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Springtime in the city of bridges

It's April again and you know where you should head. The bridges of Paris are the subject of Mort Rosenblum's new book. This is an extract
Alexander III, a particularly foul Russian tsar, hated France for flaunting a past in which peasants dabbled in regicide. But he hated Germany more. Since a Franco-Russian alliance might have discouraged Kaiser Wilhelm - it didn't - he is immortalised by the gayest, gaudiest structure in Paris.

The Pont Alexandre III still symbolises France's grandeur. Just before the bicentennial of the revolution in 1989, President Francois Mitterrand rode across the bridge and noticed that the great horses had gone green with age. He murmured to an aide. Night and day for weeks, workmen shot gold flake with high-powered pistols. Four years later, no one wanted to tell me how much gold that took. But the horses gleamed as intensely as in 1900.

Just off the bridge, past the grass and lime trees, is Les Invalides, built by Louis XIV as a veterans' administration hospital. Now it is a well-stocked military museum, heavy on the Middle Ages but with everything else down to Napoleon's socks. The imperial remains lie behind, under the golden dome, by an inscription reading: "I wish that my ashes rest along the Seine among the people of France I loved so much."

The Pont-Neuf, meaning New Bridge, is the oldest. Henri III placed the cornerstone in 1578. Henri IV walked across the pilings on a rickety plank in l603 and galloped his horse over the finished bridge in 1605. He died by it ten years later, stabbed by a fanatic when his coach stalled in a Paris traffic jam.

The King saw his bridge as an early beacon to beam French radiance toward the less civilised. It was an engineering marvel, at three hundred yards the world's largest and the first to be integrated into the city around it. Architects aligned its two spans with the triangular Place Dauphine. From inside the place, cozy and shielded from wind, the bridge leaves an open window on the Seine. Henri IV stands discreetly to the side. Balconies like ships' prows overlook the Louvre. The parapet is rimmed by 341 stone faces, either royal courtesans or people on the sculptor's shit list. One tests one's intimacy with Paris by trying to identify them. And one seldom gets any right.

Today, the bridge is still wide enough for Paris traffic, high enough for river barges, and solid against caprices of the Seine. Engineers fixing it up in the 1990s found only minor damage. After four centuries, even perfectly hewn rocks wear away at the edges. Taken together, it is some package. Which is why Christo gift-wrapped it in fabric and cord in 1985.

The Petit Pont, fifty steps long, has been where it is in a dozen different forms since the Romans built an arch over the Parisii's ford. Gauls had burned the bridge when legionnaires approached. That got to be routine, like a turtle pulling in its head. When enemies threatened, the Petit Pont was sacrificed, and the Seine was a moat.

In 583, the flimsy bridge did in the Count of Tours, Leudaste. He had irked Queen Fredegonde, who was apparently a howling bitch. One Sunday, he asked for pardon, kneeling at her feet at a church where Notre-Dame now stands. She scowled and he back-pedalled out the door. When she emerged with the King, he offered flowers. She called the guard. Leudaste drew his sword but, overwhelmed, fled to the Petit Pont. A rotten plank broke his leg. Fredegonde had him treated. When he was healed, she had a guard tie him to an iron bar and beat his head into pulp.

In the twelfth century, the bridge was set in stone, but it collapsed eleven more times because of currents, ice, or leaky pilings. The fire of 1718 brought an urban renewal, blotting out houses on the Petit Pont. It was at the heart of Paris when Abelard slipped across it nightly to see Heloise. It still is.

'The Secret Life of the Seine', by Mort Rosenblum, is published by Robson Books on 17 April, price pounds 8.99. See page 5 for our undercover guide to Paris