Ile-de-la-cite - Birthplace of the City of Light (29 May)
Interesting Facts about Ile-de-la-cite
ÎLE DE LA CITÉ, a small, ship-shaped isle in the middle of the Seine River, was the first part of Paris to be settled more than 2,000 years ago. It has been the historic and cultural heart of this great European city ever since. From above, it looks rather like the Paris coat of arms, which is adorned with the image of a great ship and the Latin words fluctuat nec mergitur inscribed beneath: “Whatever the storm, the ship sails on.” And as a ship navigates choppy seas, so has Île de la Cité seen Paris through centuries of revolution, romance, plague, beheadings, coronations, invasions, and liberation.
The Parisii tribe was the first to permanently settle on this small natural island. When the Romans arrived in 52 B.C., Julius Caesar himself understood its strategic possibilities, situated as it was in the middle of the Seine, and by A.D. 508, Paris was the seat of the kings of the Franks. Between 1163 and 1272, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, one of the greatest Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages, was built over the ruins of two earlier churches and a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. The cathedral is an architectural masterpiece of flying buttresses, gargoyles, rose windows, Gothic towers, exquisite stained-glass windows, and an ornate facade.
With such a grand cathedral at its heart, Île de la Cité historically took on the role as the city’s religious center, but it also served as the secular seat. Today, judges sit in court in the Palais de Justice, on the very spot where the Roman governor ruled. Adjacent to that is one of the world’s most spectacular rayonnant Gothic gems, Sainte-Chapelle. Louis IX (eventually canonized a saint) built this diminutive palace chapel between 1242 and 1248 to house the relic Crown of Thorns, thought to be that worn by Christ. In the second-floor sanctuary are 50-foot-high (15 m) stained-glass windows that sparkle like jewels on sunny days.
Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann destroyed much of Île de la Cité’s ancient character in the mid-19th century, when he was hired to modernize the city with broad avenues and uniform buildings. The stalls and timbered houses that edged right up to the grand cathedral were razed to create a large parvis—which, it must be noted, is a splendid space from which to stand and admire Notre-Dame.
But some places luckily escaped Haussmann’s wrecking balls. Place Dauphine, on the isle’s western end, is a quiet, secluded square surrounded by town houses; it retains much of its 17th-century historic charm.