Guided walking tour of Île Saint-Louis

In August 2013 I went on another guided walking tour (in French) that I found listed in the back pages of the now-defunct weekly magazine Pariscope.

This was mainly a tour of the Île Saint-Louis, but since that island has no Métro stations, we met at the kiosk by the entrance to the Métro station Maubert Mutualité on Boulevard Saint-Germain, on the Left Bank.

Rue de Bièvre

On our way to the Île Saint-Louis we walked through the Rue de Bièvre. Here our guide Gérard Soulier pointed out the holes in the pavement where the barriers were anchored from 1981 to 1995, when the street was closed off to traffic during the fourteen years of the presidency of François Mitterrand.

The house at 22 Rue de Bièvre was where Mitterrand owned an apartment with his wife Danielle. She lived there and he turned up occasionally, but the best kept secret of his presidency was that he also had a parallel family with Anne Pingeot, an art historian who was a curator at the department of sculpture at the Musée d’Orsay, and their daughter Mazarine. This secret was not revealed to the public until the last year of Mitterrand’s presidency.

Square Danielle Mitterrand

At number 20 there is a small park which used to be called Jardin de la Rue de Bièvre (Garden of Bièvre Street). In March 2013 the name was changed to Square Danielle Mitterrand in honor of the woman who lived next door for four decades. The sign on the fence reads:

Square
Danielle MITTERRAND
(1924-2011)
Member of the Resistance group of Cluny
Founder of the Foundation France Libertés
Wife of the President of the Republic
François Mitterrand

Tour group in Square Danielle Mitterrand

Here our guide explained that the Rue de Bièvre, though named after the Bièvre River, did not follow the original course of the river but rather followed the course of a canal that was dug by the Abbey of Saint Victor in the year 1148 to divert some of the water from the Bièvre.

Hôtel de Nesmond behind the Taverne d’Esmeralda

The stone building at the corner of Quai de la Tournelle and Rue des Bernardins looks historic, and it is. It was first built in the fourteenth century but was given its current form in 1643 by an architect named François Mansart (1598-1666) on behalf of the president of the parliament of Paris, François-Théodore de Nesmond. It is a hôtel in the old sense of the word, meaning an impressive private residence.

Appropriately, the Hôtel de Nesmond is now the headquarters of the association La Demeure Historique (The Historic Residence), which provides support and advice to the owners and managers of historic buildings in France.

In the foreground of my photo is a newish restaurant, the Taverne d’Esmeralda, which opened in 2012 and is certainly an improvement over the dingy old ‘Tabac’ which used to be on this corner. The restaurant was named after one of the main characters in Victor Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris 1482, better known in English as ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’.

Location, aerial view and photos of Hôtel de Nesmond on monumentum.fr.


Love locks on the bridge Pont de l’Archevêché in 2013

Of all the Paris bridges, the Pont de l’Archevêché (Archbishop’s Bridge) was the one with the highest concentration of love locks, at least as of 2013.

Tour group with Gérard Soulier

On our guided walking tour, we stopped here at the Square de l’Île de France and our guide Gérard Soulier told us a few things about the history of the Île Saint-Louis, where we were going next.

He told us that the Île Saint-Louis in its present form didn’t exist until the seventeenth century, when two smaller islands were joined together and built up as a luxurious and fashionable neighborhood for rich aristocrats. Then at some point the island went out of fashion. Working class people started moving in. Even struggling poets and artists could afford to live and work there. It remained a typically mixed Parisian neighborhood with small shops and pubs until after the Second World War, when it was gradually taken over by affluent celebrities and foreigners.

Like any true French person, our guide was very well informed about real estate prices and had no trouble reeling off figures on the cost per square meter to buy an apartment in different parts of Paris.

Rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île

When we reached the island of Saint-Louis on our guided walking tour, we first tried to find our way through the crowds in the Rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île, the main west-east street that runs the length of the island, a distance of about 550 meters.

There are two ways to think about a crowded street like this. Either there are too many people or there are too many cars. I personally think people are more important than cars. It’s unfair that a dozen or so car owners should be allowed to block space that could be put to much better use by thousands of people strolling through the street.

With all these crowds, it might seem strange to hear that the Île Saint Louis is becoming something of a ghost town. But the people crowding the streets are tourists, not residents. The population of the Île Saint-Louis declined by nearly 48 % in the second half of the twentieth century, down from 6100 in the middle of the century to 2900 at the end. As real estate prices rose, working class tenants were forced out and wealthy buyers moved in. Today nearly a quarter of the apartments on the island are ‘second homes’ owned by affluent people who live elsewhere for most of the year.

Hôtel de Chenizot

Halfway down the Rue Saint-Louis-en-l’Île he pointed out the Hôtel de Chenizot, a residential house (not a ‘hotel’ in the modern sense of the word!) that was built in the first half of the eighteenth century and had recently been very nicely renovated, from October 2012 until August 2013.

Location, aerial view and photos of Hôtel de Chenizot on monumentum.fr.


Church and clock     

Further down the street on the left we walked past the church Saint-Louis-en-l’Île with its distinctive clock. This church was built in several stages from 1624 to 1726. At the time of our visit it did not appear to be in very good condition.

Abandoned bookshop

In even worse condition was this nearby abandoned bookshop, which used to have as its slogan ‘Paris and its patrimony’.

Hôtel Lefebure de la Malmaison

When we reached the Quai de Béthune, on the south bank of the Île Saint-Louis, the first building our guide pointed out to us on was the Hôtel Lefebure de la Malmaison, which was built in 1645 by the architect Louis Le Vau (1612-1670).

It was named after a seventeenth century ‘Counselor of Parliament’ called Lefebure de la Malmaison and has nothing to do with Napoléon, as far as I know, even though one of Napoléon’s generals was named Lefebure and Malmaison was a palace near Paris where Napoléon lived for a while.

Baudelaire lived here in 1842 and 1843

This plaque on the façade of the Hôtel Lefebure de la Malmaison says that the poet Charles Baudelaire lived here in 1842 and 1843. At the time the Île Saint-Louis was not an expensive neighborhood, so even a poor poet could afford to live here.

Location, aerial view and photos of the Hôtel Lefebure de la Malmaison on monumentum.fr.


Hôtel de Comans d’Astry

At 18 Quai de Béthune we went into a courtyard where extensive renovation work was underway. This is a 17th century building known as the Hôtel de Comans d’Astry (or the Hôtel de Richelieu because a grandnephew of Cardinal Richelieu once lived here).

The courtyard was designed from the start to look bigger than it really is, with fake archways on the back wall and phony windows painted on one of the others.

Location, aerial view and photos of Hôtel de Comans d’Astry on monumentum.fr.


Tour group in Rue de Bretonvillers

This short street with its elaborate gateway is the last vestige of a large private residence on the Île Saint-Louis that was built in the 17th century for a man named Claude Le Ragois de Bretonvilliers, the Secretary of the Royal Council of King Louis XIII.

Our guide explained that this was originally a palace with extensive gardens and terraces, built from 1637 to 1642. It was destroyed to a large extent in 1874 to make room for the bridge Pont du Sully and the Boulevard Henri IV.

Tour group at Hôtel Lambert

On the morning of July 10, 2013, the historic Hôtel Lambert at the eastern end of Île Saint-Louis was badly damaged by fire.

When we came by eight weeks later there was nothing to see except a big fence around the damaged building, but we stopped there and our guide told us the whole story about how the house had been built as a private residence from 1639 to 1644 by the architect Louis Le Vau. The artists Eustache Le Sueur and Charles Le Brun worked on the internal decoration for nearly five years, creating famous frescos on the walls and ceilings of the Gallery of Hercules and the Cabinet des Bains.

In the 1740s the philosopher Voltaire lived in the Hôtel Lambert with his mistress the Marquise du Châtelet, when they weren’t staying at her country estate.

In the nineteenth century, the house was bought by a Polish prince whose guests included Chopin, Balzac, Berlioz, Liszt and Delacroix.

In 1975 the Hôtel Lambert was sold to Baron Guy de Rothschild, who allegedly did not keep it in very good repair.

In 2007 the building was bought by Prince Abdullah bin Khalifa Al Thani, the brother of the Emir of Qatar, for between 60 and 80 million Euros (depending on who you believe). The new owner had elaborate plans for modernizing the building, which were the subject of intense controversy for several years. Among other things, he wanted to install elevators and an underground car park. After petitions, law suits and a court injunction, a compromise solution was reached and renovation work was resumed in 2009. Supposedly the renovation was nearly complete when the fire broke out in July 2013.

Location, aerial view and photos of Hôtel Lambert on monumentum.fr.


Hôtel de Lauzun

The Hôtel de Lauzun at 17 Quai d’Anjou was being renovated when we were there. This elaborate private residence was built in 1657 and had a series of more or less illustrious owners in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After the French Revolution the upper floors were divided up into apartments, one of which was rented to the poets Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire in 1843. This is where the two poets and their friends experimented with hashish, and Baudelaire wrote the first poems of Les Fleurs du mal.

Location, aerial view and photos of Hôtel de Lauzun on monumentum.fr.


Hôtel Le Charron

A few doors down at the old Hôtel Le Charron we were able to enter the normally locked courtyard and see a recently renovated interior façade.

Courtyard of Hôtel de Jassaud

The last stop on our guided walking tour of the Île Saint-Louis was the Hôtel de Jassaud, a private residential building located at 19, quai de Bourbon (the continuation of Quai d’Anjou). We entered the courtyard through the side entrance at 26, rue Le Regrattier, but not before our guide had cautioned us to stay together, not smoke and not telephone, because the building had been turned into condominiums and not all the owners were willing to have tourists come into the courtyard.

The Hôtel de Jassaud was built in 1642. It is best known today as the building where the sculptress Camille Claudel (1864–1943) had her atelier on the ground floor from 1899 to 1913. It was from here that her family had her committed to an insane asylum for the last thirty years of her life.

In earlier years Camille Claudel had been the student, muse, colleague and lover of the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Some of the major works of Camille Claudel are now on display at the Rodin Museum in Paris.

Today nothing is left of her old atelier in the Hôtel de Jassaud, but at least we can say we have been there and seen where it used to be.

Location, aerial view and photos of the Hôtel de Jassaud on monumentum.fr.

My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2019.

See more posts on guided walking tours.
See also: Théâtre de l’Île Saint-Louis.

3 thoughts on “Guided walking tour of Île Saint-Louis”

  1. My only trip abroad was a business trip to Paris in the late 1980s. I feel in love with the city and many of your pictures are of places I visited. Thank you for bringing back those memories. I actually considered staying there, but … a couple of minor details like not speaking the language, not having a job nor a place to live there … well, common sense finally kicked in and I came back home. 😉

  2. Good for you that you remembered all these tours going back and still kept the pictures. A great souvenir I am sure.Rue de Bièvre is my regular stop in Paris nowdays when visiting…

  3. Don, I’m loving these walking tours. With your fabulous photos and fact-filled narrative, you make me feel that I’m strolling along those pavements too. Thank you!

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