The city of Paris derives its charm from many sources, both natural and man-made, but certainly Mother Nature did her part to secure our affections, by giving us the River Seine. The Pont Neuf is one of its historic bridges.
The river, splitting Paris into two distinct habitats, offers us a Right Bank and a Left Bank. The Right Bank shamelessly flaunts her splendor. “What’s your pleasure? I’ve got palaces and gardens, the art museum of art museums. How about a stroll down the Champs Elysees or ever heard of the Eiffel Tower, jerk?” She can be arrogant, all right, but you gotta love her.
Then there’s the Left Bank. She’s quirky and can easily outsmart you. “Aw, that’s just stuff!” she scoffs, responding to the haughty Madame Right. “We had Sartre, and Hemingway, all the great minds, they dug it here, man. They hung out, they smoked cigarettes, they drank and talked, using a whole bunch of big words about a whole lotta things you could never understand in a million years. Those were the days.”
So you need to get from one bank to another somehow and that’s where I’m going with this, directly across the Pont Neuf, on foot.
It certainly is not the most ornate bridge spanning the river. That would be the Pont Alexandre III, the one with giant candelabras surrounded by cherubs. No, the Pont Neuf’s beauty lies in its simplicity, integrity, and age. It’s seen everything from the partying courtesans of Louis XIV to the decapitated heads of the aristocracy being cast into the river.
The first stone was laid by the son of Catherine de’Medici, King Henry III of France, in 1578. Supposedly, he cried through the whole ceremony due to the loss, the night before of his two most loyal friends, in a duel. Thereafter, the bridge was named, “The Bridge of Tears”.
Henry was a bookworm, which pleased his Italian mother. While other dynastic males were out hunting and shooting, Henry could be found reading, holding his favorite lapdog. After a stint as King of Poland for a year, he returned home and was crowned King of France at the Cathedral of Reims in 1575. He died in 1589 and never got to see his bridge completed. It was his successor, King Henry IV who finally inaugurated the costly and troublesome bridge in 1607. During its 29-year construction, it was a tangled mess of unsafe scaffolding, and the scene of robberies, murders, all sorts of unsavory occurrences.
Spanning 912 feet, it was strictly forbidden, unlike in the past, to erect dwellings upon the bridge. For a long time, it was the widest bridge in Paris, with projecting bastions placed at intervals, which allowed pedestrians to move aside, for the passage of carriages.
At about the halfway mark, where the bridge crosses the Ile de la Cite, an equestrian statue of Henry IV was erected. Guess what happened to it in 1792, during the French Revolution. Like so many other monuments paying homage to the aristocracy, the statue was desecrated and it was melted down for the manufacture of cannons. The horseman posing there today is a replacement, occupying the spot since1818. Four boxes were placed inside the new statue by the sculptor, containing a biography of Henry IX , historical documents pertaining to the original statue, and information regarding the most recent installation.
History aside, I heartily recommend a regular crossing of the Seine by way of the Pont Neuf. It’s got attitude, mostly at night, in the middle of the night.
Imagine yourself, wrapped in pashmina, hatted and gloved, both elbows resting on the smooth, cold Medieval stone. A light mist swirls around streetlamps. Up river, down river, the centuries-old landmarks can be discerned, ghostly sentinels, grateful for a respite from the daily bombardment of visitors from every corner of the world. There must have been moments in the city’s past, where this kind of quiet and solemnity was pervasive. Like during the Occupation of World War II, when gaiety threatened to disappear from daily life.
For a brief moment, all that exists is river and bridge, Left Bank, Right Bank, fog and stone. The year 2009 softens its boundaries and vestiges of the 16th century creep towards you. A couple is kissing. Laughter mixes with wine. It must be time to walk back to the hotel.