It’s easy to see why settlements established along navigable rivers had their major monuments and most impressive buildings erected not far from the banks of those rivers. Waterways were the main mode of transportation of people and materials long before the invention of the wheel, and even after that innovation it was still easier to transport building materials by water. Thus we see many of the great historical wonders of the world in close proximity to waterways. Paris certainly fits this pattern, as shown by the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Orsay Museum, the Conciergerie, the Hotel de Ville and Notre Dame Cathedral. These renowned buildings are all on the Seine, delighting visitors and strolling lovers who can see, right before their eyes, the history of the City of Light unfolding along the banks of the river.
The mention of a cruise on the Seine conjures up images of the bateaux-mouches (fly boats), a name that has spread beyond the borders of France, and an experience that simply must be included in the itinerary of a visit to Paris. Yet behind this iconic Parisian mode of transport is concealed a fascinating story that is inextricably interwoven with the great history of France.
Note! We should not confuse the bateaux-mouches with the actual Bateaux-Mouches® Company. The Bateaux-Mouches® are bateaux-mouches, but not all bateaux-mouches are Bateaux-Mouches®, if you see what we mean! But why are they called ‘fly’ boats, anyway?
The Origin of the term Bateau-Mouche
The term "bateau-mouche" was born in the 19th century on the banks of the Saône River, in one of the southern suburbs of Lyon, built on former filled-in river arms to sanitize the city. These river arms, once called "mouches," gave their nickname to this neighborhood, the Mouche district. Naturally, the boats that came out of its shipyards in 1862 were quickly associated with their place of origin: the bateaux-mouches were born thanks to the ingenuity of Messrs. Chaize and Plasson and their passenger transport boat company, the "Compagnie des Mouches." Plasson then had the great idea to respond to a call for tenders from the organizers of the 1867 Universal Exposition for river transportation services in the city of Paris. Thirty bateaux-mouches were thus transported along the Saône to Paris and brought joy to the Parisians, who quickly adopted this new means of navigation. It must be said that renowned influencers honored them, such as Tsar Alexander III and his two young and handsome grand dukes who frequented Parisian balls, and whose tabloids of the time reported on their every move in great detail.
The first printed mention of the bateaux-mouches is attributed to Paul Bert, who described them in his posthumous work of 1887 as follows: "The bateaux-mouches that transport passengers on the Seine, across Paris and the suburbs, are steam-powered, propeller-driven boats. They can accommodate 300 to 400 people in their cabins and on the deck. With their speed and low ticket prices, they provide great services to the Parisian population." (Paul Bert. Lecture et leçon de choses, 1887). In this case, it is clear that they were not used for tourism as we know it today, but rather as a real means of transportation, allowing people to travel from one point to another in Paris in no time and at unbeatable prices.
However, this heyday of the Bateaux-Mouches was short-lived. Technological advances showcased at the 1867 Universal Exposition, which had enabled their emergence, became obsolete with the development of the Métropolitain. This marked the decline of transport navigation on the Seine starting in 1900, with the opening of the first subway line that connected Porte de Vincennes to Porte Maillot.
The Bateaux-Mouches Revival
The innovative and creative Jean Bruel had a pioneering spirit, as well as a sense of humour. He saw there would be a revival of travel and tourism following the end of the Second World War, and he wished to ensure that his beloved City of Light would be at the heart of such a renaissance. Purchasing one of the last remaining steam-powered bateaux-mouches, left over from the 1900 Universal Exhibition, Bruel founded the Compagnie des Bateaux-Mouches® in 1950. At the same time, in a shrewd move, he trademarked the term Bateaux-Mouches. A clever and inventive marketing campaign followed in which a fictional founder of the Bateaux Mouches, Jean-Sébastien Mouche, was dreamed up. In collaboration with a famous journalist of the period, Robert Escarpit of Le Monde fame, a fictional biography of Jean-Sébastien Mouche was concocted in which he was linked with Baron Haussmann and credited with creating a network of secret agents called the Mouchards. On April 1st, 1953, a grand opening took place in which the Minister of Transport and the Prefect of Paris paid tribute to the bravery and brilliance of the entirely imaginary Bateaux-Mouches founder, an event extensively reported in the media. River tourism in Paris was truly launched.