Monday, September 26, 2011

Paris: La Seine runs through it.

Parisian children swimming in the Seine river
July 1941 (LAPI/Roger-Viollet)

"We don't have Venice and its moon, nor its breeze, nor its lagoon
 but we have the Seine."
Popular song favored by Parisian canoeists in the 19th century

Canoeists were right. Paris may not be the center of the universe - some would argue it once was - but Paris has always been a unique place, and the city has largely been defined by the famous river that meanders through it: La Seine

Paris was born over 2000 years ago on the island known as "Ile de la Cité" (one of the three remaining islands in downtown Paris today.) A tribe of Celtic fishermen named the Parisii settled the area in the 3rd century BC. From the start, the Seine provided both livelihood and protection. The Parisii were able to push back countless invaders and remained independent until Julius Caesar, who knew a strategic location when he saw one, took over. Paris became Lutetia under Roman rule, for about 500 years. From the island, it spread to the Left Bank first, and much later, to the Right Bank. One of the world's greatest cities was born.

The Seine and the island where it all started... 
(author unknown)
Lutetia, as depicted in the Asterix and Obelix French comic book series
"Our story begins in Lutetia, the most prodigious city in the Universe"

It can be argued that if Paris has always been the center of France, la Seine has always been the heart of Paris. La Seine borders ten of the twenty arrondissements (districts.) Most of the noteworthy and iconic buildings in the French capital are either built by the Seine river, or within a few blocks of its banks. Museums. Government buildings. Parks and Monuments. They are all there, a feast for the eyes, best admired from one of the tour boats, the famous "Bateaux Mouches" among others. The Eiffel Tower alone can compete with the river as the city's best vantage point. When the lights magically turn on at sunset, the river banks start glowing, even on dark, overcast days.

Do not miss a chance to ride in one of the tour boats...
Notre-Dame from the Seine 
Orsay museum at sunset
Grand Palais at sunset
Notre-Dame: Even more spectacular at night

Eiffel Tower

The city layout was also largely determined by the Seine. Every year, several million visitors learn the difference between Rive Gauche (Left Bank) and Rive Droite (Right Bank). Once you realize that street numbers were assigned from the river, it becomes really easy to find your way or locate an address in downtown Paris: If a street runs perpendicular to the Seine, counting starts by the river. If a street runs parallel to the Seine, numbers follow the river flow, and go East to West. Logique, non?

It is tempting to believe that the Seine was born on the French coast, flowing inland. It is quite the opposite in fact. The river's spring lies near Dijon, in the heart of Burgundy, flows West towards Paris, meanders through the French capital, then heads for the sea, finally running into La Manche (the English Channel) in the major port city of Le Havre. It is France's most famous waterway, but it is not the longest one (La Loire boasts that title.) The reason for la Seine's enduring fame and success is its high navigability for most of its 780 kilometers (485 miles.) Commercial barges are a familiar sight in downtown Paris, all the way to the city of Rouen, located inland, where the river is deep enough to welcome big cargo ships. 

La péniche (barge) with a million dollar view

There are 37 bridges spanning the Seine in downtown Paris. Like the city and its famous river, they have inspired generations of writers, musicians, painters, and movie makers. Vagabonde, a fellow blogger, recently wrote an excellent post about la Seine and a famous French poet, Jacques Prévert

Today, pedestrians, cyclists and cars are the only familiar sights on Parisian bridges, but in the Middle Ages most had buildings on them. There were exceptions. The iconic "Pont-Neuf" -the New Bridge- (the oldest bridge in Paris, in fact) was the first not be lined with houses and the first Parisian thoroughfare to offer sidewalks. Voilà a handful of Paris' most recognized bridges.

Parisian bridge in the Middle Ages: Is it a wonder so many collapsed?
(author unknown)

A section of Le Pont Neuf (completed in 1606
 and renovated in the 1990's for its 400th anniversary)

Pont Alexandre III,  Paris' most ornate bridge (built 1896-1900)

Pont au Change (1858-1860)

Pont Notre-Dame, built for the first time during Antiquity.
The current version was inaugurated in 1919

The Seine riverbanks, les quais de Seine, are as emblematic of Paris as the river itself. At the street level, above the water, things can get quite hectic; pedestrians rushing on the sidewalks; cars and motorcycles zooming by. Les quais de Seine are so illustrious that they were awarded the coveted Unesco's World Heritage Site award in 1991. 

Legendary sights include les bouquinistes, used-book sellers who have traded their wares along the river since the Middle Ages. [Un bouquin, in conversational French, is a book.] There are only 245 bouquinistes in Paris, manning their outdoors stalls -mere boxes- permanently affixed to the quaysides. 

Bouquinistes, Jean-Henri Pontoy (1888-1968)

Junior, browsing a bouquiniste's selection on a hot summer day

Locked bouquiniste stalls at night 

Should you feel overwhelmed by the sounds and commotion of the big city above, you need only take a few steps down to go back to the river, and the past. Wander on les quais (the quays.)  Feel the ancient cobblestones under your feet. Follow the Seine, under a bridge, and watch the world go by. Timeless activities. Familiar faces. Parisians walking their dogs. Lovers. Painters. Fishermen. And beggars, who call les quais "home," for a few hours every day.

Quais de Seine

Paris in the springtime: Sun worshippers return 

La Seine is beautiful, mesmerizing, and alive. La Seine is also dangerous, dirty, and grim, a favorite location of unfortunate souls indulging in suicidal tendencies; for others, the perfect spot to dispose of a body. Yet, Parisians used to swim in the river, and still did 60 years ago before commercial barges and pollution interfered. In the 1940s, people flocked to the river in the summer. Where did Parisians celebrate the end of World War 2 in the summer of 1945? By the Seine, bien sûr


Today, swimming in the Seine is prohibited, but since 2002, the city of Paris has made it possible for locals and tourists alike to gather on the riverbanks. "Paris-Plage" (Paris Beach) has proved a successful endeavor, imitated since in other European capitals. Imagine the scene: For three weeks at the end of July, Paris becomes a beach, complete with sand, lounge chairs, palm trees, street artists, crafts, volley ball, pétanque games. And pickpockets.

Paris-Plage (author unknown)

Paris-Plage (author unknown)

Sometimes, la Seine gets upset, and the water level goes up, way up. It usually calms down after a few days, under the Zouave's watchful eye. The old river was not always that predictable, and the Parisians know it. I have already written about the illustrious Zouave, standing guard by the Pont de l'Alma, and the terrible 1910 flooding in another post

Le Zouave (author unknown)

No matter what the Seine does, the Parisians forgive. Paris needs the Seine like France needs Paris.

In his will, Napoleon I wrote: "I desire my ashes to rest on the banks of the Seine, amid the French people whom I loved so much." His wish was not granted. After his army was defeated in Waterloo in 1815, the British sent him away as far as possible from Paris, the Seine, and the French. He arrived on St. Helena, a remote island off the Coast of West Africa where he died in 1821. In 1840, the British government allowed the transfer of his remains back to France. His ashes sailed across the Atlantic to the English Channel where they were transferred on a steamship. Fittingly, the French emperor's last voyage continued up the Seine river through the towns of Le Havre, then Rouen, all the way to Paris where he was given a national funeral. Napoleon's final resting place is inside the dome of the famed Hôtel des Invalides... one short block away from the Seine. 

A bientôt.

Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by American Frog Photography.

Monday, September 19, 2011

La Deux Chevaux (2 CV): A French legend

Young French driver in her Deux Chevaux (2CV)

Her nicknames range from affectionate (Deux chevaux; Deux pattes, Two Paws; DeucheDedeuche;) to dismissive and derogatory, especially when the car was first launched (Tin Snail; Umbrella on Wheels; Old Tin Can; Le Canard, the Ugly Duckling.)

No matter. 72 years after the first prototype was manufactured in France by Citroën; 21 years after the last model came out of a Portuguese production line, la 2 CV remains one of the most recognized, respected, revolutionary cars in the world. A French motoring icon.

2CV "Charleston": The first bi-colored model, 
inspired by the Art Deco movement (1979-1981)

To me, and to many people the world over, la Deux Chevaux (2CV) is, quite simply, a happy car. Une voiture sympa (sympathique.) You know the type: You see one drive by (rarely, these days) and you start smiling, because you can't help it. Come to think of it, English bulldogs do that for me as well. No obvious connection to la 2CV, but if you look closer, there are similarities. Neither of them (the dog or the old car) are known for their good looks. In French, both would be referred to as "rond" (round) because of their unusual shape. They are slow, but they do not care. They keep going and they will get there, you can be certain of it, because they are stronger than they look. 

Happy dog

The Citroën Deux Chevaux (the 2CV, as it known internationally) was born in France a few years before WWII. Michelin, the French tyre manufacturer had just purchased Citroën, the car manufacturing company. In the 1930s, French population was mainly rural. Farmers, country doctors, rural clergy, and tradespeople could not afford to buy cars, but they needed to travel large distances to make a living. A survey conducted by Citroën revealed that there was a market for an economically-produced and affordable car. Specifications in an early design brief were, like the car they were going to generate, quite surprising. The document mentioned that the car should enable four peasants to drive 220 lb of farm goods to market at 37mph, in clogs, and across muddy unpaved roads if necessary. The roof had to be high enough, enabling driver and passengers to ride while wearing their Sunday hats to church! The car's fuel consumption would average 90-95mpg. Above all, it could drive across a ploughed field without breaking the eggs it was carrying. 

The rustic 2CV was always at home in the French countryside

An important part of the original specifications: The car had to stay within the two horsepower fiscal bracket to remain affordable.  This explains the future name, "La Deux Chevaux" (literally two tax-horsepower.) The original engine itself had an eight horsepower capacity. 

In the late 1930s, the first prototype was named "T.P.V." (Toute Petite Voiture, or Very Small Car) and production started in absolute secrecy in a small town West of Paris. Citroën produced  250 units and planned to launch the car during the October 1939 Car Show in Paris, but History interfered. 

An early prototype boasts a minimalist look

In September 1939, France declared war on Germany following the invasion of Poland by Hitler's troops. World War II had started. 

The Citroën management team involved in the project was determined to keep the new car away from the German government, and they did, an amazing feat since France was occupied for most of the war. The TPV construction line was requisitioned. Citroën asked that all prototypes be dismantled. Several survived (One model was tucked away in the Citroën office's basement near the Paris Opéra house.) Others were hidden by rebellious Citroën workers in the French countryside, buried deep inside barns. Everyone involved claimed the cars had been lost, even after the war ended. Yet, three original prototypes were discovered in 1995 and had to be removed from a barn with special lifting equipment. The legend claims that the Germans were intent on getting their hands on the TPV throughout the war. At some point, they offered Citroën an opportunity to preview the German car that would become the "Volkswagen," (the people's car,) in exchange for the plans of the French car. To no avail. 

Early prototypes

Three prototypes "dug out" of a barn in 1995

Citroën secretely continued working on the TPV throughout the war and improvements were made. A second headlight was installed in 1942 (the car, with one original headlight, had been nicknamed: "The Cyclop".)

After the Liberation, it took Citroën a few more years to finalize a version that could be introduced to the industry and the French public. The official launch date was the Paris Car Show in October 1948. 

The public was intrigued and showed up en masse, but the professional press was understandably harsh. Journalists were unimpressed with the car's minimalist look: the serrated hood that looked like a cheese grater; the manual starter; the drab grey color (the only color offered for the next few years;) the deceptively simple engineering (using a "lawn-mower engine," held together by four screws;) open flap side windows; scrawny tires, a roll back canvas roof. With its mattress-like suspension and hammock seats, la 2CV looked like a "four-wheeled sofa covered by an umbrella."

Car Show 1948: The French President discovers the 2CV

One of the prototypes unveiled at the 1948 Car Show
The French welcome the 2CV
 The 2 CV's Spartan interior

But the press was wrong. The 2CV became an instant hit and a great commercial success for Citroën in war-starved France where local populations needed an affordable and reliable vehicle to make a living. Within a few months, demand built up to such levels that production could not keep up. Soon, there was a 5-year waiting list to get a brand-new 2CV. Used models were even more expensive because they were available immediately. Production was upgraded from 4 cars a day in 1949 to 400 units per day in 1950!

2CV production facility in Levallois-Perret, Paris
Production line - Citroën factory in the 1960s

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the rustic 2CV took over the French countryside, a coveted and prized possession for rural populations. Durable, the 2CV proved almost indestructible. Slow, funny-looking, stripped to basics, it got you there, in a long bouncy ride (maximum speed was 40mph.)  

Standard blue model

As the French economy recovered from the war and the country prospered, drivers started trading up. La Deuche became the family's second car, or "la voiture de Madame" (Madam's car) as it was known. From a utilitarian vehicle, the 2CV switched to the family's "fun" car and was on its way to becoming a French icon. People rode the 2CV to picnics (the removable backseat meant one could enjoy lunch in style without getting wet.) Others got married in their beloved "Deuche." To many, the 2CV was more than a car: it was a way of life, back in the days when people took the time to slow down, and to look around when they traveled. 

Book celebrating the 2CV's 60th anniversary

Some were so attached to their car it stayed in the family forever, the perfect hand-me down vehicle. Even though just five million 2CV were produced over the car's long 42 year career, most 2CVs had several owners. Some say this led in part to the 2CV's downfall. It was so economical and easy to maintain that it was never profitable enough. After all, the revolutionary car had been designed so owners could make most repairs themselves.

Deux Chevaux en panne. Broken down 2CV (1964)

Over the years, the original body design remained unchanged but technical improvements (and new, brighter colors,) were introduced. Thirty different models were launched, including the  popular fourgonette (van) and the Sahara model, a 4x4 used in rallies around the world.

The popular 2CV fourgonnette 

Custom Sahara model during a 2007 French rally 

A custom, amped-up Sahara model (with two engines!)
Paris-Dakar rally, 1980s

Sales peaked in 1966, then the 2CV's slow decline began. The venerable car was too minimalist, too slow for France's fast-growing post industrial society. It came back in favor following the 1974 oil crisis, but soon after, its status changed forever: A former functional form of transport, it became a lifestyle statement, and as sales dwindled further, a prized item for collectors worldwide.

Popular culture helped ensure French (and foreign audiences) would remember the 2CV. Below, a compilation of famous scenes from the popular 1960s "Gendarme de St Tropez" movie series with Louis de Funès -another French icon!- Behold the amazing, indestructible 2CV in action!

In 1981, a customized Deuche made a noted appearance in "For your Eyes Only," a James Bond movie starring Roger Moore and Carole Bouquet. A limited 500-unit series of the yellow Deuche was released that year, complete with a set of stickers imitating bullet holes.

For your Eyes Only: La Deuche in action!

"My name is Bond, James Bond, and my other car is a Deuche!"
La Deuche arrives Place Vendôme, Paris, for the movie release

Even the respected French high-fashion house Hermès was happy to celebrate the 2CV's 60th anniversary at the Paris Car Show in 2008. Look at the luxury version of the rustic car. More photos and details here. Superbe!

Deux Chevaux refitted by Hermès

Citroën pulled the plug on the 2CV production in 1990. Fans were outraged. After all, hadn't the company always been embarrassed by La Deuche's simple image, a far cry from the high-tech, fast cars manufactured in the 1990s? As previously mentioned, the little car just was not profitable enough. To make things worse, it no longer met emission laws or safety regulations in other European countries. In short, the iconic car's long career was coming to an end. 

So long, la Deuche! 

Fans need not have worried. La Deuche's glory days are not over. There are over 300 active clubs worldwide devoted to the 2CV. There are raids and rallies. Reunions. TV specials. Books and press articles. There are toys, and coveted memorabilia hard to find even on Ebay. No, La Deuche is not ready to say good-bye quite yet. She still rides (slowly) on the French country roads she once ruled. She still sleeps near the farms where a handful of visionary factory workers once hid her from the Occupant's prying eyes. She still makes us all smile and wave back when we meet her, old and banged up, or beautifully restored by a collector, in small French towns. If nothing else, she remains a great conversation piece. I have never met a Deuche I did not like. My uncle, who passed recently, owned one. I am grateful to him for taking me along so I know what riding in a Deuche felt like. 

My uncle's Deuche is long gone,
but I was thrilled to find this t-shirt at the Sarlat outdoor market last July

Beyond time, beyond fashion, La Deux Chevaux remains quintessentially French, like the Eiffel Tower, or le béret. She may not be the prettiest girl on the block, but she exudes Gallic charm and personality. No, La Deuche is not ready to say goodbye quite yet. Neither are we.

2CV gathering, France

The list of All Things French...
starts with "une vieille Deuche" (an old 2CV)

A bientôt.

More info about la Deux Chevaux:

The iconic French car has a huge following in Europe and other countries. Here is an article about a recent gathering of 6,000 2CV in France. 

There are 300 2CV clubs worldwide. The 2CV Club of Great Britain is one of the best. They even have their own magazine!

My favorite documentary was produced by the BBC for the 2CV's 60th anniversary. This short film includes cool footage of the original TPV prototype and many other more recent models. 

The most complete website is in French. Great archive pictures, old ads on: "La 2CV: Une légende"

Finally,  Restored 2CVs are available worldwide. I found this organization near Seattle. I have a big birthday coming up. What if??? Mmmmmm... 

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