Notes from an author: Elaine Sciolino on Paris

Tales abound in the City of Light, though one of its greatest secrets isn't in the metropolis at all. Follow the Seine straight to the source to reveal one of the French capital's forgotten histories.

Sunday, April 12, 2020,
By Elaine Sciolino
Statue of Liberty overlooking the River Seine
At the western end of Paris, there’s a one-quarter-sized replica of the Statue of Liberty. She sits, surrounded by a clump of weeping willows, on a pedestal at the westernmost tip of the narrow, man-made island known as the Île aux Cygnes.
Photograph by Getty

The Seine is the most romantic river in the world. You come to Paris and stroll along its river at night and marvel as the light bounces off the banks and bridges. Then suddenly, you’re overtaken by an irresistible urge to fantasise, to flirt, to fall in love.

That’s the Seine I knew, or thought I knew, until I discovered that it’s also a holy river. I had to go to the place where the river begins to discover why.

The source of the Seine is hard to find. It sits in the recess of an obscure plain called the Langres Plateau in northeast Burgundy, 178 miles southeast of Paris. No train passes through, and Dijon, the closest metropolis, is an hour’s drive away. GPS and cell phone service go dead here. You have to wend your way on back roads that cut through farm fields and valleys until you come to a sign that reads, ‘City of Paris, Domaine of the Sources of the Seine.’

City of Paris? In 1864, Emperor Napoleon III decided to incorporate the Seine’s source into the capital and mark the spot with a stone grotto holding a sculpture of a near-naked nymph. Since then, the site — a 10-acre park with picnic tables and benches — belongs to Paris. It’s one of the great hidden treasures of France. 

The first time I visited, I came with Antoine Hoareau, a self-taught historian whose passion is to educate anyone who will listen about the sources of the Seine. I discovered there’s no single gush of water announcing the river. It begins as seven permanent ‘sources’ that bubble up to the surface from deep underground reservoirs. In springtime, there can be as many as 15 ‘sources’. There is an ‘official’ source of the river, however: water flowing from a small hole into a pool at the bottom of the grotto. Tourists throw coins into the pool and make a wish. From the grotto, a pipe carries the Seine’s water underground through a field of grass and moss, until it reappears under a stone footbridge a few hundred feet away.

In ancient times, the source was the site of a healing temple dedicated to a goddess named Sequana. She gave the river its name and its identity — over time, ‘Sequana’ morphed into the word ‘Seine’.

When the Romans came and conquered, they built a new temple on the marshland. They enlarged the site into a 300ft-long healing complex with terraces and courtyards. A narrow stone trench channelled rivulets of Seine water from its source through the temple complex and into its heart: an oval cement healing basin of water.

The temple was big business in Roman times: a great esplanade, surrounded with workshops and boutiques, most likely serving as a welcome centre. Artisans crafted and sold ex-votos — votive offerings — to the travelling pilgrims. The offerings included objects carved from stone and oak, modelled in clay, or hammered in bronze or base metal. They were made to represent parts of the body that needed healing. The pilgrim would explain the location of the ailment, the artisan would fabricate a votive of the affected body part, and then the pilgrim would throw the totem into the sacred pool. The pilgrims would drink and bathe in the water. There was a dormitory where they could stay and rest for several days.

By the fourth or fifth century, the temple had been desecrated and destroyed — Christians couldn’t tolerate pagan gods and rituals.

The remnants of the temple should be the star attraction of the site, but it sits forlorn and forgotten at the bottom of the park, off-limits to visitors and buried under marshy land choked with brambles and reeds. It’s been closed to the public since the last archaeological dig in 1967. Signs warn that this is a ‘protected archaeological site’ with 'access forbidden’. (True confession: I climbed over the fence and explored the site for myself.)

Before I left, Antoine urged me to taste the water from the spring, explaining that visitors have drunk this water since antiquity. Indeed, this wasn’t Paris, where the river is a murky brown much of the time. We cupped our hands over a pool of water bubbling up from the ground, scooped and slurped. The water had no chalky or metallic aftertaste. It was sweet and pure. Holy, perhaps?

There are no tour guides, pamphlets or signposts to tell visitors what they should do next: make their way to Dijon to visit the Archaeological Museum of Dijon. The museum has produced an illustration of the Gallo-Roman temple in all its glory, with its shrine, buildings, terraces, gardens and springs. Some of the temple offerings and bronze coins found on the site are on display, but the most precious artefact is a Gallo-Roman bronze depicting Sequana herself, her arms outstretched, standing erect in a small boat shaped like a duck. She’s so beloved that the museum curators call her their ‘Mona Lisa’. 

Downstream, at the western end of Paris, there’s another, much more famous statue: a one-quarter-sized replica of the Statue of Liberty. She sits, surrounded by a clump of weeping willows, on a pedestal at the westernmost tip of the narrow, man-made island known as the Île aux Cygnes. What if another pedestal were to be built there so that Sequana could join her? What better way to recognise the holiness of the Seine than to build, along its banks, a statue of the goddess that gave the river its name? 

Elaine’s tip: Make for the overlooked Île aux Cygnes. There’s a leafy promenade running the length of the island, and bird lovers will find mallards, grey wagtails and great crested grebes. The air here, in the middle of the river, is cleaner than along the banks, too.

Elaine Sciolino is the author of The Seine: The River that Made Paris, published by W.W. Norton & Co. RRP: £16.99.

Published in the European Cities Collection, distributed with the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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