The request from my publisher to consider updating An Hour From Paris came just before Christmas. Since then I’ve been recruiting intrepid friends to accompany me as I work my way through the 20 destinations in the book to see what has changed. I expect to have finished by summer so that the new edition can be published in 2025.
So far, updating in the depths of winter has meant clutching the book and a pencil in ungloved hands as a few snowflakes drift down (Provins), squeezing through a barrier to the temporarily closed walk by the Canal St Jean (Chantilly), being unexpectedly invited to view her huge house and grounds by a woman who saw us peeping through her 17th century gateway (La Ferté-Milon) and having a rewarding telephone conversation with the curator of the Maison Debussy (St Germain-en-Laye) who had never heard of the book but thought it a brilliant idea. Oh, and discovering that the traditionally unfriendly local café in Seugy (Royaumont) serves an excellent under-priced kir, actually acknowledged with a smile when I took the glasses back to the counter.
As you can see, there are unexpected pleasures to be had from what could feel like a chore. Provins in particular, which I have not enjoyed much since it became a UNESCO-listed site, has a lovely haunting quality in winter. The Middle Ages seem very close when you are experiencing the same conditions as the people who built those ramparts and the sheer pleasure of finally sitting down in the warmth and sipping ‘hypocras’, a spiced wine drink mentioned by Chaucer, in the one café that was open added the finishing touch.
Only 15 more trips to go – and I’m looking forward to more discoveries.
I’ve now lived in Paris for 32 years and, like most expatriate residents, I have a recurring problem: what to do with family and friends when they come to visit?
Of course I can always turn them loose to visit the city’s famous sights, but what if they’ve already seen them? Current exhibitions are only part of the answer, as I baulk at sending them to join long queues or worse still, having to queue with them. Ideally I want to take them somewhere authentically Parisian that most tourists won’t know about and to share with them the sense of discovery that is one of the great rewards of travel. So I have found that the best solution is to show them surprising little-known places I’ve recently discovered.
My latest find is at no. 55 bis Rue des Francs Bourgeois in the Marais, a street I have walked down hundreds of times. Last year I noticed a small gateway which I hadn’t seen before and on impulse went inside.
The entrance led past a tower, the massive base of which turned out to be an astonishing remnant of the 12th century city wall built by Philippe Auguste. Next to the tower was a pillar, an elegant fragment from the 17th century Hotel de Nouvion which once stood here, set on an earlier base with the date 1577 carved into it. The tower is at the corner of a hidden courtyard, with a café inside it, which was closed. I made a mental note to go back and try the café, but of course I never did.
Last week, walking down the same street, I saw a sign for ‘Crédit Muncipal’ above another, larger gateway. I assumed it led to a boring bank but went through it, past the security guards into a courtyard. There I read the fascinating history of the ‘Mont-de-Piété’, founded in 1637 as a sort of People’s Pawnbroker, offering credit at reasonable rates for objects deposited. The ‘Crédit Municipal de Paris’, owned by the city, is its direct descendant and operates on similar lines to this day, at the same spot. Then I noticed an archway at the side which looked vaguely familiar. It led into the courtyard with the tower and hidden café which I had found a year earlier.
This time I made a note of the address of the café which is opposite the forbidding-looking entrance to the ‘Archives Nationales’. Reflecting that I had never set foot inside that building either, and with a family visit looming, I went inside, expecting to find that it wasn’t open to the public.
But the immense circular courtyard led to a staggering building, the 17th century Hotel de Soubise, once the home of the powerful Guise family and now the repository of the nation’s most precious archives. It houses a museum with ‘Entrée gratuite’ encouragingly written over the entrance.
I climbed the grand staircase to the first floor to see the special exhibition about the royal family’s confinement in the Tuileries 1789-1792 and ended up losing all sense of time as I read the secret correspondence between Marie-Antoinette and her lover, the Swedish count Axel von Fersen, who arranged the doomed flight of the royal family to Varennes in 1791.
The letters were written in French in a code that has only recently been cracked, although some phrases which Fersen had carefully blacked out are still unreadable, even with the latest technology. The technical details of the code are clearly presented in French and English and cleverly brought to life in a video in which the faces of the Queen and Fersen are never shown. The camera peeps over their shoulders to show each stage of the coded letter-writing, lace-draped hands painstakingly writing out the draft with a quill, converting it to code and the whole process in reverse at the other end so that the letter could finally be read.
I was deeply impressed by the non-gimmicky but cutting-edge presentation, by the restored princely rooms on the first floor with painted ceilings rivalling Versailles, and pleasantly surprised by the uncrowded space.
There were far more visitors when I returned on a public holiday a few days later but nothing like the crowds at the big Paris exhibitions. Admission to the museum’s special exhibitions has recently been made free and the weekend opening hours extended. On my second visit I discovered an un-named secluded garden with a maze of hidden arbours, outside the Hotel de Rohan to the right of the museum entrance.
I knew that my family would love these places, which are just around the corner from the Centre Pompidou. And from past experience with them, other visitors and from readers’ comments, I also knew that at least one day trip to a little-known place outside Paris would be a highlight of their stay.
So one Sunday I took two friends, one a long-term resident of Paris, the other a frequent visitor from London, to the ancient hilltop stronghold of Château-Landon, 82 km south east of Paris in the valley of the River Loing. We took the train from the Gare de Lyon to Souppes, where we had lunch at a modest family-run restaurant in the market place.
I had phoned ahead to say that one of us was vegetarian so the patronne had obligingly added a pasta dish to the day’s menu. I could see that my friends were surprised and impressed by the un-Parisian warmth of our welcome and the ‘rapport qualité-prix’ (value for money).
But they were a trifle taken aback when after lunch I confidently led them down a narrow overgrown path next to a disused railway line. ‘Is it all going to be like this?’ one of them asked as we pushed our way through knee-high damp meadowsweet and buttercups so that our jeans were soon soaked. I assured them truthfully that this was the only wild part of the walk. Our jeans soon dried and I was gratified to see their growing pleasure and delight as we walked along the Canal du Loing and then along a country path full of wild roses, with the bell-tower of the 11th century hilltop church at Château-Landon gradually coming into view, soon followed by its spectacular abbey.
On reaching the town we made an unplanned detour from the riverside path to the church to follow the intriguing sounds of singing and dancing coming from a nearby park, where a Portuguese festival was in full swing.
The little town itself, as usual, was deserted and the café I had planned to take them to next to the church was closed, but the trusty Turkish doner-kebab takeaway in the market place was open. We were the only customers. We sat outside in the sun listening to the cooing of doves, drinking tea and sampling the patronne’s excellent home-made baklava before catching the last bus to Melun, from where we had a magnificent view of the palace of Fontainebleau, to connect with a fast train to the Gare de Lyon.
Here we decided to treat ourselves to a kir at the mythical Train Bleu restaurant, where the decor of lofty painted ceilings, curtains and mirrors always reminds me of a cross between a cathedral and a Belle Epoque brothel.
We were enjoying the contrast between our day in the country and our luxurious Parisian surroundings so much that we decided to stay and have supper there. It was packed with tourists, but they found us a table without raising an eyebrow at our unstylish walking gear.
As my London visitor later told me, it was the perfect end to a perfect day.
Article on Château d’Ecouen first published in Bonjour Paris, 24 March 2023, based on the chapter in An Hour From Paris, 2019
If you are looking for total dépaysement (change of scene) and are also interested in the French Renaissance, there is no need to travel as far as the Loire. One of the most elegant examples of this style in France, the 16th-century Château d’Ecouen, houses the rich furnishings and objets d’art that make up the collections of the National Museum of the Renaissance.
Perhaps because it is only 19 km and 21 minutes by train from Paris, the château, surrounded by its 17-hectare park which is full of flowers in spring and enchanting under snow in winter, is gratifyingly under-visited. Most of its visitors are French so you won’t have to join long queues.
The full impact of its hill-top site is only revealed when you approach it on foot via the signposted walk from the station through the Forest of Ecouen, a distance of just over a mile.
I first went there on the 269 bus from the station, only three stops to the château but by a route which means you approach the building from the front. When I went there again through the forest some years later, I actually failed to recognise it as the same place, so different were the two impressions.
The rear view of the château gradually rises into view as you approach it from the woodland path and is magically revealed in all its stateliness as you emerge onto the vast flat lawn at the top.
The château was built for Constable Anne, Duke of Montmorency (1492-1567), the owner of over 130 châteaux and one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in France. Completed in 1555, it is in the High Renaissance style, a development of the Early Renaissance style of the châteaux of the Loire built during the reign of François I. The architecture, the grounds and the decor all reflect the new taste for a château as a place for gracious living rather than a medieval fortress. Painted friezes decorate the windows and walls and dreamy Biblical scenes are painted on the chimneypieces.
From the terrace of the restaurant/tearoom and the upper floor windows there are superb views of the park, the roofs of the houses descending the steep hill to Ecouen and the rolling countryside of the Plaine de France beyond, recalling the hazy, stylised landscapes in medieval paintings.
The château was saved from destruction after the Revolution by Napoleon, who turned it into a school for the daughters of members of the Légion d’Honneur in 1806. The rooms now contain a fine selection of furniture, tapestries, glass and china made in France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands in the 16th and early 17th centuries, representative of the Renaissance taste for elegance and refinement. The most famous exhibit is a priceless Brussels tapestry, woven c.1515, which extends over three rooms on the first floor and tells the story of David and Bathsheba, dressed, of course, in 16th-century clothes.
Some other highlights are the Charles V clock in the form of a golden ship, complete with moving clockwork crew, shown in action in an accompanying video, on the ground floor
and the beautiful pink and blue Ottoman pottery from Iznik in Turkey, inspired by Chinese models, on the second floor.
Getting to the Château d’Ecouen by train and on foot
Trains to Luzarches or Persan-Beaumont stopping at the station of Ecouen-Ezanville leave the Gare du Nord every 15 minutes on weekdays and every half-hour at weekends, taking 19 minutes. There are two cafés at the station, one open on Sundays.
Cross the Place de la Gare diagonally to the right of the station exit, turn right at the boulangerie into the Allée du Bois and follow it into the forest. Turn right into the Chemin du Four à Chaux (paved) which rises gently uphill, then curves left and comes out at the junction of several paths. Turn right, following the sign to the château past the picnic area on your left. This unpaved road rises gently uphill to a gate set in the château wall, la grille du Pré Curé. Go through the gate, continue uphill past the signboard showing a map of the grounds and you will come out at the back of the château, with a superb plunging view of the Plaine de France on your left. Walk round the château to the right to find the main entrance on the other side.
(Map and all photos by Annabel Simms, unless otherwise stated)
The new enlarged edition of Annabel’s book ‘Half An Hour From Paris’ will be on sale shortly. Details will be posted on www.anhourfromparis.com
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 16tharrondissement 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
followed by a plaque with the history of the house, which had belonged to the Victorian writer, Théophile Gautier.
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.
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.
Champigny to Nogent via the Ile Fanac and the Jardin Tropical
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Leave the island by the steps from which you arrived, and continue to the other side of the bridge.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 Lauzunnext 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.
The south-facing Quai d’Orléans near the Pont de la Tournelle, is the best spot for sunbathing, picnicking or just watching the sunset.
Paris this summer was even emptier than usual, as everyone heaved a deep sigh of relief at being able to travel again and headed for the beach. For those of us who were still here, though, there was a plus side. The quais along the Seine around Notre Dame and the Ile St Louis, which were so packed at weekends during the curfew that the police had to turn people away, were once again the havens of calm they used to be before the pandemic.
I live in a fifth-floor studio on the Ile St Louis close to Notre Dame, with no access to outside space. Instead I go to my favourite corner of the south-facing Quai d’Orléans. There is only one bench there before the quai ends just before the Pont de la Tournelle, so most people coming down the steps instinctively turn and walk in the other direction. I have even gone so far as to buy a folding chair, so that I can still bask in this secluded corner if ‘my’ bench is occupied.
During lockdown I had got into the habit of inviting friends for seafood suppers in my studio, so as not to wilt from the lack of human contact. With all restaurants closed, the local oyster bar did a roaring trade in takeaway seafood during that time and I became one of the regulars.
So when two ex-neighbours from my building, Binger from mainland China on the fifth floor and Cristobal from Venezuela on the fourth floor, suggested meeting up again this year, I immediately thought of a seafood picnic on the Quai d’Orléans.
Last summer we all had dinner together for the first time on Binger’s tiny balcony, having got to know each other during lockdown. Both of my neighbours were happier speaking English rather than French, luckily for me. Cristobal was moving out the next day and not long afterwards Binger got a proper job and moved out to be closer to work. We kept meaning to meet up again, but of course never did.
So for our reunion exactly a year later, I offered to bring oysters and prawns and the others brought melon, charcuterie, wine and of course a baguette. I also brought ice, aïoli and a lemon, courtesy of the oyster bar, and an umbrella which turned out to be unnecessary. All of us brought corkscrews, plastic glasses and paper napkins, mistakenly assuming that the others wouldn’t have thought of it.
Cristobal had also brought homemade gazpacho soup and china bowls to eat it from. Although it doesn’t really go with seafood, that didn’t stop us from enjoying it.
It turned out to be lucky that we met when we did, at the end of July, as it was the oyster bar’s last evening before closing for les vacances. Now that everyone is trickling back to Paris, I’m looking forward to its re-opening. And to making the most of the autumn sunshine on the quai.