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Boat commutes bring smiles to grumpy Parisians

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Batobus on the Seine River
Batobus on the Seine River Dominique Milherou/Luc Pris, courtesy Batobus

Residents of the French capital tend to flee the city in the summer months, which is too bad, because Paris takes on a gentler, more peaceful air, particularly on the Seine river.  Plenty of Parisians admit they rarely get to experience the charm of the country’s most famous river aboard a boat. Maybe they’re afraid of being mistaken for tourists.

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Dozens of boat operators cater to the hordes who queue up for mammoth motorboats that will deliver them back to the point of departure after an hour’s tour. But one only company, Batobus, is geared to the customer who might want to stop and actually visit a location, before continuing her journey on the same ticket. 

Kate Hoatze, from the US state of Virginia, is in town for business. But she’s spending the afternoon checking out the scenery from Batobus: “The water is green, the sky is blue, the birds are flying…it’s perfect,” she says.

On a weekday afternoon, most of the trimaran’s 200 seats are filled. But since it’s covered in glass and open to the elements, Batobus still feels spacious. The shuttle service makes eight stops in central Paris, delivering riders to the city’s most-visited monuments and neighborhoods.

Hoatze can’t figure out why there aren’t more locals on board.

"If I was Parisian and lived here, it was a night like tonight, and they served wine,” she says. “I would definitely come after work, take this, ride it home leisurely, meet up with friends, and just relax on the way home.”

The boat usually takes more than an hour to complete its run from the Eiffel Tower to the Jardin des Plantes. On its busiest day, Batobus carries nearly 8,000 passengers.

“It’s all filled with foreign tourists!” says Hoatze.

Most of clients are indeed tourists, who opt for the 13-euro day pass. But an annual card, which goes for only 60 euros, is an affordable option for Parisians not in a rush to get somewhere - if such a thing exists.

Magali, a travel agent aboard a very different kind of boat, thinks locals need to learn to slow down.

“I find that Parisians are always in a hurry,” she says. “We’ve always got to get home from work fast, fast fast."

She says a temporary shut-down of the metro in her neighborhood allowed her to look for other options.

"It’s turned out to be a silver lining," she says.

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She discovered Voguéo, a smaller shuttle service that covers eastern Paris and its suburbs. Taking the boat instead of the tube extends her commute by about twenty minutes, but she thinks it’s worth it.

“We’re not jammed together,” she says. “That’s what’s great about Voguéo - there’s space. We’re not on top of each other like you are sometimes in the metro... and then there’s the fresh air.”

Voguéo’s fleet of 12-metre catamarans quickly and quietly ply the Seine’s calmer waters, just beyond the junction of the Marne River at the southern suburbs of Ivry and Maisons Alfort.

Many commuters buy passes for both Batobus and Voguéo, waking the few hundred metres between the stops where one service begins and the other ends, near the Austerlitz train station.

And during the evening rush hour, as the boat glides past the National Library and an outdoor swimming pool dedicated to Josephine Baker, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the drivers stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the opposite bank.

Sébastian Gence, one of Voguéo’s electrical engineers, was once one of them.

“I used to take the car to work,” he says with a smile. “I’ve been taking the boat for a month now. I walk more, which is not half bad, since I’m carrying around a bit of extra weight around my middle. And I’m more relaxed when I get home at night.”

He spends his work day hopping on and off deck, making sure everything’s running smoothly. He ticks off the drawbacks to commuting by car: exhaust fumes, noise pollution, horns and road rage.

“Driving adds stress to your life, at least in Paris,” says this native of Beaune, in Burgundy. “In the provinces, it’s more relaxed.”

‘Relaxed’ is definitely the mood aboard Voguéo. A few passengers are reading or playing with smartphones, but most , like Marielle, who commutes from Paris to a university in the suburbs, are just watching the scenery unfold.

“I don’t have a heavy schedule, so I have the flexibility to take the boat, because it takes longer,” she says. “I allow myself the time to do it, which is not something everyone can do. You can’t compare this to the metro on any level.”

Kader, originally from Algiers, takes the metro when he needs to get to work, but this week he’s on holiday.

“People are complaining about the heat, but I love it,” he says. “I come from a hot country, so I miss the heat. The hotter it is, the better I feel. And this little branch of the sea that we’re taking here today reminds me of my country, and of the sea.”

Compared to Batobus, Voguéo keeps a low profile. Even though rides are covered by the unlimited Navigo transit pass, Marielle says most Parisians have never heard of it. Probably, she thinks, because it’s poorly signposted.

“There’s hardly any publicity,” she says. “Now I think there are a few more people. But two years ago, there were only three or four of us.”

Not enough riders could mean a reduction, or even an end, of the service, especially in winter when demand is low.

“Last year they did a test,” Marielle says. “They said if there continued to be just three or four of us, they couldn’t keep up the service.”

“We won’t have an answer until January 2011, when the city makes its decision on whether to continue the service," says Gence, the Voguéo employee.

What about a commuter boat that would stretch across the whole city? He thinks that with a bit of “political and financial willpower,” that too could be feasible one day.

The city recently revealed plans to re-invent the banks of the Seine by summer 2012, saying it hopes to give the river back to Parisians. Plans show green space, riverside cafes and pedestrian-only zones replacing some of today’s industrial areas and highway lanes.

Could it be that a boat-ride-a day is the prescription to heal Parisians’ fabled collective grumpiness? Magali, the travel agent, definitely thinks so.

“The boat makes everyone smile!” she says. “It’s almost like a cruise.”

She leans out over the Voguéo railing and points into the distance: “Did you notice you can see the Eiffel Tower from here? Isn’t that cool?”

It’s refreshing to see a Parisian so enthusiastic about the city so many French people love to hate.

“I mean, you get out of work, decompress with a boat ride, and on top of all that you get to see the Eiffel Tower!” she says. “I couldn’t ask for more… Well, maybe a glass of orange juice on the way home, that would be nice.”

For the moment, there are no plans for a bar aboard Voguéo, but everyone is smiling anyway. Especially Gence, who just held the gate open so that an elderly couple could catch the last boat of the day.

“I’m even taking the time to respond to your questions,” he points out. “If I’d been in the metro, I probably would have said ‘No way!’ maybe lowered my head and told you, ‘Don’t have the time, I’m in a hurry!’”

These passengers seem to have caught on to all that business about laughter being the best medicine. It also seems there is more to life here than just métro, boulot, dodo - metro work, sleep - the phrase often cited by Paris detractors. Those naysayers should try breaking up the monotony with a little cruise.

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