There’s nowhere better to start a tour of Paris than the two islands at its centre. The Île de la Cité is where Paris began, and boasts a number of important sights. The smaller Île St-Louis, linked to the Île de la Cité by a footbridge, is often considered the most romantic part of Paris. There are no particular sights on this little island, just austerely handsome seventeenth-century houses on single-lane streets, tree-lined quais, a church, restaurants, cafés and interesting little shops. It is particularly atmospheric in the evening, when an arm-in-arm wander along the quais is a romantic must.
The earliest settlements were built here, followed by the small Gallic town of Lutetia, which was overrun by Julius Caesar’s troops in 52 BC. A natural defensive site commanding a major east–west river trade route, it was an obvious candidate for a bright future. In 508 it became the stronghold of the Merovingian kings, then of the counts of Paris, who in 987 became kings of France.
The Frankish kings built themselves a splendid palace at the western tip of the island, of which the Sainte-Chapelle and Conciergerie survive today. At the other end of the island, they erected the great cathedral of Notre-Dame. By the early thirteenth century this tiny island had become the bustling heart of the capital, though it’s hard to imagine this today: virtually the whole medieval city was erased by Baron Haussmann in the nineteenth-century and replaced by four imposing Neoclassical edifices, including the Palais de Justice.
One of the masterpieces of the Gothic age, the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame rears up from the Île de la Cité’s southeast corner like a ship moored by huge flying buttresses. It was among the first of the great Gothic cathedrals built in northern France and one of the most ambitious, its nave reaching an unprecedented 33m.
Built on the site of the old Merovingian cathedral of Saint-Étienne, Notre-Dame was begun in 1160 under the auspices of Bishop de Sully and completed around 1345. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it fell into decline, suffering its worst depredations during the French Revolution when the frieze of Old Testament kings on the facade was damaged by enthusiasts who mistook them for the kings of France. It was only in the 1820s that the cathedral was at last given a much-needed restoration, a task entrusted to the great architect-restorer, Viollet-le-Duc, who carried out a thorough (some would say too thorough) renovation, including remaking most of the statuary on the facade – the originals can be seen in the Musée National du Moyen Âge – and adding the steeple and baleful-looking gargoyles.
A devastating fire ripped through Notre-Dame on 15th April 2019, destroying several parts of this most iconic of churches, including its wooden spire. Fortunately, the three 13th century rose windows and most of its art treasures and relics survived. Enormous sums of money have been pledged for the cathedral's restoration, which is expected to be a long-term project.
At the further end of leafy place Dauphine, one of the city’s most appealing squares, looms the huge facade of the Palais de Justice, which swallowed up the palace that was home to the French kings until Étienne Marcel’s bloody revolt in 1358 frightened them off to the greater security of the Louvre. A survivor of the old complex is the magnificent Sainte-Chapelle, built by Louis IX between 1242 and 1248 to house a collection of holy relics, including Christ’s crown of thorns and a fragment of the True Cross, bought at extortionate rates from the bankrupt empire of Byzantium. Though much restored, the chapel remains one of the finest achievements of French High Gothic. Its most radical feature is its seeming fragility – created by reducing the structural masonry to a minimum to make way for a huge expanse of exquisite stained glass. The impression inside is of being enclosed within the wings of a myriad brilliant butterflies.