Bridge of sighs – An Irishman’s Diary about the Pont des Arts in Paris

Padlocks at the Pont des Arts in Paris. The padlocks have been removed and replaced with glass panels. Photograph: Getty Images

Padlocks at the Pont des Arts in Paris. The padlocks have been removed and replaced with glass panels. Photograph: Getty Images

 

On the night before Valentine’s Day, I went for a long walk around Paris and ended up, several miles later, on the Pont des Arts.

Well, strictly speaking, I didn’t end up there. I went back to my hotel afterwards, in fact, and I’m still alive now. But my walk reached a climax at that point. No matter how many times you’ve been to Paris and how jaded you might have become, there’s always a moment when the magnificence of the surroundings stops you in your tracks. This time, it was at the bridge.

The Pont des Arts has that effect. Half a century ago, the historian Kenneth Clarke stood there admiring the panorama, with the ancient Institute of France at one end, the Louvre on the other, and the towers of Notre Dame visible just upstream. He was almost dumbstruck.

Writing his famous book and TV series Civilisation, he found the view central to what he was struggling to express. “What is civilisation?” he asked. “I do not know. I can’t define it in abstract terms, yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it; and I am looking at it now.”

Troubled times

On its left-bank side is a plaque to Jacques Lecompte - Boinet, founder of a war-time resistance group who used this spot for “rencontres clandestines”. It was here that the pseudonymous “Vercors” (Jean Buller) passed him material from the underground Les éditions de Minuit. As the plaque says, both men risked torture and death.

In more recent times, the footbridge has been on the front line of another, smaller battle for the soul of Paris. This time, the occupying forces were mere padlocks, part of a global curse whereby lovers express eternal fidelity to each other by attaching locks to romantic places and throwing the keys away.

The Pont des Arts was the most popular of a dozen such spots in Paris, partly because of the setting – especially magical at night when the lights on the water shine up through the wooden planks. But also, crucially for love-locksmiths, the sides of the bridge comprised metal mesh, ideal for their purpose.

At the height of the madness, not only was every wire replete with these man-made barnacles, some enterprising padlock sellers had even begun to thread bicycle locks through the remaining holes, so that locks could be locked to the locks, as it were. By the end, the number of barnacles was nearing a million, and weighing many tons.

Even before this became a safety issue, it was an aesthetic one. The locks were ugly and obscured views of the river for those sitting on benches. So, in keeping with tradition, a resistance movement sprang up, led by two American women who, as outsiders often do, became more protective of their adopted city than the natives.

Outraged by the desecration, they set up a website, nolovelocks.com, and collected signatures for a petition.  Unlike Lecompte-Boinet and his comrades, they weren’t risking torture, except by social media. But there was enough hate-mail at times to reduce them to tears.

It wan’t only demented romantics who objected.  Love is a core element of the Paris tourism product, and some locals did not appreciate a pair of New York blow-ins interfering with the model. Even so, eventually, other considerations intervened.  

In 2014, the weight of padlocked love caused a panel to peel off the bridge. There was a clear risk that one romantic cliché might soon collide with another – the bateaux mouches that pass underneath. So last summer, authorities removed the locks, and the metal mesh to boot.  

Glass panels

Ten other Paris bridges remain to be liberated, however, and even now, the Pont des Arts is not lock-free. A few new ones have been added, where possible. In fact, even as I stood there, another was about to join them. In a vignette of civilisation, 2016-style, a woman was holding up a padlock and making a declaration of love, while her friend recorded her on an iPad.