Hello and welcome to the latest blog from the Olivia Rose Diaries on July 6th 2022.
With five years of cruising under our belts we have learnt that arriving in a city by water, rather than by car or train, gives a different perspective. After a rather noisy night on the quay at Melun we began the final leg of our journey into Paris.
The Seine is a beautiful river and in these upper reaches it has an affluent feel to it. Stately mansions stood back in the trees, manicured lawns sweeping down to the water’s edge where invariably there would be sun loungers, perhaps a pergola and often a private mooring spot with a small motor cruiser bobbing about on the water.
About 20 kilometres out from Paris the scenery began to change. Mansions were replaced by blocks of flats, the trees faded away and cranes became our new horizon. We passed disused concrete quays and rusting dolphins where the barges used to moor up, but this is still a working river and, whilst the number of barges is much reduced from during their heyday, there are still plenty to be seen, hauling sand and gravel right through the centre of Paris. Many of the old barges have found a new life as houseboats, moored up for one last time, and turned into a stationary home.
Everywhere we looked there was graffiti – on concrete walls, on bridges, even on some of the more decrepit and obviously abandoned barges. It seems to be a French obsession and I wonder if there are secret classes at school where they are taught how to climb up to the most dangerous place they can think of and go crazy with a can of spray paint. We have seen graffiti so good that the artist should be given their own exhibition, others that are obvious protest slogans, and others that seem no more than an act of pointless vandalism. Whatever the motivation behind it, it is a part of French culture.
At one point we crossed under the A86, the traffic at a standstill, and allowed ourselves a smirk as we cruised serenely beneath the bridge. A little further on a homeless man sat hunched on a series of crumbling concrete steps on the bank, his shelter a make-shift arrangement of blankets. He looked so slight, so frail, and I wonder what had happened to him to bring him to this sad point in his life.
The locks are arranged in pairs, each set managed by a lock keeper. We used our VHF radio to call them up and arrange our passage. The short video below was taken as we moored up outside one lock, waiting for two commercials to come out so that we could then go in.
In the old days it would have been a real juggling act for the lock keeper to manage two locks with traffic coming in both directions.
We had booked ourselves in for two nights at the Port de Plaisance at the Arsenal, right in the centre of Paris. For a boat of 13 metres such as ourselves it costs 58€ per night. Compared to staying in a hotel this is a bargain, but compared to staying for free or for around 15 – 20 €, which is what we are used to in our boating life, it is a lot of money, hence it would be a short stay. We would be sight-seeing with a vengeance!
The entrance to the Arsenal off the Seine is a tight one, straight into a lock that takes you up into the port.
We had rung ahead so that the lock would be ready for us, but as is ever the way, it wasn’t ready for us. Two other boats arrived literally two minutes before we did, which meant that we had to wait out on the main river while they locked up, and then wait for a tourist cruise boat to lock down. The Seine isn’t the best of rivers for hanging around. The wash from the huge passenger boats, les bateaux mouches, throws a small boat like us all over the place, plus the wind had also risen, and so we were heartily relieved when we finally got the green light and could escape into a calmer place.
The Arsenal has moorings for 200 boats and is usually full, hence the need for making a reservation.
It felt like an oasis, landscaped gardens all along one side, with Parisians and tourists alike sitting out on rugs in the Sunday afternoon sunshine and doing what Parisians and tourists do best in Paris, which is to eat, to drink and to talk. Along the boulevard behind the gardens were a series of petanque courts, each one occupied by teams of players with preoccupied faces and a competitive gleam in their eyes. Winning is everything in this game.
And just a few feet away from the petanque players were a row of small, grubby pop-up tents, barely big enough for one person. They were pegged into the ground, so dusty and sun-baked that I wondered how the tent pegs found any purchase, and the only sign that they were occupied was a pair of shoes outside, or a pair of feet poking out underneath the entrance flap. These were the homeless people of Paris, hidden away under a flimsy canvas and so easy to ignore. Certainly no-one seemed to pay them any heed. Every city has a darker side.
We had our dinner, and headed out for a short evening stroll that turned into a much longer one as the city cast a spell upon us and we lost track of time. Notre Dame was a five minute walk away but of course we couldn’t go inside. We could only look at it from the other side of a set of screens that documented the shocking fire of 2019 and the work that was being done to return this precious monument back to its former glory.
Everything that was damaged is being collected, bagged up, listed, cleaned or replaced as necessary and then they will begin the mammoth job of restoration. The extent of the damage is simply mind-boggling, the painstaking attention to detail that will be needed to sort through the rubble and make sense of it all must be overwhelming, but having read all the information boards that now surround the site, I was in no doubt that they will get it done – eventually.
Leaving the ravaged cathedral behind us we strolled along the banks of the Seine. Paris is booming. We had read in the French newspapers that they had hoped for a good year after the pandemic and it certainly seemed that they were having one. Restaurants were full, with people waiting for seats. The quays along the river were crammed with youngsters, who obviously didn’t mind sitting cross-legged on concrete until the early hours of the morning, little tablecloths spread out between them with wine bottles and crisps. Walking slowly past and eavesdropping on conversations I could hear accents from all over the globe, although by far the most dominant were the Americans.
Along one tree-lined avenue a band was playing at an open-air restaurant and a group of people were dancing in the street. The French love to dance, particularly to lindy-hop and swing, and how I love to watch them, seeing the joy on their faces as they whirl and twirl and every now and then bump into each other, laugh, and begin again.
Given that I am a country girl through to my core, I was surprised at my reaction to Paris on this first night. I have been here before, many years ago, and the memories are hazy. This time round I found it intoxicating. It struck me as a city of grace and grandeur, where a vibrant energy for living life to the full could be heard in the music that filled the air and could be seen in the smiles on people’s faces as they danced, dined or strolled in the warm summer evening. It is a city to be proud of and I could understand how the Parisians would hold it close to their hearts.
And that is all for now. We are taking our lives in our hands and exploring Paris by bike on our second day. More on that, and lots more pictures, in the next blog.