

—The esplanade at Trocadéro

—Notre-Dame (in the Square Viviani on the Left Bank kitty corner to the cathedral)


—Place de la Nation

Click here for more information on these Paris Christmas markets

paris, christmas, pastry shop, decorIn Paris the pastries at Christmas are elaborate. Even the outside of pastry shops are decorated festively.

But holiday marketing is not limited to official marketplaces. It spills across much of the city. Here’s an excerpt from an article by David D. Downie published on Gadling dot com about this phenomenon. Click on the link to read the whole story:

[…] Noel in Paris is a time for worshipping the true French cult: food and wine, la grande bouffe. It’s pagan, it’s druidical, it’s not just pre-Revolutionary, it’s possibly pre-Roman or prehistoric and thoroughly ancient Gallic, meaning totally contemporary French.

paris, pastries, millefeuilles, christmas

paris, pastry, buche de noel, yuletide log, chocolate

[…] Stationed on a thousand sidewalks outside bottle shops, cheese shops, and gourmet specialty boutiques legions of svelte Parisian Santas—most in spiffy civvies without a trace of cotton beard—tempt you to taste or swill something seasonal and irresistible—and part with your precious euros.

Click to read the whole article

Categories Paris, French Food

Comments None

Central Paris is made up of twenty arrondissements, arranged in a clockwise spiral starting with the smallest and oldest arrondissement, written as the “1er” arrondissement, which contains the Louvre Museum and the Tuileries Gardens.

Below is a map showing the Arrondissements of Paris, with indications of what’s inside, including neighborhoods you might know by name.

paris Arrondissement map

The Arrondissements by Name

The chart below shows the numbers of the arrondissements, followed by the location indicated by which bank of the river its found on (R, for “right bank” is north) followed by the name and links to user-rated hotels in that Paris neighborhood.

1 R Louvre
2 R Bourse
3 R Temple – Maraise
4 R Hôtel-de-Ville – Notre Dame – Marais Hotels, Paris
5 L Panthéon
6 L Luxembourg – Saint-Germain – Odéon Hotels
7 L Palais-Bourbon – Eiffel Tower – Invalides Hotels, Paris
8 R Élysée
9 R Opéra
10 R Enclos-St-Laurent – Gare du Nord – Gare de l’Est Hotels, Paris
11 R Popincourt – République Hotels, Paris
12 R Reuilly Bastille – Gare de Lyon Hotels, Paris
13 L Gobelins – Bercy Hotels, Paris
14 L Observatoire
15 L Vaugirard – Gare Montparnasse Hotels, Paris
16 R Passy – Trocadéro Hotels, Paris
17 R Batignolles-Monceau Arc de Triomphe Hotels, Paris
18 R Butte-Montmartre – Sacre Coeur – Montmartre Hotels, Paris
19 R Buttes-Chaumont – Buttes Chaumont – La Villette Hotels, Paris
20 R Ménilmontant – Belleville Hotels, Paris

Paris Passes

Paris Museum Pass

Categories Paris, France Travel Tips

← Older Newer →