If I can’t walk along the ocean, which is two hours away, then I absolutely love walking along the banks of the Seine any time day or night. Of course the great advantage of walking along this mythic river rustling powerfully through Paris is that you have the gorgeous backdrop of the city at every angle.
I spent most of this past weekend walking again around the recently opened left bank riverwalk, called Les Berges, where I caught a glimpse of the Louisiane Belle, seen above. The city of Paris has a made a monumental effort to bring back the multiple pleasures associated with the river, that were so in fashion during the Belle Epoque.
The Seine has been the main artery of life here since its early existence, founded by the Parisii tribe, on Ile de La Cité around 350 BC. The actual source of the Seine begins as a small outpouring of water in Burgundy and empties into the English Channel at Le Havre.
The first banks of Paris, called quais were built in the early 1500′s. Though the river had always provided a means of bringing in foods and equipment from the surrounding areas, it wasn’t till later that it became a source of leisure and nautical pleasure.
Small riverside or floating restaurants, called quinguettes started to proliferate along the Seine, west of the city and east along the Marne, in the 1700′s. The name comes from the local cheap wines that was produced in the surrounding villages.
There you could spend hours eating, drinking and dancing while watching the canoes rowing in front of you. These were often the gathering places of the impressionistic painters, who immortalized the flourishing quinguettes society, with many paintings, such as Auguste Renoir, in his Déjeuner de Canotiers.
As the Seine became progressively more polluted, this popular culture started to die out, except for the guinguettes along the Marne, which is still going strong today. By 1960, parts of the quais in Paris were turned into roadways; that although they provided a very scenic drive through the center, they also were heavy contributors of pollution and noise.
With the waters of Seine now cleaned up after years of strenuous efforts, the river culture and guinguettes are back in full force!! Though the auto club of Paris was angered by the closure of the left bank thoroughfare, the mayor’s office is wanting to get rid of most of them in favour of bringing back the banks of the Seine to the Parisians to stroll about.
Les Berges is a 2.3 kilometer riverwalk that starts around Pont de de L’Alma and goes all the way to the Musée d’Orsay. This stretch would correspond to the Champs Elysées area towards the Tulleries gardens and the Louvre on the opposite side.
I was very impressed by the cities’ efforts to create part of the walk into a space of zen and relaxation amongst floating islets of greenery planted with various fruits tress and berry bushes with water willows that welcome the nesting of various birds.
There are pleasures and activities for all ages, offering various classes from yoga to boxing for the fun seeking and just pure relaxing in the sun and fresh air. Weekends though, you are hard pressed to find a free hammock and chaise lounge without a wait, but there are other paying options!
Most creative are the country inspired green cabins, called ZZZ for hourly rent seen in the photos, where you can picnic or snooze on your own patio watching all the bateau mouches plying up and down the Seine or snuggle inside in colder weather.
Then there are tipis for rent, perfect for families or parties in a unique setting. Kiddies were loving the wall climbing equipment, wall drawings and pole tennis, but obviously parents have a heavy responsibility in keeping perfect watch over their little ones away from the river, which made me nervous for them.
Sunday, there was a festival celebrating the local food products and produce of Ile de France, so it was especially crowded. I had to dodge a thicket of tiny ones weaving in and out on their scooters and bikes as they often are not paying attention to their path. Fortunately there were little niches of quiet and serenity on the floating islets to avoid the clamour and restore a sense of countryside tranquillity.
There were also mobile green caverns where you entered to plunge into fern lined walls and sprays of refreshing cooling mists that offered a momentary zen respite from the crowds. If that isn’t enough there were massage therapists on hand to soothe away your stress.
The entire strip offers wonderful terraces, some on the banks and some floating ones to linger away the time, either people watching or gazing at the ever present river traffic, while sipping on your beverage of choice.
The most comfortable looking lounge chairs were at Le Flow, which was indeed overflowing with patrons soaking up the sun. The most reasonable wine prices and tapas were at Rosa Bonheur, a new floating restaurant offering direct views over the water.
A upscale restaurant, Faust, just opened tucked under the Pont Alexandre III, which I consider to be the most beautiful bridge in Paris. It has a starred chef who presided over the Matignon palace, the official residence of the French prime minister.
The glass rooftop of the Grand Palais is just across the river and sitting along the banks offers extraordinary close up views of Pont Alexandre, this magnificent ornate bridge built in 1896, with its golden nymphs, cherubs and winged horsemen, that is even more breathtaking at night.
The last part of the riverwalk extends to the Musée d’Orsay , where it becomes less crowded and there is an exhibit of famous stars that were once photographed on the banks of the Seine, such as Truman Capote and Juliette Greco.
All in all it makes for a wonderful and breezy stroll with captivating scenery on both sides. A few fisherman were out trying their luck, but I didn’t notice any catches.
There is an open air “museum” with pictorial information about the major fishes that call the Seine home. The most exotic in my mind would be the eels that leave the river and head towards the Saragossa sea to reproduce.
The current remains very strong and treacherous , which is a good deterrent for those crazy enough to risk their lives in swimming across. With all the many tourist boats, bus boats, river police patrols in addition to various huge barges coming and going, there is a lot of action, wakes and waves.
Though it does not have the intimate romantic appeal of walking around the banks of Ile Saint Louis, behind Notre Dame, which has its own aura of dreaminess from another time, especially at night, it gives you another wide open dimension of this beautiful river that has sustained and nourished Paris from the beginning of time.
As the clouds came in the early evening, the cool Seine breezes became a little chilly prompting us to return home. Fortunately I had already finished up a French fresh coconut cake, in memory of my Southern grandmother who lived on a bayou and always baked me her southern version on my birthdays.
Mine was made from genoise layers, soaked in pineapple and rum, filled with crushed pineapple, coconut and whipped cream, then covered in a snowy blanket of more cream and grated coconut. I think she would have loved walking along the Seine today and eating my version too!.
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