Iris escapade at Parc de Bagatelle

Iris garden, Parc de Bagatelle
Parc de Bagatelle iris garden, 27 May 2022

I was first told about the iris garden in the Parc de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne by the French librarian at the OECD, to whom I was giving English lessons at the time. It seems to be a local secret, visited mainly by residents of the exclusive 16th arrondissement in which the Bois is situated.  Like the librarian, who made the excursion every year, I try to visit it between late May and June, when the different irises are all in flower together for a window of about three weeks. I’ve missed some years, although one year I successfully used the irises as bait to persuade friends to visit from London. They agreed I hadn’t exaggerated the effect.

This year I missed one self-appointed date and a friend cancelled at the last minute for the other. It was getting late on Friday 27 May when I decided to stick to my third plan, despite having been slowed down by chores, and plunged into the métro. I knew I couldn’t possibly get to Bagatelle before 7 pm and the park closes at 8, but I thought even an hour would be worth it. It was only when the bus which I had taken from the métro started crossing the Seine into Puteaux that I realised I had missed my stop and was being carried at a spanking pace into an unknown region beyond Paris.

With great presence of mind I hopped off at the next stop, crossed to the other side of the road and jumped onto a bus going in the other direction, horribly conscious of time ticking away. But the bus didn’t retrace the route I had taken. It turned off to the right along the Seine. With a sinking heart I got off and followed the river back in what I hoped was the right direction, only to see the footpath coming to an end and what looked like an endless motorway roaring along beside me into the distance. I asked the only pedestrian in sight, who knew as little as I did, although we both pored over our respective phones. Finally I took a tempting footbridge leading across the Seine to an island, mainly to get away from the traffic, turned right along the riverside footpath and after asking two more people for directions finally found myself at the edge of the Bois in familiar territory.

With aching feet I galloped up to the entrance to Bagatelle at 7.30 pm and got to the gate leading to the iris garden which was just being closed by a park attendant. He warned me it would only be open for another 15 minutes, as they start closing the park at 7.50 pm. I breathlessly thanked him, reached the garden and sank down on a bench within the sound of a little fountain splashing into the tiny canal that runs the length of the garden.

Right on cue, the sun came out and transfigured the irises. The garden was almost empty, something I have never experienced before, and the lengthening shadows and the unearthly cries of peacocks in the park outside completed the sense of having been suddenly transported to a different world. There were only two people there, both intently photographing the irises in different parts of the garden. They studiously ignored me, so I did the same. I sniffed at several irises to inhale their fragrance, which I have discovered varies with the colour. Some smell delicious, others less so. The pale blue ones still had the most delicate scent.

When the attendant came to ask me to leave I beamed at him and said it had been well worth it, and I meant it. It was only when I reached the bus stop that I discovered why I had missed my stop on the way there. The bus was on a deviation and I would have to walk back to the métro at Pont de Neuilly, something I had never done before.  Feeling too devil-may-care by now to consult my phone I simply continued strolling along the quiet Rue de Longchamp, and made a useful new discovery. It is a more direct route to the métro than the one taken by the bus, less than 1½ km, and the street itself felt more and more soothingly provincial. Looking up just before no. 32, I was charmed to see an old sign forbidding people from letting their horses and oxen mount the pavement

Sign in rue de Longchamp
Sign in rue de Longchamp

followed by a plaque with the history of the house, which had belonged to the Victorian writer, Théophile Gautier.

Maison Théophile Gautier
Maison Théophile Gautier, 32 rue de Longchamp

The street ended in an unexpected little cluster of upmarket local food shops, restaurants and quiet cafés, outside which the well-heeled inhabitants of Neuilly sur Seine were sipping their aperitifs. It felt almost like a stage set for a French village. I turned right at the end of the street, using the phone to guide me this time, and there was the métro, in the busy main road which links the concrete square arch at La Défense to the Arc de Triomphe.

I felt as if I had been very far away from Paris in a very short time.  With hindsight, every minute of that journey had been worthwhile.

You can consult the updated chapter on the Parc de Bagatelle in the new edition of Half An Hour From Paris, currently being prepared for publication.

New edition of Half An Hour From Paris in 2022

New edition of Half An Hour From Paris
Heron fishing in the River Bièvre near Igny

Since October I’ve been busily working on a new edition of Half An Hour From Paris, to be published in full colour in spring 2022.  I’ve managed to update five of the ten walks and am pleased to report that so far not very much has changed, in spite of Covid.

I saw the heron while updating the walk along the River Bièvre from Igny to Jouy en Josas at the end of  November. The day was so grey, wet and cold that I hadn’t brought my camera, not wanting to fiddle with it as well as with gloves, umbrella, pencil and book, as the light wouldn’t be good enough anyway. So I sneaked up on the heron as close as I dared with my Iphone and to my surprise he didn’t move at all.

I bitterly regretted not bringing the camera, as the quality of this picture won’t be good enough to appear in the book. So I am publishing it here as a foretaste of spring and a reminder that even a winter walk in the Ile de France can be unexpectedly rewarding.

With warm wishes for Christmas and 2022!

An autumn walk along the Marne with two surprising detours

Article first published in Bonjour Paris, 29 November 2021

Champigny to Nogent via the Ile Fanac and the Jardin Tropical
Maison Fanac on the Ile Fanac
Maison Fanac, former guinguette on the Ile Fanac, now the Ecole Municipale des Arts

The Marne near Joinville is the perfect choice for a town-dweller’s autumn stroll, combining the glowing colours of the trees reflected in the water with quick and easy access to Paris. You can shorten or lengthen your walk at whim, as you are never far from a station on the express RER A line.

Since the 19th century this picturesque part of the Marne has been a traditional playground for Parisians as well as locals at weekends, with several famous boating clubs and guinguettes (riverside restaurants with a dance floor and accordion music) still operating along its banks. Joinville is also famous for the cinema studios where several landmark French films were made in the 1930s and 40s.

But what is surprising about this popular and generally tidy part of the river is the survival of two little pockets of greenery where nature has been allowed to flourish more or less unchecked. I knew about the quietly decaying Jardin Tropical hidden on the edge of the Bois de Vincennes, but I didn’t realise how close it was to the Marne until I took this walk. Nor had I ever visited the tiny and surprisingly rustic Ile Fanac, although it is easily accessed by steps down from the Pont de Joinville. I just hadn’t noticed them, assuming that the island was only accessible by boat.

You could easily do the 4½ km riverside walk from Champigny to Joinville without making either of these two detours, perhaps combining it with lunch at La Mascotte riverside restaurant en route. But if you enjoy off-beat discoveries, the Ile Fanac will add another kilometre to your walk if you return from Joinville station and the Jardin Tropical a further 2½ km, returning from the station at Nogent sur Marne.

8 km walk from Champigny to Nogent, via the Ile Fanac and the Jardin Tropical

From Champigny RER station take the exit for the bus station and cross at the pedestrian crossing facing you. Take the quiet Rue St Benoit ahead, slightly to your left, and follow it to the end, where you will see the Marne. Turn right to go down to the towpath and then left to follow it under the Pont de Champigny for just over 2 km. The path here is prettier and closer to the water than on the other side.

Champigny towards Joinville
The Marne from Champigny towards Joinville

Just before the next bridge, the Pont du Petit Parc, look for the steps leading up to it and cross to the other side of the river. More steps lead down onto the Quai Gabriel Peri. Turn right to follow the river for less than a kilometre to the next bridge, the Pont de Joinville.

Marne near Joinville
Seagulls and cormorants perched across the Marne near Joinville

Just before the bridge you will pass the riverside terrace of La Mascotte, a restaurant overlooking the boats moored at the Port de Joinville. I had quite a good couscous lunch here one Sunday, although the overworked waiter served it with the absolute minimum of ceremony and on another occasion we had to wait a long time for the coffee we had ordered. But it is so rare to find an unpretentious café-restaurant overlooking the river near Paris that La Mascotte is deservedly popular.

Soon afterwards you will pass the former Pathé film studios, with a sign explaining that they were built by Gustave Eiffel in 1906. Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis, arguably one of the finest French films ever made, was completed here in 1944.

Pathé studios, Joinville
The former Pathé cinema studios at Joinville

After passing the studios return to the riverside path and continue under the Pont de Joinville, where you will find an unobtrusive set of steps leading up onto the bridge.

Steps down from the bridge on the right lead to the tiny Ile Fanac, alongside a lift installed in 2011. You will find yourself in a little park with a useful map displayed nearby. Turn right to follow the riverside footpath around the island.

Ile Fanac
Map of the Ile Fanac

The Ile Fanac is only 600 metres long and a mere 100 metres wide, containing just 32 buildings mostly hidden by trees, and has around 100 residents, many of them artists.  Cycling is not permitted and there are of course no cars.

Ile Fanac east bank
Footpath along the east bank of the Ile Fanac

It has been inhabited since the 19th century and was the site of the first rowing club in France, the Club Aviron Marne et Joinville, built in 1883 and still there, although the building is a reconstruction dating from 2007 after a fire destroyed the original. But the most iconic building is the former Maison Fanac on the west bank (lead photo) from which the island takes its name. It once housed a popular guinguette called ‘Chez Jullien’, vividly described by Zola in his novel Au Bonheur des Dames, 1883. It was saved from demolition in the 1960s and now houses the Ecole Municipale des Arts (music and dance).

Apart from its two boating clubs and the Ecole des Arts, the island is exclusively residential. In the 1960s its future was threatened by a plan to turn it into a sports complex. As a result it was declared a conservation area in 1965 and the entire island is now protected from development, with environmentally sensitive measures taken to prevent erosion of the banks and flooding.

You can follow the footpath right round the island, including the overgrown northern tip where another guinguette used to stand, past houses half hidden by gardens, some with enviable little jetties.

Ile Fanac, west bank
House on the west bank of the Ile Fanac

Leave the island by the steps from which you arrived, and continue to the other side of the bridge.

West bank of the Ile Fanac at the Pont de Joinville

If you decide to end the walk at this point, take the right hand side of the busy uphill road which is a continuation of the bridge, the Rue Jean Mermoz, and turn right at the end into the Avenue Jean Jaurès for the RER station at Joinville le Pont.

To continue the walk, turn right from the bridge to follow the towpath for another 2 km to Nogent. You might pass an occasional fisherman or canoe but the setting becomes steadily more urban and eventually you will have to leave the towpath. Continue to follow the river until you come to a little bandstand. I can recommend it as a useful shelter if you are caught in a shower, as I was.

Bandstand, Nogent sur Marne
Bandstand, Nogent sur Marne

Opposite the bandstand on the other side of the river, you can see the gigantic sign for Chez Gégène, the doyen of the guinguettes still operating on the Marne and something of an institution.

With your back to the bandstand take the right hand side of the Avenue Franklin Roosevelt in front of you, continue across the Avenue Charles V and up the steps ahead of you. Follow the footpath to the Avenue Watteau, past a discreet sign relating that a château given by Charles VII to his mistress Agnès Sorel in 1444 once stood here, demolished around 1626.

Château Royal de Beauté, Nogent
Sign marking the site of the Château Royal de Beauté, built c. 1375

Cross the main road ahead, the Avenue de Joinville and continue straight over into the quiet Avenue des Chataigniers, where you will see a signpost for the Jardin Tropical. The first turning on your right, the Avenue des Marronniers, leads to the RER station of Nogent sur Marne.

Continue along the Avenue des Chataigniers to the end and cross the road to arrive at the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale in the Bois de Vincennes facing you. A faded red Chinese archway decorated with dragons and phoenixes marks the entrance to the 4½-hectare park within a park.

Jardin Tropical, Nogent
Entrance to the Jardin Tropical

To the right of the archway you are in Asia, to the left in Africa, but it won’t take very long to make a circular tour of the park which will bring you back to your starting point.

The site was originally created in 1899 for the scientific cultivation and study of rubber, coffee, cocoa, banana and vanilla plants, which were then sent to the French colonies in Africa and Asia to improve the crops being grown there. In 1907 Tuareg, Indo-Chinese, Madagascan, Congolese, Sudanese and New Caledonian ‘colonial villages’ were recreated in the Jardin Tropical for the ‘Exposition Coloniale’ which attracted two million visitors between May and October. The decaying pavillons dotting the park today are the remnants of these artificial villages.

Jardin Tropical
Pavillon du Maroc, Jardin Tropical

During the First World War soldiers from the colonies were treated in a hospital in the Jardin Tropical, a mosque was built there (no longer standing) and after the war memorials to those who died fighting for France were put up. They were covered with flowers on my most recent visit, just after 11 November.

Jardin Tropical, Nogent
Memorial to soldiers from Madagascar, 1918

The site was used by various horticultural research centres until 1995 but tropical plants were no longer grown there. The abandoned buildings continued to decay and some were vandalised.

In 2003 the site was acquired by the City of Paris and has been open to the public since 2006, although not many people seem to know about it. It is listed as of historical significance but until quite recently a general air of neglect pervaded the whole place. There has been some attempt to make more of the site, with detailed explanatory notices and a general tidying-up, and further restoration is planned. But it has retained its slightly melancholy and mysterious atmosphere, especially on weekdays when it is almost deserted.

Jardin Tropical, Nogent
Memorial to soldiers from Indo-China, 1918

Return from the main entrance back along the Avenue de Chataigniers and turn left into the Avenue des Marronniers to find the RER station at Nogent sur Seine on the right.

walk from Champigny to Nogent
8 km walk from Champigny to Nogent via Ile Fanac and the Jardin Tropical. OpenStreetMap © Annabel Simms D = Depart, A = Arrive, ②= 2 km

RER A trains to Boissy St Leger from Châtelet-Les Halles run every 10 minutes or less and take 21 minutes to Champigny. The return journey from Joinville le Pont is at the same frequency and takes 15 minutes; trains from Nogent sur Marne take 13 minutes. Details

The Ile St Louis – the hidden island in the heart of Paris

This is the full version of the article on the Ile St Louis which was first published in the Mail on Sunday, 10 October 2021.

Annabel Simms shares the secrets of the Ile St Louis
Quai d'Orléans, Ile St Louis
Quai d’Orléans, Ile St Louis

The Ile St Louis is less than half a mile long and only 273 yards wide, with no famous monuments and no metro. But it is joined to the back of Notre Dame by the Pont St Louis footbridge, to the Right and Left Bank by three bridges, and is surrounded by six metro stations. Connected to the heart of the city but separated by water from its bustle and traffic, it is the perfect choice for a quiet pause or a relaxing stroll away from the crowds.

Visitors wanting the best view of Notre Dame’s flying buttresses tend to cluster along the Pont St Louis with its street performers and musicians, and some of them continue down the island’s main street to form queues outside Berthillon’s famous ice cream parlour. But after that point the crowds abruptly stop and few foreigners descend the steps to the quays. I suspect that for many of them the words ‘Ile St Louis’ don’t convey very much, as they didn’t to me when I first arrived in Paris.

Not so for most Parisians. After 29 years on the Ile St Louis I still enjoy watching their faces change when I tell them where I live. I quickly add that I live in a studio on the fifth floor with no lift, but even so, they can rarely suppress a sigh of envy.

Like most islands, the Ile St Louis feels subtly different from the mainland. On weekdays the main street, which runs through its centre like the backbone of a fish, has a village-like, almost provincial atmosphere. Its narrow side streets leading to the river tend to be quiet, even at weekends.

Rue St Louis-en-l'Ile, Ile St Louis
The main street, Rue St Louis-en-l’Ile, looking towards Notre Dame


Rue Budé, Ile St Louis
Rue Budé, looking towards the Left Bank

Unlike the Ile de la Cité, which has always been the religious and judicial centre of Paris and contains traces of the Roman and medieval past, the Ile St Louis only came into existence in the 17th century, when it was developed as a residential quarter.

It was originally two little islands belonging to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, used as pasture land for centuries until they were built over to form one island in the 1640s. Its straight streets and elegant riverside mansions were designed as an extension of the newly fashionable Marais on the Right Bank of the Seine, in the style which reached its apogee at Versailles. Their classical honey-coloured façades still give the island its satisfying architectural unity.

Although the fashionableness of the Ile St Louis has waxed, waned and waxed again, along with the Marais, it has consistently appealed to exiles of all kinds: the rich, the poor, the famous, the foreign, the talented, or just the plain eccentric. Charles Baudelaire, Paul Cézanne, Camille Claudel, Marie Curie, Baron Guy de Rothschild and President Pompidou were all former residents. Its top floors are still inhabited by the young and poor and its riverside mansions by the very rich.

It is a favourite place for many Parisians to take their Sunday walks, buy a Berthillon ice cream or just sit on its quiet quaysides overlooking the river. They come to play the guitar, picnic or sunbathe, watching the iconic views of Paris across the sparkling water. The roar of the city’s traffic is dissolved by the river. On the island’s quays the main sounds are those of seagulls, punctuated by the drifting commentaries from the passing bateaux-mouches and the waves rhythmically washing against the quay in their wake.

A friend of mine, visiting from London, was astonished to notice that several sunny hours had sped by as we sat talking on a bench on the Quai d’Orléans and that we were now surrounded by young Parisians. Some of them had brought bottles of wine or beer but they were barely making a sound. That could never happen in London, she said, deeply impressed.

Quai d'Orléans, Ile St Louis
Parisians on the Quai d’Orléans

Recommended places on the island, starting from the Pont St Louis

Le Flore en l’Ile café to the right of the footbridge has the best views of Notre Dame and the Panthéon on the Left Bank. Nearby, a very Parisian and reasonably priced snack of oysters and a glass of white wine can be had at Poget et De Witte’s oyster bar at 5 Rue Jean du Bellay, which also does takeaway.

Berthillon’s ice-cream parlour, founded in 1954 at no. 31 rue St Louis-en-l’Ile, is famous for using only natural ingredients. Berthillon ice cream is also available at several cafés on the island.

The baroque church of St Louis-en’l’Ile is a little further on, at 19 rue St Louis-en-l’Ile.

At the end of the street is the Hotel Lambert at no. 2, overlooking the eastern end of the island. It was designed in 1640 by Louis Le Vau with ceilings painted by Charles Le Brun, both later employed by Louis XIV at Versailles. Considered one of the most beautiful houses in Paris, it is currently owned by the brother of the Emir of Quatar.

The equally resplendent Hotel Lauzun next door at 17 Quai d’Anjou, facing the Right Bank, is owned by the city of Paris. Note the drainpipes outside in the form of dolphins with their scales picked out in gold. Baudelaire founded the Club des Haschischins (Hashish Eaters) here, when he was a tenant on the top floor in 1843.

Hotel Lauzun, Ile St Louis
Dolphin drainpipe, Hotel Lauzun

The south-facing Quai d’Orléans near the Pont de la Tournelle, is the best spot for sunbathing, picnicking or just watching the sunset.

Quai d'Orléans, Ile St Louis
Quai d’Orléans, looking towards the Panthéon, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower
Ile de la Cité and Ile St Louis
Ile de la Cité and Ile St Louis, Google maps 2021