Is it the end of romance?” asked The Independent recently. The immediate provocation for such a philosophical enquiry was the long overdue decision by the Paris mayor’s office to remove all the padlocks adorning the pedestrian bridge over the iconic river Seine, the Pont des Arts, and to replace them temporarily with paintings and later, in the autumn, with transparent Plexiglas panels to deter future locks.
Rebuilt for safety reasons in the early 1980s, in conformity with the original Napoleonic era design, this delightful footbridge lived up to its name by occasionally serving as an open-air gallery for art exhibitions. However, in recent years the bridge became the backdrop of an estimated million locks, several rusted, which had it literally bulging at the seams. In a bizarre ritual in this age of supposedly free love and non-conformism, young couples, essentially tourists, would clasp a lock with their names or initials inscribed on it onto the bridge’s railings and then throw the key into the river Seine, thereby declaring their eternal love for each other.
Though this practice has been around for a while in Europe, it is believed to have become a veritable fad around 2006 in Rome, in imitation of Federico Moccia’s protagonists in I Want You who declare their love for each other by attaching a lock to a lamppost on a bridge. From there, the trend spread like a contagion to many European cities.
“Almost all the foreign couples I have photographed in Paris brought along their little padlock for the photo shoot,” says Christophe Viseux, an award-winning, international wedding photographer. “Love locks” appear to be the 21st century’s replacement of hearts with names on them carved into tree trunks or scribbled on walls. “People’s Art”, some called this spontaneous manifestation of love that just spread and spread as lock was clamped upon lock. Over the years, the mass of metal took on such dangerous proportions that last year, a section of the grillwork collapsed under the sheer weight of the padlocks, leaving a gaping hole. The City Hall even asked couples to take selfies and put them up on a dedicated website as these love locks were adversely impacting Paris’ heritage and also posed a safety risk. The City of Paris finally decided to put an end to the matter and excise this veritable eyesore once and for all, two weeks ago.
Some sweethearts, deprived of a beloved, symbolic ritual, stood by forlornly watching the removal of 45 tonnes of romantic tokens while others, not to be denied, raced off to the Archevêché bridge to quickly clamp their love lock there before it was too late. Many Parisians, however, rejoiced at this decision to put an end to vandalism and to remove what they termed “visual pollution” and “ugliness”.
Concerned that the measure may affect Paris’ reputation as the City of Love, deputy mayor, Bruno Juillard, reiterated, “We still want Paris to remain the capital of love and romance. We want couples from the world over to continue to come to Paris to declare their love, to propose. And if they wish to, on the Pont des Arts, but please just do it without love-locks”.
Paris has long been considered the capital of love and romance. Some trace its romantic origins to the early 19th century when Romanticism flourished here, liberating the senses and imagination through art and literature. Others feel that it is the romantic portrayal of its narrow, cobbled little streets, sun-dappled courtyards, covered stone arcades, secret passageways and hidden gardens in books and movies, such as Amélie or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, that has nurtured this perception in the collective consciousness.
The yearning for a bygone era is fulfilled in Paris where the past merges seamlessly with the present. Grand monuments provide a perfect setting for lovers’ kisses. And as dusk falls, the softly lit monuments continue to exercise their charm. The city exudes romance with every breath. It permeates every stone, every church spire, every façade, every wrought-iron balcony.
Paris is a city for lovers, for romance. Stroll hand-in-hand along the banks of the Seine or cuddle on a bench in the Luxembourg gardens. Or sit on the steps leading to Montmartre whispering sweet nothings or canoodle in a candle-lit bar in the Marais. The possibilities are infinite.
According to Viseux, Paris’ pull as a romantic destination is nurtured by the city’s cultural heritage, its luxury designer brands and the French quality of life that includes gastronomy and fine dining. “Many people perceive Paris as an open air museum where people take the time to live, have a drink in a café, enjoy a long dinner accompanied by good wine,” he says.
However, what makes Paris particularly propitious for romance is its size; it is a city that can be explored easily on foot. A city given to romantic strolls and leisurely walks. Yet more than anything, it is a city that lets lovers live their passion freely, in the open. Love-struck couples of all ages can give expression to their feelings in public. Waiters never intrude. No one bats an eyelid at lovers doing their thing and, if at all, someone were to notice, it would lead to an indulgent, “Ah, l’amour!”
Radha Kapoor-Sharma is a Paris-based freelance writer