An Island in the Stream

Downstream from the Ile de la Cite
The Ile-de-la-Cité and the Vert Galant Park, from the Pont des Arts.

Looking for the Island of the Ile-de-la-Cité

Paris:- Wednesday, 11. June 1997:- Although it is an island in the stream and there must be many of them in the world, the Ile-de-la-Cité is probably the most well-known.

I take the city-like bridge, the Pont Neuf, to the island. It is the oldest bridge to an old island, and I want to start at one end and go to the other. Behind the equestrian statue of Henri IV, there are some gloomy stairs going steeply down to the Vert Galant park, at the downstream tip of the island.

Except for the steepness of the stairs, this is a good place to be peaceful by the river, and one-third distance from the left bank and two-thirds from the right. Here you can see what the cleaned-up Pont Neuf looks like. It looks 'cleaned-up.' Besides being named 'Vert Galant' - a nickname for Henri IV, the little stern-like park is green.

Taking the stairs back up to the main level of the island, I wonder if the wall they pierce needs to be as formidable as it looks. A plaque on it says that a certain Jacques de Molay was burned here by order of the Temple, on 18. March 1314 - whichVert Galant Park was long before this fortress-like wall was built.

Sprinting across the place du Pont Neuf, I almost trip over the low divider in the centre; but see no cars coming and wonder why I was sprinting.

The level of the Vert Galant park is about the same as the original island.

Beside the Tavern Henri IV, I go into the triangular place Dauphine. This is almost entirely filled with fairly low trees, which act like parasols on sunny days, but this is not one of them. The place, with it narrow entry, surrounded on two sides by old buildings and by the Palais de Justice on the third, is much quieter than the park I've just left.

There are a few small hotels here and a handful of restaurants with terraces. When I have been here around noon, the restaurants were busy and even at this time, diners linger on. It is calm and on the island after all.

For no particular reason I take the northern quai de l'Horloge so that I can see the l'horloge, but I see cops instead and they look in my bag. If you are going into places with cops outside, you may as well get your bag ready to open or have it open so they can look - I've gotten really used to it. I look into the entry of the Conciergerie and come out past the cops again, who are asking other people to open their bags.

Straight on to the quai de l'Horloge - I am trying to skip the 'Cité' until its turn - and to the place Louis-Lepine, the flower market. There was a prison here, destroyed in the 'great fire' of 586, but I won't go into detail about it, because afterwards there were a lot of churches on this spot, involving a lot of dates and names and they've all been gone a long time.

Several streets were suppressed in 1860, and the flower market may date from then. This quiet market is a seven-days a week affair, but on Sundays, birds and their accessories are sold here too. The flowers are mostly of the kind you buy in pots to take home and plant, and there are a few more stalls of them on the quai du Corse as well.

There has been a sudden downpour and lightening and high gusts of wind, and many potted trees are on their sides. The flower stalls themselves are covered so it is an all-weather market as well. There are few place Dauphine customers and some are only sheltering from the rain; but the stall owners seem to be philosophical about it - merely an affair of the elements.

The Place Dauphine, at the west end of the island, is still fairly original.

When I get to the quai aux Fleurs, I turn into the rue de la Colombe, which is in the oldest remaining residential part of the island - called the Ancien Cloître Quarter. This cloister was in a small neighborhood, in the area from the north side of Notre Dame to the Seine, from about the rue de la Colombes to the rue des Chantres. There was also a garden; at the upstream end of the island, and it was called the Motte aux Papelards.

This little original part of the island was saved from Baron Haussmann's grand plans, by his dismissal in 1869 - and with the place Dauphine, remains a bit of outdoors antique. There were 37 houses here for the canons in the 13th century, and when one died, his family had exactly 15 days to move out and make way for the new occupant.

This particular cloister produced seven popes, including three Grégoires, 29 cardinals and a lot of archbishops. Of the 23 small churches and chapels on the island - not counting Sainte-Chapelle - only one remains, at number 19. rue des Ursins. Founded in 1116; the Saint-Aignan Chapel was divided in two during the Revolution.

Secret masses were held here by people disguised as water-carriers, messengers and even, Masons. Later, it was used as a storeroom and a stable and for furniture storage. It may now be open one Monday a month.

It is still a little bit like a cloister here and I walk in the centre of roads - some of them no more than three metres wide, like the rue des Chantres.

This street borders the house of the Canon Fulbert, the uncle of Héloise. In 1,118, Pierre Abailard, a young and handsome teacher, and a poet, was lodging at Fulbert's and by the end of the year Héloise was pregnant and Pierre-Astrolabe was born in Brittany. Abailard wanted to marry Héloise but she declined on the ground - that unmarried, only one family would be embarrassed.

Well, this caused a big stink when Abailard got back to Paris and was kicked out of the cloister by the bishop - partly for teaching philosophy considerably different from the authorized version. So he went up to the vineyards of the Montagne Saint-Geneviève followed by 3,000 disciples; from which came 30 bishops, 20 cardinals and one pope - Innocent III.

Persecution of the two lovers continued throughout their lives - and for long after their deaths, with their bones being together, then apart, and then together, but with a lead partition between them; and moved from one plotrue Ursins to another. They were finally reunited for good in 1817 and placed in the Père-Lachaise cemetery.

I suppose everybody knows this story, but me. One last thing, to get this right; Héloise died at age 63, the year following the laying of the first stone of the Notre-Dame Cathedral.

The rue des Ursins is in the Ancien Cloître Quarter, at the north-east on the island.

Shaken by so much history from so small a street so long ago, I pass behind Notre-Dame, through the sort of park named Square Jean XXIII, which is another fairly quiet place to pass the time watching people taking photos of the east end of the Cathedral, which is much more elaborate and airy than the stiff and upright front-end.

I also pop across the quai de l'Archevéche to the Square Ile-de-France at the upstream tip of the island. Here is the Memorial de le Deportation, which looks suitably formidable in reinforced concrete with a long flight of steps down to a pit, where I can see black iron bars and a lady looking in dismay at the number of steps she will have to climb.

It doesn't look 'island' down there to me and I can 'remember' the forced deportation without a memorial as aid, so I don't go down to where I won't feel like coming up.

The island is not big, so there are not a lot of alternate routes to the 'island' parts. But it doesn't matter where you start or which route you take - the important thing to remember about the Ile-de-la-Cité is that it is an island, in the stream, in the Seine.


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