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Seine River peaks in Paris, top museums stay shut for days

PARIS — The Seine River peaked early Saturday around Paris, hitting its highest level in nearly 35 years — almost 4.5 meters (15 feet) above average — then began a slow descent. That drew a collective sigh of relief but authorities cautioned it could take up to 10 days for the river to return to normal.

It will take at least four days before tourists in the French capital get a chance to view art at the world-class Louvre Museum, where workers have been scrambling to move 250,000 artworks from basement storage areas to rooms upstairs to keep them safe from flooding.

The Louvre, home to Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," said it won't reopen until Wednesday, while the Orsay Museum, known for its impressionist art, was closed at least through the weekend. Other Paris landmarks shut down due to flooding include the national library and the Grand Palais, Paris' opulent exhibition center, which was built more than 100 years ago.

Nearly a week of heavy rain has led to serious flooding across parts of France, Germany, Romania and Belgium.

The death toll from flooding in France rose to four, with 24 others injured, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Saturday after a government crisis meeting, bringing the flooding death toll across Europe to 18.

A regional lawmaker in Bavaria, Michael Fahrmueller, was quoted by the dpa news agency as estimating that economic damages from flooding in Lower Bavaria would be over 1 billion euros ($1.14 billion). He said 5,000 homes were affected — 500 of them beyond repair — and 200 bridges destroyed.

No damages estimates have been made yet for flooding in France.

In Germany, where 11 people have died from flooding, another weather catastrophe struck when a lightning storm hit a rock festival west of Frankfurt late Friday, sending more than 70 people to the hospital. The Rock am Ring festival was suspended Saturday, with organizers urging tens of thousands of festival-goers to seek shelter.

In France, Environment Minister Segolene Royal said camping sites in the Bois de Boulogne and Maison Laffitte, just outside Paris, were evacuated, along with some nursing homes and medical facilities in the Yvelines region west of Paris and in Hauts-de-Seine, to the northwest. She did not elaborate.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said water levels on the Seine in the city were dropping at less than one centimeter per hour, and cautioned vigilance.

"Under Paris, it's really like Swiss cheese with canalizations, the Metro, sometimes huge working spaces," she said.

The swollen Seine, where riverside restaurants are partially flooded and floating barges are unable to pass under bridges, was becoming a tourist attraction in itself. Gawkers, tourists and Parisians alike leaned off bridges or ventured down steps toward flooded roadways and jogging paths.

"It's impressive. Very impressive," said Marijke Engelvaart from Apelsdoorn in the Netherlands. "You see it on television, but if you see it live, it makes more of an impression."

France's meteorological service said Saturday that high flood alerts remained in effect in 14 regions, mostly in central and western France.

Valls, the prime minister, said water levels were decreasing "slowly but steadily." He waded in rubber boots through the streets of a town in the Essonne region south of Paris.

Even as the peak water level passed, transportation problems remained throughout the French capital. Several train and subway stations were shut down in the city center and flooded roads abounded.

One of the Seine's tributaries had not seen water levels this high since 1910, when the Great Flood of Paris swamped the capital.

Boats and barges docked in Paris were being carefully watched to ensure none would cast off their moorings.

"It's just water," said Nicolas Hainsohn, a houseboat resident, told The Associated Press. "(But) it's tricky to dock, because you need to follow the water flow. You have to be careful, otherwise you can hit the river bank."

Mstyslav Chernov and Chris Den Hond in Paris and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.