Knowing Paris by Its Bridges

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.

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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