The Paris Town Hall, guardian of the city of lovers, finds itself torn between tidiness and eternal love.
The Pont des Arts, the beautiful footbridge between the Louvre and the left bank of the Seine, has been covered by over 1,000 "love locks": small padlocks inscribed with lovers' initials as a token of everlasting devotion. The town hall says that they are unsightly and must be removed – but not yet.
The love-lock phenomenon, whose origins are disputed, has spread all over the word in recent years, from Hungary to Italy, to Russia to China and South America. Two footbridges across the Seine, including the elegant, seven-arched Pont des Arts, have become especially popular targets for lovers' metallic vows.
Looked at from a distance, the mesh-sided footbridge now appears to have been attacked by a swarm of bronze locusts. Hundreds of locks, from cheap, suitcase fasteners to elaborate, double-bolted, brass contraptions, have been inscribed with lovers' names or initials and their keys tossed romantically into the Seine.
The Paris Town Hall says that the locks must go. "Eventually, we will have to remove all these padlocks," a town hall official said. "They raise problems for the preservation of our architectural heritage."
But the town hall concedes that the love locks are a "pleasant, likeable and spontaneous" phenomenon. Officials have promised not to remove them until they have devised an alternative, such as the "metal trees" for love locks that were erected last year beside the Luzhkov bridge in Moscow.
The origin of the locks is much disputed. Some suggest that they are an ancient, or even pagan, rite, which has recently been revived. They represent enchained pairs of hearts which can never be separated. No rival in love can appear because the key to both lovers' hearts has been thrown away.
According to one version, the love locks first appeared in Hungary five or six years ago and spread rapidly around the world. Others say that they were popularised by an Italian novelist, Federico Moccia, in his 2006 book Ho voglia di te (I want you). The two lovers in the novel inscribe their names on a padlock which they attach to a bridge in Rome, and throw the key into the Tiber.
A brief investigation of the Pont des Arts by The Independent yesterday suggests that Mr Moccia must have borrowed, rather than invented, the idea. The oldest locks to be found clamped to the mesh of the Seine bridge date from 2005, the year before his novel appeared.
Most of the locks are small and simple, with names or initials painted or engraved on them. Some are very cheap indeed. Others are large, which dynamite would not shift. A few bicycle locks hang forlornly, and perhaps satirically, from the sides of the bridge.
Some of the conjoined names are evidently French, "Lauren B et Joel M", "Arthur et Mélanie". Many more appear to have been locked on to the bridge by tourists: "Marta and Jarek", "James and Diana" and "Masatoshi and Ayako".
There are a few, same-sex love locks, such as "Aurélie et Marion". It is difficult to know what to make of "Chou and Chou". Some locks just have one name. "Michael Baker, Ohio", for instance, seems to have missed the point completely.
One especially large lock had a man's name, Philippe S, deeply engraved into the brass. His partner's name had been added in felt-tip but had faded and was unreadable. Was it Amélie or was it Aurélie? Presumably, Mr S strolls to the Pont des Arts from time to time and adds the name of his everlasting lover of the moment.
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