Map of the Île de la Cité circa 1609 © French Moments
As the Seine winds its way through Paris, it embraces two islands right in the center of the city. The most famous island is the Île de la Cité where Notre Dame cathedral stands.
The metro station on the Île de la Cité. Photo by Wally Gobetz
Stepping out of the Parisian train on the Île de la Cité, I climbed many flights of stairs suspended on a metal frame within a huge iron silo. I guess that’s to keep it from leaking – it is on an island in the middle of a river, after all. Last May the river flooded downtown Paris.
The plaza in front of Notre Dame cathedral is always packed with tourists and the lines to get into the place are long and slow. Much less known, but much more interesting to me, was the archeological crypt underneath the plaza.
Archeologists excavated the foundations of parts of the medieval city in the course of construction in the plaza area. The place has been converted into a major interactive learning attraction for those who take the time to appreciate it.
Notre Dame’s Crypte Archéologique
displays archaeological remains discovered during the excavations from 1965 to
1972. The artifacts present an interesting historic look at the urban and
architectural development of the Île de la Cité
The entire space underground measures maybe 100 x 50 ft. In the center are the bare bones of the excavations. All around the edge is a nice walkway with displays of coins and artifacts found at the site.
Most intriguing are the interactive CAD (computer aided design) displays on touch screens. These show early views of the Île de la Cité and the construction phases of the Notre Dame cathedral. By moving a finger on the screen, we can view any stage of construction from any angle. It is truly amazing. I could have played with it for many minutes except for an obnoxious little kid who delighted in putting a finger in while others were trying to appreciate it.
Even at 9:00am a line was already forming to enter Sainte Chapelle, the chapel built by Louis IX in 1248 to house his collection of relics. It was part of his palace on the island and is justly reputed to be the most beautiful Gothic chapel in Europe.
The windows, the gold fleur de lies that speckle the
deep indigo ceiling, and the painted pillars are a feast of colors.
The stained glass windows occupy so much of the wall space that the ceiling appears to float in the air. On a sunny day the effect of colors must be blinding.
During the French Revolution Louis IX’s palace adjoining Sainte Chapelle was turned into a prison. Today it’s called La Conciergerie, after the head master of the prison in whose charge the prisoners spent their last days. Hundreds of people were tried and jailed there awaiting the guillotine, including Marie Antoinette.
It must have been “free day” in Paris — or maybe just because it was Sunday — but entrance to all these places was free that day.
I had no desire to stand in long lines to see the inside of Notre Dame. Just upstream is the less well-known – and much less touristy – Île Ste. Louis. Early Celtic tribes settled the islands but the Romans chose to build the city of Lutetia on the left, or south, bank of the river. It was only in the Middle Ages, when the population shrank, that the center of the city was based on the islands and named Paris, after the Parisii tribe who lived in the area.
I chose to walk around the outside of both islands, to gain a sense of their position and their roles in the heart of Paris.
Île Ste. Louis is a quiet respite from the tourist crowds. Photo © France Tourisme Paris
Packed with old eight- and nine-storied residences lining its narrow streets, the island of Île Ste. Louis easily buffers the noise of the city. There is a small park at the upstream end and there I found a peaceful bench to sit and simply absorb the atmosphere.
Another American, Carol, was doing the same thing. She was in Paris for a month, living on the Île Ste. Louis. She runs a farm in southern Oregon. It was nice to meet another American and equally nice to have a conversation in English. I met an American couple, from West Virginia, in the little bistro where I took lunch. The cheeses were fabulous and of course so was the wine and the conversation.
Circumambulating the Île de la Cité was not quite as peaceful but still quite interesting. The Ministry of Justice and the Prefecture of Police are located there. There is a park at the island’s downstream tip and you can walk along the waterfront itself.
I so much enjoy “going deep” in one small part of a city rather than running around from one attraction to another. It gives me a feeling of familiarization and a sense that I have made a part of Paris my own.
—story and photos, unless otherwise noted, by Janice Van Cleve.
Janice Van Cleve is an archeologist and guest lecturer on tours who has published several books on the Maya.
CLICK HERE to read her adventure in Honduras, the Lure of Copan Ruinas.
CLICK HERE to read her adventure in Copan Ruinas, a typical Central American town.