Winter in Paris
Ah, Berthillon! Visions of passion-fruit sorbetm. Luscious cornetsm of praline and pear glacesm. Crusty croissants and hot chocolate on the lush paisley-covered sofa in the lobby of the 17th-century Hotel des Deux Iles. Late-afternoon tea before a blazing fire in the game room of the hotel. A cozy two-person elevator creaking its way up to a cozy room with the original bare beams criss-crossing the ceiling. Constant drizzle and a poutingly angry Seine, threatening to overflow its banks in protest and flood the cellars of the rows of simple 17th-century houses overlooking the picturesque pontsm and quaism. Neighborly chats with the proprietors of the many shops on this island in the Seine between the Left Bank and the Right Bank, four blocks long and two blocks wide.
Winter on the Ile St. Louis!
There seemed to be a street riot on the corner of the Rue St-Louis-en-l'Ile and the Rue des Deux Ponts. We were arriving from Charles de Gaulle Airport by taxi to the door of the Hotel des Deux Iles on St.-Louis-en-l'Ile for a winter week on the island.
As soon as our suitcases rested safely inside the door of our tiny room, which offered minimal closet and bureau space but overlooked the main, central street, we walked over to the street corner to see what was happening on that drizzly afternoon. There was no riot. It was just a crowd of around 100 people queuing up to buy ice cream cones at Berthillon's, makers of what ice cream mavens consider the best glacesm and sorbetsm in France . . . Europe . . . perhaps , even the world.
Later in the week we would try Berthillon's wares either directly from the shop or as desserts in the many restaurants and brasseries nearby. The price for a skimpy two-scoop cornetm of caramel, pear, chocolate-praline, passion fruit, or lime came to around $1 at the shop, $2.50 in a plate at a restaurant. (For purposes of this story, the franc is calculated at 7 per dollar, although it ranges between 6.6 and 7.3 these days, with rumors rampant in France that there will soon be another devaluation).
Situated at the very heart of Paris, this tiny island (ile)m in the Seine is connected by bridge to the Ile de la Cite, on which stands famed Notre Dame. According to the records, the island was more or less an isolated cow pasture called the Ile aux Vaches until, in the beginning of the 17th century, Louis XIII allowed a contractor to build bridges to the mainland and develop the island for residential use. By around 1664 just about all the property was developed and unpretentious classical houses built. The Ile St. Louis, now preserved intact by government edict, has since become the preferred habitat for creative, would-be creative - and rich - people. Some of the famous people who either lived, frequented, or wrote about the ile include Apollinaire, Balzac, Voltaire, Zola, Baudelaire, Cezanne, Claudel, Corot, Courbet, Daumier, Delacroix , Empress Eugenie, Madame Curie, Colette, Georges Sand, Sacha Guitry, and more recently George Pompidou and Michele Morgan.
Living on the ilem has been in and out of fashion for the past 100 years. Right now it is at the height of its vogue. According to a recent issue of Pariscope, if you are ''vraiment parisien''m today you will be living on the Ile St. Louis or in the Marais, the former slum area around the Pompidou Center now in the process of gentrification.
Preferred apartments on the ile sell for great sums of money. However, due to the current devalued franc and the uncertainty among the wealthy as to how far the Socialist government will go, there is a reluctance to buy. According to an architect friend in Paris, it is now possible to buy a six-room quai-front apartment on the ilem that only a few years ago sold for $500,000 for as little as $350,000. Studios and small two-room apartments rent for $400 and up.
A week spent principally on the Ile St. Louis, pleasant as it can be, should only be considered by travelers who have already visited Paris, seen all the basic tourist sights, and have come to love the city and want to know how it feels to live in one of its charming neighborhoods. There is little excitement on the ilem other than eating, walking about, looking at the perfectly preserved 17th-century houses, and chatting with the tradespeople who own the many boutiques, bookstores, boucheries, and patisseries. The major excitement is just being there. Of course, a resident of the ilem is only moments away from the major joys of Paris across any of the five bridges that now connect it to the Right Bank, the Left Bank, the Ile de la Cite. It is a perfect spot for walkers.
Since the French tourist office does not have very much to offer in the way of information on the ilem, although it is included in general pamphlets and maps of Paris, it would be wise for ilem-stayers to get a copy of the green Michelin guide to Paris, which includes a page of information on the ilem with a walking tour of the island. In the main bookstore on the Rue St.-Louis-en-l'Ile, you can buy a copy of a little book titled ''Merveilleuse Ile St.-Louis,'' in French, published by SESNRA, which is a house-by-house guide. While a knowledge of French is helpful for both the book and your stay on the ilem, most people you will meet speak English as well as French and, unlike Parisians in some of the Champs Elysees boutiques, are anxious to be helpful.
Leisurely walk around the whole island takes no more than 12 minutes. Then, a tour of each street can be accomplished in a couple of hours. You'll see mansard-roofed mansions, wrought-iron balusters, and a Jesuit-style church in which there is a plaque commemorating the city of St. Louis, Mo. In some cases the mansions may be visited by appointment; ''Merveilleuse Ile St.-Louis'' tells you how that can be arranged.
There are innumerable restaurants, boitesm, tearooms, cafes, relaism, and brasseriesm on the ilem.
None of them are exactly temples of epicure, and Michelin doesn't award any of them its favored stars. But most of them are adequate and comparatively inexpensive.
We tried Au Franc Pinot, a picturesque restaurant deep in the cellars of the Quai de Bourbon where we had a complete lou magretm (sliced duck breast) dinner for around $25 (all restaurant prices are per person). Less expensive was Au Gourmet de l'Ile where a full four-course dinner featuring the house specialty of breaded tripe came to around $14. Another fine meal, featuring fresh trout meuniere and delicious pear tart came to around $10 at Ilo Vache. All of these restaurants offer Berthillon ice cream for dessert.
Perhaps the best bet for simple fare is the Brasserie de l'Ile Saint-Louis, which features family-style seating and a warm, loud neighborhood ambiance with most of the clientele as well as waiters residents of the area. That's where I felt most integrated into ilem life. Wild-boar pate, a cheese omelet, fritesm, and , of course, Berthillon ice cream came to around $8, including service.
There are at least 10 other restaurants on the ilem, including a charming tearoom, Le Flore en l'Ile, which serves snacks, light meals, breakfasts, and Berthillon glacesN and msorbetsm along with a lovely view of the Quai d'Orleans.
If you should tire of the perfectly adequate, although uninspired, food on the ilem, you can cross over the Pont de la Tournelle one night and splurge at the famed Tour D'Argent restaurant, which looks out over Notre Dame and the ilem. For around $65 each we tried the special duckling dinner, then retired to the ilem across the river to count our remaining money. Well, it was a change of pace.
There are several other worthwhile excursions off the ilem that entail crossing one or another of the bridges. Across the Pont St. Louis, towards the Pont de la Tournelle, you can visit the world-renowned English-language bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, open from noon to midnight every night. On Monday nights at 8 p.m. there are poetry readings upstairs, so we wandered over on Monday night to hear West Indian poet E.A. Markham read his own work.
Over the Pont St. Louis, right across from Notre Dame, is the much neglected Memorial de la Deportation, dedicated to the 200,000 ''French martyrs who died in the camps in 1940-45.'' It is mostly underground, on the tip of the Ile de la Cite, a grim emotional reminder of the German occupation of Paris. In early January, it was mostly underwater.
An excursion across the Pont Marie to the Marais, in part the old Jewish quarter, makes an interesting outing. Here we saw recurring graffiti which said ''Vive Israel, Vive Begin.''m In almost every case, the ''Vive Begin''m had been crossed out. Enroute to the controversial Pompidou Center, we passed the Hotel de Rohan, which is currently housing an exhibit on the French role in Louisiana. One gets the impression from the exhibit that the French yearn to cancel the Louisiana Purchase agreement and reoccupy New Orleans.
Still another worthwhile excursion across the Pont de la Tournelle took us to the Left Bank, where we followed the animated Boulevard St. Germain, arriving at the beautifully lit St. Germain des Pres church, across from the two literary cafes, the Deux Magots and the Cafe de Flore. Enroute, we stopped at a wonderful , albeit plain, seafood restaurant, La Langouste, where for less than $10 we had a delicious half-lobster dinner. On paper table cloths, of course.
Although at the end of a week, we felt ourselves citoyensm of the ilem, it seemed to be time to go. The Seine had not yet overflowed, but the steady drizzle had kept the level up so high that muddy waters covered the little parks and benches down below.
So, we settled the bill with the helpful English-speaking concierge, asked her to call a taxi, then dashed across the street to indulge in one last ice cream cone before we departed. The taxi arrived as I still munched on my passion fruit-raspberry cornetm.
Au revoirm Berthillon! Au revoirm Ile St. Louis! Au revoir winter!
Practical information:There are only three hotels on the Ile St Louis, all within a few yards of each other, all on the Rue St.-Louis-en-Ile, all converted from 17th-century houses:
Hotel Lutece - double room with toilet and shower, around $48.
Hotel des Deux-Iles - double room with toilet and shower, around $45.
Hotel Saint-Louis - double room with toilet and shower, around $38.
All hotels have less expensive double rooms and a few single rooms; all include taxes and service; all charge around $3 for breakfast. Better ask for room facing the street, which is quite quiet, otherwise you may get a room overlooking an interior court.