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Paris - Ile De France

River Seine in Paris - History and Facts

This page was updated on: Tuesday, April 16, 2019 at: 9:06 pm

River Seine - the source

The River Seine is fully associated with Paris, but it originates in a distant land!

It indeed springs 446m above sea level at Source-Seine on the Plateau of Langres in the department of Côtes d'Or.

Throughout its 777kms journey, it flows through the towns of Troyes, Paris and Rouen.

It eventually reaches the English Channel via a wide estuary delineated by the ports Le Havre and Honfleur.

The River Seine inherited its name from Sequana, the Celtic deity that inhabited its sacred source.

The man-made grotto, built in 1865 above its source, shelters a statue of the nymph Sequana.

Sequana is traditionally represented as a graceful young woman standing on a boat.

However, this statue is a replica of the original sculpted by François Jouffroy, who represented her lying on her side.

All that is left of the temple the Romans built next to the source are the foundations, which might soon been excavated.

The many offerings and ex-votos found nearby are today exhibited in the archaeological museum of Dijon.

The River Seine in Paris

The River Seine flows for 13kms through Paris from east to west and at 26,72m (to be precise) above sea level.

Its width varies from 30m to 200m and its depth from 3.4m to 5.7m.

An iconic landmark of Paris, the River Seine is spanned by 37 bridges including 4 footbridges!

Many poems and songs took the beautiful bridges of Paris for theme.

They symbolize Parisian romance (Sous the Pont Mirabeau, Sous les Ponts de Paris...)

The River Seine has always been a major transport means.

However, it was also a vital supply of water that attracted men since the Neolithic.

Barges from that era were indeed discovered in Bercy and are now exhibited in the Carnavalet Museum.

The Corporation of the Boatmen of Paris

Later in time, but long before the Roman colonization, the Celtic tribe Parisii settled on the Ile de la Cité.

Their oppidum was indeed at the crossing of the River Seine with the ancient north-south roads.

The Parisii, already masters of navigation on the River Seine, developed their activity after the Roman conquest.

The Nautes Parisiens, one of the most successful Parisian corporations, erected numerous monuments.

These included the stunning Pillar of the Boatmen - Pilier des Nautes Parisiens, now on display in the Cluny Museum.

The corporation thrived throughout the Middle Ages thanks to water trade.

It also gave the city its first administrative organization!

Their coat of arms, a sailing boat fiercely sailing on the River Seine, even became the official coat of arms of Paris.

Spanning the River Seine

The Romans built the first bridge over the River Seine during the 1st century AD.

In fact, they rebuilt the wooden bridge the Parisii erected before the conquest.

The Petit Pont, as they named it, spans the small arm of the River Seine between Ile de la Cité and Rue St Jacques on the Left Bank.

It's officially recognized as the first and oldest bridge in Paris!

Obviously rebuilt several times over the centuries, it's also the only Parisian bridge that has retained its original name!

Thirty-six other bridges have since been built over the River Seine.

Unlimited water supply and transport means

But above all the Seine was a major water supply source.

A water pump, known as Samaritaine, was built under the Pont-Neuf in 1608.

It supplied water to the Louvre until 1813!

The common people, though, had no access to these networks; running water simply didn’t exist in medieval Paris!

People either drew water from the river or bought it from street vendors.

In the early 19th century, Napoleon therefore built the Canal St Martin and Bassin de La Villette in order to supply water to the newly built public fountains.

The River Seine was also a natural and gigantic 'bath tub' for Parisians, who could then easily walk down its banks.

Swimming in the River Seine was definitively prohibited by a decree of 1923!

However, you can still sunbath in the heart of Paris during the Paris Plages operation, which takes place each summer.

River Seine - once temperamental

The River Seine was not always tamed though.

It indeed used to turn to ice during harsh winters and could even be crossed on foot!

Came spring time and milder temperatures; it carried huge blocks of ice that often damaged or partially destroyed bridges.

It also regularly overflew its bed, engulfing banks and docks!

Historical floods were recorded for centuries.

We know, for example, that it flooded the city during the winter 358-59AD and in 582AD.

The flood of 1280 took the Grand-Pont (Pont Notre-Dame).

The flood of 1296 was the most severe.

It indeed took all the bridges of Paris, which at the time supported two rows of houses!

The most spectacular, and closer to us in time, was the flood of 1910, which lasted for nine long days.

The water level rose by 9,50m between January 20 to 28!

You will find many old photos of people transported by boat through the streets of Paris or walking along wooden walkway.

River Seine - creating land

A few islands and islets once emerged from its bed.

Some were attached in order to enlarge the Ile de la Cité and others to form the Ile St Louis.

The Ile Louviers stood a stone’s throw from the Ile St-Louis.

It was attached to the right bank in order to form the current Quartier Morland.

You'll also come across the impressive Ile aux Cygnes downstream.

The 890m long man-made embankment was built in 1827 and served as a point of reinforcement for the construction of three Parisian bridges.

This island took the name of the original Ile aux Cygnes (or Ile Maquerelle).

This island was attached to the left bank and was located between the river and Rue de l'Université.

River Seine - creating the Marais

The River Seine also changed course over the millennia, long before Men appeared on earth!

The wide meander it formed on the Right Bank became redundant when the river eventually managed to open its current bed.

The large enclave of land became a marsh (Marais).

The Knights Templar and the monks of the Abbaye de St Martin-des-Champs drained it during the 11th century.

These two religious establishments were for many years the only settlements in the Marais.

In the last decades, the River Seine's banks and quays were developed and landscaped with pedestrian areas and public gardens.

Some banks are closed to traffic temporarily, others definitively!

As you stroll along you'll discover the booksellers or you might decide to sit on a bench and watch the world go by; you might also be tempted by a river cruise.

The River Seine is in itself a purpose of visit when you come to Paris.

So take the time to discover it; allow yourselves a few relaxing hours away from the other tourist sites’ busy queues!

Photos via Wikimedia Commons: Main source by Hubert DENIES is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 - Flood 1910 source Bibliothèque de France Public domain
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