How to be Parisian: a Swim in the Seine?

How to be Parisian: a Swim in the Seine?

In the heart of Paris lies an experience that captures the essence of both daring and delight: swimming in the Seine. On a sunny day, as the city radiates with warmth, Stephen finds himself irresistibly tempted to take a refreshing plunge.

I’ve just come home after a lunchtime picnic by the canal de l’Ourcq, the waterway that heads northeast out of Paris on its way to join up with the river of the same name. Even on the stuffiest days, the canal is a great place to stroll because it channels a cool breeze into the city.

Once you get beyond the périphérique ring road, the canal de l’Ourcq is also fairly peaceful because there aren’t many boats. This watery cul de sac was originally built by Napoleon Bonaparte to bring drinking water from the countryside to the capital, at a time when many Parisians were guzzling glassfuls of the Seine – which was also the city’s main sewer. It’s therefore safe to assume that at some point, Boney’s water must have been pretty clear. Almost immediately, though, a link was dug through to the Seine, and in old photos you can see flotillas of barges moored alongside the warehouses and factories that lined the Bassin de la Villette, the canal’s main basin.

Tales of the riverbank

Today, the Bassin is mainly home to cafés, pétanque players and picnickers. And as I was munching my baguette au fromage de chèvre in the sun this afternoon, I thought enviously back to Napoleon’s days as I fought off the urge to dive into the cool-looking water.

In summer, plenty of locals strip down and jump in, especially after a few beers. And it’s always tempting to join them – the fine for illicit wild swimming in Paris is only €15, the price of three small beers in a canal side café. That’s if a police officer sees you, and if he or she can be bothered to fill out the forms. For me, the main deterrent, apart from the risk of swallowing some highly dubious liquid, is a story a friend told me recently. She said that a young man jumped off a canal bridge and got his leg caught in the frame of one of the many bicycles that Parisians dump in their waterways. Tragically, he didn’t make it back to the surface.

Canal de l’Ourcq in the La Villette district of Paris © Shutterstock

Even so, I get the same yearning to turn into a merman whenever I wander along the banks of the Seine. On a balmy summer evening, as the water laps against the walkway near the Pont Neuf, what could be more pleasant than to slide, carefully, in for a refreshing dip? Now Paris has made the urges worse by confirming its promise that in 2024, the river will be clean enough to bathe in. Not just for the Olympic athletes competing in the 10km swimming event, which is due to start at the Pont Alexandre III, the bridge near the Petit Palais. Their bodies will be so full of adrenalin that waterborne germs won’t stand a chance anyway.

No, supposedly all of us will be able to breaststroke past Notre-Dame, thanks to more than a million euros that are being invested in water treatment plants.

Personally, I don’t hold out too much hope. Ex-President Jacques Chirac made the same promise when he was Mayor of Paris in 1990, and, if memory serves, he was never seen jumping off the Pont Neuf in tricolour Speedos. After all, how do you clean up a working river that runs through a capital city? And are the bateaux mouches going to be fitted with ultra-efficient brakes to avoid bashing into bathers?

No, I think that if wild swimming in Paris becomes a thing, I’ll be looking on from the bank, sipping my deliciously cool – and clean – glass of whatever my picnic host is offering. And then, when my fellow picknickers emerge from their dip in the Seine, I’ll tell them to show me their tongue before asking (jokingly, I hope), “is it meant to be that colour?”.

From France Today Magazine

Lead photo credit : © Shutterstock

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