Paris

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Paris History: La Seine

Paris is small: no corner is farther than six miles from the square in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral. The city has a total area of 41 square miles (105 square kilometres), if the two big parks at either extremity are included, and 34 square miles without them. The city occupies a bowl hollowed out by the Seine in its prehistoric vigour, and the surrounding heights have been respected as the limits of the city. The river arches through the center of town, visiting 10 of the 20 arrondissements. Entering the city at the southeast corner, it arcs northward and bends out of Paris at the southwest corner. As a result, what starts out as the streams east bank becomes its north bank and ends as the west bank, and the Parisians therefore adopted the simple, unchanging designation of Right and Left Bank (when facing downstream). These terms are not much used in conversation, as specific places are usually indicated by arrondissement (e.g., quinziè­¥) or by quartier (e.g., Observatoire).


At water level, some 30 feet below street level, the river is bordered--at least on those portions not transformed into expressways--by cobbled quays graced with trees and shrubs. From street level another line of trees leans towards the water. Between the two levels, the retaining walls, usually made of massive stone blocks, are decorated with the great iron rings of a past ages commerce and sometimes pierced by mysterious openings (water gates for old palaces or inspection ports for subways, sewers and underpasses). Here and there the wall is shawled in ivy.

The old buildings, the riverboats, the changes of colour reflected by the water, the gardens, and the 32 bridges (many of them handsome) compose one of the worlds grandest, yet most endearing cityscapes. Along the river are two of the great set pieces of urban spectacle in the contemporary world. The first sweeps down from the Palais de Chaillot on the Right Bank, crosses the river to the Eiffel Tower, and continues through the gardens of the Champ-de-Mars to the 18th-century Ecole Militaire; the other begins at the Seine and marches up a broad esplanade to the golden dome of the Invalides.