Down by the
Sheila Kumar gets a different
perspective of Paris as seen from the glinting gray waters of the
Tomas, all of twenty-six going on sixteen,
is our guide aboard the neat little vedette, the passenger boat. It is a moot
point whether Tomas is a good guide: he speaks fast and fluidly, throws in many
a gesticulation, smile, grimace, even an ooh la! which I’d thought the French
had stopped saying. The problem is, Tomas speaks English overlaid with such a
thick French accent that it goes beyond sexy, it is plain incomprehensible.
Hence, what we must make of Paris seen from the Seine is pretty much our
But really, it’s a lovely way to see the
City of Lights, floating down this arterial river which cuts Paris into its two
It’s a windy morning and occasionally, the
breeze feels like it is tipped with ice. The Seine is the colour of a common or
garden pigeon, its ripples undershot with deep green here and there. Grey seems
the order of the day: the sky reflects the colour of steel and the Parisian
rooftops are the exact shade of a dove’s breast, leavened with terracotta rows
For all the gray leitmotif, a cheerfully
bright if not very strong sun is out and the poplars, elms and plane trees along
the cobble-stoned quays are in new leaf, after a severe winter. And Paris is
living up to its reputation of being a city of lovers; there are couples all
along the banks of the Seine, kissing, holding hands, or just holding their
faces up to the sun. The lone rangers seem a tranquil lot, prone on cloths
spread out on the cobbles, reading, gazing at the steamboats going by or dozing.
Musicians fine-tune instruments, buskers strum plaintive tunes, maybe odes to
the river. I have heard tell that Parisians adore the Seine and this intensity
of feeling is all too apparent to the passing observer.
Paris, all 41 square miles of it, sprawls
on both sides of the river, which touches ten of the 20 arrondisements
(districts) of the city. The Seine loops and twists and in doing so, marks the
areas to its left and right (when going downstream) as the Rive Gauche and Rive
Droite. The Left Bank, which holds the Sainte Chapelle church with its beautiful
stained-glass windows, the baroque railway station converted into the Musee
D’Orsay and upstream, the Eiffel Tower, is the creative bank, where the likes of
Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas, Papa Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Jean Paul
Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, all sipped café au laits or hot chocolate under
little umbrellas in the bistros and planned their prodigious oeuvres.
TANGO BY THE SEINE
Also on the Left Bank are the bookstalls,
black metal boxes called ‘boites’ the size of a steamer trunk and attached to
the waist-high walls over the quays. The boites hold an astounding amount of old
books, novellas, prints, photographs, posters (distinctly sepia- tinged), and
the most fascinating kind of memorabilia. The fabled Latin quarter where the
food is truly amazing, and the tres chic St Germain localities lies a little to
he Right Bank holds the Notre Dame
(Quasimodo’s bell pealing et al), the Palais de Chaillot, the palace turned
world’s largest museum the Louvre, the Tuilieres Gardens, and just off the river
bank is where the Champs de Elysee Avenue starts, ending at the Arc de Triomphe.
Here also lies the fabled Marais district, very cool, very hip with its trendy
bars, shops, boulangeries and restaurants. In this part of town is the rue des
Rosiers, the Jewish settlement and the Ile St. Louis and the Ile de la Cité,
which are the oldest parts of Paris.
The river runs about 30 feet below the
street level and the retaining walls, massive stone blocks, are decorated with
great iron rings pretty much like those seen on the banks of the Thames in
London. Here and there are mouldy water gates for old palaces or inspection
ports for subways, sewers and underpasses. In season, the retaining wall has a
thin stole of ivy on it, making it so very easy on the eye.
The broad sightseeing boats, bateaux
mouches, lined with passenger benches ply the Seine morning, noon and night; the
dinner boat is a special treat, where you can sip wine, nibble at the very
special Parisian pains (breads) and catch your breath as the lights go on all
over the city, transforming the Eiffel tower into a thing of beauty and joy
The Seine meanders through 32 ponts
(bridges), some sturdy, some stunning. These bridges afford some of the best
views of Paris, such as the one from le Pont du Carrousel looking toward the Ile
de la Cité. Artists and wannabe artists sit on the aptly named Pont de Arts
trying to capture Paris wrapped in early morning mists.
The Pont Neuf is the oldest and most
famous bridge in Paris. For all that its name means ‘new bridge’ it is Paris’
oldest bridge. King Henry III laid the cornerstone for it in 1578 and his
successor Henry IV, now captured for posterity in the form of a statue on the
bridge, galloped his horse over the completed structure in 1605.
Quite the most beautiful bridge of them
all is Pont Alexandre III, six bridges downstream from the Pont Neuf. This
354-foot-arch baroque pont has wildly rearing winged horses, cherubs and bearded
gods along the balustrades, all thickly gilded over. Thirty ornate black
lampposts complete with curlicues and glass globes march across the bridge,
which overlooks the Louvre. This pont was created as a centrepiece for the Paris
World’s Fair of 1900 in the hope of surpassing the Eiffel Tower and every
tourist just has to have himself or herself clicked here.
All along the broad swathe of the river
are seen black barges and colourful little houseboats. Many spots on the banks
are favoured by anglers though there really aren’t any big fish left in the
Ultimately, if Paris is an unforgettable
feast for all the senses, the Seine, with its wide stone quays, arched stone
bridges, shade trees and many marble benches, is quite the main course.
As for Tomas, I was generous with my tip
when leaving the boat. After all, we had something in common: we were, both of
us, in love with the Seine.
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