Paris Stories and Tips

Heart of Paris: Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite

Ile St Louis from the Pont D'Arcole Photo, Paris, France

If money was no object and you could choose anywhere you wanted to live in Europe - Ile de la Cite, and its brother Ile St Louis, should be top of the list. Nowadays you cannot get an apartment there unless you are the Aga Khan, the pretender for the French throne or an ex-Russian grand duke - the place is that exclusive. But you do not have to have blue-blood to enjoy its pleasures. This is where Paris began and is the heart of the city. The two islands are connected by beautiful bridges and surrounded by the flowing waters of the Seine. Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle are the most famous attractions. But I think the greatest pleasures are just wandering the stone quais gazing up at the flying buttresses of the Cathedral, the turrets of the Conceirge or the balconied apartment blocks of the nobility. I'll show you a few corners you may not have thought of before, and which are rather special.

Ile de la Cite was where Paris began. Archeaologists have found stone age settlements going back 4,000 years and it was the Parisii that the Romans conquered, to build up the city as it was the best crossing point on the Seine. From there the city grew out and upwards. There has been a church on the site of Notre Dame for a thousand years and the current one was built in 1265. But Ile de la Cite was mainly covered in a warren of medieval housing, the Parvis in front of the Cathedral was where the market was held and the Place Greve across the water was where witches were burn't and public executions took place. Baron Haussman destroyed the medieval city and put up the Palais de Justice and such austere governmental buildings. The Ile is now almost entirely non-residential with only a few exclusive places' on the tip of the Ile - the rest is the domain of camera-clicking tourists.

The metro can take you directly there to Cite stop, which brings you out directly on Place Lepine and its market. But I think the best approach is over the bridges, that way you get to look down on the Bateau-mouhces' plying the river below you. And the sight of the buildings, especially the Conceirge, lit up at night as you cross the bridges is spectacular. Pont St Michel from the Rive Gauche seems the most popular, but I recomend Pont D'Arcole from the Hotel De Ville as you will have breathtaking views of the Ile de St Louis upstream (see photo). Most visitors make for Place du Parvis du Notre Dame and gaze up at the Cathedral. This is undeniably impressive, especially if you have never seen a gothic cathedral before. The legends attached to Notre Dame are legion - the self-crowning of Napoleon as Emperor, the medieval place of sanctuary, and of course - the Hunchback. When you gaze up and see the gargoyles and monsters - it still evokes the time of Esmerelda and Quasimodo.

Before you enter wander around the exterior and get a good look at the architecture. The two towers of its front facade loom into the air with lines of kings carved above the rose window. Also take a look at the rear with its flying buttresses, very advanced in their day and copied all over Europe. The gardens set around Notre Dame are beautiful and worth a look. The interior, for me, was a little disapointing. The great rose windows were superb - throwing multi-coloured light amongst the columns and shadows. But you are herded around and the ceiling was rather plain (I'd seen better ceilings in English Cathedrals, notably York Minster, and Westminster Abbey is more ornately delicate). But the best thing about Notre Dame is a trip up to the towers and bells. For 20 Francs you could climb the steps to the towers, you emerge on a platform with a balaustrade decorated with leering gargoyles and fiends. From here you could see the Ile de la Cite spread around you and the spires of Sainte Chapelle, even as far as Sacre Coeur perched on its hill. This excursion I would strongly recommend.

Back on terra firma I poked my nose into the ancient Hotel Dieu (The Hospital) and Palais de Justice with clerks in flowing robes milling around. Place Leuteuce contains a wonderful flower and pet market - with songbirds trilling away. But I followed Quai de Orferes northwards to Place Dauphin. This beautiful square is surrounded by beautiful houses offset by plane trees and gravel earth - Parisian squares never have any grass in them, only gravel. At the tip of the Ile, past the statue of Henri IV, is the Place du Vert Galant. This garden is right at the western tip of the island, and is very green with willow trees trailing in the Seine. Bateau Mouches' deposit and collect passengers from here, and you can watch waterweeds sway in the current.

If this has given you a tasted of romantic life on Paris' islands -the head for Ile St Louis. Attached to its neighbour by the Pont St Louis, this is nearly deserted and just as pretty. It's aristocratic apartment blocks overlook the latin quarter, and you can take an ice-cream from Berthillions, wander down to the stone quais and gaze at the rear of Notre Dame (see photo). You may not have blue-blood but you can act like royalty and have a good time on the Ile de St Louis.

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