It was always pleasant crossing bridges in Paris — Jake Barnes, The Sun Also Rises
It dawns on me one Sunday morning that I’ve been in Paris for almost two weeks, and I’ve barely left my neighborhood. I haven’t ridden on the metro, I haven’t been to any museums, and the only time I’ve set foot on la rive droite was the day after I’d first arrived when I made a desperate trek over to W.H. Smith in search of a copy of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. I remind myself that there’s an entire world out there, a world beyond the pinprick I have made in the whole of Paris. At the beginning of The Sun Also Rises, when Robert Cohn tells Jake that “I’m sick of the Quarter,” Jake responds: “Stay away from the Quarter. Cruise around by yourself and see what happens to you.” In short, he advises Robert to be a flâneur.
With Jake’s words lingering in my ears, I set out to zig zag my way across Paris, crossing the bridges that span the Seine. The Seine cuts through the heart of the city. Paris, like many cities built around a river, is in many ways defined by its water. It’s hard to think about Paris without simultaneously thinking about the Seine. Obviously, literally, the river is a means for transport and commerce and a source of water, but the Seine signifies something more than that, something intangible, something almost mystical.
Of course, my challenge won’t be easy. Fun fact, there are 37 bridges that cross the Seine, and it’s summertime. So I set my expectations fairly low. I wind up breaking my walk into three segments over three days for three reasons: (1) Paris is big; (2) Did I mention it’s summer? and (3) Like most things in life, I approach Day One with no real plan beyond leaving my apartment and choosing whatever bridge fancies me in the moment (and as I live close to the center, that bridge is, not surprisingly, also close to the center).
I get off to a bit of a lazy (i.e. late) start. Day one in Paris is warm, approaching hot, a Sunday, and already the sidewalks alongside the Seine are buzzing with tourists & locals alike. I scurry past the Bouquinistes (which is never an easy thing; there’s always some interesting book to discover) and land at the Pont Alexandre III. If you’re going to randomly start somewhere near the middle, this is a good spot. The bridge was made for the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in the Beaux-Arts style. It’s ornate and extravagant (ginormous, I’d say) and has been seen in numerous movies and videos. It’s iconic Paris. Its most recognizable images are probably the four golden Fames statues that watch over the bridge atop massive masonry socles. In general I’m not a huge fan of gold, shiny grandiose objects, so the bridge isn’t the kind of thing I’d want to have in my living room, but this is Paris, and so it works.
On the bridge, I’m pulled into the sweat lodge of dehydrated tourists all snapping selfies. But it’s when I’m back safe on the sidewalk (finally on the Right Back — I made it!) that I turn around to take a photo of the Pont Alexandre III, and I find myself suddenly laughing. In the corner of my shot I spot the tip of le Tour Eiffel, and it dawns on me: I had almost forgotten I’m living in the same city as one of the most recognizable monuments in the world. Amazing how easy it is to be simultaneously intoxicated by a place and immune to its allures.
Next I cross Pont de la Concorde, heading back to the Left Bank, then turn at the statue of Thomas Jefferson to cross passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor (formerly known as Pont de Solférino) which links the Musée d’Orsay and the Jardin des Tuileries. This is a pedestrian bridge that was built in the late 1990s to replace a weakened cast iron bridge. It’s on this bridge that I encounter my first clusters of love locks (more on that later).
I weave back and forth across the Seine, crossing the Pont Royal (where I encounter four adorable men with four adorable selfie sticks who stop and take the same adorable photo before continuing on together to their next stop — I tend to loathe selfie sticks, but I fall in love with these guys) and then the Pont du Carrousel. Next up: the infamous Pont des Artes. This is another pedestrian bridge that crosses the Seine, linking the Institute de France with the central square (cour carrée) of the Palais du Louvre. It was originally constructed in the early 1800s and was the first metal bridge in Paris. Unfortunately, over the next 170 or so years, the bridge sustained tremendous damage — from bombardments during the two World Wars and multiple collisions with barges — and the original bridge was replaced in the 80s.
This is a bridge that just screams, “Romance! Inspiration! Paris!!” It’s used on occasion for art exhibitions, and is a place where you’ll often glimpse amorous couples alongside artists, musicians, and writers. I’m sure many of you immediately picture clusters of love locks when you think of the Pont des Artes (like the ones I have pictured above). Fun fact: the tradition of attaching a signed padlock to the railing/grate of a bridge (and then tossing the key into the river — très romantique!) is not a French tradition at all, but in 2008, tourists began doing so in Paris on this bridge. The locks were removed from the bridge in 2015, after a failed “selfies not padlocks” campaign that tried to dissuade tourists from leaving the locks, when there were numerous complaints that the locks were a form of vandalism and were potentially damaging the bridge due to their extreme weight (we’re talking 45 tons, not a few pounds). Of course, this is Paris, the city of love and romance, and so in spite of the protests from authorities and Parisians, the practice continues.
I’ve only walked across six bridges, not even one-sixth of the bridges that cross the Seine. But it’s become unbearably hot this day. My first day of bridges has been pleasant (thanks for the tip, Papa!) but I’m a ball of sweat. Conveniently, Pont des Artes is right by the street that gives me the most direct route back to my apartment (correction: it gives me the most direct route back to the café by my apartment) and so I limp home to drink rosé in the shade.
Read on for Bridges, Day Two!