L’Ile de la Cité is, in many ways, a condensed version of Paris: It offers magnificent architecture, eye-catching perspectives, atmospheric streets and bridges. Like the rest of the French capital, it is a combination of history and elegance, and in sections, tacky touristy eateries and shops. It is crowded and loud, yet, at certain times of day, (and off season,) one can stroll around the island and enjoy a slice of the authentic, romantic experience Paris is famous for around the world. Like many Parisian neighborhoods, it benefited from the extensive urban remodel undertaken by Napoleon III and his right-hand man Baron Eugene Haussmann, the Prefect of Paris, in the second half of the 19th century. Unlike its smaller, more residential neighbor, l’Ile Saint Louis, l’Ile de la Cité has played a prominent part in the history of the French capital. It is more than 2000 years old, and developed over the centuries as a military and government center. As such, it is packed with landmarks, several of which are Historic Monuments of France or Unesco World Heritage sites.
Who has not discovered Notre-Dame de Paris, the glorious gothic masterpiece erected over the course of 200 years, and the most visited site in France, or its neighbor, la Sainte-Chapelle and its ornate and exquisite stained glass work? Every day, visitors flock to these iconic landmarks and are willing to line up, sometimes for hours, to experience some of the magic. Notre-Dame and la Sainte Chapelle are the ruling stars of l’Ile de la Cité. It’s best to arrive early if you want to avoid crowds, even if repeat visitors might point out la Sainte Chapelle‘s giant stained glass windows show much better at sunset. While Notre-Dame de Paris is hard to miss from wherever you are on the island because of its majestic size, la Sainte-Chapelle is tucked inside the courtyard of le Palais de la Cité (Palais de Justice) and with la Conciergerie, another must-see monument, used to be part of the medieval royal palace until French kings decided to relocate to le Louvre, across the Seine river, at the end of the 14th century.
Less visited sites on the island include the moving Memorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, located behind Notre-Dame, on the site of the former city morgue. It honors the memory of those who died in Nazi concentration camps between 1941 and 1944. Even if it was inaugurated in the early 1960s, many miss it, which is a shame, as it is effective and thought-provoking.
Off le quai de la Corse, next to le Tribunal de Commerce, la place Louis Lépine and its flower and bird market named after Queen Elizabeth II are must-sees. Here’s one of my favorite retreats on bustling Ile de la Cité. The market, built in the 19th century, is worth a detour year round including on winter days, as some sections are sheltered under recognizable glass and steel pavilions dating back to 1900.
The western tip of l’Ile de la Cité is one of the most popular sites on the island. There, a delightful garden above the Seine river offers visitors a chance to unwind, enjoy a picnic, or watch the world go by at le square du Vert Galant, named after King Henry IV. “Le bon roi Henri,” (the good King Henry,) as generations of French elementary school children have come to know him, greets you on his horse as you approach.
When le square du Vert Galant is too busy (it often is, in part because one of the river tour boats docks there,) I don’t fight other visitors for space under that giant willow tree. Instead, I go back up the stairs, cross la place du Pont Neuf and head to la place Dauphine. This is one of my favorite locations in Paris, and I dream of living there one day. The closest I ever got was when I spent a couple of magical nights at a former budget hotel (now closed) that used to be located there, l’Hôtel Henri IV. If you need proof that even in the middle of a busy, touristy neighborhood Paris can feel like a village, don’t miss it! Merci, Bon Roi Henri, for this urban treasure! From the art galeries and restaurants lining up the square, to pétanque players engaged in animated conversations in the center, la vie est belle indeed, on la place Dauphine.
A long time ago, an iconic couple lived here. Actors, activists and lovers Yves Montand and Simone Signoret had just gotten married in 1951 when they moved into a former bookstore. The original Parisian Bobos (Bourgeois-Bohèmes,) they transformed the long narrow space into a duplex they would nickname “la roulotte,” (the caravan.) It opened on le quai des Orfèvres at one end, and la place Dauphine at the other. Today, Montand and Signoret are long gone, even if they are remembered fondly in France. La roulotte has been turned into an art gallery, la Galerie du Vert Galant. I have stepped in on a couple of occasions as I walked along le quai des Orfèvres to check out the collections, but mostly, (like many others I suspect,) to try and picture Yves and Simone during their happy years at la place Dauphine on the Ile de la Cité.
One last thing…
Now that you have finished reading this story and have just left a comment, below, you might as well swing by the French Girl in Seattle boutique to check out our fun French-themed gifts! (just a thought!)
Merci et à bientôt, Véronique