Île de la Cité, Paris, France
The Île de la Cité may blend into the Paris rooftops when viewed from the top of the Eiffel Tower, but the island is one of the most significant places in France. Politically, legally and religiously it lies at the centre of the country and, by extension, the centre of the French Empire that once controlled a number of the islands all over the world.
Most visitors to Paris never think of the Île de la Cité as an island. There are certainly few clues to this as you stroll over the stylishly expansive Pont Neuf, one of four bridges that span the Seine on either side of it - and none if you arrive at the Cité metro station. Most historians believe the island was first settled in 52 BC by a small Celtic tribe, the Parisii, and it is from this original inhabitation that the city of Paris developed. Today theÎle de la Cité is the site of one of the most famous cathedrals in the world: Notre Dame. The menacing Conciergerie, the infamous prison of the French Revolution is also here, as is the Palais de Justice and, opposite it, the shops selting barristers gowns.
Notre Dame has to be the best known of these buildings, an certainly draws the most tourists. Day and night they pose in front of the cathedrals instantly recognizable façade with its twin bell towers and gargoyles - made all the more famous by Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It is worth joining the long queue to climb to the top of one of the towers and see the bell Quasimodo rings in the novel. Panoramic views of Paris stretch away on all sides. The interior seems larger than it really is, and can absorb any led by number of visitors and awe them into silence. The space is ringed by small chapels and ornate wooden choir stalls fill much of the east end.
Behind Notre Dame cathedral is the largely subterranean Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. This simple yet harrowing structure commemorates the 200000 people who were deported from Paris and murdered in the German death camps during the Second World War. For all the grandeur and officialdom centred on the Île de la Cite, the island has a remarkably human face. The Vert Galant at the west end is a small and pretty garden, crowned by a quay, that is popular with lovers and picnickers alike. And the Place Dauphine is one of the simplest yet most quintessentially French squares in the city.
Triangular because of the way the island tapers, it is incongruously faced on one side by the white edifice of the Palais de Justice. Boule players duel amid stuntedly shady trees and a couple of small restaurants serve alfresco food in summer. There is also a large flower market, which is replaced by a bird market on Sunday mornings, when the air is filled with the trilling of songbirds. Thousands of these are displayed in small wooden cages in a scene that is more reminiscent of Asia than the centre of a European city.
Connected to the Île de la Cité is the smaller and far more human-scale Île Saint-Louis. It boasts exclusive residential properties and its main street, with its bars and restaurants, still has specialist shops selling cheeses, antiques or ice cream, as well as ones that deal in the more usual tourist souvenirs. Both islands come alive at night when every quay is filled with tourists and locals just hanging out; but they are at their most atmospheric in the misty early morning, before traffic noise and pedestrians take over a scene as timeless as the softly running Seine itself.