The Seine and its bridges have always been central to life in Paris. For proof, we need look no further than the stirring works that some of our finest artists have created to pay tribute to them; Apollinaire, Barbara, Montand, Piaf, Verlaine and a whole host of others have immortalized those great witnesses of the past, present and future. Here is a brief presentation of five emblematic bridges in the Capital out of the 37 bridges connecting Rive Droite and Rive Gauche.
Pont Alexander III
On 7th October 1896, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, and President Félix Faure were present for the placement of its first stone. The construction was built to celebrate the alliance between France and Russia. The Tsar would later see the completed work when he returned to Paris in September 1901.
In the run-up to the Exposition Universelle worlds fair of 1900 and in the hopes of impressing the public as much as the Eiffel Tower had in 1889 a competition for ideas was held to examine various projects. In addition, it had to go well with neighbouring features (the Petit and Grand Palais). The style and decoration were carried out by some of the best-known sculptors of the era (not to mention the most traditional and no doubt amongst the most conservative). The decoration of the architecturally and technically innovative Pont Alexandre III employed all the commonplaces of the end of the 19th century: stacks of motifs, allegories and symbols designed in a realistic but approachable style, which brought mythical content into a familiar context. On either side of the bridge, two socles supported a statue of Pegasus, restrained at the halter by four Fames.
After being completed by the scheduled deadline, the bridge was inaugurated on 14th April 1900. Although several artists and celebrities of the time criticised the Pont Alexandre IIIs highly classical aspects, it remained one of the highlights of the Exposition Universelle. Dressed to suit the different tastes in vogue for the worlds fairs of 1925 and 1937, the bridge changed appearance several times during the first half of the 20th century. A spate of renovations was carried out in 1995 for the bridges centenary celebrations.
Pont de la Concorde
The bridge was considered revolutionary when it was built, both for the construction techniques and the material that was used to build it. It was built partly with stones from the Bastille, which had been converted into a stone quarry after its capture, so that patriots may daily trample underfoot the remnants of the abysmal fortress! a version of the facts that has been called into question by a number of historians.
In an edict of September 1786 concerning improvement works in Paris, Louis XVI ordered all bridges to be cleared of houses, and released funds of 30 million livres, 1,200,000 of which were allocated to the building of a new bridge over the Seine.
Work began in 1787 and stopped after a week; the first stone was finally laid in 1788. Despite the first rumblings of revolution, building work, sometimes involving 1,200 workers, was successfully completed. In early November 1791, the 138m-wide (150m between the abutment piers), 15.59m-long structure was finished.
At first it was simply called Pont Louis XVI before later becoming Pont de la Revolution; it was a stunning work of art. Around 1800, it became Pont de la Concorde as part of attempts at reconciliation. In the 20th century, the bridge was renovated on several occasions. For example, in 1931 it was widened from 15.59 to 35 metres.
The bridge has also witnessed important occasions, festivities and celebrations. It hosted the return of Napoleons ashes in 1840, the Second Republic ceremony in 1851, Gambettas funeral in 1883, Victor Hugos funeral in 1885, the confrontation between the far-right leagues and the forces of order in 1934 that left 15 dead and over 1,000 injured
Pont des Arts
This is probably the best-known bridge in all Paris, although its not the most iconic. Nonetheless, it offers one of the most beautiful panoramas of the capital. Its recent history has been somewhat turbulent. In June 2014, weighed down by too many padlocks, one of the bridges railings fell off. In June 2015, the railings, spoiled by padlocks left by lovers from all over the world, were replaced by panels bearing street art by Jace, El Seed, Brusk and Pantonio. They will be removed this October to make way for more conventional glass barriers.
Plans to build a bridge in this location date back to the construction of the current Institut de France (1663, formerly the Collège des Quatre-Nations). For budgetary reasons, the work was not started until the French Consulate came into power (1799-1802). Keen to use state-of-the-art technology such as cast iron, Bonaparte placed Louis-Alexandre de Cessart in charge of the construction. Accompanied by his deputy, Jacques Dillon, de Cessart proposed a project with 11 iron arches and wooden columns.
The bridge was constructed between 1802 and 1804 and was made up of nine arches with spans of 17.34m, which supported a horizontal platform that formed a walkway it is a pedestrian-only bridge. At its inauguration on 24 September 1803, it proved so popular that almost 65,000 people walked across it. Since it was funded privately, users had to pay a toll of one sou each (until 1849). At the time, it was likened to a garden suspended above the water, with its rustic chairs and shrubs an enchanted terrace, as Nerval put it. Weaknesses were observed as early as 1844, and much of the bridge collapsed after a barge collided with it in 1979 (it had been closed to the public since 1977). It opened to the public once again in 1984, measuring 155m long and 10m wide and supported by seven symmetrical, circular steel arches with spans of 22m. The bridge has been mentioned by a great many artists in their creations and depicted by many French artists such as Albert Camus, Georges Brassens…
Its first stone was laid by Henry III of France on 31 May 1578. Mourning the recent loss of two of his Mignons, the king was in tears at the inauguration, according to several witnesses. The finished work would later be nicknamed the bridge of tears by Parisians. Previously, a ferry service had allowed people to cross the Seine at this point.
The selected project, located at the confluence of the two channels of the Seine at the western end of Ile de la Cité, was designed by Baptiste Androuet du Cerceau, supervisor of royal works, and Pierre des Isles. The construction was entrusted to several contractors and led by Guillaume Marchand. Building work was interrupted around 1580 due to the political events of the time.
Henry IV set the project back in motion in 1598, and the construction was completed in 1607. The bridges creation led to other urban projects, including the construction of nearby Place Dauphine (named after the future dauphin or heir apparent, Louis XIII) and Rue Dauphine. Development, enhancement and upkeep works have been ongoing ever since.
The Pont Neuf had various characteristic features, including the fact that it included pedestrian walkways and had no businesses built on it (small houses and temporary shops did appear later on, but they were demolished for good between 1851 and 1855). It was also the first bridge to be decorated. To this day, it is home to a surprising portrait gallery: a collection of 380 mascaron ornaments, added over the years by various sculptors. Recently, a diver from the police departments river unit discovered a mascaron that had sunk. Its worth noting that you can see original pieces that have been transferred and carefully preserved at the Musée Carnavalet and the Musée National de la Renaissance (in the Val-dOise department).
An integral part of the Pont Neuf is the equestrian statue of Henry IV. Erected in the centre of the bridge on the island, facing Place Dauphine, it was given to the city of Paris by the kings wife, Marie de Medici. This royal statue, the first to be erected in a public square, was only installed in 1614, despite having been commissioned in 1604. After being destroyed in 1792, it was replaced in 1818 during the Bourbon Restoration (it is said that Victor Hugo helped to transport the new statue to the spot where it stands today).
The various historical events which have taken place here (such as the passage of Henry IVs funeral procession in 1610 and Napoleons coronation procession in 1804, among many others) and the great many artistic homages paid to the Pont Neuf make it one of the most iconic bridges in modern Paris. It was even chosen as the symbol of the transition to the new European currency at the ceremony marking the adoption of the euro in January 2002.
The bridge known currently as Passerelle Senghor and formerly as Passerelle Solférino was inaugurated in 1999 and closed to the public a few days later. It was completely funded by the government. Some engineers blamed the closure on the fact that certain sections of the walkway were slippery, whilst others cited the materials used in the bridges construction, or the fact that it was not accessible to people with reduced mobility as the problem. One week after its inauguration, the platform was closed to the public, to reopen one year later, after 14 shock absorbers and non-slip flooring had been installed. Today, thankfully, these difficult beginnings are forgotten the memory more often attached to the bridge is that its designer, Marc Mimram, received the Equerre dArgent award for his creation.
The bridge is 140 metres long and made of welded metal (iron and aluminium) and exotic wood for the walkway spanning its single curve. Its deck is also split into two levels, providing a link between the upper and lower quays. In 2006, the bridge was renamed after Léopold-Sedar Senghor to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. It is a remarkable structure which fits very well with its environment and the geography of the area.
Didier Moinel Delalande is a Director at Hotel Mathurin.
If you would like to be a guest blogger on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.