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Île de la Cité, Paris - Île de la Cité Travel Guide - visiting Île de la Cité - Indian Chief Travel
FRANCE  |  Paris, France Travel Guide
Monday, June 17, 2019
9 Of 13

Île de la Cité

Île de la Cité

About 2300 years ago the larger of the two islands in the Seine, the Île de la Cité, was already settled – by the Celtic tribe, the Parisii. The market halls of the Marché aux Fleurs et aux Oiseaux, (flower and bird market) located at the site of the first trading post, probably mark the spot where the city of Paris originated. On weekdays this is a flower market and on Sundays birds are sold.

Administrative Buildings of the 19th Century

The Île de la Cité represents to a large extent a “modern” city, as envisaged by Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann. During the 1850’s the maze of medieval lanes was demolished and replaced by buildings of the Police Headquarters on Rue de Lutèce, the new building for the hospital “Hôtel Dieu” in the east and the Administrative Court, which is directly beside the flower market.

The whole ensemble is not particularly exciting, neither are the rooms inside the Palais de Justice (Law Courts) also 19th century, which nevertheless are open to the public. These are located on the other side of the Boulevard du Palais. On the right hand side of the entrance is the Salle des Pas Perdus, a large foyer, which replaced the original King’s Hall.

Sainte-Chapelle: Masterpiece of High Gothic Art

The real reason to visit the Palais de Justice is in order to see the medieval Sainte-Chapelle, one of the most significant church buildings of the Western world and a masterpiece of the High Gothic Period. In the mid-13th century King Louis IX had the chapel erected in the courtyard of his palace and had the relics of Christ’s crucifixion preserved there, which he had obtained in 1239 on a visit to Constantinople. Among these was the (assumed) crown of thorns of Jesus.

The Sainte-Chapelle, built with filigree ornamentation, has two purposes. It was the court chapel and at the same time a reliquary. As the court chapel it had two levels – the lower level for the courtiers, the upper level for the king.

No wonder then, that its true magnificence really unfolds in the Upper Chapel. The walls there seem to consist almost entirely of colorful, high, stained glass windows, which depict hundreds of scenes from the Bible; the slender pillars are lavishly painted, the capitals are particularly finely worked and the figures of the apostles are true masterpieces.

Conciergerie Royal Palace and Prison

The dungeon, which is the other interesting sight inside the walls of the Palais de Justice can be entered from the Quai de l’Horloge. It consists of four medieval keep towers, which once ensured the safety of the royal inhabitants. Three of the towers are round, the only square one is the clock tower, Tour de l’Horloge, on the corner of the Quai and the Boulevard du Palais. The old clock, dating from 1370, can still be seen in the tower.

Police officers keep watch at the entrance to the Conciergerie which has rooms with Gothic vaulting dating from the late 13th century. Originally the residence of the king’s steward, it was used from 1400 onwards as a state prison. The Salle des Gens d’Armes, a hall 63 meters long and 27 meters wide, in which the members of the royal guard waited to report for duty, is particularly worth seeing. A filigree spiral staircase leads to the former royal kitchen of the palace, which has four huge fireplaces.

The Rue de Paris, a passageway along the west side of the Salle des Gens d’Armes leads into a later period of history in which these medieval rooms played a significant rôle. During the French Revolution more than 4000 supposed counter-revolutionaries were imprisoned here while awaiting execution. In 1989, on the 200th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille the cells were reconstructed – even their inmates were resurrected in the form of wax figures (e.g. Marie-Antoinette). During a tour through the building you can see the various types of cell in which the candidates for execution were accommodated, according to their financial means.

You can also visit the chapel in which the parliamentary party of the Girondists assembled one last time in 1793, before Robespierre had them sent the next day, to the guillotine. As fate would have it, it was only a year later that Robespierre himself awaited execution in this very place.

Place Dauphine: Idyllic Tip of the Island

At the west tip of the Île de la Cité there is a square, the one-time splendour of which can still be guessed from its idyllic atmosphere today. Place Dauphine, a three-cornered “square” was created in the early 17th century, almost at the same time as the nearby Pont-Neuf, today the oldest bridge over the Seine in Paris.

Today the small cafés and restaurants of the square are inviting, since they have not yet been discovered by the tourist hordes. You can also simply relax in the shade of the chestnut trees. Under King Henri IV Place Dauphine was laid out and there is a statue of him on his steed on a platform in the center of the Pont-Neuf. Behind him some steps lead down to the Square du Vert-Galant, a small park with a fantastic view of the Seine and the Louvre. Excursion boats for round trips on the river also depart here.

The Quai des Orfèvres is a well known address to fans of detective novels, since Georges Simenon had his legendary police chief Maigret work in the police headquarters here.

Notre-Dame: A Triumph of Early Gothic

When the building work on Notre-Dame, one of the oldest and most important Gothic cathedrals, was begun in 1160, the earliest attempts at the Gothic style had been made just 30 years earlier.

The West Façade of Notre-Dame became a classic example of Gothic cathedral façades. The three high storeys or levels – portal zone, rose window level and towers – are separated by narrower elements. The entire appearance of the façade has such a clear and complete definition that it seems to have a perfect unity of form.

Of the three portals, the left one, the Coronation Portal particularly illustrates this harmony with symmetrically arranged decorative figures. It is so named because in the tympanum Mary is shown, being crowned by an angel. In the Portal of the Last Judgement Jesus is enthroned as judge of the world. He is shown separating the souls into the good and the evil ones; the latter are being placed in chains by several devils and dragged away to hell.

On the right, where hell is depicted, the sufferings of the lost souls are illustrated particularly graphically. Above the heads of the large figures of the apostles, they are being boiled, impaled or ridden on by demons – effectivewarnings for medieval observers who could not read or write, and here are shown what could happen to them if they did not submit to the (church) authorities.

The Portal of Saint Anne with the oldest figures of Notre-Dame leads into the cathedral. Of the stained glass medieval windows, the large rose windows in the transept and in the west façade are wellpreserved; above all the rose window of the north transept, which is almost 13 meters in diameter and large parts of which are completely original. It depicts figures from the Old Testament, the prophets and kings. In the center of the 16 rays of light Mary is seated with the Child Jesus, thus pointing to the NewTestament and salvation, which was once the theme of the rose window of the south transept, opposite.

The rood screens are also of medieval origin. On their outer walls facing towards the ambulatory, the life of Christ is illustrated in the most comprehensive cycle of Gothic sculptures in Paris. If there is not a mass being celebrated, it is also possible to walk through the choir. Here the medieval influence can still be seen only in the architecture of the surroundings. In the choir itself the Baroque period has left unmistakable traces. The ensemble of figures of a pietà with two kings is a striking focal point. These sculptures were commissioned by the Sun King, Louis XIV, at the end of the 17th century, as the fulfilment of an earlier vow made by his father: the aging Louis XIII is shown offering the crown of France to Mary. The choir stalls also date from this period. The wood carvings are Baroque masterpieces.

That which inside consists of piers, vault shafts and vaulting is matched on the outside by the massive flying buttresses which give the building the necessary stability. In the choir area of Notre- Dame they are so strong that they surpass all other flying buttresses of the Middle Ages. The curious, imaginary creatures, the famous gargoyles were however only added in the 19th century by Viollet-le- Duc, who was responsible for the restoration of the cathedral.

Île Saint-Louis: Island of the Blessed

In contrast to the Île de la Cité, the Île Saint-Louis – an elegant small world of its own today, with the highest real estate prices in Paris – was settled and built on much later. In the 17th century the hôtels, the noblemens’ and official palaces, were built along the quays, with a view of a purposely planted row of trees and of the Seine.

After crossing the Pont Saint-Louis) there is a wide choice of stylish cafés, of which the Flore en l’Île has the prettiest view back towards the Île de la Cité. Where the Quai d’Orléans meets the Quai de Bourbon, the Hôtel du Centaure is situated. It gets its name from a stone carving which shows Hercules slaying the centaur.

Louis Le Vau, the royal architect under Louis XIV and the builder of Versailles was able to plan several new palaces at once in the newly developing luxury quarter on the Île de Saint-Louis. They stand side by side along the Quai d’Anjou. Le Vau himself lived in house no. 3, but his true masterpiece is the next door Hôtel Lambert from the year 1640. (Entrance around the corner in Rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île.) Strong walls support the raised garden, where once the aristocratic inhabitants used to hold their receptions in a long gallery.

In the Rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île there are some pretty, small shops making the area attractive for a stroll. Besides prestigious buildings, the church of the island quarter is also found in this street, Saint- Louis-en-l’Île ,, also a work of Le Vau. The large Baroque church can easily be overseen from the street as only a relatively small tower distinguishes it from the façades of the other buildings. Farther along the same street you should make a point of tasting the ice-cream at Berthillon, the best and most famous ice-cream parlor in Paris.

Last updated February 10, 2012
Posted in   France  |  Paris
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