Water in Paris, Part 1: La Seine

A series on Water in Paris
Part 1: La Seine

We all associate the Seine with Paris even though this river only runs 13 of its 776 kilometers in Paris. In fact La Seine starts not too far from Dijon on a plateau at a place called Source-Seine. Its origins are several springs of clear ground water that flow together on the surface forming a small stream. A spring has always been an important place throughout history and in this particular case the source of the Seine was known and revered back in the time of Gaul. This spring was the kingdom of the goddess or nymphe Séquanna and she gave her name to the river in about the 1st century.

The Seine, in French, is called a fleuve. We don’t have a specific word for this in English. A fleuve is different than a rivière. A fleuve flows into the ocean and a rivière flows into an inland body of water. France has 5 major fleuves and many, many rivières.

Today the Seine’s flow is controlled by a series of lakes and canals upstream that hold water in the winter and the release water for flow in the summer which is in turn controlled by the locks at Suresnes just downstream from Paris. This system allows river traffic to navigate all year round and most flooding is prevented. The Seine is a maritime highway with a large river port on the edge of Paris at Gennevilliers and a deep water port for ocean going vessels in Rouen. 25 millions tons of cargo pass through the port at Rouen each year. Upstream from Rouen the cargo is carried on smaller ships called barges.

Did you know that a barge on the river can carry the same volume of cargo as 4 trains or 220 semi-trucks?

There are lots of fish and birds on the river too. 52 species of fish populate the length of the Seine and nine live in Paris itself. All the traffic keeps the numbers and variety of fish lower in the city, but that doesn’t prevent the fishermen from plying the waters. To learn more about the fish visit the nursery and fresh water aquarium in Levallois. There’s a basin for touching the fish and they organize fishing outings too. www.maisondelapeche.net Sept 19-20 is the Seine Fishing Festival.

Water-in-ParisTo have a different and upclose view of the river try a ride on a 12 person boat with the association Espaces. The boat runs several times a week on three different tours which last an hour or hour and a half. You can circumnavigate the islands of Ile de Cyne, Ile Saint-Germain and Ile-Séguin in Boulogne as well as the locks at Suresnes. The scenery is not the spectacular monuments of Paris and can be rather industrial looking, but the ride gives a different look, a new, wider perspective, of our iconic river. These rides are organized by the association Espaces and guided by folks who are re-entering into the work world and who love their river. They will tell you about the bridges, the industry and barges, flora and fauna of the river. It’s a project that provides jobs, training, ecological learning and ecological urban projects. One shocking detail we learned during our boat tour was that some Parisian storm sewers still flow directly into the Seine which means that papers or cigarette butts tossed on the ground may make their way directly into the river (350 tons of them are on the streets each year)! www.baladedesiles.org or

12 person tour boat in front of the Ile des Cygnes

To learn more about La Seine we suggest the following books:

  • The Secret Life of the Seine by Mort Rosenblum
  • La Seine en Ile-de-France, Encyclopédies du Voyage Gallimard
  • La Seine, vu d’en haut by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

This article is the first in a series on Water in Paris. Revisit for future installments.