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There are two large islands in the center of Paris that are familiar to travelers and map-hounds, the culturally important Île de la Cité, and the residential utopia of Île Saint-Louis. However, there are many other islands in the Seine with interesting stories. Over the years, many tiny islands have grown together to form larger islands in the stream. Here are a few as the river wends to the north.
L’Île aux Cygnes
This very narrow island is just 11m wide, and given its shape, obviously manmade. The Île aux Cygnes was created in 1827 as a reinforcement for new bridges crossing the Seine. A previous Île des Cygnes has long since been subsumed by the banks of the river. Named for the swans (cygnes) that Louis XIV imported from Denmark to populate the island, l’Île aux Cygnes is today home to many species of birds.
Over 60 species of trees line the promenade, where visitors sedately stroll or rigorously exercise. L’Île aux Cygnes provides a different view of Paris as the Seine flows beyond the Eiffel Tower. At the island’s western edge stands a 1/4 scale replica of the Statue of Liberty. In the 1930s, architect Andre Lurçat conceived a plan to turn the island into Aeroparis, a runway for small planes. The plan didn’t get off the ground.
Just 50 minutes from the center of Paris, the quirky island of Île Saint-Germain has been a place for leisurely promenades since the beginning of the 1800s. A 2km strip of land between Issy-les-Moulineaux and Boulogne-Billancourt, the Île Saint-Germain is now half-residential and half carefully-curated parkland, where landscaped paths lead to themed gardens. There are summer fields of lavender with their adherent bees, plus ponds with frogs, newts and ducks. Strangely, in addition to the plentiful waterfowl, is the small diaspora of escaped parakeets.
All the trees were planted in the 1980s with the exception of the small orchard which recalls the island’s history as the once medieval property of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. At the end of the naturalized area, stands the Tower of Figures, a monumental sculpture by Jean Dubuffet and classified as a historic monument.
Once the only people on the Île Saint-Germain were the allotment gardeners. Now the residential side is comprised of more than 3,200 inhabitants. The town is a little bit fishing village and a lot Jacques Tati’s view of the modern in Mon Oncle. It could be regarded as an incubator for architects. Jean Nouvel’s design, La Vaisseau, and many of his original creations are here as well as homes designed by Philippe Starck.
In the western suburbs of Paris, this island is situated across from Meudon. Once land owned by the Abbey of Saint-Victor, this island gained importance when it was found on the route that connected Paris to the new Palace of Versailles. Louis XV acquired the island for his daughters and it was known briefly as the Île Madame. Post-Revolution, entrepreneurial chemist Armand Seguin bought the island.
As well as industry, the island was used for recreational boating, shooting and fishing. In 1919, the automaker Louis Renault acquired the Île de Seguin as a place of respite for the workers of his two factories located on both banks of the river. However, a trip to the Ford plant in Detroit changed his mind, and Renault made the island into another, more modern facility employing more than 30,000 people. Outmoded by 1992, the Renault facility remained dormant until 2005 when all the buildings were demolished. A formidable cleanup including soil decontamination ensued.
The architect Jean Nouvel, an island lover himself, was appointed as the lead planner to transform the island into a new cultural hub, as well as a place for people to work, play and live. The first space to open was a performance venue called La Seine Musicale, in 2017. Looking like the stern of an ocean liner on an island already ship-shaped, the building designed by architects Shigeru Ban and Jean de Gastines is crowned with an eye-catching glass sphere, and contains a 6,000-seat auditorium.
Construction is underway on the island’s other side where one of the world’s largest arts and culture centers will be built. Soon to come are the 1,500 seat multiplex cinema managed by Gaumont Pathé and an art museum housing the Laurent Dumas collection, the Renault art collection, and collaborations with other arts centers.
Île de Puteaux
Lying to the west of the Bois de Boulogne is the 2km Île de Puteaux, but it could be called Sports Island.
The majority of this island belongs to the municipality of Puteaux, with a small part owned by Neuilly-sur-Seine. From the mainland, the Île de Puteaux presents a pretty view considering the clutch of the high-rise towers of la Défense is not far away.
There is a plethora of sports facilities on the Île de Puteaux. The largest is the Palais des Sports, but also on the island is a boxing gym, a gymnastics studio, an aquatic center, six football fields, skate parks, a pétanque club, places to practice golf, and 24 tennis courts.
Councillor and avid sports fan Léon de Janzé founded the Société Sportif de l’Île de Puteaux in 1873, which led to the building of one of the first tennis courts in France. During the Belle Époque, the Île de Puteaux was a refined idyll of tennis and hosted the tennis championships of the 1900 Paris Olympic Games.
Lebaudy Park, with its rose garden, adds to the island’s green parkland. There’s a small fresh water aquarium and learning center called Naturoscope.
Île de la Jatte
Also known as the Île de la Grande Jatte (“Island of the Big Bowl”), this island is home to about 4,000 inhabitants. Measuring two kilometers in length, the island spans only 200 meters in width.
In 1819, the Duke of Orléans, the future King Louis-Philippe I, annexed the island to the Château de Neuilly via a series of bridges. Since he relocated the Parc Monceau’s Temple of Love to the island, the Île de la Jatte was briefly known of the Île d’Amour. Between 1850 and 1870, Napoléon III and Baron Haussmann had more egalitarian plans for the Île de la Jatte.
With the advent of train travel, the island became a popular place for Parisians to spend their precious leisure time. Artists, especially the Impressionists, began painting there. The name itself is known from Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte, a brilliant and important example of pointillism. In addition to Seurat, artists such as Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and Alfred Sisley painted scenes of the island. Visitors can enjoy an Impressionist art walk detailing the works of the painters with printed panels set up in the very place where the artists unfolded their easels many years ago.
Pretty cafés, some perched guinguette-style over the river, have lovely Seine views where you can admire the lucky ducks who live aboard the péniches. One notable restaurant called the Café La Jatte is a massive brasserie with an equally massive whale skeleton suspended over the heads of the diners.
The island is mostly a pretty, largely modern town with a permanent population of about 4,000, complete with a school, a crèche, offices, and markets. For some it’s the ideal 15-minute city and has been the pied-à-terre of notables such as Richard Branson, Jean Reno and former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
There is a small museum of fishing and nature called the Musée Aquarium Levallois, situated on the right end of the island. At the other end remains the Temple of Love.
This crescent of land in the parish of the same name has two distinct personalities. Part pretty parkland and part grimy industry, Île Saint-Denis a functioning town with its own mayor. On the record books since the 10th century when Charles the Bald built a fortress here, Île Saint-Denis measures seven kilometers – it originally comprised more than one island. The downstream Île de Vannes is the industrial side with its biggest draw being Marques Avenue, an outlet mall.
The charm picks up toward the island’s center. Again, there is a pedestrian only “Promenade des Impressionnistes” on the banks of the Seine. The locale was once painted by Impressionist Alfred Sisley.
Île Saint-Denis is home to innovative cultural institutions: the Jean Vilar Center, Mediatheque Elsa Triolet, and the Frida Kahlo Art School. The island’s cachet will soon increase, as the athletes’ village for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games is being built on once unused space. A new car-free Cité des Arts will fill the athletes’ village post games.
Île Saint-Martin – Île de Fleurie – Île de la Chatou – Île de la Chausee – Île des Impressionists
There are many islands upstream in the Seine but I’ll finish with perhaps the most recognizable. The far end of this string, just 10km west of Paris’s La Défense, is the private and protected nature refuge of Île Saint-Martin, next to which is a golf oasis seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It’s a 9-hole course, accessible to all and includes a golf academy and plenty of places to practice or have an after-round drink. The road from Golf de l’Île Fleurie passes a bland stretch of labs and utilities on the Quai Watier.
Next in the chain is the Île de Chatou. In a cluster of buildings, a tourist bureau is housed in a pretty 19th-century house, alongside a contemporary art gallery. On the same bend in the road is a lovely waterside restaurant named Les Rives de la Courtille, behind which is an association dedicated to the restoration and recreation of culturally historical forms of watercraft. Called Sequana, it’s a perfect adjunct for the island because here, on the now-known Isle of Impressionists, is the Maison Fournaise that Renoir made famous in his Luncheon of the Boating Party.
Once fallen into ruin, the Maison Fournaise has now been has been turned back into a restaurant evoking Renoir’s 1882 painting and a multi-media museum experience of the life of Renoir.
Reveling in the newfound leisure of the Paris suburbs, this part of the island was painted numerous times by Renoir, Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, and the gang. Two of the most famous are the depiction of La Grenouillère – the frog pond, which was painted on the same day in 1869 by Renoir and Monet on the Île de Croissy, now part of the same riverbank. The paths along the wildflower banks are signposted with interpretive panels.
Along with more boats for hire, are sports and tennis complexes, and a riding school. A temporary antiques market, the Foire de Chatou sets up here. The far end of the Île de la Chaussee is a posh and historical residential area, with docking for the ever-present houseboats.
Lead photo credit : Temple de l'Amour on the l'Ile de la Jatte. Photo credit: Moonik/ Wikimedia Commons