Beyond Notre-Dame: A Deeper Look at the Île de la Cité
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Notre-Dame understandably gets lots of press and tourist attention, but the nearby area on the east end of Île de la Cité has a history that travelers who enjoy diving deep into Paris will appreciate. It’s an easy walk and provides a real sense of ancient and recent Parisian history from some of the oldest spots in the city to a modern selection of non-tourist shops and restaurants.
The place to start is at the parvis in front of Notre-Dame. Watching the building stabilization and reconstruction work due to the 2019 fire damage is amazing but a real discovery awaits in the underground crypt located at the end of the parvis next to Rue de la Cité. Once down the steps, you are standing in the remains of the Gallic settlement Lutetia from the early first century AD, along with Roman baths and other vestiges of early occupation of the island.
Lutetia’s docks were on the ancient bank of the Seine that was 55 meters from the current banks. The exhibit does a great job of creating the experience of standing on the old levy and looking out at the ancient dock with fishermen in their boats and seagulls flying across the sky.
There is also a parallel visual story of Notre-Dame at its lowest point of disrepair after the French Revolution and how Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel telling the story of Quasimodo and Esmeralda – with a decaying Notre-Dame as its own character – revived public interest in the cathedral. The restoration done by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and the popularity of the cathedral has endured to current times.
Returning above, walk to Rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame on the north side of the parvis by the Hôtel Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris. Founded in 651 by Saint Landry, bishop of Paris, it was famous for overcrowding, including several patients sharing a bed. The present hospital was begun by Napoleon III in 1863 and completed in 1877. For architecture fans, the Italian Renaissance style has several buildings connected by porticos. As part of the network of Paris public hospitals, it is where you can go for a Covid PCR test or breakfast if you are homeless.
Continue walking down Rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame and check out the photos of the 2019 fire and the work cleaning and stabilizing the cathedral. You can look up to see the real sides of Notre-Dame and the support structures under the flying buttresses which was the first key part of the restoration.
Before the end of the street is Rue Chanoinesse which curves northward into the Canons’ Quarter (Quartier des Chainoines). Take the rue and enter the only section of the island that wasn’t destroyed by Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann in their city upgrade of the 19th century. It was originally residential quarters supporting the cathedral and was closed to the outside world by gates. Now it’s an open area to explore the old and new of Paris with some hidden treasures.
Several of the buildings along the first part of the street are under renovation but pass the Rue des Chantres (more on that street later) and continue enjoying the beauty of the non-Haussmann buildings with their stonework and varied styles. The Préfecture de Police on the right side houses Paris’ Compagnies Motocyclistes, or motorcycle police headquarters and repair shop. Peek in and you can see the work being done on bikes but remember to smile at the police who are guarding the entrance.
Just past the police station are some restaurant treats. Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole is famous for its outdoor decoration which changes with the seasons. Au Bougnat is a restaurant that attracts the locals and has a nice bar. Turn right at the corner on Rue de la Colombe and explore ancient Paris.
The rue is one of the early streets of the island and leads downward and then up to the Quai aux Fleurs. At number 6 before the rows of steps begin is where the ancient enclosure of Lutèce was located during the Barbarian invasion of 276. Stop by the building wall that juts out at the edge of the stairs and touch what is left of the Roman wall that once defined the parameter of the island. The jutting building is a restaurant that has had its ups and downs in the past few years due to the pandemic, as have many. If it’s open, it serves a lovely cheese plate with a nice selection of wine. The building has a long history of being a location for wine merchants on the ground floor.
Pass Rue des Ursins (you’ll be back) and check out the dress boutique at the top of the street on the corner of Quai aux Fleurs. The local designer has women’s clothes with colorful, breezy tops and jackets with modern design structure. It’s a store full of creative Paris fashion.
Turn around and head back to Rue des Ursins. At 113 meters long and four meters (12 feet) wide, it is full of history yet has a modern vibe. It’s the lowest street on the island at the old level of the Seine. Its original four-meter width makes it difficult for cars, especially delivery trucks, to navigate. However, the Paris motorcycle cops have no problem sweeping down the street on the way to their headquarters. Limited traffic is part of its attraction as a popular photo location for Paris fashion shoots and brides-to-be.
Here’s the history. According to “Dictionnaire Historique Des Rues de Paris” by Jacques Hillairet, the street was part of Port Saint-Landry, the first port in Paris that existed until the end of the 12th century. Around 1300, there were three streets with the name Ursins leading from Port Saint-Landry named after the Hôtel des Ursins once owned by the Ursins family, or Orsini to their Italian relatives. The next owner family was French and became provost, or manager/overseer, of the merchants of Paris under Charles VI (1380 – 1422) through Louis XI (1461 – 1483). In 1881, the streets were changed but the current Ursins kept its name.
Over time, the buildings have been updated as apartments and continue that process today. The newest update near the corner features glass doors that show how low the street is as the window on the Quai aux Fleurs side is almost a floor above where the viewer stands.
Number 15 houses the Catholic Seminary and Administration Offices but the remains of Chapelle Saint-Aignan are behind the wooden gate. At one time the island was loaded with chapels – 23 in fact – but revolutions and changing times have left only Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle and this chapel which pays homage to Aignan d’Orléans.
Saint-Aignan chapel, according to Hillairet’s book, was founded in 1116. Today only the nave is left. It has been restored and seminarians and vicars of the diocese privately use it for worship. A 14th-century statue of the virgin and baby Jesus was once a feature of the chapel and will hopefully be back on view when Notre-Dame reopens. In the meantime, a replica is on the side of the building above the entrance
The apartment house at number 13 looks standard, but it is the only building on the island to be constructed using steel beams, not traditional wood. It was built during the time when the Tour Eiffel was built (1887 – 1889) which made working with steel popular. From the outside the steel beams can’t be seen, unlike the steel and glass Pompidou Center, but it was modernist for its time.
The Préfecture de Police is next on the street with the French flag flying above the entrance. It houses the Bureau de Naturalisations and, pre-pandemic, would be the place where people from around the world lined up to deal with the process. No crowds are allowed now so the pedestrians are people going to work at the Préfecture or coming outside to smoke.
Farther down on the right are more apartments and a law office that face a small garden with two tigers as a water fountain. If lucky, the kids who live in the apartments have drawn fun chalk figures in the street. Sometimes cats, sometimes winged snakes, but always a hint into what makes kids laugh and play on a quiet street.
The medieval-style building on the corner across from the double staircase up the street looks like a well-preserved ancient hôtel but it was built in 1958 by architect Fernand Pouillon. The site with stairs leading to a gothic-arched door and stained glass windows has been a movie location providing instant charm.
That charm continues as the stairs, door and the street are often photo shoot locations for brides-to-be. When pandemic restrictions lifted, the site was rediscovered. Photographers almost daily take pictures of happy-to-be couples in lace dresses and tuxedos with the background of ancient Paris providing a memorable impression.
Ursins has long been a popular location for fashion photography, and it’s back. Several times a week models pose in current fashions while makeup artists, lighting experts and photographers create fashion spreads with backgrounds of textured walls and a narrow ancient rue.
But fashion photographers weren’t the first to shoot this corner. The view from the top of the stairs on the Quai aux Fleurs looking down Rue des Ursins is the same position as Eugene Atget’s famous photo from 1900. His image shows abandoned hand carts, a pissoir and paper posters cluttering the walls. Today’s view is less cluttered but no less historic. Also, on the medieval-style building is a plaque showing the level of the Seine in the flood of 1910. Graffiti sometimes pops up but it comes and goes and is often humorous.
Now for one of the best views. Look down the narrow Rue des Chantres and see a slice of Notre-Dame. Before the fire, you could see the pointed tower rising above the roof. Now it’s full of support structures and roof covers. Notre-Dame in transition.
Continue around the Quai aux Fleurs to the tip of the island by the restaurant L’Esmeralda. The Pont Saint-Louis is typically full of musicians playing jazz or romantic songs and a puppeteer who tells stories using his hand-made puppet animals. The tip of the island is a park with stunning views of Paris and along the Seine. Look for swans floating along the banks of Île Saint-Louis. The Memorial des Martyrs de la Déportation is in the park which is a remembrance for people sent to the Nazi camps. Look to the right and take in the work being done at the back end of Notre-Dame.
The east end of the island is a memorable dive so keep L’Esmeralda in mind as a place travelers can enjoy the amazing energy of Paris while enjoying a coffee or drink. Santé!
Lead photo credit : Map of Lutetia. Dirck Jansz van Santen: Atlas van Dirk van der Hagen, 1657. Public domain
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