Cruising on the Seine in May

The Batobus 'Yves Montand'
Looks like a boat so it must be the Batobus.

One Class, No Frills, Simple Boat Ride

Paris:- Friday, 30. May 1997:- If I make a list, once it's made I never look at it; so making a list of all the things I should do in Paris would be an exercise in futility. Knowing things beforehand may increase the anticipation of doing them; but I find just doing whatever pops into my head is a way to have an eventful life.

This is how I arrived at taking my first cruise on the Seine today. I like ships and have been on a couple of good ones, but I think the way the bateaux-mouches look is disgusting. They are really aptly named; these huge and ugly water-skeeters.

Of course, if I were willing to be imaginative about them, I could think they are the modern version of Mediterranean galleys - like Louis' barge in the Maritime Museum. Like the 15th century galleys, the bateaux mouches pound out a rhythm - of commentary, in a babble of languages. At night they blast the Seine quais with acid light which no amount of imagination can excuse, and their glass panels make them look too artificial to even class them as boats.

The good parts are, that they have food and drink on board, and possibly toilets - although I have never been on one so I don't know. Basically they don't look like boats and I don't think they improve the way the Seine looks.

The city transit gang re-launched a river ferry service some years ago and it is called 'Batobus.' During the 'great transit strikes' of November-December 1995, this service was extended beyond its normal area of operation in central Paris and it carried a lot of people into town who wouldn't have been able to make it any other way.

At one time, the Seine was Paris' main means of transport communications - for grain, stone, wine - but it was also Interior, Batobus used by 'coches d'eau' for transporting people to Mantes, Meaux or Auxerre. It was an all-year 'road,' useable when land routes were impassable, usually on account of mud.

The interior of the Batobus has the seating arrangement of a 747; but no stewardesses.

The Seine flooded, sometimes spectacularly as in February 1658, when it reached 8.81 metres over low water. The flood of Christmas 1740 swamped the Champs-Elysées and the place Vendôme was under water. The floods of 1206 and 1659 forced the evacuation of the people living in houses on the bridges, before they were swept away.

From 1829, steamboats provided three-times a day service between Paris and Saint-Cloud, while the court was staying there. Boats with propellers were introduced in 1867 and regular services started from the quai d'Orsay to Saint-Cloud and from the pont Louis-Philippe to Corbeil and Melun.

A proper ferry company started in 1886 with 102 boats serving 47 points, between Charenton and Suresnes, for a unique fare of 10 centimes. The company, which transported nearly 25 million passengers a year, was dissolved in 1934. Until the 'Batobus' was recently introduced, there were only the bateaux-mouches: only for sightseeing purposes.

Don't ask me why I've taken three or four years - or is it ten? - to amble down to the Seine and take a Batobus to... Saint-Germain, for example. For me, everything is always 'there' and there's time.

Today, the weather, is perfect. The Champs-Elysées, perfect too. It feels like a Batobus day - so it is. I ride the métro from Franklin D. To the pont de l'Alma, where there is no sign of the Batobus. It is not marked Batobus 'Tour Eiffel' sign on RATP métro maps, it is not on arrondissement maps either - if it weren't for bridges, the maps probably wouldn't bother showing the Seine.

On the other side of the river, the RER ticket sales kiosk is a robot operation, and its maps show no Batobus. I walk towards the pont d'Iéna and the Tour Eiffel. Nice wind blowing in my face; furious traffic racing along the left bank towards Issy; the Tour Eiffel is looming above to the left.

There is a big quai, with a sign for the Batobus, but before it there are hundreds of metres of bateaux-mouches. If it wasn't afternoon, the little kiosk for the Batobus would be in the tower's shade. A Batobus is pulling into the stream as I arrive; next one in 25 minutes.

This is almost under the pont d'Iéna. There are a lot of people crossing the bridge, to or from, Trocadéro; and there is a fair crowd on the quai. As I reload a 35mm film, a boy on the steps asks me where I've come from. I tell him, but he won't tell me.

When the Batobus 'Yves Montand' arrives, suddenly there is a long line of passengers waiting for it. As I spring around the quai to get a photo angle the line gets longer, and I get on almost last - nearly right behind the driver, nearly right beside one of the few open windows.

Unlike the big - and ugly! - bateaux-mouches, the little Batobus has no open upper deck. There are a lot of window frames, so it is not a really good platform for taking photos. But, if like today, the entry doors are open and some windows are open - acting as air vents - and if you are quick, you can get shots without too much trouble.

Although I've never been on the river before, I know what is beside it and where. A lot of passengers are looking at maps, trying to figure out what's what. River traffic is light, and going upstream towards Orsay and Saint-Germain, the '6 escales' sign Batobus is not fast. The radio pops and crackles, but gives no messages in any language. The sound of the boat's motor is not loud and the passage through the water makes nearly no sound. Except under bridges, briefly, the sun is bright in the boat.

After taking a photo through an open pane of the windshield I want to get beside an open window, but not enough people get off at Orsay. Most debark at Notre-Dame.

At near water-level, the undersides of the bridges almost present a view of a tunnel interrupted by patches of light. The Seine's quai-walls are not so high as I thought they'd be, or sights above them are closer to the edges than I thought. New perspectives, and better than I'd imagined.

The boat swings wide around the Ile Saint-Louis. At the tip people are lying in the sun like basking seals. A lot of people are in the sun today where there is space on the river banks. Night workers, musicians and philosophers no doubt.

At the Hôtel-de-Ville stop the Batobus passes the dock and loops right to come at it facing upstream. This half-round swing-around alone is worth half the ticket price. The next stop, after going under the Pont Neuf too quickly, is the Louvre just beyond the pont des Arts, and the boat driver does the loop-thing again. Just about everybody gets off at the Louvre.

So do I. The price is 20 francs from one stop to the next, 30 francs for two stops, and 60 francs from the Tour Eiffel to the Louvre. An all-day ticket is also 60 francs; and it allows riding and getting Under pont des Arts off and on as much as you want. Two whole days for 90 francs. Kids, half-price.

Passing under the pont des Arts, with the Pont Neuf and the Ile de la Cité coming up.

The service runs from May to September, daily from 10:00 until 19:00 and no reservations are necessary. Just after the transport strikes in 1995, there was talk of extending the service, like in the old days, to Suresnes - but I think it is all they can do to restart the service as it is, every year.

As I head towards the Pont Neuf along the waterside quai, I remember doing a drawing for a TV-Guide magazine, when the Batobus started up. I drew a number 48 bus, and put it in the river. That wasn't so 'recently,' now that I think of it.

If you want to try this little Seine cruise, here are the stops: the Louvre and down-river to the Tour Eiffel on the left bank. Then upriver to quai d'Orsay, Saint-Germain, by the Pont Neuf, Notre-Dame, around the Ile Saint-Louis, then swing down-river to Hôtel de Ville, and back to Louvre on the right bank.

When you buy a ticket, you get a little brochure which gives the estimated walking distance time to a whole raft of sights near each Batobus stop. There is no Batobus stop at pont de l'Alma. There are no 'principal sights' near it, unless you like the place de l'Alma on the right bank - which I do.


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