“So quietly flows the Seine that one hardly notices its presence. It is always there, quiet and unobtrusive, like a great artery running through the human body.” Henry Miller
Water always draws me in, close to its edge.
My first time in Paris, I sat beside the Seine, near Notre Dame cathedral, an extremely naïve small town girl in Europe without a clue to its past, a wedge of fromage, a baguette, a cheap bottle of wine, and a new lover, someone I picked up en route (as young travelers are wont to do). There beside the beating heart of France, the river, its lifeblood, I made myself a promise – that my child, then only a dream, would experience the wonders of Paris early and often.
It would be ten years before I returned to France and to Paris, child and husband in tow. We walked endlessly that first trip, from one end of the city along the river and down the other side, again and again, miles each day, taking it in. From the Champs Elysées in the 8th to Îles Saint-Louis in the 4th returning to our hotel in the 7th through the streets of the Left Bank, crisscrossing bridges, hundreds of photos, what tourists we were!
I’ve gone to Paris every year since, at times for a few days, at other times, for a month or longer. My fascination with the Seine has never ceased.
Une petite histoire de la Seine
In 52 B.C. Julius Caeser conquered Paris, then consisting only of a small fishing village on the Île-de-la-Cite, the island where Notre Dame now stands, “the original site of the Parisi tribes of the Sequana river, now known as the Seine. This was possibly the earliest settlement in Paris— a muddy town on the banks of a muddy river that grew to be known as one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
The Romans ruled until the 5th Century, followed by the Franks. In the 9th Century the city was attacked repeatedly by the Vikings (watch the TV series!) who almost prevailed: “they laid a one-year siege to Paris, and tried again in 887 and in 889, but were unable to conquer the city protected by the Seine and the walls of the Île de la Cité.”
Throughout the history of Paris, from Roman conquerers to French and English kings, this river, the Seine, its 482 miles from south of Paris to Le Harve in the north, has borne witness to bloodshed and battles, grandeur and the growth of a nation. It has inspired painters and poets, writers and architects. It is the very beating heart of France.
What makes Paris so enchanting, so captivating, is not only its monuments, museums and artists, then, but also its history, its dramas and its mysteries, many of which have taken place on the dark and swift-moving waters of the Seine.
Murder & Mystery on the Seine
In a little known 1989 documentary “Death in the Seine” from director Peter Greenaway, we learn that from April 1795 to September 1801, 306 bodies were fished from the Seine, sent to a morgue in Paris, and then carefully, painstakingly, examined and documented. The film is based on mortuary notes and though its credibility has been called into question, surely some truth remains that life AND death are part and parcel of the Seine:
A register of these deaths, indicating, sex, age, hair colour, wounds (if any) and a description of clothing (if any) was kept by two mortuary clerks, Citizen Bouille and Citizen Daude. If witnesses came forward in the days that followed, the names, occupations of the “silent guests” and the witnesses would be added together with the circumstances of the deaths. In most cases the cause of violent death was unknown, or unrecorded–be it “accident, misadventure, suicide, or murder.” Bouille and Daude would not speculate.
No one knows this deadly aspect of the Seine better than the Paris river police, the Brigade Fluvial, who patrol the waterways of the Seine, and who are in charge of “rescuing or recovering people who end up in its waters and searching for discarded criminal evidence.”
As one member of the Bridage, Pascal Jacquin, a police diver, says of the Seine, the river has its moods:
“She’s like a woman, you have to care about her, you have to feed her, you have to touch her – we need to know her mood”
Ah, the French!
A more recent , 1961, story of terror and death on the Seine, is about the Algerian massacre, when French police went to battle with Parisian citizens of Algerian descent:
“A solid phalanx of French riot police in blue and black uniforms held their ground at one end of the bridge over the River Seine that connects the western suburb of Neuilly to the centre of Paris. They were a terrifying sight, fully kitted out for battle and raring to go. At the other end stood another line of police, also armed with batons and rifles. In between them stood around 100 unarmed and very frightened Algerians. Carrying banners and placards, they had come onto the streets of the French capital with 30,000 others that day to protest at official curbs on their freedom to move about the city.”
Many of the Algerians ended up dead, as the police corralled them,; “panicking men, women and even children were cut down. Some were hurled, dead or alive, into the waters of the Seine.”
The Seine Today
France today, as we know, is a country of peace and prosperity, openness and civility. Tourists flood the city at all times of the year, especially when the weather prevails, during Spring and Summer months.
In July every summer, truckloads of sand are deposited along the walkways of the Seine in Paris for the annual Paris-Plage , a week when the Seine is transformed into a beach-like atmosphere, with sunbathing along the banks of the Seine. There is music and sunshine and food kiosks. A time for Parisians to start dreaming of their sejour to the Riviera beaches.
Though waters of the river today are murky, fast moving and somewhat foreboding if you imagine falling in, which would not be that difficult to do, I might add, there has been talk of making the Seine swimmable, in time for the 2024 Olympics.
I would love swimming in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, but this would be a difficult task to accomplish. I will hope for it.
Not a Wimpy River
Only recently, June 2016, the Seine showed its power to threaten the city, the heavy rains causing the waters of the river to rise, blocking passage under the magnificent bridges, and mobilizing the caretakers of the Louvre to take precautions to protect its invaluable treasures. To some, it was a troubling sign of the times:
“There’s something terrifying about it,” said Martine Lyon, 80, a photographer who had lived in Paris for 50 years. She stood on the Île Saint-Louis, the island in the middle of the Seine in Paris, peering at the swirling water. “There’s a sadness, something troubling about this,” Lyon said. “The sky is so grey and terrible, trains aren’t running due to strikes, the river is so high, it seems like such a cumulation of things.”
Have you seen the Seine yet?
Though the waters are murky, fast moving and somewhat foreboding, tourists are nevertheless drawn, as am I, to its banks, to stroll, to dream, to kiss, to ponder and to cry.
If Paris is a “moveable feast,” then the Seine is the transport.
If you have not yet had the pleasure of falling deeply in love, go to Paris. Sit on the banks of the river. Stroll, eat, drink. Take a lover, make a friend, visit a cathedral and pray, beat your chest, and let the water heal whatever ails you.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
Mary Kay Seales is the author of The Beginner’s Guide to the French Riviera: Stop Dreaming & Start Packing as well as a contributing author to France Today. Visit her website at www.marykayseales.com