Bang in the middle of Paris, the Ile St Louis is almost its own country. Annabel Simms revels in its distinct culture
‘There is an island in Paris…the inhabitants of which are quite separate from the rest of the city, they dine at a different hour, their manners are different; and they talk of crossing the bridge as the ancients talking of crossing the Hellespont’ – Charlotte Edgeworth in a letter to her brother, 16 December 1802
When I first read those words, I felt a shock of recognition. I came to live on the Ile St Louis in 1992 and soon discovered that the shops kept unusual hours, closing for lunch from 1 to 4 pm. The fishmonger offered free delivery, but there was a small charge for delivery sur le continent, and this was not a joke. The little general store informed me that the kind of light-bulb I wanted could only be obtained dans Paris. Were we not in Paris, then? Apparently not.
The Ile St Louis, connected to the Notre Dame end of the Ile de la Cité by a footbridge, is still a place apart. Today it is a millionaire’s quartier, but it also contains crumbling top-floor studios like mine, which explains the curiously mixed and shifting nature of the island’s population.
It has always appealed to exiles of all kinds, the rich, the poor, the famous, the foreign, the talented, or just the plain eccentric: Racine, Corot, Gide, Proust, Cyril Connolly, Hemingway, President Pompidou, to name some of its best-known inhabitants.
It is easy to see what attracted them, because it is all still here. Apart from the harmony of the island’s honey-coloured 17th-century buildings, there is its satisfying narrow fish-shape, its spine formed by the busy Rue St Louis-en-l’Ile, which runs its entire length of a third of a mile. But its quiet side-streets with glimpses of trees, light and water on either side (it is only 200 yards across) constantly remind you that you are on an island and beckon you to the quais.
These are lined by the great houses built for the courtiers of Louis XIV, flowers spilling from their balconies on the south side, their spacious courtyards hidden behind huge carved doorways. Below them stone steps lead down to the cobbled quais, the haunt of refugees from the mainland: strolling, sunbathing, sitting hand in hand or gathering for impromptu midnight parties at the western tip of the island facing Notre Dame.
At night, the lights of the passing bateaux-mouches cast the slowly moving shadows of the trees across the buildings lining the quais, so that the whole island seems to be floating down the river, like the boat it so resembles.
The best thing about the generally overlooked side-streets is the way they frame glimpses of the river. Coming out of the launderette in the Rue Poulletier one day I stopped dead, transfixed by the sinuous black curves of the branches of the trees on the Quai de Béthune.
It was as delicate, as unexpected and as evanescent as a Japanese painting. And, unlike the more celebrated view of Notre Dame from the Pont St Louis footbridge, it was not being snapped by anyone with a camera.
However, the Pont St Louis, jammed with Parisians at weekends watching the street entertainers and musicians, does offer the most visually dramatic approach to the island. The flying buttresses of Notre Dame are outlined against the soft violet and primrose tints of the Paris skyline, with a view of the Pantheon in the distance.
On weekdays, the plaintive sounds of the accordionist who has his regular pitch here echo across the water, inviting strollers to cross the footbridge and perhaps pause at the Brasserie de l’Isle St Louis or the Saint-Régis café opposite, with their views across to the Left Bank.
The natural central point of the island is the Rue des Deux Ponts, which crosses it from north to south and extends across the Seine to the Left Bank via the Pont de la Tournelle and to the Right Bank via the Pont Marie, an elegant 17th-century bridge with spectacular views of the river and the Conciergerie to the west.
The Rue des Deux Ponts is the unofficial frontier between the eastern and western halves of the island, originally two islands which were built over in the 17th century. Each still has its own butcher, baker and cheesemonger, and residents from one half rarely shop in the other.
Each half has preserved its distinct personality. The western half, closest to Notre Dame, is full of visitors, boutiques, art galleries and estate agents. I cannot honestly recommend its shops or restaurants, apart from those on the no-man’s-land of the rue des Deux Ponts: the Franc-Pinot facing the Right Bank; the Louis IX, which is situated almost in the dead centre of the island; and L’Escale, which overlooks the Left Bank and is itself overlooked by most visitors. The tide of strollers, mainly Americans on weekdays, outnumbered by French families at weekends, stops abruptly at Berthillon’s celebrated ice-cream parlour, a justly-famed Parisian institution.
Beyond this magic point, the eastern half is all but deserted by visitors, and it is here that the Ile St Louis most resembles a village. Opposite Berthillon are the longest-established shops: the Martin family bakery at no. 40, where the baguettes à l’ancienne are freshly baked several times a day, attracting queues of well-informed Parisians; more queues inside the shabby little shop of M. Bernard Lefranc, the cheesemonger next door, who has been selling a small but fine selection of modestly-priced cheese for 40 years. Two doors down at no. 34 is the tiny toyshop-cum-stationers, Les Insulaires, owned by Mme Fain, the 85-year-old lover of cats and dogs who is known to everyone on the island and is beloved by generations of children. And at no. 26 is the equally minute Pays d’Ulysse bookshop, specialising in second-hand travel books. The chocolate cake at the even smaller la Charlotte de l’Isle pâtisserie a few doors down is, I am assured by Parisian friends, wonderful.
At the deserted eastern extremity lies a discreet family mansion, the high walls of its triangular garden jutting out like the prow of a ship dividing the Rue St Louis-en-l’Ile from the Quai d’Anjou. It belongs to the Rothschilds, although I have never seen anyone emerge from it. Here is the secluded world of the houses on the quais, the most astonishing of which is the Hôtel de Lauzun at no. 17, Quai d’Anjou, constructed by the architect of Versailles, Le Vau, and decorated by its painter, Le Brun.
The Hôtel de Lauzun is owned by the City of Paris and rarely open to the public, but even its drainpipes are worth stopping for. They are in the form of dolphins, their scales picked out in gold. Baudelaire lived on the top floor in 1843 when it was the meeting place for the Club des Haschischins (Hashish Eaters) at a time when the island was less fashionable than when it was first built, or than it is now.
The Ile St Louis, with its romantic streetlamps, tree-lined quais and river views of Paris, sometimes reminds me of a film set, and in fact is often used as one. At other times, especially in winter and at night, with the Seine swirling darkly around, it is both mysterious and melancholy, a place outside time.
Its charm is that of a village which is not quite a village. It is a place of passage that welcomes exiles of all kinds, and above all, those who love islands.
Ile St Louis basics
From the UK, dial 00 33 for Paris and omit the first zero of the number quoted.
Brasserie de l’Isle Saint-Louis, 55 quai de Bourbon, (01 43 54 02 59), open every day except Wednesday and Thursday lunchtime.
Le Saint-Régis café/bar/restaurant, 6 rue Jean du Bellay, (01 43 54 59 41), open every day.
Le Louis IX café/brasserie, 25 rue des Deux Ponts, 01 43 54 23 89, open every day. Sells Berthillon ice-cream.
L’Escale café/restaurant/bistrot, 1 rue des Deux Ponts, (01 43 54 94 23), open every day except Sun, closes sometime between 8pm and 11pm, depending on the owner’s mood.
Berthillon glacier, 31 rue St Louis-en-l’Ile, (01 43 54 31 61), open 10 am – 8 pm Wed – Sun except during school holidays.
La Charlotte de l’Isle pâtisserie, 24 rue St Louis-en-l’Ile, (01 43 54 25 83), open Thurs – Sun, 2 – 8 pm.
Le Franc-Pinot jazz-club/restaurant/bar, 1 quai de Bourbon, (01 46 33 60 64), open Tues – Sat, from 8.30 pm to 2 am or later, 15€/£10.50 admission to concerts on Friday and Saturday, often free during the week.
Annabel Simms is the author of ‘An Hour From Paris’ (Pallas Athene, £12.95)