TRAVEL: THE SUNDAY EXPRESS/PARIS, FRANCE

T r a v e l


Down by the river...
Sheila Kumar gets a different perspective of Paris as seen from the glinting gray waters of the Seine



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 call.
But really, it’s a lovely way to see the City of Lights, floating down this arterial river which cuts Paris into its two distinct quarters.


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 of chimneystacks.
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 the inside.




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 forever.


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 Seine.
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.



Getting there Air-India (044-28554477; 080-22273174) and Air France (044-28554894; 080-25587258; 040-23230947; 0484-2370250) operate services to Paris. Return airfare is Rs 39,740 (ex Mumbai) per head. Log on to airindia.com or airfrance.com for more details.)

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