Under the Brigdes of Paris

One of the most beautiful songs about the city’s bridges from 1931.

The Eiffel Tower may be the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of Paris, but the city’s history is shaped by the tiny bridges over the River Seine that link the two banks like stitches on cloth.

My list of things to do in Paris was clear: see the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, visit the Louvre, have a street artist draw my picture in front of the Sacré Coeur, and lose myself in the streets and savor the pleasure of the cafés of the Latin Quarter. But to discover one of Paris’s less talked about secrets, you must follow the River Seine, which divides the city right down the middle into the Rive Gauche and Rive Droite, and its bridges that have made Paris Paris for centuries.
Life in Paris revolves around the Seine. The city’s most important buildings and historic structures line up on either the ‘right’ or ‘left’ of the river, and not only its most important cultural events but even the fun moments of everyday life also center around the river. Paris’s 37 bridges are therefore among its unsung heroes.

THE HISTORY OF PARIS’S BRIDGES

Bridges have been being built for more than two thousand years in Paris, which stands on France’s second longest river, the Seine, to join the two banks.  As the dozens of bridges built to facilitate trade and ensure the distribution of goods coming into the small ports on the river became unable to handle the loads they carried following a series of floods, fires and shipping accidents, they were demolished and more sound ones erected in their place. Traces of the floods of 1910 and 1955 are still visible on most of the bridges, where you can see the level the water reached in those years together with the date. While houses and commercial buildings stood on the bridges until the last century, these have all been cleared today and the bridges, with a few exceptions, opened to vehicle and pedestrian traffic. You can discover the bridges of Paris by strolling over them, or you might prefer to take one of the ‘Bateau Mouche’ guided tours.

PONT NEUF

Despite its name, the Pont Neuf, or ‘new bridge’, is Paris’s oldest and most famous, having been in place since it was built with only some repairs. Its construction began in 1578 during the reign of Henri III, but was only completed in 1604 during the reign of Henry IV, an equestrian statue of whom was erected on it at his death. Besides being the first such statue of the time, it also had the distinction of being the first statue of its time open to viewing by the common people. Among the Pont Neuf’s most prominent characteristics are that it was one of the widest bridges of its day and that it boasted pedestrian pavements, something which the bridges built over the next 200 years would all lack. The itinerant booksellers you see today all along the Left Bank also have their roots in the tiny bookstalls that first opened on this bridge in 1670.

THE BRIDGE OF ALEXANDRE III

The decision to build the Pont Alexandre III, Paris’s widest bridge, was taken in 1896 for the Exposition Universelle, or World Fair, of 1900. The first stone of this bridge, which symbolized the decorative style and artistic spirit of the ‘Belle Epoque’, was laid by Tsar Nicholas II as a symbol of Russian-French cooperation.  At either end of the bridge stand four winged horses (pegasus) on 17-meter-high columns, symbolizing art, science, commerce and industry. Illuminated by 32 large street lamps and classified as a ‘historic bridge’, the Pont Alexandre III stands on the banks of the Grand Palais and Petit Palais. Newlyweds in Paris often have their picture taken here against the backdrop of the bridge’s splendid beauty.

SOME OF THE OTHER BRIDGES

The Pont Saint-Louis connects the small islands of Cité and Saint Louis in the middle of the Seine. This bridge, first built in 1630 as the Pont Saint-Landry, was later demolished and rebuilt a total of eight times due to accidents and overloading. In its ninth and final form, the Pont Saint-Louis, built in 1969 to set off the splendor of Notre-Dame, is closed to vehicle traffic today for safety.

The Pont de l’Archevêché, or Archbishop’s Bridge, to the left of Notre Dame is one of the few bridges that still stands as it was built, in 1848, even though it has been inspected over a number of times as Paris’s narrowest and lowest bridge. It was also one of the first bridges to charge a fare for crossing during its first thirty years.
Meanwhile the Pont au Change, one of the city’s longest bridges, extends along the banks of the Palace of Justice and the Conciergerie, residence of the French kings until it was abandoned by Charles V and turned into a state prison.
First built in 1378, this bridge takes its name from the jewelers’ and moneychangers’ shops that once stood on it. After it was reduced to ashes together with the houses on it in a fire that broke out in 1621, it assumed its final form in 1860. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is set on this bridge, where murderers once prowled with impunity.

Remember the bridge from which Inspector Javert hurled himself into the water?
Finally, in 2006, a bridge was erected on the Seine in memory of Simone de Beauvoir, the famous French writer and philosopher who was the life partner of Jean-Paul Sartre.