A verse by the surrealist poet Louis Aragon (1897-1982) greets flâneurs who stumble upon a small plaza named after the Parisian auteur, on the western tip of the Île Saint-Louis:
Au coeur de la ville
Où tout est tranquille
The Place Louis Aragon boasts a panoramic view of the Seine and its bridges, one where the Île de la Cité looms large, just across the water.
Aragon’s words may well ring true for anyone who’s made their way around the quays and streets of this stunningly beautiful island, which is embraced by the river and caressed by the waves of passing boats. Step onto Île Saint-Louis and the pace of life suddenly, palpably slows. There’s no metro station, post office or supermarket – in many ways, it’s as if the 17th century never ended.
This tranquillity is the first surprise in store for many visitors who happen here, having fled the relentless traffic of the Rue de Rivoli or the tourist traps of the Latin Quarter. The next revelation comes when they discover that, despite its quietude, the Île Saint-Louis is far from moribund and that the island’s people – who are known as Ludovisiens – actually make a life here.
“The old people who I come cross in the street often say things like, ‘Ooh la la, today I have to go to Paris’,” smiles Nathalie Heckel of the island’s luxurious and intimate Hôtel du Jeu de Paume. “By that, they mean that they are going to cross the bridge.”
Nathalie Dumaine of Galérie DDG, who set up on the Île Saint-Louis 18 years ago, says, “It truly is an island, people have this genuine insular mentality here. I fell in love with the unique character of this place, which is at once village-like and incredibly cosmopolitan, drawing tourists, actors, politicians… it’s a crossroads at the heart of the city.”
Yet many Francophiles, and Parisians, almost reflexively dismiss the Île Saint-Louis, it having been maligned by the stifling crowds and obnoxious souvenir shops of Paris’s other famous island, the Île de la Cité.
“People assimilate Île Saint-Louis with Île de la Cité and its tourist trap shops and restaurants,” says Heckel, “but it’s not true, in fact.”
Today, despite the thousands that cross the bridge every summer, in search of a Berthillon ice cream cone, the Île Saint-Louis has somehow retained its authenticity and integrity, which is manifested in its streets, people, charming shops, engaging galleries, passionate artisans, quality-obsessed chefs, resplendent architecture and rich history. It’s an island that’s ripe for discovery.
That was hardly the case 400 years ago, when the only Ludovisiens were cows. The Île Saint-Louis was then two natural islets, the Île Notre Dame and the Île aux Vaches, the latter being used as a cow pasture. In contrast, the Île de la Cité had been populated for over 1,500 years by the time that the two islets were connected in 1614.
Wealthy bourgeois and aristocrats lined up to get a piece of the ‘new’ island and soon the greatest architects of the day were drawing up plans for a new type of luxurious home. These were hôtel particuliers oriented not towards an inner courtyard but outwards, with grand windows and balconies overlooking the Seine.
A walk through the Hôtel de Lauzun (17 quai d’Anjou), during the annual Journées du Patrimoine ‘open house’ events or as part of an arranged group visit, provides a chance to view one of the most extraordinary Louis XIV-era interiors in Paris. Charles Gruyn, its first owner, was a merchant who made a great fortune supplying cereals to the royal armies. An inveterate status seeker, he married into the aristocracy, adopted a coat of arms featuring a boar’s head and had the mansion built. It features an enfilade of formal rooms, covered from floor to ceiling in the richest carvings, paintings, mirrors and gilding which money could buy.
The Hôtel de Lauzun also recalls the fabulous reversals of fortune that Île Saint-Louis has known during its history. In the years following the Revolution, many mansions were abandoned – some were divided into cheap ‘shop fronts’, apartments and ateliers, welcoming a new population of tanners, craftsmen and artists.
“To imagine Île Saint-Louis in the 19th century, you have to think of Montmartre after 1900, and the Montparnasse neighbourhood after World War 1,” says Marc Soleranski, the co-author of the new book, L’Hôtel de Lauzun (Artelia Éditions). The composer Chopin (2 rue Saint-Louis en l’Île), painter Emile Bernard of the Pont-Aven School (15 quai de Bourbon) and sculptor Camille Claudel (19 quai de Bourbon) are just a few of the artists who lived on the island.
For two years from 1843, the poet Charles Baudelaire lived in an upstairs room at the Hôtel de Lauzun, while writing Les Fleurs du Mal. What was once Charles Gruyn’s ‘Chambre de Parade’ – with its copious gold leaf and celestial ceiling painting – became the unlikely meeting place for the ‘Club des Hashischins’ (Club of the Hashish-Eaters), which saw members Baudelaire, Honoré de Balzac, Théophile Gautier and Eugène Delacroix, among others, experimenting with a kind of green jam made from hashish, honey and pistachios. Balzac, apparently unimpressed, nonetheless reported that he “heard celestial voices and saw divine paintings”.
By the 20th century, many once splendid buildings and their divine paintings were badly deteriorating. The City of Paris saved the Hôtel de Lauzun from crumbling in 1928, and during the 1960s an island-wide restoration programme was launched by Cultural Affairs Minister, André Malraux.
“If we allowed these quays of the Seine to be destroyed,” he said, “it would be as if we were chasing out of Paris the genius of Daumier and the shadow of Baudelaire.”
Over the following decades, myriad historic buildings were given a second life. Today, the last ‘jeu de paume’ court in Paris serves as the dining room of the four-star Hôtel du Jeu de Paume (54 rue Saint-Louis en l’Île). In this vast rectangular room with its great chestnut wood pillars, which was built in 1634, the likes of Louis XIII played the game that was the precursor of tennis.
The man who arguably most helped to give the Île Saint-Louis a second life, in terms of its economy, was the late Raymond Berthillon. In the late 1950s, he was bored with the café-hôtel he ran with his wife Aimée Jeanne, on the spot where Berthillon (31 rue Saint-Louis en l’Île) stands today.
To divert himself, Berthillon started to use the café’s hand cranked ice-cream maker to craft after-school treats for local children. He made small batches, using only fresh, seasonal ingredients – egg yolks, cream and milk for ice cream, and sugar and spring water in the sorbets.
Within a few years, France’s most influential critics, ‘Gault et Millau’, were raving about “this astonishing ice-cream maker hiding in a bistro on the Île Saint-Louis”. The queues for Berthillon wares haven’t changed since, and neither have the recipes.
When Berthillon’s granddaughter Muriel got married, a few years ago, the island rolled out the red carpet.
“It’s the only time the police have ever blocked the street,” recalls Catherine Domain, the long-time owner of the wonderful travel bookstore Librarie Ulysse (26 rue Saint-Louis en l’Île). “They literally rolled out a red carpet – from Berthillon all the way to the church.”
The Berthillon family offered Champagne to the whole island.
Today, although many island businesses have closed, others thrive, perhaps by drawing on the Berthillon business model.
“We decided to concentrate on exceptional products,” says Jean- Paul Gardil of Boucherie Gardil (44 rue Saint-Louis en l’Île), one of the greatest butchers in Paris today. “As there are fewer and fewer butchers in Paris, people will travel across the city in search of quality.”
That was the hope of Hervé Lethielleux, who opened L’Etiquette (10 rue Jean du Bellay) in 2012. The wine shop offers phenomenal Reine-Claude plum brandies by Laurent Cazottes, ambrosial Sauternes from Château Massereau and the blockbuster Bordeaux of Pomerol’s Château Gombaude Guillot. “We’re trying to breathe new life into this island,” he says, “to create a dynamic.”
It’s a sentiment clearly shared by the two young owners of the excellent fromagerie 38 Saint Louis (38 rue Saint-Louis en l’Île) which opened in 2011. And also by Noam Gedalof, chef of the Michelin-starred Le Sergent Recruteur (41 rue Saint- Louis en l’Île), which opened in 2012.
“Our cuisine is contemporary but there’s a profound history behind it,” says Gedalof. “It’s both classical and modern, just like this island and this restaurant… what’s exciting about Paris is the mix of young and old.”
Indeed, with two-generations-old businesses like Boulangerie Martin (40 rue Saint-Louis en L’Isle), widely loved for their authentic breads and pastries, and Les Vergers de l’île Saint Louis (25 rue des Deux Ponts), which vends only top-shelf fruits et légumes, the island seems well on its way to becoming a foodie hotspot.
It’s already an art lovers’ paradise, for its rich history and architecture, numerous galleries and the Église Saint-Louis-en-l’Île (19 rue Saint- Louis en l’Île), whose sober exterior gives no hint of the immense splendour within. One can spend hours amid its ornate Baroque décor, contemplating numerous sculptures, canvases and paintings – including exquisite, 16th-century Flemish School biblical depictions and breathtaking, 14th century Italian wood panel portraits.
Beauty is indeed in abundance on the island. After all, as Nathalie Dumaine of the marvellous Galérie DDG (56 rue Saint-Louis en l’Île) reasons, it wasn’t just cheap rents which attracted Camille Claudel and so many other artists.
“There is magic in this place,” she says. “The light here is extraordinary, and when you see the form of Notre Dame from the bridge in the evening… it’s unspeakably beautiful. Then at night, when the ‘bateaux mouches’ pass, the façades of the buildings light up… it’s a spectacle you can never tire of.”
Boutiques and Restaurants
L’Etiquette, 10 rue Jean du Bellay, Tel: +33 1 44 07 99 27
Attend a weekly tasting at this charming nook of a wine shop and you’ll realise that owner Hervé Lethielleux doesn’t just sell vin. His selection represents the crème of France’s artisanal and organic wine producers and the shop’s a passionately curated living museum of varietal diversity and oenological traditions.
Le Sergent Recruteur, 41 rue Saint-Louis en l’Île, Tel: +33 1 43 54 75 42
Since it opened in 2012, this has been unlike any other Paris eaterie. Its breathtaking design by Spanish auteur Jaime Hayón is as contemporary as the cuisine elegantly imagined by Michel Bras acolyte, Antonin Bonnet. Michelin-starred chef Noam Gedalof uses seasonal, ethical ingredients to infuse traditional French cuisine with modernity.
Boucherie Gardil, 44 rue Saint-Louis en l’Île, Tel: +33 1 43 54 97 15
An island fixture for over three decades, Jean- Paul Gardil is renowned for vending some of the finest beef in Paris. Over the years, he’s expanded the range offered by this carnivore’s paradise to include the likes of poularde à l’Égyptienne (chicken fattened with figs), ‘salt marsh lamb’ and Jambon Noir de Bigorre.
Galérie DDG, 56 rue Saint-Louis en l’Île, Tel: +33 1 40 46 06 21
From Sophie Michalon’s nostalgic northern landscapes to David Garcia’s depictions of Burgundian forests and farms, and Régis Pettinari’s moving Paris cityscapes – which can rekindle love for the capital as a valid artistic subject – Galérie DDG offers a tour de France courtesy of the country’s greatest living painters.
Fromagerie 38 Saint Louis, 38 rue Saint-Louis en l’Île, Tel: +33 1 40 46 06 21
Didier Grosjean and Thibault Lhirondelle opened this small cheese shop with a major ambition, namely to sell only the nest raw milk cheeses, aged to perfection. Add in the selection of wines from small independent producers, excellent foie gras and spice cakes, and ‘38’ becomes your one-stop shop for a really gourmet picnic.
Librairie Ulysse, 26 rue Saint-Louis en l’Île, Tel: +33 1 43 25 17 35
In 1971, after a decade spent journeying around over 150 countries, Catherine Domain founded this, the world’s first travel book shop. With more than 20,000 books and maps covering the entire globe in stock, whether you desire to walk in the footsteps of Alexander the Great or ride donkeys across the Alps, your voyage starts here.
From France Today magazine