HONEYMOONING DOWN BY THE SEINE

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Okay, so we weren’t really on a honeymoon but that line from the Beatles’ “Ballad of John and Yoko” (Finally made the plane into Paris, Honeymooning down by the Seine…) suddenly came to mind when we arrived in the City of Lights. So one glorious, sunny, Parisian afternoon, after spending the morning checking out the Louvre and the Tuileries Garden, off we went to cruise down the Seine.

This river that defines Paris, meanders seductively through the heart of the city. It is an essential point of reference and divides the capital into two separate areas: the Right Bank on the north side and the Left Bank on the south. Almost every building of note is found right along its banks or very close to it. The quays are lined with fine apartments, magnificent monuments and world-class museums. And who can forget the beautiful bridges that crisscross its length. To sail down its waters is to savor joie de vivre at its fullest.

 

Waiting for the boat to set sail.

 

All-glass scenic boat.

There are many cruises offered by different companies like Batobus, Bateaux Vedettes and Bateaux Mouches. The boats come in various sizes; some are single- deck enclosed in glass walls but most are double-deck. They depart from fixed points and return after an hour or so to where they started although some, like the Batobus, offers a hop-on, hop-off ticket that allows you to explore the areas along its eight stops at major sites. For those who want a more romantic atmosphere, there are also dinner cruises at night (they cost a fortune so woe upon the guy whose girlfriend/wife hankers for it!).

 

The beautiful Pont Alexander.

Since we were quite close to Pont de l’Alma (the bridge near where Princess Diana ‘s tragic accident happened), we boarded the Bateaux Mouches cruiser, paying 7 Euros each. It was just half-full when it pulled out its moorings and headed upstream. We stayed on the upper deck with its unobstructed view even though the afternoon sun was a bit hot. A recorded running commentary in four languages gave timely information about the sights we were drifting past.

First bridge we passed was the Ponte Alexander III, arguably the most beautiful bridge that spans the river, with its flamboyant, gold-painted sculptural decorations of marine deities, cherubs and garlands of flowers. It was built in 1896 to celebrate the alliance of France and Russia and named after the Czar. Next on the right was the Assemblee Nationale which is the home of the French Parliament’s Lower House. Right after that was the Musee d’Orsay which houses outstanding Impressionists paintings. Formerly a train station with a superb turn-of-the-century design, it complements the Louvre with its collection of Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin and Degas – to name a few of the early 20th century artists.

The twin towers of Notre Dame.

 

Throwback to centuries-old stone construction at Pont Neuf.

Between Pont Royal and Passarelle des Arts (Paris’s first cast-iron bridge) was the Louvre where Mona Lisa resides and the remains of Mary Magdalene lie, according to Dan Browne’s Da Vinci Code. The Louvre used to be a fortress and later a palace before becoming a museum.

The Seine split into two at Pont Neuf. Strange that its name “New Bridge” doesn’t fit its description since it is the oldest bridge in the city built in 1578. One part of the river narrowed down considerably with both banks paved with a pedestrian walkway covered with trees. I remembered the first time we went to Paris with our two boys, we sat at this very same spot having lunch. While we were busy watching the boats pass by, James got busy as well feeding the pigeons with his salami sandwich! These same birds now still hung around and flew to our boat looking for something to eat.

 

Two views of Notre Dame Cathedral with its striking flying buttresses located in the rear.

The island in the middle of the Seine is called Ile de la Cite. It is actually the original Paris when Celtic tribes settled in it three centuries BC. One particular tribe, the Parisii, lent its name to the city which they found easy to defend.

The main draw here is the cathedral of Notre-Dame which towered over the riverbank like a fortress. Accentuated by its numerous flying buttresses, it truly is a magnificent piece of architecture, as well as having a storied history. Started in 1163, it was finished about 200 years later and witnessed great events in French history such as the coronation of Henry VI and Napoleon Bonaparte. Almost demolished then desecrated and rechristened the “Temple of Reason” during the Revolution, it was extensively renovated in the 19th century when the gargoyles of “Hunchback of Notre Dame” fame were added.

 

The top deck is always popular with tourists for it gives an unrestricted view of Paris from a river perspective.

Across the Cite was another island, the smaller Ile St. Louis with quiet riverside quays. The boat made a U-turn here, passing underneath Pont de Sully to make its way back. The imposing structure on the left was the Conciergerie. This sinister-looking building with its twin black turrets used to be a prison for 500-plus years. Over 4,000 prisoners were held here during the French Revolution and its most famous inmate was Marie-Antoinette (Louis the XVI’s frivolous queen) who was imprisoned here before she was guillotined in 1793. Now this building complex is part of the Palais de Justice. Just behind it is the beautiful Sainte-Chapelle, an architectural masterpiece built in 1248 to house what was then considered as Christ’s Crown of Thorns bought from Venice by Louis IX. The structure actually consists of two chapels one on top of the other with the sombre lower level reserved for servants and commoners. The soaring 15 meter-high upper level, though, houses 15 magnificent stained glass windows portraying more than 1,000 biblical scenes in a riot of multicolors that could leave one quite breathless.

 

The brooding Conciergerie.

We sailed underneath three more bridges in close succession: Pont d’Arcole, Pont Notre Dame and Pont au Change. The last one was a stone bridge with a sculpted wreath and the letter “N” on one of its pillars denoting Napoleon’s crest. Back to Pont Neuf, the boat continued downriver gliding by the Petit Palais and Grand Palais (major exhibitions and a science museum are based here) which were both undergoing major renovations. Passing through our point of departure, we continued further down where there was a slight bend in the river. This was where the wide Pont d’lena was located as well as Paris’s piece de resistance: the Eiffel Tower.

The Seine narrows down at this point in Ile de la Cite.

Soaring 324 meter up into the bright blue sky, this majestic steel structure painted in brown lords it over the whole city skyline. It has viewing decks located at three different levels and we could see the elevators working overtime to ferry the hundreds of tourists who wanted to go up and experience the best panoramic view of the city. Having climbed it twice already, this time we contented ourselves by just looking at it from the river. Opposite the Eiffel was the Trocadero Gardens with its long rectangular pool and spectacular fountains flanked by elevated lawns that are great for lolling around. At its end was the Palais de Chaillot, a curved colonnaded building in a vast pavilion. Designed in Neo-Classical style and built in 1937 for the Paris Exhibition, it houses two museums, a theater and a cinema. Its elevated terrace is the best place to have your “Been to Paris” photo shoot.

 

Tour Eiffel and the Statue of Liberty.

The cruise headed on down to the far end of the narrow island called Allee des Cygnes (“Alley of the Swans”) and made a U-turn at Pont de Grenelle where a 35-foot tall Statue of Liberty stands. This was a gift from America in 1889 to mark the centennial of the French Revolution. Most of the passengers wanted to have their pictures taken with this in the background and the Eiffel looming behind it: two iconic landmarks in one shot. I was too distracted watching them that I almost forgot to shoot it myself.

We got down from the boat thinking that we should have done this more often every time we were in town ‘cause it was a lot of fun and the sights were all world-class. Well, we had a night cruise still pending which came with our ticket to the Moulin Rouge show but that would be a different blog story.

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