Walking the bridges of Paris is a fine way to get a feel for the city says Bob Lyons taking his own advice…
Many years ago, I suffered the effects of a serious road accident in France. I stayed in a French hospital for a month and then returned to my house in England to recuperate. My leg was a big problem though and I had to prove to myself and my company ( I was a pilot) that I could get my old fitness back. I decided to walk over all the central bridges across the Seine in Paris, about thirty of them. That would show everybody I thought, and I left my walking stick at home. My plan worked and I returned to my job.
Towards the end of 2014, I decided to repeat the experience and set off with my camera and travel kettle by bus from Victoria coach station in London and to the sparkling city of Paris. I aimed to be a little less ambitious on this visit and cross just eighteen of the bridges starting in the east with the Pont de Bercy and proceed north westwards towards the Pont d’Iena.
The bridges over the Seine
The many bridges spanning the Seine in central Paris seem to act as the cornerstones of Parisian history, culture, life and colour. They divide the city into recognisable sectors, all a little different, and all presenting subtle changes in City lifestyle, activity, energy and architecture.
The Pont de Bercy is just by the grand and futuristic national sports stadium. The bridge is a combined road and walkway and also supports line 6 of the Metro service. I took in the view at my starting point and watched the traffic and the people all heading into central Paris to start their day.
Walking along the left bank of the Seine I arrived at the recently designed Pont Charles de Gaulle. This is a single deck steel structure linking the Gare de Lyon with the Gare d’ Austerlitz. It is shaped like a streamlined aircraft wing and is a very crisp feature presenting a modern France. I walked across to the other side so that I could begin to sense a different style of sophistication and urbanity on the right bank.
I continued with my saunter and began to see the primary features of central Paris approaching. I stopped briefly at the Pont d’Austerlitz where I could view Notre Dame Cathedral right ahead of me along my route. The Seine is a very busy river with much water born traffic using it for various purposes including many large, speedy and sleek tourist vessels. Both banks of the river support many people on foot going about their daily business or just sitting to enjoy the view. The Seine epitomises the energy of a thriving and ambitious capital economy. Paris is a splendid place to take in all of the enthusiasm for human life.
I walked along the Quai Henry IV towards the Ille de la Cite, right in the centre of medieval Paris, and approached the Pont de Sully. This bridge links both banks of the Seine as it passes over the tip of the island. All of the traditionally perceived features of Paris can be seen from here. The imposing Notre Dame Cathedral just to the north west, Place de Bastille to the north east and the Arab Institute and Pantheon towards the south. Paris is a little like a shallow soup bowl with the river flowing at the bottom. I stood to observe the city rim all around me. A view through 360 degrees from this point reveals all of the familiar architecture of Paris.
Pont Neuf deserves a lingering visit and as I progressed towards it, I traversed five other bridges all passing over the island and all revealing vibrant commercial and tourist life in Paris. This really was the heart of the City as it lay protected under its wing of centuries old history and architecture.
The Pont Neuf connects the tip of the Ile de la Cite with each bank of the Seine. It forms a crossing point between the Institute de France and the very commercial Forum des Halles retail centre. These places really do complement each other. They symbolise the different character and style of the left and right banks of the river.
Pont Neuf translates as New Bridge but it is, strangely, the oldest still standing river bridge in Paris. The present version was constructed in 1578 and King Henry 111 laid the first stone. If it has a stony consciousness, it would recall so much of Paris history from the past centuries. It was the site of the public execution of a certain Jacques de Molay in March 1314. He made the grave mistake of retracting his criminal confessions to prove his innocence.
I continued along the left bank just beyond the tip of the Ile to take a look at the Pont des Arts. This is a foot bridge that certainly symbolises the romantic perception of Paris. Young and older couples alike have for decades been attaching padlocks to the bridge sides with their names painted on them. They throw the key into the Seine to confirm their eternal love for each other. The chain link fence along the edge of the bridge now is almost completely covered with such symbols to the point where part the bridge structure has partially collapsed under the weight. The Paris authorities have had to forbid this practice to save the bridge.
I crossed again to the right bank and headed towards the Pont de la Concorde, photographing three other bridges along the way. The magnificent Musee de Louvre and the Tuileries were to my right; the rather less royal Musee de Orsay and the Assemblee National were on my left, on the edge of the other bank.
The Pont de la Concorde was constructed during the turmoil of the French Revolution. Part of it is built with stones taken from the liberated Bastille prison. That occurred on the 14 July, 1789. The view from this bridge towards the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe is spectacular. It is Napoleon’s adopted part of Paris in a sense.
I continued my stroll towards the Pont Alexandra III. It is a very elegant bridge that is regarded by many as the most ornate in Paris. Built at the beginning of the twentieth century to mark the conclusion of the Franco Russian alliance in 1892. It is named after the Tsar who was instrumental in achieving the agreement. The bridge was a marvel of engineering construction at the time. It supports four massive gilt-bronze statues that overlook all life going on beneath them. The view across the bridge towards the Hotel des Invalides from the right bank is iconic. It stands for everything that has made the Paris City centre so very photogenic.
I turned west towards the Eiffel Tower crossing two bridges along the way, the Invalides and the de la Alma. Paris was taking on a more serious tone. The character now was one of affluence, commerce and serious economic affairs. My target was the Pont d’Iena leading to the vast steel base of the tower itself.
I stood for a few moments at the end of the bridge on the right bank close to the French national broadcasting headquarters. The sheer scale and imposition of the Eiffel Tower from this position is almost intimidating. It was a very grand conclusion to my tour of the Seine bridges. I crossed over, stood under the base of the tower and looked up. The sight of the heavy engineering, precision and architectural skills was breath taking.
Walking the bridges of Paris
There are no hills to walk up and no bills to pay. The views from the centre of the whole city are sensational and you can almost smell the Gallic culture as all of it passes by. Any ordinarily fit person can easily clamber across all of the bridges in just a few hours.
Hire a bicycle from points in the streets if you prefer to conduct your trip on two wheels. Pay the very modest charge with your credit card at the machines by the cycle racks. Be careful on the roads though, the Parisian motorists are renowned for their driving skills but sadly, not for their manners.
In the summer months, Parisian authorities bring the seaside to Paris. Sections of the Seine embankments are converted into beaches using vast amounts of sand. You can watch people with their children enjoying life as though they were at the coast.
Bob Lyons is an ex-pilot turned traveller…