In the National Gallery in Dublin there used to be a painting by Jean-François Raffaelli, a lesser-known French Impressionist. The painting was of the Pont Alexandre III, the ornate and spectacular bridge, topped with gold-leaf-covered statues, across the Seine in Paris that connects the glass-roofed Grand Palais exhibition hall to the gold-domed Hôtel des Invalides where Napoléon’s remains are housed.
Around ten years ago, while thinking of a possible move to Paris, I would go to the National Gallery and sit in front of Raffaelli’s painting of the Pont Alexandre III. There, I would think about my plans for The Great Leap Forward and wonder if I would ever get to Paris. (As if it were the far side of the Moon or something. In the end it was quite easy.)
And so I ended up living in Paris and running regularly under the Pont Alexandre III.
For most of my 8 years in Paris I lived in the western suburbs along the Seine. During the spring of 2007 my running route on the Île de la Jatte took me past the heavily-guarded apartment building of a fellow runner and aspiring presidential candidate called Nicolas Sarkozy. Running being such a rare sight in the suburbs, the locals assumed I was American.
However, between 2009 and 2011 I lived in the city centre – right behind the Musée d’Orsay on the Left Bank of the Seine. Without question, during this time I had one of the most scenic running routes in the world.
On Sunday mornings the riverside road on the Left Bank was closed to traffic – and open to runners and cyclists – between the Musée d’Orsay and the Eiffel Tower. On weekday evenings, though, I would cross the wooden pedestrian bridge from the trendy rive gauche over to the historic rive droite, towards the Tuileries and the Louvre, and then turn left for a 7-mile run downriver and back.
Unseen to tourists and traffic above in the Place de la Concorde, that part of the Seine had grimy-looking houseboats moored along the bank – some always occupied, others looking like weekend retreats for some harried Parisian taxi driver or brasserie owner.
After the Place de la Concorde, the bank then brought me to the aforementioned Pont Alexander III. The dry arch under the Grand Palais side of the bridge is home to Showcase, one of the hippest music clubs in Paris.
Now, you might know a brilliant single by Friendly Fires called Paris, in which singer Ed McFarlane dreams of moving to the French capital. (I know the feeling.) And where does he find the glamour and excitement of Parisian nightlife? Why, under the Pont Alexandre III: “I’m gonna take you out to Club Showcase / We’re gonna live it up / I promise.” The lyrics name no other landmark of Paris: just this nightclub. And the song is exactly the sort of dreamy, adrenaline-rushing track to get the Showcase buzzing on a Saturday night.
The next bridge down, the Pont des Invalides, is a bit less glamorous. I used to see a man living in a tent under the arch – he would be sitting outside by his little camp fire and watching a small TV that was perched on a kitchen chair. Some evenings he would have a friend over, and the two would sit out, smoke and drink beer.
Heading downriver, the houseboats gave way to bateaux mouches, the large tourist boats. My running route now passed through the parking area where coaches would drop off tourists for their cruises and pick them up afterwards. Mice – or maybe rats – squealed in the skips nearby, rustling through rubbish sacks.
The bank ended here – to continue downriver I had to go up to street level. This meant coming up at the Pont de l’Alma, now notorious for the tunnel underneath in which Princess Diana and others were killed in a car crash in 1997. (The Paris Marathon passes through this tunnel every year; you see long black streaks on the pillars and walls and wonder if they are left from the accident.)
Up at ground level on the Pont de l’Alma, tourists gather and leave mementos at a gold-leaf-covered statue of a flame. (Paris loves gold leaf.) Now, many people think it’s a memorial to Diana – and one night I heard a cycle-tour guide tell his flock exactly that. Perhaps he just wanted not to disappoint them – in fact, this flame predates Diana’s death, and is actually a replica of the flame on Paris’ quarter-size scale replica of the Statue of Liberty further down the Seine – the furthest point on my run.
To get to the Statue of Liberty I must pass the Eiffel Tower. Outside of the spring and summer, the footpath on the opposite bank to the tower isn’t so busy, so I could always keep up a good rhythm. The Paris Marathon also follows this route along the rive droite, with a great view of the tower over to one’s left. But on my evening runs I would have to stop briefly at the junction of the Pont d’Iena, where sightseers cross from the Trocadero over to the tower.
I always ran this route in the evenings when it was dark, and so I had a great view of the lights of Paris – in particular, the Eiffel Tower sparkling for a few minutes on the hour. One night, when crossing at the Pont d’Iena, I passed a group of young Japanese tourists waiting for the Eiffel Tower to sparkle – and when it did, one of the group squealed and shook so much that I was certain he was on the verge of spontaneous combustion. Perhaps living in the midst of such spectacular splendour left me jaded to it all – although during all my 8 years in Paris I always craned my neck to glimpse the Eiffel Tower from the train while crossing on the nearby bridges.
With the Eiffel Tower behind me, tourists disappeared too. From here on the streets are residential – old-money apartment blocks of the 16th arrondissement. Well-dressed office workers strolled home or to someone else’s home for a dinner party, bottle of wine or champagne in one hand. Elderly ladies walked their lapdogs, or even just carried the poor little things.
I ran as far as the Radio France building on my right, and then turned left – I crossed the river on the Pont de Grenelle, turned left again to run back up the river along a deserted quay, then left onto another bridge, the impressive wrought-iron Pont de Bir-Hakeim. But in all my time running on that bridge I never made it to the other side.
Halfway across the Pont de Bir-Hakeim are steps down to a long, narrow man-made island in the middle of the Seine – the Île aux Cygnes. A tarmac path runs right up the middle of this island, and as it’s not well-lit there aren’t many other people here after nightfall. Passing bateaux mouches flood it with light from time to time, though.
I would run all the way along the island toward the far end, where stands the Paris replica of the Statue of Liberty. It’s quite surreal at first to have the Eiffel Tower behind you and the Statue of Liberty looming ahead – did I run all the way from Paris to New York?
Once at Liberty and the far end of the island, steps brought me back onto the Pont de Grenelle. From here I ran back the way I came.
Of course, now I was running towards the centre of Paris – past the Eiffel Tower again, but also towards other famous sights. Up ahead of me I would see the Louvre and the two towers of Notre Dame. But even the less-celebrated buildings looked impressive, spotlit and standing proudly along the Seine.
By the time I moved back to Ireland I’d had my fill of Paris. But it’s nice to remember my old Seine-side stomping grounds and running routes from time to time. Maybe I’ll even visit the National Gallery in Dublin again, have a look at a certain painting and say to myself: I was there; I lived and ran there.