• Ode to the Seine, River of Romance

    Elaine Sciolino on Art and Inspiration in the City of Lights

    She goes to the sea
    Passing through Paris. . . .
    And . . .  walks between the quays
    In her beautiful green dress
    And her golden lights.

    –Jacques Prévert, “Chanson de la Seine”


    The Seine is the most romantic river in the world. She encourages us to dream, to linger, to flirt, to fall in love, or to at least fantasize that falling in love is possible. The light bouncing off her banks and bridges at night can carry even the least imaginative of us into flights of fancy. No other river comes close. The Ganges, the Mississippi, and the Yangtze? They are muscular workhorses. The Thames? Who can name one famous couple who fell in love on its banks? The Danube? It may be immortalized as the world’s most recognizable waltz, but its history is one of warring nations.

    The Seine’s romantic power is rooted in her human scale. Compared with the Nile, the Amazon, or even the Hudson, she feels accessible, narrow enough to track the comings and goings on either side. Her banks are flat, her bridges densely packed and so low to the ground that you can almost touch the water.

    Then there is her grandeur. The architectural treasures that line her banks allow her to project power beyond her physical dimensions. The interplay between intimacy and power casts a spell. Painters, poets, filmmakers, photographers, historians, novelists, composers, lovers, and, these days, virtual- reality designers have fallen hopelessly in love with her.

    Monet painted from a studio boat on the Seine, Matisse and Marquet while gazing down at the river from their Paris apartments. Zola, Flaubert, and Bizet lived in houses along the Seine. Jazz great Django Reinhardt rented a place nearby. Dumas could see the river from his Château de Monte-Cristo.

    The Seine, of course, is a woman. She is called la Seine, not le Seine. Poets and songwriters refer to her as female. She takes her name and her identity from the ancient goddess Sequana, who healed ailing pilgrims at her temple at the river’s source.

    According to the French rules of geography and grammar, a river that flows into the sea, as the Seine does, should be given the masculine appellation le fleuve; many people who live and work on the Seine insist that it is feminine: la rivière, which is supposed to refer only to inland waterways. “The old word rivière is always used by the people of the water, from bargemen to bureaucrats,” wrote Francois Beaudouin, the founder of a museum on barge life in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, in his book Paris/Seine. “Fleuve,” he continued, is a word that “geographers imposed on the general public in the 19th century and that goes against the femininity of Sequana.”

    The Seine emerges young and fresh in a field of springs on a remote plateau in Burgundy and grows strong and majestic by the time she reaches the sea, 777 kilometers—483 miles—away. She flows through history: past prehistoric encampments, ancient Roman towns, Viking strongholds, medieval châteaus, monastic abbeys, and World War II battlegrounds. Along her route, she opens herself without hesitation, allowing any riverside town to lay claim to her mystique. Yet her one true love is and always has been Paris, the source of power in France since antiquity. The city arrives slightly more than midway through her journey, giving the Seine her geographic, historic, and symbolic importance.

    Long before the invention of GPS—or even accurate maps—the geography of the Seine served as both a practical and an inspirational guide for travelers seeking the heart of France, and so it continued even after the mastery of flight changed humanity’s perspective. Look at the Seine from the sky and you find a highway to Paris.

    Charles Lindbergh, the American aviator who first flew solo across the Atlantic, in 1927, saw the Seine from his cockpit near the end of his transatlantic flight. The river helped guide him safely to Le Bourget airfield near Paris, where a crowd of thousands cheered him. In his memoir The Spirit of St. Louis, he wrote, “Down under my left wing, angling in from the north, winding through fields submerged in night, comes the Seine, shimmering back to the sky the faint remaining light of evening. With my position known and my compass set, with the air clear and a river and an airway to lead me in, nothing but engine failure can keep me now from reaching Paris.”

    Without the Eiffel Tower, Paris would still exist; without the Seine, there never would have been a Paris.

    Despite her confinement between banks of stone, the Seine becomes one with the buildings and monuments that adorn them. Here she becomes the Seine all of us know, or think we know. “Wherever we are in the world, when we close our eyes and think about the Seine, it’s Paris that we see,” wrote the poet André Velter.

    Life is lived on the river— on barges, pleasure craft, pontoon platforms, decommissioned naval vessels. Afloat on the Seine, you can live, eat and drink, make love, get married, practice yoga, run a business, shop for books, watch fireworks, do a wine tasting, go fishing, dance the tango. You can attend a fashion show, a concert, a play. You can find a hotel, a psychiatric hospital ward, a film studio, a homeless shelter, an art museum, an architect’s showroom—all floating on the river.

    The world’s most visited cathedral, Notre-Dame, sits on an island in the Seine; the world’s most visited art museum, the Louvre, faces the Seine from Paris’s Right Bank. Despite a crackdown by Paris City Hall, couples from around the world continue to clamp padlocks to the Seine’s bridges as evidence that they long to be locked in love forever. Before they are married, some Chinese couples fly to Paris to be photographed in wedding attire along the Seine. Even worldly-wise Parisians are seduced by the Seine—its geography, history, politics, economics, culture, and, bien sûr, its romance.

    Philippe Labro—novelist, filmmaker, essayist, columnist, television host—is an urbane Parisian, but he turns downright exuberant when he talks about the Seine. “What’s my favorite word in French—rivière! River! Riv-ee-air!” he said. “It rhymes with lumière—light. It moves. It flows like music. It’s a sign of life.”

    Labro was so intrigued by the cultural differences between the Left and Right Banks that in 1984 he made the river the focal point of his seventh and last film: Rive droite, rive gauche, starring Gérard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye. “Rive gauche meant freedom and liberty and free speech and free sex,” he said. “Rive droite meant money, politics, scandal, and the power of the media. The Seine became an obsession—it flows through the movie just as it flows through the city. There is movement of place, going from one space to another, and movement of life, from intrigue to love to death. I loved it. I wasn’t aware that making the movie was work.”

    Chef Guy Savoy, whose restaurant has three Michelin stars, became so fixated on the Seine that he invested over €2 million and more than five years of his life to move his restaurant to its banks. Restaurant Guy Savoy now sits at the top of a red-carpeted stone staircase carved with medallions and wreaths in the Monnaie de Paris, the French Mint, which once produced all the coins of the realm.

    One morning, Savoy threw open a ten-foot-high window in the main dining room to show me his view. The Louvre was to the left across the river, the Pont Neuf to the right, the tip of the Île de la Cité straight ahead. We were so close to the booksellers on the riverbank below that we could wave to them and say bonjour.

    “Ah, look at this! It’s Paris at your feet!” Savoy said. “There are many beautiful views in the world, but none, none like this one! The first time I saw it, it was like an electric shock. I said, ‘I have to be here.’”

    In Billy Wilder’s 1954 romantic comedy Sabrina, Audrey Hepburn explains to a skeptical Humphrey Bogart the magic of a four-mile walk past all the bridges of Paris: “You find one you love and go there every day with your coffee and your journal and you listen to the river.”

    The Seine cuts through Paris in a great arc from east to west, touching ten of the city’s 20 arrondissements—the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth. France’s two most important islands, the Île de la Cité and the smaller Île Saint-Louis, are at its heart. The arc of the Seine exaggerates the river’s size, and connecting canals extend its reach deeper into the city. It loops around the suburbs, enfolding them in a lopsided embrace. “I am the road running through Paris,” the 20th-century author Julien Green has the Seine say.

    In Paris, the river is always present, even when you cannot see it. You are on the Left or the Right Bank, defined from the viewpoint looking downstream on the Seine. You are in an arrondissement numbered according to a system that begins on the Île de la Cité and swirls clockwise in a spiral. Street names evoke the river: the rue du Bac is named after the bac, or ferry, that transported stone blocks for the construction of the Palais des Tuileries; the rue de Seine follows the wall built by the medieval king Philippe II that led to the river on the Left Bank; the rue des Deux Ponts, on the Île Saint-Louis, connects the Ponts Marie and de la Tournelle. The rue de Bièvre recalls a small river that became a putrid canal flowing into the Seine, until it was covered over in the 20th century.

    How exhilarating to stroll along the Seine with an open spirit and no fixed destination. Take the No. 7 Métro to the Pont Neuf. Cross to the Left Bank and head west, passing the Institut de France, the domed structure that houses the Académie Française, guardian of the French language. From there, return to the Right Bank over the Pont des Arts, the wooden-slatted, iron pedestrian bridge that leads to the Louvre.

    Seek a moment of contemplation in the Cour Carrée, the 16th- and 17th-century square courtyard with perfect proportions, hidden at the museum’s east end. Walk from there to the entrance on the rue de Rivoli and turn around to treat yourself to a dramatic new view of the Institut de France, framed by the Renaissance pavilions of the Louvre.

    The perfect climax is a walk west along the river toward the Eiffel Tower, the most distinctive emblem of Paris and arguably the world’s most famous monument. Without the Eiffel Tower, Paris would still exist; without the Seine, there never would have been a Paris. While the river owes the city its romantic aura, the city owes the river its birth, its life, and its identity. The love affair of Paris and the Seine defines them both.

    The harmony between Paris and its river is no accident. Parisians left nothing to chance. The Seine has served as a mirror for the city’s architectural treasures since the 12th century, with the construction of the Louvre—first a defensive fortress, then a royal residence, then a museum—and Notre-Dame Cathedral. Paris became the first city in Europe to use its river to put its imposing architecture on display. Over time, the river was contained and landscaped to show off the structures of art and history that line its banks. The Seine allows Paris to present itself as a stage set, with the river cast as the pièce de résistance.

    A ride on the Seine after sunset is a no-fail crowd-pleaser, and no visitor wants it to end.

    In the 19th century, the Seine was plagued by raw sewage, the residents’ garbage, putrid smells, and thick mudflats that revealed themselves at low tide. Then, in 1853, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who was given the title “prefect of the Seine,” began to transform Paris, including its riverfront. He and his successors were determined to dominate the river, to channel the waterway into pleasant submission. They lined the Seine with new stone quays to create a single continuous route and built bridges to improve commerce and harmonize both sides of the river.

    They demolished thousands of decrepit houses—and uprooted thousands of poor Parisians—to create water views and tree-shaded promenades. They constructed locks and dams outside the city to make the river’s flow consistent and dependable. The architects outdid themselves. In 1991, the riverbanks earned the honor of being named a UNESCO World Heritage cultural site. That designation applies only to the picture-perfect central area between the Pont d’Iéna, at the Eiffel Tower, to the west, and the Pont de Sully, near Notre-Dame to the east. This is the Seine of romance; the commercial, industrial Seine farther east is left out.

    The Seine can evoke images of exotic places. Toward the end of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the unnamed narrator feels transported to a faraway place by the river: “It was a transparent and breathless night; I imagined that the Seine, flowing between the twin semicircles of the span and the reflection of its bridges, must look like the Bosporus. . . .  The moon, narrow and curved like a sequin, seemed to have placed the sky of Paris beneath the oriental sign of the crescent.”

    Even when personal disaster strikes, the romance of the river endures. In her diaries, Anaïs Nin tells of receiving an official police order to move her rented houseboat out of Paris. It was late summer 1938, before the outbreak of World War II. Nin sailed away alone, staying on deck in the rain to watch Paris pass by.

    “I remembered my dream, of sailing for 20 years and all my friends standing on the shore asking me where I was going and when I would be back,” she wrote. “Here I was in reality, sailing past the sections of Paris so familiar to me, past apartment houses where I had lived, and streets I had so often explored. But I was not allowed to meditate on how dreams materialize, for the houseboat was taking in water, and I had to man the pump.”

    When you move to Paris from far away, it isn’t long before visitors start arriving—friends and family who want you to show them the city. Because my first apartment was near the Eiffel Tower, my usual tour started with an ascent to its top, which gave an aerial view of the Seine curving through Paris. When visitors wanted to take the perfect photo of the Eiffel Tower itself, I took them to the place du Trocadéro for a straight-on view of the tower with the river in the foreground.

    At the place de la Concorde, we circled Paris’s oldest monument, a pink granite obelisk sculpted more than 3,000 years ago for the Temple of Luxor in Egypt. It arrived in Paris after a two-year journey on the waters of the Nile, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the English Channel, and, finally, the Seine. It was erected in 1836 at the spot where Louis XVI was beheaded during the French Revolution.

    At night, there was the requisite river tour on a bateau-mouche. It’s not a bargain, but a ride on the Seine after sunset is a no-fail crowd-pleaser, and no visitor wants it to end. Movie buffs—and visitors of a certain age—remember that magic moment in Charade, Stanley Donen’s 1963 romantic thriller, when the murders are not yet solved but Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn find themselves falling in love on a tourist boat on the Seine. The boat trains its bright spotlight first on a couple kissing as their bodies lean against a tree, then on a second couple sitting on a park bench locked in a tight embrace. Audrey moves closer to Cary, lowers her voice, and says, “Hey, you don’t look so bad in this light.”

    “Why do you think I brought you here?” he replies, then leans in for a perfect ten-second movie kiss. Every time I took a bateau-mouche in my early, lonely days in Paris, I thought of Audrey Hepburn and hoped there would be a Cary Grant on the upper deck.

    Even Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was entranced by the romance of a nighttime boat ride on the river. When the queen and her husband made a royal state visit to France in 1957, President René Coty invited them on his presidential yacht for a “night promenade,” with fireworks over the river in her honor. Dressed in a gown of silver lamé and lace embroidered with diamonds and crystals, a matching stole trimmed in white fox, and a diamond tiara and necklace, the queen waved to the crowd of one million people who lined the riverbanks to see her and pointed out the monuments of Paris to her husband as they passed. A wire service report captured her mood: “She gazed with wonder . . .  delighted by the spectacle . . .  her eyes sparkling like the diamonds in her tiara.”


    Reprinted from The Seine: The River that Made Paris. Copyright © 2019 by Elaine Sciolino. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

    Elaine Sciolino
    Elaine Sciolino
    Elaine Sciolino is a contributing writer and former Paris bureau chief for the New York Times. She is the author of five books, including The Seine: The River that Made Paris and the New York Times bestseller The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs. Sciolino was decorated as a chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the highest honor of the French state, in 2010 for her “special contribution” to the friendship between France and the United States. She and her husband have lived in Paris since 2002.

    More Story
    Lili Anolik on Sending Leopard-Print VANS to Eve Babitz (and More) This week on The Maris Review, Lili Anolik joins Maris Kreizman to discuss her latest book, Hollywood's Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.