Le pont des arts (the bridge of the arts; such a lovely name) is one of the few pedestrian bridges in Paris. It stretches across the Seine from the Louvre on the right bank to the Institut de France, home to the Académie Française where distinguished writers and intellectuals work on the Dictionnaire of the French language. In a day dominated by Wikipedia, they decide whether to scratch or include words in the official dictionary of the French language. I believe they are currently working on the letter R. They might finish by the end of this century. The above picture shows the western extremity of the Ile de la cité. One can see the tip of La Sainte Chapelle in the centre. The square tower to the right is part of the Police judiciaire’s “precinct” on the Quai des Orfèvres. Think Commissaire Maigret, That is where he worked, according to Simenon. (What would France be without the Belgians?!) The bridge is the Pont-neuf (the New bridge) built by Henry IV and is actually the oldest standing bridge in Paris.
The first original Pont des arts bridge was built in 1802-1804, under the reign of Napoleon as a steel structure, the first of its kind. The name “pont des arts” comes from the “Palais des arts” as the Louvre was then called. After one of the piles was destroyed by a barge in the 1979, the bridge was rebuilt and re-inaugurated in 1984. (Who cares about dates right?). Around the beginning of this century, Parisians, and later tourists, took to picnicking on the boardwalk in the evening. Bringing red-checkered table cloths, bottles of wine, pâté, saucisson, rillettes. It was a most pleasant experience to walk (or dine) there from 8 to 10 pm. The laughters, the clang of wine glasses, the incredible light of Paris in the summer evenings, the Ile de la cité slowly sinking into the night, the sunset on Paris to the west… Friends sharing the night. Musicians playing, mostly for the fun of it. I once saw/heard an all female brass band. Complete with tuba! Lovely.
Le Pont-neuf seen from le Pont des arts
Then someone, around 2008, put the first padlock on the wire mesh. And threw away the key into the river. A testimony of eternal love. How Love came to be symbolized by a padlock beats me. The chains of marriage? Then another padlock was put on the mesh. Then another. And so forth. Soon the mesh panels were full of padlocks. And more keys thrown into the water. I guess the fish in the Seine must now taste a tad coppery. And as the wire mesh became inaccessible, padlocks were locked onto padlocks and so forth and so on. The bridge began to feel the weight of love.
La passerelle du Pont des arts, seen from the left bank. The Louvre is to the left.
Anyone can buy a padlock for 5 Euros. There are street mongers on the boardwalk, who’ll even carve your names for eternity. Or you can buy one from the Bouquinistes nearby in the book boxes, right next to miniature Eiffel towers made in China. One has to make a living. If you are looking for real books, you have walk down west or east, away from Notre-Dame. where the souvenirs make way for treasures in print. As I go to the Pont des arts at least twice a week when I go back to Paris, I also do my treasure hunting in the old book-boxes, away from the maddening padlocks. (And then, I wonder how to stuff all those books in my suitcase)
It’s been calculated that the weight of padlocks in a single wire mesh panel can reach 700 kilos, 1,500 pounds for the non-metric enlightened. At the beginnning of 2014, Le Monde estimated the number of padlocks on the bridge at around 700,000. 60 plus tons of padlocks. Not to mention 700,000 keys thrown into the Seine. Then, of course, in the summer of 2014, part of the “parapet”, the wire mesh, collapsed. Anne Hidalgo, the new Mayor of Paris declared that they did not wish to take “repressive” actions. OMG! Padlocks are cultural, I guess. I also guess one cannot put two policepersons, one on each side of the bridge to kick the street mongers out and say “No. No” to the blissful padlocking couples. Or fine any bouquiniste selling padlocks in the vicinity of the bridge. That would be “repressive”. So the Mayor came out with a brilliant idea. “Let’s create a website, where people can declare their eternal flame”! That is not repressive. Large plastic hearts were pasted on the stone stairs leading to the Pont des arts. “Unchain your love on “lovewithoutlocks. paris. etc.”
Those signs lasted but a couple of days. When I came back to “Le pont des arts” a few days later, they’d been scratched out. Who by? Your guess is as good as mine. Let us not be “repressive”. And padlocks thrived. Damaged wire mesh panels were replaced by wooden panels soon covered with tags, grafitti. Any available space is used as shows the following political ad from an obscure group.
Too many taxes kill employment. Miguet. it’s urgent.
Le Pont-Neuf again with padlocks.
It seems that the Mayor will replace the wire mesh with glass panels where padlocks cannot be fixed. I guess the glass panels will be scratched, tagged, “graffittied” in the name of Love. Where does freedom end and repression starts? There is a plaque at the entrance of the bridge, on the left bank side, dedicated to Vercors, a French writer, publisher and member of the Resistance in WWII. He wrote a magnificent book called “Le silence de la mer”, The silence of the sea, a story about silent resistance to the Nazi occupation. I wonder what Vercors might think now to be associated with padlocks after fighting to break chains? Ah! I almost forgot: Vercors also wrote a short story involving the Pont des arts, called “la marche à l’étoile”, (The walk to the star?) published in 1943. Clandestinely. The story, based in part on Vercors’ father, tells the story of a jewish émigré who walks all the way from central Europe to Paris, just to see the Pont des arts. There are two stars in the story. The last one is yellow. Look it up.
The above is a newly replaced wire mesh panel already invaded by padlocks. Won’t last long I’m afraid. And the padlock epidemy has spread to other bridges in Paris. I do not think glass panels are a solution. Too easily keyed. Scratched. Tagged. That is a situation where I believe a little “repression” is called for. Coupla cops. Steep fines. After all what is the fine in certain American cities for littering the street? Works “don’t it”? Also the glass panels, in my opinion, would take away part of the charm of the bridge. See Edouard Boubat’s rendition below.
This picture by Boubat is a classic from 1956. The little girl is perched on a wooden bench. She watches the “péniches”, the barges, turn around the Ile de la cité. On the left-hand side, mind you. Must be a British influence there. The little girl wears a typical woolen coat of that time. She was probably born in 1950, maybe? Do the math. I just hope that she can come back to “La passerelle du Pont des arts” one day, and find the wire mesh as it was then and look down to the Seine once without padlocks blocking the (magical) view.
Save the bridges!
Text and photos (Except Boubat’s) (c) BMO and Equinoxio
Have a lovely week-end everyone. 🙂