Joanna Leggett explores the fascinating history of the river Seine and some of its most magical ports of call…
The River Seine is France’s second largest river, from Source-Seine to Le Havre is 780 kms and, with its tributaries, it drains an area of almost 79,000 square kilometres. And, of course, it flows through the Île-de France, the nation’s heartland and major metropolitan region. Much of the river is navigable, for the tidal section of the Seine Maritime is followed by a canalised section where locks lift river boats up to the level of the river in Paris, and then it continues towards Champagne and Burgundy.
River Seine in art
The Seine has long had fans – the Impressionists painted it time and time again. Impressionism was born from a painting of Le Havre harbour by Monet which he named ‘Impression, Sunrise’ in 1874. The list of names is almost a roll call of some of the greatest in the world, from earlier works by JMW Turner to Van Gogh, Renoir, Sisley, Monet, Manet and, of course, Renoir then there were the Post Impressionists from Boudin to Matisse. They portrayed changing seasons, river and port activities, Seine-side pastimes and places where artists stayed or sometimes someone just rowing along the river (as magically captured by Caillebotte) while perfectly attired in top hat, cravat, waistcoat and striped shirt! Then there is Seurat’s ‘Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’ set on an island in the Seine with everyone formally attired with hats, parasols with dresses boasting some very impressive bustles.
The start of the River Seine
The Seine actually rises a long, long way southeast of Paris (it takes a good three hours flat out on motorways just to get there) in the commune of Source-Seine northwest of Dijon. The spring here is just a trickle, however there is an artificial grotto which includes a statue of a nymph, dog and naturally for good measure a dragon! Apparently on the same site are the buried remains of a Gallo-Roman temple (of course the Romans were here first!) while small statues of the ‘Seine Goddess’ and other votive offerings found here are now housed in the museum at Dijon. The name of the river actually comes from the Latin Sëquana, who was goddess of the river.
The route of the Seine
As its path meanders seawards, it leaves the region of Burgundy and enters Champagne above Troyes while other rivers join along the way, perhaps the most well-known of these the Marne which joins just as it enters Paris!
Troyes is a delightful medieval town awash with half-timbered buildings, the heart of the city coincidentally has the characteristic shape of a Champagne cork. Here there are narrow streets, grand 16th century mansions and beautiful churches.
From here the river winds onwards, past woods around Fontainebleau until it reaches Paris. Dividing the city in two, in fact it borders 10 of Paris’ 20 arrondissements and is the city’s chief commercial waterway. People are either on its Left or Right Bank. There are 32 bridges in Paris – the oldest being the Pont Neuf. Another popular bridge is the pedestrian Pont des Arts which was once smothered with locks attached by trysting lovers – by 2014 these had got so heavy part of the parapet collapsed so now lovers have to take a selfie instead, though it’s said if you kiss someone as you sail under the Pont Neuf – you are bound to return to Paris! There are floating restaurants, discos, expensive cafés and all sorts of wonderful places to explore along the banks in Paris.
From Paris the river runs seawards in great loops through Normandy, past châteaux and Giverny where Claude Monet lived and gardened. Onwards it flows through a series of locks to the heart of Normandy and its capital, Rouen (read about Rouen here in The Good Life France Magazine). It was here Joan of Arc met her sad end, and it’s said that what was left of her ashes were tipped into the Seine.
The river passes through the ancient and truly charming town of Honfleur. Seated at a café with a glass of pommeau (the apple-based apéro traditional to Normandy) beside the Vieux-Bassin lined with ancient townhouses watching the sun set, is one of those memorable moments that stay with you forever.
Then it flows under the Pont de Normandie in Le Havre, one of the longest cable-stayed bridges the world, high and wide enough to allow ocean going vessels to pass beneath to travel onwards. By this time the Seine has become a wide, mighty confluence and here it empties out into the Channel, it’s journey ended.
Joanna Leggett is marketing director at Leggett Immobilier – you can view their full portfolio of properties for sale in all the areas mentioned as well as the rest of France at www.leggettfrance.com