Every day I ventured down to a little supermarket on the Île St Louis. I never left empty-handed: a smoked chicken, some quail, or perhaps some cheese; yoghurt in its own ceramic pot, a bottle of red. Consisting of two aisles barely wide enough for two people to pass the place could hardly be classified as a supermarket, yet it was not a corner store, for in that small shop lay a wealth of offerings to put any supermarket to shame. The shop was simply the essence of the Île St Louis.
Paris is a city for walking. After visiting Notre Dame – and the delightful playground in the square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral – stroll over the Pont St-Louis to the Île St Louis. (First take a brief detour to see the love-locks decorating the Pont de l’Archevêché. They keep returning, no matter how often the council removes them.) Once a swamp, the Île St Louis is now Paris’ most desired address. Known by the rest of Paris as ‘Louisiens’, many of the inhabitants rarely leave the island, not even to shop or do their banking. More ancient than the rest of Paris, many believe the island to be haunted – plus it boasts Paris’ best sorbet.
Developed in the 17th century, (nearly all the houses here were built between 1618 and 1660), the island has never gone out of fashion. The area near the Pont St-Louis offers spectacular views of the Île de la Cité and Notre-Dame, while from the Quai d’Orléans the Left Bank and the Panthéon come into view. Walking along the chestnut-lined quais past the moss-covered houses, take a moment to wave at the tourist bateaux as they drift past the island. At No. 6 Quai d’Orléans is the Société Historique et Littéraire Polonaise, open only on a Thursday afternoon. It contains works and mementoes of the exiled poet Adam Mickiewicz – known as the ‘Byron of Poland’ – and a large library of Polish literature. A room on the ground floor is dedicated to Chopin, including his armchair.
The Quai d’Orléans becomes the Quai de Béthune, often called Le Quai de Balcon for the balcony-covered buildings, designed by the royal architect Louis Le Vau (of Versailles fame).
Continuing around the end of the island leads to the Quai d’Anjou. At No.1, on the tip of the island, is the
Hôtel Lambert, considered the most beautiful residence in Paris. Designed by Le Vau, it was decorated by Charles Le Brun, who also painted Versailles’ Galerie des Glaces. Following the Polish uprising against Russia in 1831, the exiled Prince Adam Czartoryski bought the Hôtel and turned it into a salon for Polish intellectuals and artists, with Fréderic Chopin provided the music. From all accounts, the man knew how to throw a good party. Other past inhabitants include Voltaire.
At no. 17 Quai d’Anjoi is the Hôtel Lauzun, which rose to prominence in the 1840s when the Île St Louis became a Bohemian haunt. Les Club Hashischins met here monthly, where the likes of Manet, Balzac, Dumas, Hugo and Baudelaire were served hashish in the form of green jelly.
Originally the Île St Louis was cut into two by a canal (now the Rue Poulletier), with the eastern island called the Île aux Vaches (the Island of Cows) and used for grazing; the western island was called Île Notre-Dame (both were owned by the chapter of Notre Dame).
In 1614, Louis XIII allowed the engineer Marie to join the islands and connect them with both the Left and Right banks. Marie then developed the island to attract those searching for property in the then fashionable Marias; this is why the streets of the island, unlike the rest of Paris, are in a grid pattern. The Pont Marie connects the island to the Right Bank; the original bridge, complete with 22 houses, collapsed in 1658.
Beyond the Pont Marie is the Quai de Bourbon. Along here Marie installed bateaux lavoirs (barges used as public laundries), in use until well into the 1880s. The wrought iron gates of No. 1 sport a grape-and-vine motif. Once a cabaret for sailors, it doubled as a store for subversive material and pamphlets it closed in 1716.
At the corner of the Quai de Bourbon and Rue Le Regrattier stands a headless statue of St Nicolas, patron saint of boatmen. (Intriguingly, Rue Le Regrattier was once called Rue de la Femme Sans Tête, taking its name from a sign showing a headless woman with a glass in one hand and the slogan Tout est Bon – All Is Good.)
At any point walking around the island simply take a turn and venture into the inner streets. The most expensive apartments have has always been those facing the Seine, yet the buildings on the inner streets radiate instead a sedate old-world charm. For many, the gem of the island is the church St-Louis-en-l’Île, on the street of the same name. Like so many buildings here it was designed by Le Vau. Boasting a rich, Jesuit-baroque interior, it includes a statue of St Louis holding a crusader’s sword. (The church is twinned with Carthage Cathedral, Tunisia, where St Louis is buried.)
It is here, away from the facades facing the Seine, that you can feel the life of the island. The area between Rue des Deux Ponts and Rue St-Louis-en-l’Île is filled with small restaurants and cafés, and eclectic shops well worth exploring. I found a small gift shop filled with the most exquisite wooden toys. Should all the walking have proved too much, at No. 31 rue St-Louis-en-l’Ile (on the corner of rue des Deux-Ponts) is Berthillon, claimed by some to be the best ice-cream and sorbet parlour in all Europe. With long queues and erratic opening hours, luckily there is another excellent shop just further down the street – and opposite I found my supermarket.
Perhaps I came every day just as excuse to try a different flavoured sorbet, perhaps it was to explore a village hidden in Paris; perhaps it was simply because, when I stepped over the threshold, I felt I stepped into a different world, where the streams of time flowed more slowly.
(c) A. Harrison