Unlock the secrets of…NOTRE DAME ISLAND

Annabel Simms discovers Maigret’s favourite bar and a hidden hotel on the Ile de la Cité


All visitors to Paris know the Ile de la Cité, if only because of Notre Dame, and one visit is usually enough. Or so I thought, as a smug resident of the neighbouring and much more exclusive Ile St Louis, where I have been living since leaving London on a year’s sabbatical in 1991. It was the stimulus of my mother’s occasional descents on Paris that forced me to take a closer look at this despised tourist Mecca, and discover how wrong I can be.


It was before one of her visits that I remembered someone once telling me that there was a hotel inside the Hotel Dieu, the public hospital next to Notre Dame. Sure enough, I found an inconspicuous door next to the main entrance on the Parvis Notre Dame. It leads to a covered walkway, past the hospital’s cloister-like interior garden and to a discreet lift to the sixth floor. You step out into the carpeted lobby of a three-star hotel, with blissfully quiet, comfortable rooms, each with a spacious bathroom and large skylight. The reception is friendly, unobtrusive but efficient, as is the room service. The ‘Hospitel’ is primarily for medical staff and patients’ families, who get priority and a lower rate, but the remaining rooms are available to anyone and a real bargain at 99.50€ for a double.


So successful was this discovery that I anticipated no problems on my mother’s latest visit to Paris. Exit no. 5 from the RER train station at St Michel, only two stops from the Gare du Nord, is right in front of the Hotel Dieu. I had planned a ten-minute walk from the Hospitel to my studio on the Ile St Louis for dinner, and possibly an old French film afterwards. What I hadn’t bargained for was how long every movement would take her. By the time we had left the Hotel Dieu, she had been in Paris for two long hours and we were in familiar bickering mode, with the prospect of the five flights of stairs to my studio looming like an unmentioned Everest in front of us. We were creeping along the Rue d’Arcole, surrounded by crowds and deafened by traffic. I looked around helplessly. It was then that I saw it – a little old-fashioned bar at the corner of two tiny medieval back streets. I had never noticed it before, yet it looked as if it had been there for decades. I suggested we stop for an aperitif, an idea that never fails with my mother, and we pushed open the door of what must be one of the smallest bars in Paris.


The barman was listening to the woes of the solitary customer, a beefy young man leaning on the counter who was bitterly recounting the details of the taxes he had to pay. They took no notice of us, but over two aperitifs and a plate of olives, our bickering slowly died away as the provincial atmosphere of the place stole over us like a charm. I watched my mother expand like a flower in the pleasure of being back in France. I was silently giving up on my elaborate plans for the evening when she leaned across and whispered, I love the way they talk. But, you know, this place isn’t really Paris. Their accents! Yes, I said, didn’t you know that half the bars and restaurants in Paris are run by people from the Auvergne, one of the poorest parts of France? No, she hadn’t known that. I explained that the name of the bar, Au Bougnat, is Paris slang for someone from the Auvergne. She listened, fascinated. Completely at peace with her now, I went over to pay. Suddenly, with a sparkling glance at the two young men, my mother announced in French, ‘My best friend was from the Auvergne.’


It was as if she had pressed a magic button. Hey presto, suddenly we were not only visible, we were family. ‘Yesss!’ shouted the beefy customer, raising his fist to air-punch the ceiling. ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ It seemed to be the only English he knew, but it gave my mother the opening she was looking for to start a conversation in French. We left the little bar in a positive explosion of bonhomie, and it became her HQ for the rest of her stay in Paris. Brief though this was, I am still asked every time I call in at the Bougnat, ‘And how is your mother?’


Now that my eyes have been opened to the local life of the Ile de la Cité, I have done some exploring of my own. I discovered that the island’s only café-tabac, which does a brisk but not very friendly trade in cigarettes to passing tourists on the Rue d’Arcole, has a frosted glass door at the back opening onto the tiny Rue Colombe. There are two tables outside, screened by plants, on the steps overlooking this quiet cobbled street leading to the Seine. An unobtrusive plaque overhead records that traces of the original Gallo-Roman city walls were discovered here in 1898. Only locals seem to know about this little corner, which faces the Bougnat. It is like stumbling into a village street, in a parallel but separate universe from the busy thoroughfare a few feet away.


Another surprise is the Taverne Henri IV at the western tip of the island, just off the secluded Place Dauphine and a few steps from the police headquarters where Maigret had his office. With its traditional wooden decor picked out with brass, and the quiet murmuring of its French and foreign clientèle (there is no music), it is a place for people who are serious, but not reverential, about their wine and the quality of the food that is served with it. A bottle of Deutz champagne, beautifully served in a huge glass bucket of ice, is accompanied by little fingers of toasted brown bread and a generous bowl of rillettes. I would never have thought of serving plebeian rillettes with the subtly dry Deutz, but it is an inspired combination. The patronne confirmed that Simenon had indeed lived round the corner and that the Taverne was his local, but confessed that she had never heard of the ‘Brasserie Dauphine’(surely the Taverne itself) nor read any of the Maigret stories. ‘Too busy’, she said, clearly bemused by the power of a character in a book to bring in customers from all over the world.

Perhaps she doesn’t realise that the unpretentious charm of her wine-bar, and other timeless places like it, is exactly what so many visitors to Paris dream of finding.


Insider’s guide

Hospitel, Hotel Dieu, 1 Place du Parvis Notre Dame, Galerie B2, 6è étage, 75004 Paris, tel 01 44 32 01 00, www.hotel-hospitel.com

Au Bougnat bar restaurant, 26 Rue Chanoinesse, 75004 Paris, tel 01 43 54 50 74, open daily 7.30am-7pm, menu 12.50€

Le Tambour d’Arcole café-tabac, 5 Rue d’Arcole, 75004 Paris, open daily 7 am-7.30 pm

Taverne Henri IV, 13 Place du Pont-Neuf, 75001 Paris, 01 43 54 27 90, open Mon-Sat 12pm-12am, glass of wine 4€, good pâté or cheese 7€