Articles

To the Source of the Seine

11/02/2024
I travel in search of the source of the Seine

Aisey - sur - Seine
Aisey - sur - Seine
To me there is just one thing wrong with France – it is so addictive.

As soon as I arrive back in this green and pleasant land called England, I have this overwhelming desire to return across that narrow stretch of water into a country where I feel relaxed and very much at home. For an Englishman to admit to such a feeling is tantamount to treason. Perhaps this close harmony is due, in my case at least, to a distant touch of ancestral French, but I suspect it has more to do with weather, food and wine, and as a photographer, appealing landscapes and light.

To satisfy my ever persistent whim to wander I inevitably turn to armchair travelling, and reading material is almost always concerned with matters Francais.

So it was that a small 1955 very second-hand publication loaned to me by a colleague, sparked off an idea to make a short detour on my next visit to south eastern France. That short excursion was to take me to La Sources de la Seine.

This insignificant little book was pure magic. ‘Coming Down the Seine’ was a journey made by the author Robert Gibbings in the 1950’s and described every inch of the Seine from its source to the sea. I became particularly intrigued with the author’s descriptions of the young Seine as it made its streamlike journey from just north of Dijon and the Burgundy vineyards to Troyes.

So the opportunity was seized after a night crossing Dover – Calais to head down the A26 Peage past Reims to Chalons-sur-Marne where the pace slowed intentionally and I joined the N77 towards Troyes.

From its source the Seine is never far from the N71 which links Troyes with Dijon. At times it can be glimpsed in the middle distance wistfully making its way past lonely farmsteads, flanked by ever present poplar and willow. At times it passes alongside and even under the N71 as it winds its way towards Paris, the adopted city of the Seine.

Through the region of Champagne-sur-Seine the river meanders through rolling hills and quiet villages, soaking up the history of this rural landscape.

From Bar-sur-Seine towards Mussy both road and river share hedgerows of cornflowers, poppies and the most tightly packed yellow fields of sunflowers to be seen anywhere in France.

At Mussy the Seine comes alive as it tumbles over the weirs and skirts the town which nestles in its loop. Some of the charming old houses stretch their gardens to its banks providing a charming prospect for both resident and traveller.

Towards Chatillon-sur-Seine I passed fields of quietly grazing cattle against a backdrop of muted greens and blue distant hills. In midsummer the trees enhanced an already painterly landscape and the foliage ranged from silver-greys to blue-green.

Chatillon-sur-Seine is a small town with avenues of chestnut and lime greeting the young river. During the Second World War much of the centre of Chatillon was destroyed during a bombing raid. In fact during the 1950’s when Robert Gibbings made his trip down the Seine he found Chatillon “a sad town, hardly more than a crater rim of ancient houses surrounding it’s burnt out core”. Thankfully it has now emerged as an attractive little town which even the Seine seems almost undecided to leave as it meanders and re-joins the environs. However, there is perhaps one feature which attracts pilgrims to Chatillon and that is treasure – the Vix treasure to be precise.

Vix is just a few kilometres from Chatillon between Mont Lessois, an isolated hill, and the Seine. Here around 500 BC a young princess of Gaul was buried. The undisturbed tumulus was discovered in 1953 and her grave opened. Among the many items of gold, silver and bronze was a complete wine service, although it seems unlikely that the young princess would have sampled the pleasures of Burgundy as long ago as 500 BC.

The most spectacular of all the finds was an enormous bronze bowl 1.6 metres high, weighing 208 kg and capable of holding 1357 litres. Heavily decorated with a frieze of charioteers it is presumed to have emanated from a Greek colony in southern Italy. The Vix treasure can now be found in Chatillon’s museum in the Maison Philandrier.

South of Chatillon-sur-Seine the river keeps even closer company with the N71. For an ‘N’ class road it was remarkably quiet, allowing time to take in the remote hillsides with nestling rural communities where seemingly the simple pleasures of life and an agreeably slow pace provide the ambience of rural France which one feels will always remain. Modern Renault, Citroen and the occasional ‘Intermarche’ advertising signs were the only reminders that this was not France of more than fifty years ago.

Aisey-sur-Seine lies just off the main road on the far river bank. The muted colours of the old walls ranging from cream to blue, topped by red and brown roof tiles looked down upon by majestic spires presented a delightful picture.

On the south side of Aisey I came across a small glade of chestnut and oak through which the Seine ran as clear as any mountain stream. Beside the small embankment stood some boulders on which had been erected a metal crafted fish, leaping towards the village beyond.

It was here, while seeking a moment of shade from a hot July sun, that I recalled Robert Gibbings’ journey down the Seine when he wrote “To follow a river is like watching the growth of a child, only at intervals is one conscious of the increase in it’s strength”.

The source of the Seine was now only 15 kilometres away and I was becoming ever more inquisitive of what I would find. Would it still be as Robert Gibbings described all those years ago, or was this now a vision of nature and culture flaunted by modern commercialism?

Driving on through Seine side hamlets, eager now to reach the source, I was temporarily halted to admire the rustic charm and flower decked main streets of these colourful stone clad villages. On this Saturday afternoon the villages were almost deserted. From somewhere a radio announced the current positions in the Tour de France and in the doorway of a small shop, both proprietor and customer held a quite spirited conversation, seemingly about the latest Euro policies of the day.

I left them to it and concentrated on finding the D103C turning just after the village of Chanceaux. This road was to take me to St.Germain, the nearest village to the source of the Seine.

I had only to drive a short distance to realise that I was to find the area much as Robert Gibbings had detailed. “The roadside was vibrant with the colours of flowers and the air exultant with the songs of larks” just as the author had described back in the fifties.

I found the gate beside the road with a small sign indicating ‘La Sources de la Seine’. It was almost as though Robert Gibbings had started out on his journey only the day before. The place was surrounded by an almost revered silence, just the gentle rustling of a summer breeze in the surrounding trees.

Sequana, goddess of the river for over 2000 years sat there in her grotto with one of the many sources bubbling at her feet.

I watched and photographed the young Seine begin its journey. It seemed impossible to visualise at this point the barges and heavy industry it was yet to face, or the many locks and mills that over the years have harnessed its power.

Here it was little more than a stream “scarce wider than your boot” wrote Robert Gibbings, as it trickled away to feed a small lake below the source.

Sequana had been sitting in her grotto since the reign of Napoleon 111. It was in 1867 when the people of people of Paris decided to erect this monument by Jouffrey to the Seine, ‘the river to which Paris owes its ancient prosperity’.

There were few visitors to the source that summer afternoon, but the site was once visited by pilgrims in vast numbers who sought healing and other benefits from the goddess Sequana. The site once housed an ornate shrine with Corinthian columns, mosaics and frescoes. The pilgrims brought with them offerings in stone or bronze of the afflicted parts of the body and even small carvings of fruit and animals have been found here. Today they are housed in Dijon’s museum.

Well, I had now satisfied my curiosity, visited and photographed the source of the Seine; it was now time to leave and re-commence my journey from which this diversion had been a satisfying experience.

That insignificant little book had opened up for me a secretive corner of France which I would otherwise have passed by. If only I had the time to wander further in the footsteps of Robert Gibbings, through the landscapes and among the people he met in ‘Coming down the Seine’, but that is something I will have to leave for another day.


Sunflowers
Sunflowers


Colour in the Local Villages
Colour in the Local Villages


Bar - le - Duc
Bar - le - Duc


House with Blue Shutters, Aisey-sur-Seine
House with Blue Shutters, Aisey-sur-Seine


Sequana
Sequana


The Young Seine
The Young Seine


Seine's First Fall
Seine's First Fall