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The Islands

The Islands, 1st and 4th arrondissements
M° Ile de la Cité & Ile St-Louis

Paris – and the country of France itself – was born on the Ile-de-la-Cité. Although virtually wiped clear of its winding medieval streets during Haussmann’s reconstruction in the late 1800s, the island is still an intriguing showcase of Paris history, and still serves as the central administrative headquarters for the French justice system.

At its most western tip you’ll find the tiny green Square du Vert Galant, a popular spot for fishing on the Seine. From here you’ll get a good look at the stone arches of the city’s oldest bridge, ironically called Pont Neuf (New Bridge). Constructed under Henry IV in 1603, it was the first bridge in Paris without houses built on it. It’s still the longest bridge in Paris. The statue of Henri IV on the platform is actually a replacement commissioned by Louis XVIII after the original dating back to 1614 was torn down by the 1789 Revolutionaries. At the foot of the square is the landing for the Vedettes du Pont Neuf (one of my favorite Seine River cruise companies).

* Hungry? The Taverne Henri IV, across from the equestrian statue of the former king, is a great little wine bistro with hearty tartes and salads accompanied by wines bought direct from the growers (that means it’s easy on the wallet).

Cut through the tree-lined Place Dauphine (where you get a good view of the back of the Palais de Justice, completely restored in 2006) to the Quai de l’Horloge, which brings you to the foot of the medieval Conciergerie. Built in the early 14th century, this was part of the first French royal fortress (they later moved to the Louvre) until it became a prison in 1391. During the 1789 Revolution, 2780 men and women were detained in the Conciergerie while awaiting their trip to the guillotine, including Marie-Antoinette, whose personal belongings and prison cell are now open to public viewing. If macabre wax figures in bad wigs don’t give you the creeps, the 14th century vaulted cellars are quite impressive, if a bit empty.

The oldest clock in Paris is on the facade of the Palais de Justice at the corner of the Quai de l’Horloge (horloge is French for clock) and Pont au Change.Today the Conciergerie is part of the Palais de Justice complex (HQ of the French judicial system), so you’ll see plenty of policemen, Gendarmes, and an impressive iron gate guard the entrance along the busy Boulevard du Palais.

Almost completely hidden behind the towering walls is the 13th century chapel, Sainte-Chapelle. If you only set foot in one religious monument in Paris , do it here. There are actually two floors to the chapel: the one upstairs is what you want to see. Built by Louis IX during the zenith of stained glass arts, there are almost 6500ft² of stained-glass windows representing 1134 scenes, including a giant rose window depicting the Apocalypse. Visit on a sunny day to get the brilliant, kaleidoscope effect. Open daily 10am-5pm, entry €5.50 (€3.50 for students, free for children). Museum Pass accepted. Tel 01 53 73 78 51.

Sainte-Chapelle at night
Classical music concerts are held most nights throughout the year in Ste-Chapelle. See Entertainment & Arts link for more information.

Down the Rue de Lutèce is the imposing Prefecture de Police, softened by the lush colors of the Marché aux Fleurs across the square, the city’s largest plant and garden market (only potted plants, not cut flowers). The greenhouses and boutiques are open to the public Monday through Saturday. On Sundays the sidewalks are taken over by a bustling bird and poultry market.

Around the corner from the Hotel Dieu hospital is one of the city’s most recognizable monuments, Notre-Dame Cathedral. Don’t let the excitement of seeing the famous Gothic portals keep you from looking down: Place du Parvis, the square in front of the church, has cobblestones outlining the original streets and shops that stood in front of the church from the Middle Ages before Baron Haussmann later decided the cathedral needed more breathing room. To give you an idea of the scale of changes the island went through, here’s a little factoid: so many of the cramped residential buildings were torn down to make way for widened roads that the population on the Ile-de-la-Cité fell from 15,000 to 5,000.

The round, bronze plaque on the ground in front of the Cathedral is known as Pointe Zéro, where all distances from Paris are measured (and which makes for an instantly forgettable photo). Underneath the cobblestones is the Crypte du Parvis Notre-Dame, where vestiges of Gallo-Roman streets and housing from the 3rd century were discovered when the city tried to build an underground parking lot there in the 1970s. You still have to pay to go in. Open daily 10am-5pm Tel 01 43 29 83 51. Museum Pass accepted.

If you just saw three busloads of school children enter the cathedral in front of you, take a time-out and duck into the Hôtel Dieu next door, a busy Parisian hospital built in 1878 to replace the original crumbling hospital that stood on the opposite side of the square (straddling the river) since the Middle Ages. It was here that Pasteur did much of his pioneering research. The quiet courtyard gardens are open to the public.

Need a Room? You don’t have to be ill to get a bed overlooking Notre-Dame. In 1992 the top floor was converted into hotel rooms. Modest doubles are just under € 100. Hôtel-Dieu Hospitel (B2 gallery, 6th floor): 1, Place du Parvis-Notre-Dame, 4th Tel 01 44 32 01 00 Fax: 01 44 32 01 16.

Notre-Dame Cathedral is one of the most consistent backdrops in the history of Paris. Built on the site of an ancient Roman temple, the first stones were laid by Pope Alexander III in 1163. Even before it was completed, people came from all over Europe to see this amazing architectural feat. Seven centuries later, we still can’t get enough of the flying buttresses, the stained glass windows, and the intricately carved statues on the façade. Pillaged during the 1789 Revolution (the sanscoulottes smashed the statues of the saints, thinking they were kings) and subsequently turned into a wine depot, it was restored to the church by Napoléon when he was crowned Emperor there in 1804. It survived the Paris Commune of 1871 (supposedly because the communards didn’t want to burn anything too close to the hospital next door where they took their wounded), although suffered badly from neglect. When Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (aka The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) was published in 1831, Parisians were inspired to shell out for massive renovations. It was only in 1854 that the architect Viollet-le-Duc added the gargoyles and spire to the towers. The cathedral is open daily 8am-6:45pm, services are at 9:30am, organ recitals Sundays at 5:30pm. Tel 01 42 34 56 10.

The Towers
If you decide to climb the 400 steps to visit the towers, try and do it as early as possible to avoid “traffic jams” in the claustrophobic corkscrew stairwells. Free guided tours in English are available Wednesday and Thursday at noon, Saturday at 2:30pm, and daily at 2:30pm in August. Don’t forget to ask your guide to tap on the 14-ton church bell “Emmanuelle”. The tower entrance is located on Rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame. Open Monday-Thursday 9am-6:45pm, Friday-Sunday 9am-9:15pm (10am-5pm in winter); entry €5.50, €3.50 for students, free for kids and the 1st Sunday of the month October-March. Museum Pass accepted.

Usually less crowded than the front of Notre-Dame, the gardens of Square Jean XXIII offer great views of the cathedral and a shady place to rest your feet. Before crossing the Pont St-Louis, take a moment to visit the Square de l’Ile-de-France on the eastern-most tip of the island. Once the location of a morgue, it has been home to the emotional Jewish Deportation Memorial since 1962 (open daily 10am-noon and 2pm-5pm)

The Ile-St-Louis

Once a muddy field full of grazing cows, the Ile-St-Louis was developed into residences and shops in the 17th century, and has hardly changed ever since. The privileged few residents of Ile-Saint-Louis are so happily isolated on their island from the modern city life, that they even say they’re “Going to Paris” whenever they cross the Seine. Considering how many visitors march through its streets on a daily basis, the atmosphere remains village-like. Let yourself wander the streets, and maybe get a peek into one of the private courtyards. There’s a memorial plaque on the Hôtel de Jassaud (Quai d’Anjou), where Camille Claudel lived after leaving her lover and contemporary, the sculptor Rodin. Just next door is the magnificent Hôtel de Lauzun . Built in 1656 by Louis le Vau for a wealthy arms dealer, it was eventually sold to the Duke de Lauzun, one of Louis XIVs favored marshals. Baudelaire supposedly wrote most of his novel Fleurs du Mal in a room on the third floor. With most of its original decor still intact, it remains the most authentic example of a 17th century aristocratic residence open to the public. Owned by the City of Paris since 1928, visits are organized by the Caisse des Monuments Historiques, Tel 01 44 61 20 00 . When walking down the main axis of the island, Rue St-Louis-en-Ile, don’t miss the Eglise Saint-Louis-en-l’Ile . There’s a strange clock built in 1741 that hangs down from the entrance like a shop sign. The Baroque church was built between 1644 and 1726. It suffered the same fate as most churches during the Revolution, being shut down and stripped of its artworks. The paintings that decorate the church today were commissioned by the Abbot Bousset from 1864-1888. Concerts take place here almost nightly throughout the summer.

Who was Saint-Louis?
It seems everything on the island is named for Saint-Louis. He was Louis IX, one of France’s most religious kings. He built Saint-Chapelle to hold the religious relics he bought from the Emperor of Constantinople: Christ’s crown of thorns and a piece of the cross. The sainted king died from the plague at Carthage in 1270 during the 8th crusade.

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