Inextricably entangled in the scenic beauty and essence of this city is its historic lifeline the river Seine and the bridges that lay across it. Today, 37 bridges cross the Seine. Three link the Ile Saint-Louis to the rest of Paris, 8 do the same for the Ile de la Cité and one links the two islands to each other. Besides these, there are 16 other bridges that form part of the Canal de l’Ourcq system and various others that do not cross a waterbody. On a typical Seine river cruise one can see many of these imposing bridges. Here are some of my favourites. They offer great views of the city and each has its own special story…
The Pont Neuf
The Pont Neuf is the oldest standing bridge to cross the river Seine in Paris. It is in the form of a stone bridge in a series of arches. Under the orders of Henri III its construction began in 1578. It was the first stone bridge in Paris not to support houses on it and was designed with bastions to protect pedestrians and allow the smooth flow of busy traffic. It stands by the western point of the Ile de la Cité, the island in the middle of the river that was the heart of medieval Paris and the chief port under the Romans when Paris, known then as Lutetia, was a bustling city of 10,000 inhabitants. Even today it is the center of Paris and the Parvis de Notre-Dame on the island is the 0 km point from which all distances in Paris are calculated. Two important landmarks on the Pont Neuf are the equestrian statute of King Henri IV and the commemorative plaque of Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of the Knights Templar, who was burnt at the stake close to where the bridge stood. The bridge was a lively place and such an important nerve center in its heyday that the Parisian police believed that if they did not see a man crossing it at least once in 3 days he must have left Paris. In 1840, Lacroix wrote: «Once the Pont Neuf was a perpetual fair; at present, it is just a bridge to be crossed without stopping.”
This bridge is important for being the most ancient structure over the Seine, although the oldest bridge to stand today in its original form is the Pont Neuf. A bridge in some form or the other stood at the site of the Pont Notre-Dame but was destroyed and rebuilt again. The first bridge on this spot from ancient times was the ‘Grand Pont’ which, when destroyed, was replaced by the Milbray Plank Bridge. When that was destroyed in 1406 it was replaced by the first version of the Notre-Dame bridge which was a wooden bridge with 60 symmetrical houses on it, 30 on each side. Many 16th century paintings of the city of Paris depict the bridge with these typical houses. The enormous weight of the houses, structural instabilities and lack of repairs finally led the bridge to collapse in 1499. It was then replaced by a stone arch construction the same year which was rebuilt in 1853 and finally replaced by the current metal bridge, inaugurated in 1919.
Pont des arts
No mention of Parisian bridges can be complete without a reference to the popular pedestrian bridge Pont des Arts, which was the first metal bridge. It is famous as the ‘Lovers’ Bridge’, a favourite of tourist couples who put a padlock on the bridge with their names and then throw the key in the river as a sign of their commitment. There is an ongoing campaign called ‘Love without locks’ to save the bridge from the structural and aesthetic damage caused by these locks.