Ile de La Cite

Today’s walk starts off with a fascinating piece of Parisian art and history on the ‘Left Bank’ of the Seine, just over the road from Ile de La Cite. It is a grandiose fountain built on the diagonal corner of an equally grandiose building. Eventually named the Fontaine de San Michel, it was inaugurated in 1860 as part of the reconstruction of Paris supervised by Baron Hausman. The original project was meant to have a statue of peace in the centre, then the design was changed to involve a statue of Napoleon. It was finally agreed that it would have a statue depicting the Archangel Michael fighting with the devil. During civic unrest during the 1870s and 1890s, the fountain attracted angry citizens who objected to its symbolism representing government leaders of the time and so the fountain had to be repaired on a few occasions.

As the major destination for this walk is Ile de La Cite, it is a short stroll from San Michelle Plaza to the nearest bridge over the Seine, unsurprisingly named Pont Saint Michelle. The first bridge over the Seine at this point of the river was built between 1379-87 and the sides of the bridge were filled with houses. Unfortunately, ice on the Seine produced by a severe winter in 1407 was carried along and hit the bridge, knocking it down. Various other bridges were built here but the one we see here today was built in 1857. Below is a very early photograph of Pont Saint Michel.

However, I would argue against taking the short cut to our next major destination across Pont Saint Michel. Why not turn left along the river and cross over a little further along at the tip of Ile de La Cite via what is the oldest standing bridge across the River Seine, the Pont Neuf? It is composed of two separate spans as can be seen in the image below and was completed in 1607.

We have now entered the Island in the middle of the Seine where Paris began. By entering the Ile de la Cite from Pont Neuf, we can approach one of the earliest palaces of the French Monarchy, before they moved to the Louvre Palaces.  Sainte Chapelle was a royal chapel that was part of the original Palais de la Cite, begun in the first half of the 13th century. The most significant King of France, Louis IX (Saint Louis) built this chapel, particularly as a store house for sacred relics that he had collected such as the ‘crown of thorns’ and a remnant of the ‘true cross’. These were eventually transferred to Sacre Coeur, a little further down the island. Sainte Chapelle did not survive the Revolutionary period well, given that it was a major symbol of the French monarchy. It is a ‘secularised’ building today and is a National Monument. Pictured below on the left is a sculpture depicting the Last Judgement above the entrance to Sainte Chapelle. Christ is in the centre and the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist on either side, helping out with the judging . No doubt the iconoclasts who destroyed the original image here during the French Revolution would have been weighed and found wanting, cast off to the deepest levels of hell.

In the image on the right below is a statue inside Sainte Chapelle of Saint Louis.

From Sainte Chapelle, it is a short walk further down the Ile de la Cite to one of the most significant landmarks in the city, the Notre Dame de Paris (“Our Lady of Paris”). Along the way to the cathedral, the visitor passes a monument entitled Carolus Magnus, (Charlemagne the Great, 747-814) who ruled an ever expanded kingdom of Franks and Lombards in the area of modern France. His equestrian statue is depicted  being accompanied by his two famous paladins, Roland and Oliver.

There is believed to have been a temple to Jupiter on the current site of Notre Dame during Roman times and a Christian Cathedral was built here in the 4th century. In the 12th century, the Bishop of Paris decided the old Cathedral of St Stephen needed to be demolished and replaced. Notre Dame was completed sometime towards the middle of the 13th century and is famous for its ‘new technology’ of supporting arches and flying buttresses. Ever since the early Middle Ages, this Cathedral has been the centre of historical action in France; it has seen the pomp and ceremony of at least two famous coronations, the boy King, Henry VI of England in 1420 (his turbulent life covered in three plays by Shakespeare) and the coronation of Napoleon by the Pope of the time in 1804 (Pius VII). It has undergone significant restoration over its lifetime, some of it due to deliberate vandalism by the religious opponents of the Catholic Church (Hugenots) or the political opponents of Church power during the French Revolution.

The photos I have used in this section were taken over two trips to Paris, one in 2004 and the other in 2016. However, these photos of Notre Dame were taken well before the great tragedy of 2019 when fire broke out in the roof of Notre Dame when yet another round of refurbishing was taking place. The spire of the cathedral was destroyed in the fire, bringing down 750 tonnes of stone and lead. The roof also collapsed as can be seen in the photos below, bringing down the huge number of oak beams that supported the lead roof. The stabilization of the cathedral and its restoration will take many years. The current Macron government is hoping it will be finished in time for the 2024 Olympic Games.

Travelling to Ile de La Cite at present will have its problems as Notre Dame Cathedral is closed to the public. It is still possible to see much of the exterior of the Cathedral, particularly if you approach it from the neighbouring island of Ile St Louis. The walk to the end of Ile de la Cite provides grand views of the cathedral and the surrounding city of Paris and the Seine River. The photo on the right shows Pont St Louis, the bridge over to the other island in the centre of the Seine and one of the great spots to take in the sun and the scenery of this ancient part of Paris.

The map at the start of this article illustrates a possible walk that starts at Fontaine de San Michel and leads the visitor on a tour of Ile de La Cite. After walking through the crowded Ile St Louis (map above), it may be time for lunch or exhaustion may demand a return to your accommodation for some rest and relaxation. The rest of the suggested walk on the day’s tour-map takes the visitor on a journey to some of the major sites on the right bank of the river and can be completed by the hardy enthusiast on the same day or perhaps taken up the next day, starting at Place de la Bastille. The itinerary for this walk takes in the following places…

  • Place de La Bastille
  • Place des Vosges
  • Hotel de Ville
  • George Pompidou Centre
  • Tour St Jacques
  • Fontaine des Innocents

From Place de la Bastille to Fontaine des Innocents

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