“Observe the fantastic display of lights against the darkness of that gloomy labyrinth of buildings; cast upon it a ray of moonlight, showing the city in glimmering vagueness, with its own towers lifting their great heads from that foggy sea.” That’s how Victor Hugo would like you to experience Paris’ Ile de la Cité (the City Island).
Paris is a stroller’s city. You can spend an entire day wandering the streets, poking your head into the nooks and crannies of the rues and arrondissements (the 20 districts). During the day you can pop in and out of wonderful museums, churches and parks, but in the evening is when the City of Light comes alive in a special way.
Hopefully, you will have visited Ile de la Cité during the day, taking in Notre Dame Cathedral, the Saint-Chapelle abbey, and the Conciergerie fortress. But in the evenings, you are in for a special treat. The island that hours early was bustling and mobbed with tourists, cars and buses is now quieter and seen in a different, softer light. While Cité still retains its energy, you can almost feel the “glimmering vagueness” of Victor Hugo’s days.
Take the subway to the Cité station. Head straight through the square (where the Flower Market is held every day, except on Sundays when it becomes the Birds Market) toward the Right Bank of the Seine. Turn left on quai de la Corse and stroll along the river and around the Western tip of the island. Depending on the time of day, you may be able to see the city across the river begin to sparkle with lights. The bridge that connects the Right Bank to the Left Bank is the Pont-Neuf (New Bridge). It’s not new anymore, being the oldest bridge in Paris. It spans both arms of the River Seine, and crosses over the Square du Vert Galant, named after King Henri IV’s nickname (Vert Galant could be loosely translated by “the Lady’s Man with a Youthful Appetite for Sex”).
Turn your back to the Pont-Neuf, and stroll up the river (eastwards) on Quai des Orfèvres (title of a famous French movie, and place of the central Paris police precinct) until you reach Notre Dame Cathedral. Turn left in front of the cathedral on rue d’Arcole, then right on rue du Cloître Notre Dame. Walk along the cathedral until you reach rue Massillon and turn left. Check out the old houses with colored brick walls.
Rue Massillon curves to the left and turns into rue Chanoinesse. The Cité Island has some beautiful narrow cobblestone treats, just waiting to be discovered during your wanderings. On the corner of rue Chanoinesse and rue de la Colombe is the Le Bougnat cafe. A “bougnat” (boo-niat) is the name given to wine & coal merchants who came up to Paris from their native Auvergne, a mountain region in Central France. Pop in for a drink if you are thristy, and practice your French with the bartender.
Or continue your ramble up rue de la Colombe to the Cave à Vins, a restaurant and wine cellar. After your feast, walk along the Quai aux Fleurs, to the tip of the island. There is a large mansion there, behind a dark green fence, where French actress Michèle Morgan used to live. Turn right back onto rue du Cloître Notre Dame. Wander to the front of the Cathedral and study its magnificence from every angle.
If it’s still open, pause to digest in the Square Jean XXIII, the park in the back and side of Notre Dame. Be aware that at dusk, it becomes a meeting ground for Gay Paris. Cross over the Pont de l’Archevêché (Archbishop Bridge). Turn right on Quai de la Tournelle and look back across the Seine at Notre Dame Cathedral. At the corner of Quai de la Tournelle and rue des Bernardins stands the world-famous Tour d’Argent restaurant. Raise your eyes, the restaurant sits at the top floor of the building. Famous for its Duck in its Blood, the restaurant offers a fantastic view of Notre Dame Cathedral, and an incredible wine cellar. Book at least 15 days in advance, and be ready to shell out Euros 150-250 per person.
If your go down the Seine again along Quai de Montebello, pass Rue de Bièvre (where former French President François Mitterrand used to have his private mansion), and turn into rue Maitre Albert to look at the quaint shops and the old buildings. Walk to the Maubert-Mutualité metro station. During the day, this popular village-like area swarms with students (the Jussieu University is nearby) and locals who come to shop at the open air market. Hit a Chinese food restaurant to conclude your long day!