Sometimes, when sleep eludes me in the dark hour before dawn, I make my way to the Pont de la Tournelle, the 400-foot bridge that links the Île Saint-Louis to Paris’s Left Bank. I plant myself at its midpoint, face west and wait. Before me is the skeletal back of Notre-Dame, shrouded in darkness.
I watch as the sky moves from blue-black to deep blue velvet to soft gray, then light blue. The delicate architectural details of the cathedral gradually reveal themselves, until finally, the early morning sun bathes them in warm orange hues.
The back side of Notre-Dame is the creation of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the young architect in charge of the cathedral’s restoration in the 19th century. It looks nothing like the grandiose main entrance, whose hundreds of Medieval stone carvings make it one of the most recognizable images of Paris around the world.
The view from behind is different from what it was just a few months ago. During the great fire of April 15, 2019, the cathedral lost the spire that Viollet-le-Duc erected, and sections of the roof are hidden under protective scaffolding. But the structure still shows its splendor at night, the flat, dark silhouette of its flying buttresses visible through the trees.
[Notre Dame holds a special place in memory. Read our writers’ reactions to the fire.]
I am never alone when I come here. Sitting atop a tall, stark pylon on the southeastern bank of the bridge is the 1928 statue of Sainte Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris. The fifth-century saint is portrayed as a young woman, her hands on the shoulders of a child who represents the city. During her lifetime, Geneviève predicted that Attila and his Mongol hordes would spare Paris from massacre and destruction; after she was proved right, she was heralded as the savior of Paris. These days, she looks out on the water — and perhaps down on me — like a silent protector.
The Seine begins to awaken at dawn. The first barges of the morning move downstream. The river police begin their patrols in fast-moving inflatable boats. The garbage trucks rumble along the quays picking up the refuse from the revelry the night before. Dogs bark. Crows caw.
I have found on the Pont de la Tournelle a special place and time in which to make Paris my own.
All that contemplation whets my appetite, and from here, I walk along the quay on the Left Bank until I reach Le Depart Saint-Michel, a 24-hour café-brasserie. A touristy place to avoid at lunch and dinner, it is a great place for people-watching over an omelet and an espresso at early rush hour and a fitting way to savor the magic of a Seine River bridge at dawn.
Study Paris through its bridges, and you have a mosaic of the city’s history and architecture.
There are 35 bridges crossing the eight-mile span from one end of Paris to the other, starting at the Pont National upstream to the Pont du Garigliano, the last bridge as the river moves to the sea (the number is 37 if you count the Boulevard Périphérique, the utilitarian highway that rings the city and crosses the river upstream at Charenton/Bercy and downstream at Saint-Cloud/Issy).
Unesco celebrates 23 of the city’s bridges in its designation of the banks of the Seine — from the Pont de Sully, near Notre-Dame Cathedral to the Pont d’Iéna, at the Eiffel Tower — as a World Heritage cultural site.
The bridges stretch themselves over the river as if they are posing for passers-by. Every one of them has its own story, structure, purpose and character. Four are footbridges; two carry Metro trains. Twenty-six welcome both motorists and pedestrians; three are even more ambitious, with car and pedestrian lanes and Metro or tram tracks.
Some bridges are named for French military victories. Bir-Hakeim memorializes the Libyan oasis where Free French forces repulsed two German enemy divisions in 1942; Iéna and Austerlitz were sites of Napoléon’s triumphs; and Alma, a Crimean War victory. Others are named after famous people: a king (Louis-Philippe), an engineer (Christophe Marie), a president of France (Charles de Gaulle), and a president of Senegal (Léopold-Sédar-Senghor).
Painters like Matisse and Monet, photographers like Willy Ronis and Henri Cartier-Bresson felt compelled to capture the bridges — and their reflections in the Seine’s slow-moving water — in their art. Several years ago, Richard Overstreet, a painter living in Paris, rented a panoramic camera and for months photographed the bridges in their long and narrow splendor. “The bridges came alive for me,” he said. “They became the perfect artist’s models, still and constantly vibrant, stretched out in perfect repose across the Seine.”
The bridges have even been memorialized in song. In the United States, Doris Day, Bing Crosby, Eartha Kitt and the Kingston Trio all sang about the Seine. In 1955, Dean Martin turned a 1913 French song “Under the Bridges of Paris” into an unambiguous opération seduction:
How would you like to be
Down by the Seine with me
Oh, what I’d give for a moment or two
Under the bridges of Paris with you
In Billy Wilder’s 1954 romantic comedy “Sabrina,” Audrey Hepburn explains to a skeptical Humphrey Bogart the magic of a walk past the bridges of Paris: “You find one you love and go there every day with your coffee and your journal and you listen to the river.”
Indeed, there is only one way to discover the bridges of Paris: on foot. With good walking shoes, you can make it east to west, from the first to the last bridge, in a day, stopping for lunch at a riverside cafe midway.
A bridge named for Simone de Beauvoir
I recommend starting at Paris’s newest bridge, a pedestrian span built in 2006 and named after the 20th-century feminist, novelist, and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, slightly downstream of the Périphérique’s crossing at Charenton/Bercy. Asymmetrical and eclectic, it is an arched and suspension bridge in one; it has no pillars or visible supports, although it stretches over one of the widest stretches of the Seine.
The heart of Paris is still the Île de la Cité, the island in the middle of the river where Paris was created in ancient times. There, at the foot of the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), is the Pont d’Arcole, the site of the last scene of the 2003 film “Something’s Gotta Give.” Jack Nicholson, thinking he has lost Diane Keaton, stumbles out of a restaurant near the Hôtel de Ville and onto the bridge. An accordionist plays “La vie en rose.” A tourist boat aglow in white lights cruises below him. He gets teary-eyed. It starts to snow. She arrives in a taxi to confess that she still loves him. He tells her, “If it’s true, my life just got made …. I’m 63 years old, and I’m in love — for the first time in my life.” They kiss.
Even the most fantastic love scenes in the movies seem plausible standing on a Parisian bridge.
Nearby, the Pont Saint-Louis connects the Île de la Cité and the smaller Île Saint-Louis. It is a short, unexceptional bridge, but serves as an intimate stage for musicians, especially Americans playing jazz, jugglers, actors and mime artists.
A half a mile west is Paris’s oldest bridge, paradoxically named the Pont-Neuf, the “new bridge” at the tip of the Île de la Cité, and more or less the center point of the Seine’s course through the city. A 17th-century triumph of design and technology, it was the first bridge in Paris to be built entirely of stone and featured pedestrian walkways. It was built without the houses that lined earlier bridges and cluttered the views. In constructing it through and on both sides of the island, Henri IV created an intimate, permanent bond between Parisians and the lifeblood of their city, the Seine.
This bond still exists. Behind a statue of Henri IV on the bridge are staircases that descend two flights. They open out onto a spit of land at the westernmost tip of the Île de la Cité, the Square du Vert-Galant. Unlike most Paris parks, it is open to the public all night long. When the river is high, the branches of the weeping willow planted in cobblestones at the tip of the square caress the surface of the Seine. You can come close enough to reach out and touch the water.
A quarter mile to the west, at the Louvre, is the Pont des Arts, a wood-slatted, iron pedestrian bridge that links the museum to the Institut de France, home of the Académie Française, on the other side of the river. A magnet for picnickers, it was once the place couples proclaimed their love by attaching metal padlocks. But the spindly, fragile footbridge was too weak to bear the weight of all this love. The city of Paris lined the bridge barriers with lock-resistant Plexiglas, and couples moved east to the Pont Neuf, until its barriers were replaced with corrugated plastic. But the love locks still sprout on odd spaces — between barriers on bridges, on lampposts and on heavy iron mooring rings all along the river.
Heading downstream, history buffs might like to walk over the Pont de la Concorde which joins the Place de la Concorde with the National Assembly. The bridge was built during the French Revolution using stones of the demolished Bastille, “so that the people could forever trample on the old fortress,” according to Rodolphe Perronet, the bridge’s engineer.
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The most elegant bridge in Paris
Then comes the most elegant of Paris bridges: the Pont Alexandre III, a belle epoque confection linking the Invalides to the Champs-Élysées. Built for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, it was named in honor of the father of the visiting Russian czar, Nicholas II. Sculptures of full-figured, bare-breasted nymphs look out at the river from their perches at the bridge’s center. Gilded candelabra, trumpet-blowing angels, lion-taming cherubs, dolphins, starfish, sea monsters and birds proclaim joy. Faust, a nightclub, sits underneath the bridge on the Left Bank.
The Pont Alexandre III is so emblematic of Paris that when mayor Anne Hidalgo led a campaign to promote her city as the site for the 2024 Summer Olympics, she built a 12-meter diving board on the bridge and a floating running track alongside it to stage a show of Olympic sporting events. The Eiffel Tower was strategically visible in the background for the perfect photo frame.
The city of Paris also spends millions of dollars every year to light up its river banks, and at night, the bridges look like bright necklaces strung across the river. They show off the two schools of lighting: the Paris school, which bathes its subjects in warm, even light, and the Lyon school, which uses small spotlights to highlight details for dramatic effect. The decorations of Pont Alexandre III are lit with the pointillism of the Lyon school. So are the arches and hanging lamps of the Pont de Bercy, the high-relief sculptures on the Pont d’Austerlitz, and the medallions on the N monograms, in honor of Napoléon III, on the Pont au Change.
Gary Zuercher, a retired businessman and a lifelong photographer, was so passionate about the way the bridges look at night that he spent more than five years photographing them in black and white for a 190-page coffee-table book, “The Glow of Paris.” Because Paris isn’t fully dark in the summer months until about 11 p.m., he did most of his work during the winter. “I wanted to present the majesty of the Paris bridges in their most alluring setting,” he said. “Nighttime.”
By day, tourist boat rides on the Seine are interesting, of course, but at night, they become voyages of discovery. I take visitors on the Vedettes de Paris, a small bateau-mouche, because if we arrive early enough, we can nab a spot in the front of an upper deck. When the boat passes under the bridges, we can see how the lighting from underneath reveals the curves and angles of their underbellies.
Tour guides on the bateaux-mouches will tell you that the Pont Marie is the lovers’ bridge. The story goes that if you make a wish as the boat slips under the bridge and keep the wish secret, it will be granted. One summer night, I took two female college students for a boat ride. As we approached the bridge, a recording announced: “If you’re with the person you love, kiss him or her under the bridge, make a wish, and your wish will come true.” One of the students closed her eyes and made a wish, even though her boyfriend was an ocean away.
A bridge beloved by artists
There are glorious bridges that spring into view when you least expect it. One that is worthy of discovery is not in Paris itself, but near the town of Chatou about 10 miles west of Paris.
I found the bridge as I was rowing one Sunday afternoon in a 100-year-old two-seat wooden boat along the Seine with Kareen Sontag, a member of the Sequana Association, a three-decade-old club dedicated to restoring, rebuilding and exhibiting some of the most important boats to have plied the waters of the Seine between the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I could hear the grinding of Kareen’s seat as she plied each stroke, the plop of her oars when she dipped them sharply in the water, and the gurgle of water against the hull as the boat moved forward.
“You are not in the suburbs of Paris; you are in a green forest,” she said. “Look at the river and the green trees rising above in the distance, and you are in the world of 100 years ago.” She rowed past decrepit barges and houseboats docked on the banks. She stopped as we were about to row under a three-arched iron and stone railway bridge that once carried trains along its route. Kareen told me it was famous in painting and literature as a symbol of modernity, as the railroad was the means by which 19th-century Parisians came to the local river communities to enjoy their leisure time.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted the bridge in 1881, almost completely hiding it behind chestnut trees in bloom with big pink flowers. He put the bridge far in the background of one of his best-known works of the same period, Luncheon of the Boating Party. Guy de Maupassant evoked the bridge in his short story “Femme Fatale,” describing a line of rowboats speeding along the Seine and “growing progressively smaller till they disappeared beyond the railway bridge and into the distance.” The bridge was photographed in black and white in the early 20th century for postcards.
Kareen was right. I was indeed in the world of 100 years ago.
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