The Complete Guide To: The River Seine

Simon Calder and Aline Nassif chart the hidden depths of northern France's artery, and find the best places to dock along its richly historic banks
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The Independent Travel

WHERE DOES THE SEINE BEGIN?

WHERE DOES THE SEINE BEGIN?

Like many great rivers of Europe, the Seine's origin is modest and hard to find. The source is a series of holes in the ground about 30km north-west of Dijon. The cluster of springs lies 471m above the Channel, into which the river flows.

This pretty, wooded location - signposted from the N71 highway - was a place of pilgrimage for the Gauls for half a millennium, from the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD. In the 17th century, the Parisians became interested in its alleged healing powers, and by the 19th century the town council in Paris paid for a grotto to be built there in honour of the Nymph of the Seine. Today, you can throw coins into the water - but not drink it.

The springs are within the département of Côte d'Or, the "golden slope" that produces arguably the best wines in the world. Dijon, the main city in the département, is the best place to start a journey down the Seine. As you proceed north-west from the Burgundian city towards the source, you become aware of an extraordinary geological compression that has created a trough flanked by a huge escarpment. Once beyond this, the landscape flattens and the Seine takes shape. The closest place to stay is the Hôtel de la Poste (00 33 3 80 35 00 35), a village inn with comfortable rooms in nearby Saint-Seine-l'Abbaye. A double costs €48 (£34); breakfast is €7.50 (£5.30).

HOW LONG IS IT?

At 776km, the Seine is France's second-longest river after the Loire. It flows in a north-westerly direction through Troyes, Melun, Corbeil, Paris, Mantes and Rouen, and finally into the English Channel between Le Havre and Honfleur. During the journey, you can see beautiful Gothic cathedrals, superb scenery and sites of centuries of war. The river passes a thousand communities, from tiny hamlets to Europe's most popular tourist city.

The Seine's more celebrated urban locations are Troyes, Paris and Rouen, but the upper reaches have plenty to commend them. After some superb rolling countryside and pretty villages, the first proper town is Chatillon-sur-Seine. Here, it is joined by the river Douix - which emerges from beneath a limestone plateau in impressive fashion.

NEXT STOP: TROYES

Even though the city centre appears on maps to look uncannily like a champagne cork, none of the premier bubbly is made in Champagne's ancient capital - you have to travel away from the Seine for the Mumm and Moët et Chandon maisons. But Troyes is impeccably pretty with its half-timbered houses lining tall, narrow streets. At the heart of the old city stands a grand Gothic cathedral, St-Pierre-et-St-Paul (open daily except Monday, 2-5pm from mid-September to June; 9am-1pm and 2-7pm, from July to mid-September). Other fine churches, Renaissance mansions and museums cluster around the cathedral. The Musée d'Art Moderne (00 33 3 25 76 26 80) focuses on the Fauvist movement, represented here by Derain, Braque and others. It opens 11am-6pm from Tuesday to Saturday, admission €5 (£3.60). Troyes tourist office: 00 333 25 82 62 70; www.tourisme-troyes.com.

If the city seems unnaturally crowded, it could be because Troyes is Europe's capital of factory outlet shops. Browse through the Espace Belgrand factory in rue Belgrand for a decent range (open 10am-7pm daily except Sunday; Monday from 2pm, Saturday from 9am).

A further 55km north-west, the town of Nogent-sur-Seine marks the start of the navigable stretch of the river, which continues for 560km. As it meanders downstream, it throws a loop around the forest of Fontainebleau, a vast extent of oak and pine. The tranquil woodland is less serene at weekends when it is inundated with hikers, climbers, mountain-bikers and horse-riders.

Fontainebleau was an innocuous small town until Philip the Good built a hunting lodge nearby in the 15th century. The following century, Francis I transformed it into a palace, which was subsequently embellished by everyone from Louis XVI to Napolean III. Today the chateau (00 33 1 60 71 50 70) opens 9.30am-5pm daily except Tuesday (from June to September it remains open an hour later), and admission is €5.50 (£4). You can reach it easily by train from Gare de Lyon in Paris and a 15-minute bus ride from Fontainebleau-Avon station. A combined train/bus/chateau ticket costs €20 (£14). Fontainebleau tourist office: 00 33 1 60 74 99 99; www.fontainebleau-tourisme.com.

You can no longer drift from Fontainebleau to the capital, but once there the significance of the river is clear. The Seine divides the conservative north (right bank) from the radical south (left bank), yet also unifies the city

CAN I SLEEP BY THE RIVER?

You can find a room in the middle of it. The Seine's passage through Paris is briefly disturbed by a pair of islands, the Ile de la Cité and Ile St-Louis. At the Hôtel St Louis (75 rue St-Louis-en-l'Ille; 00 33 1 46 34 04 80; www.hotelsaintlouis.com), a double costs a reasonable €140-220 (£100-157), and breakfast is €9 (£6.50). For a more romantic setting on the left bank, try the Hôtel du Quai Voltaire (19, Quai Voltaire; 00 33 1 42 61 50 91; www.quaivoltaire.fr), set in a former abbey opposite the Louvre. Doubles cost €128 (£91), breakfast is €12 (£8.60).

AND WATCH THE WATER AS I EAT?

Not easily. Long stretches of both banks of the Seine in Paris are occupied by racetrack-like roads. If you have your heart set on a plate with a riverside view, the apex is La Tour d'Argent (15, Quai Tournelle; 00 33 1 43 54 23 31; www.latourdargent.com) - a two-Michelin-starred restaurant. For less ambitious budgets, Le Vieux Bistro (14, rue du Cloître-Nôtre-Dame; 00 33 1 43 54 18 95), opposite Nôtre Dame, serves a hearty boeuf bourguignon with wines to match.

I SAY: ARE WE IN NEW YORK?

No, but Paris has a one-third scale model of the Statue of Liberty on a tiny island in the Seine-Allée des Cygnes ("Swan Alley"). This bronze copy, presented by the American community in Paris in 1889 in a gesture of reciprocation gazes in the direction of Manhattan. The original statue was given to the US by France to commemorate the centennial of American Independence. The plaque on the Parisian version bears the dates 4 July 1776 and 14 July 1789, signifying the the French and US Revolutions respectively.

For an even more truncated verion of the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Torch in the Place de l'Alma is an exact replica of the New York monument's lantern. It was donated by Paris-based US firms in 1989 to honour the bicentennial of the French Revolution, but today serves as an altar to the late Princess Diana who died in a car accident in the tunnel directly beneath it.

WHEN CAN I TAKE TO THE WATER?

Any day of the year on one of the Paris tourist boats, or bateaux-mouches. Most depart from the Pont de l'Alma on the right bank. In winter there are sailings at 11am, 2.30pm, 4pm, 6pm and 9pm (€7/£5 per adult; 00 33 1 42 25 96 10; www.bateaux-mouches.fr). In summer, there are sailings every 30 mins from 10am-8pm and every 20 mins from 8-11pm; You will get a duck's-eye view of Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, and the Eiffel Tower, and en route pass beneath some of the capital's 32 bridges.

Downstream from Paris, the Seine carves its mighty way towards the Normandy coast and leaves some picturesque scenery in its wake.

FIRST IMPRESSIONISTS?

Head for Giverny, where Claude Monet pioneered Impressionism in the late 19th century. He lived here from 1883 to 1926, and drew most of his inspiration from the Seine. You can visit Monet's house and gardens from April to October (00 33 1 32 51 28 21; www.giverny.org). In the summer it opens 9.30am-6pm daily except Monday, admission €5.50 (£4). You can reach Giverny by rail from Paris St-Lazare to Vernon, then a connecting bus.

In winter, when the house is closed, take the train straight through to Rouen. A one-way ticket for the 90-minute journey costs €19 (£14). The line flanks the river for much of the journey.

Some of Monet's most celebrated paintings were of Rouen cathedral, at the heart of a city crucial to French self-image. Rouen was captured by the English in 1419, and Joan of Arc was executed in the old marketplace in 1433. The tall, thin Tour Jeanne d'Arc is the one remaining component of the 13th-century castle in which she was held; you can visit 10am-12.30pm and 2-5pm on Monday to Saturday (closed on Tuesday); and 2-5.30pm on Sundays (longer hours in summer); admission €1.50 (£1.10).

The city was wrecked during the Second World War, but its medieval heart has been carefully rebuilt. Rouen tourist office: 00 33 2 32 08 32 40; www.rouentourisme.com.

A RIVER VIEW?

Most of the riverside hotels in Rouen are chains, such as the Mercure Champs de Mars (12 avenue Aristide Briand; 00 33 2 35 52 42 32; www.mercure.com), which has doubles from €109 (£78) and breakfast for €11 (£8). Downstream from Rouen, the river passes through many pretty towns, and ancient religious buildings dot its banks. One of the finest examples of an abbey is St Georges de Boscherville (00 33 2 35 32 10 82; www.abbaye-saint-georges.com), which also hosts concerts in summer. It is open January-March 9-12 & 2-5pm, €4.50/£3.20; April-October 9am-6.30pm, €5/£3.60. As you approach the Channel, the Seine widens. You can see a great deal of bird-life, particularly downstream from Tancarville.

A BIG MOUTH?

Certainly. On the northern (right) bank is the war-ravaged port of Le Havre. The reconstruction has been mostly in concrete, which looks impressive in a brutish sort of way. Le Havre is a destination, for the time being at least, for P&O Ferries (08705 20 20 20; www.poferries.com) from Portsmouth, but it could soon be transferred to Brittany Ferries (08703 665 333; www.brittany-ferries.co.uk).

For many people, Honfleur, on the left bank, is the logical end of a trip. Here there are almost as many hotels as galleries and restaurants, but none overlooks the harbour. The most unusual hotel is the 18th century-style La Maison de Lucie (44, Route des Capucins; 00 33 2 31 14 40 40; www.lamaisondelucie.com), whose lounge is filled with cacti and busts. A double room starts at €110 (£79); breakfast is €15 (£11).

I'D LIKE A HEAVENLY VIEW

Montgolfières en Normandie (00 33 2 35 12 08 99) operates a hot-air balloon that usually takes off near Rouen, and flies with the wind. A 90-minute flight costs €180 (£129).

CAN I SAIL ALONG THE SEINE?

Yes. Bluewater Holidays (01756 693 609; www.bluewaterholidays.co.uk) offers an eight-day "Seine Discovery" cruise from Paris to Le Havre and back, with a Eurostar return from London to Paris. Visits include Monet's residence, Versailles, Jumièges and Rouen. Prices start at £1,070, including meals and transport. Croisi Europe (00 33 3 88 76 40 66; www.croisieurope.com) offers five- to eight-day cruises from Paris to Honfleur from €399 (£285) - travel to France extra.

MORE DETAILS?

Try the French tourist office in London (09068 244 123, 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com); Discover the Seine-et-Marne (00 33 1 60 39 60 39; www.tourisme77.fr).

Additional research by Margaret Campbell and Natasha Edwards

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