Paris expert, Thirza Vallois, in her acclaimed guide book, Around and About Paris, summed up the second island in the Seine as “the ultimate jewel” and “Paris at its best”. It’s difficult to disagree with her. With the river as its moat and encased in fortress like stone quays, this 17th–century aristocratic village remains much as it was in the reign of Louis XIV; almost as if some seismic event had sheared off a slice of the patrician Marais district and anchored it in the Seine, to be preserved and protected there.
What for centuries were two small uninhabited islands, where duels of honor were occasionally fought, where cows grazed and laundresses spread their linen to dry, became at the start of the 17th century the scene of upscale urban development. An engineer, Christophe Marie, won approval from the young king Louis XIII and the cannons of Notre Dame to combine the two islands into one and build a bridge to connect this new island to the Right Bank of the Seine. In return for this, he and his two partners, Poulletier and Le Regrattier, would be allowed to subdivide and sell plots on the island for development. Today’s principle cross street, Rue des Deux Ponts, marks the place where the two islands were joined. The other principle cross streets take their names from the two partners, and that first bridge, the Pont Marie, commemorates the name of the entrepreneurial engineer who sadly went bankrupt before the project became profitable.
This new urban enclave immediately became the coveted target of the French aristocracy and the emerging nouveau riche. The leading architects and artists of the day, Le Vau and Le Brun, were commissioned to create townhouses with austere classical facades and interiors of fantastic opulence. The ensuing four centuries have sadly condemned many of those glorious mansions to oblivion, but a significant number of these Hotels Particuliers remain.
The facades of these noble townhouses face outward to enjoy the river view. The rear of each property backs up to the main east-west artery of the island; Rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Ile. The more modest houses of the tradesman and builders who served the wealthy line this street. Today it is the island’s main tourist destination as well as the shopping street and lifeline of the circa 2,400 residents who still call the island home.
The avid tourist who takes some time to circumnavigate the island’s perimeter will notice commemorative plaques on certain houses which give a clue to some of the many aristocrats, artists, politicians and financiers (and their mistresses) who lived here over the centuries. One of these plaques is particularly poignant. It reminds us of Camille Claudel, the subject of one of 19th–Century France’s most romantic, tempestuous and tragic love stories. At age 18 she became the student and lover of the famous sculptor, Auguste Rodin, who was 24 years her senior. After a stormy 16 year relationship Camille repaired to the Ile Saint-Louis, never to see Rodin again. She maintained her studio here for another 14 years until a nervous breakdown in 1913 caused her famous diplomat brother, Paul Claudel, to have her committed. She lived on for another 30 years, still confined to an insane asylum.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. Geographers have a term: Topophilia, which is defined as the affective bond between people and place or setting, or what is more commonly described as a Sense of Place. Nowhere is that sense of place stronger than on the Pont Saint-Louis. The current span dates from 1970 and is the 7th or 8th bridge (depending on which source one references) to connect the two islands. Standing at midpoint of the bridge and looking north one sees the Renaissance style Hotel de Ville (City Hall), symbol of official, governmental Paris. To the west the marvelous flying buttresses and spire of Notre Dame can be seen; reminders of the role Paris and this spot have played in the history of Christendom and western art. Paradoxically, right next to this icon of man’s highest aspirations resides a reminder of his basest and most horrific propensities. The stark Memorial of the Deportation, recalling the 70,000 French Jews who were sent to German death camps in WWII, is countersunk into the easternmost quay of Ile de la Cité, in the shadow of the cathedral. Turning to the east, the Ile Saint-Louis beckons; a time warp back to the Grand Siècle of absolutist monarchs and the repository of four centuries of well-preserved French history. Looking south from the bridge, the dome of the Pantheon, mausoleum of the great men of France, commands the skyline of the Left Bank from the summit of the ancient Gallo-Roman Mount of St. Genevieve. Finally, a slight turn of the head to the southeast reveals the 6th floor picture windows of La Tour D’Argent; world class temple of haute cuisine, metaphor for the good life, and the dining destination of prime ministers and presidents, royalty and rock stars, moguls and millionaires. This compelling kaleidoscope of history, art, culture, religion and politics reveals itself to any visitor who halts for a moment to make a slow 360 degree turn as he or she crosses the pedestrian span en route to the ultimate jewel, Ile Saint-Louis.
The sense of place is further enhanced by the island’s strategic location vis-à-vis the rest of the city. In addition to the Pont Saint-Louis and its access to Ile de la Cité, two more bridges connect the island to the Marais district of the Right Bank. The Pont de la Tournelle connects it to the Left Bank at the island’s midpoint, and the Pont de Sully connects Left and Right banks as it crosses the eastern tip of the isle. Public transportation has also enhanced the island’s location and connectivity. A major métro line (#7) stops just across the river at the Pont Marie station, and one of the principal north-south lines (#4) is just a short walk away at the Cité station in the square facing the Cathedral. Thus the currents of geography, history and mass transit find their vortex at exactly this spot, making the island a perfect place to take up temporary residence for an exploration of the City of Light.
Wining, dining and dwelling: At least a dozen eateries and four boutique hotels line the Rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Ile. The choice of dining options ranges from tea salons to upscale restaurants, and of course a discussion of the island’s edibles is never complete without mention of that world famous purveyor of ice cream, Berthillon. A list of some of the author’s eating and sleeping favorites is included at the end of this article.
When it comes to food and drink, I’m reminded on every visit to the island of the great photographic chronicler of Parisian life, Robert Doisneau, who maintained that, “. . . every man should have a regular café . . .” For the past 40 years, my regular café has been the Brasserie de l’Isle Saint Louis. While not technically a café, “The Brasserie”, as it is simply referred to among those who know me, embodies all that Doisneau intended by his comment.
Its fortuitous location at the western tip of the island makes it a magnet for island residents and tourists alike, and on sunny days its terrace must surely rank among the best in the entire city. But I’m partial to late autumn or early spring days when the weather engenders a preference for the interior. The décor is vintage turn-of-the-century; a no frills neighborhood meeting and eating place with red checkered table cloths and communal rows of tables. Above the three-sided bar sits a stuffed stork, symbol of the eastern province of Alsace from whence many brasserie owners migrated as refugees from the Franco-Prussian War. They brought with them their robust cuisine and the art of brewing beer.
The establishment traces its genealogy to the postwar Belle Époque era of the 1880s. Originally known as Café des Sports, it’s had other incarnations as La Taverne du Pont-Rouge and the Oasis. In fact, in my early years of patronage in the 1970s, it was not unusual for an occasional elderly British tourist to still refer to it as “The Oasis”. The current ownership and present name date from the early 1950s. The third generation of the Guépratte family continues to operate it and contribute greatly to the geniality that makes me return year after year.
Owner Marc Kappe and sons, Jerome and Paul, oversee the operation from the small counter near the front door. The cozy bar in front was manned for decades by the inimitable Yvan, former private bartender to François Mitterrand and Brigitte Bardot. Endowed with a rapier wit, Yvan enthralled those he liked and countenanced little from those he did not. With Yvan’s retirement, the barman’s post went to Roland, who for a dozen years greeted me by my first name and automatically drew me a half liter of Mutzig beer upon my arrival. Pascal now mans the bar and smiles with an old friend’s grin when I make my entrance. If I’m lucky I’ll sometimes catch Gino when he takes the helm on Marc’s night off. Gino and fellow waiter, Jean (Now long retired), along with Yvan formed the charismatic cast of characters in the golden days of my youthful visits to the Brasserie. Times and people have changed, but as with all things Parisian, “The more they change, the more they remain the same”.
If you’re hungry, you can’t go wrong with traditional Alsatian dishes like Choucroute Garni and Tarte à l’Oignon, as well as French classics like Steak Tartare, Cassoulet or a salad of Frisée aux Lardons. The house wines are decent and there are always featured wines each month. For dessert, there is an excellent Mont Blanc and, when in doubt, one can always rely on a few scoops of Berthillon’s ice cream, made at the Berthillon shop down the street.
Is The Brasserie the “ultimate jewel”? No, but it is certainly “Paris at its best”.
Restaurants, Bistros & Brasseries:
Mon Vieil Ami – 69 Rue Saint-Louis en l’Ile,
Upscale cuisine from celebrity chef Antoine Westermann. Modern furnishings within a 17th century stone and oak beam dining room.
Auberge de La Reine Blanche, 30, rue Saint Louis en l’Ile,
A veteran of the Ile for many years. Dependable classic French dishes in a cute countrified setting.
L’Ilot Vache, 35 rue Saint-Louis en l’Ile
The restaurant takes its name from one of the two original islands (Cow Island).
Good food in a romantic old world setting.
L’Orangerie, 28 Rue Saint Louis en l’Ile
Very classy upscale cuisine in a calm and refined setting. NOTE: A recent change of ownership has some of the island residents concerned. Give it a try and see what you think.
Le Saint Regis, 6 Rue Jean du Bellay
Nice faux Belle Époque décor. Great for lunch, snacks or an afternoon break.
Le Flore en l’Ile, 42 quai d’Orléan
Come for breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea – A marvelous view of Notre Dame from its terrace.
La Brasserie de l’Isle Saint-Louis, 55, quai de Bourbon
Dependable Alsatian dishes in a century old neighborhood brasserie. The best beer in Paris (Mutzig), and on sunny days, the best people watching terrace on the island, if not the city.
Berthillon, 29-31 rue Saint-Louis en l’Ile
Before there was Baskin-Robbins, there was Berthillon! Hands down, the best ice cream in Paris. Dozens of delicious flavors, in a cup or cone. A requirement if you are to qualify for your Paris Merit Badge.
Hotel Saint-Louis en l’Ile, 75 rue Saint-Louis en l’Ile
Perhaps the best of the three boutique hotels on the south side of the main street. Old school 3 star ambiance and typically small sleeping rooms – Charming.
Hotel Jeu de Paume, 54, rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Ile,
The most upscale of the four hotels on the island. Creative decor incorporating the exposed beams of a 17thcentury Jeu de Paume court (forerunner of modern tennis). Eclectic & romantic.