So this morning I went for a walk around Ile-Saint-Louis, a small island that’s smack bang in the middle of Paris. I was joined by Carin Olsson, the brains behind the website and hit Instagram account Paris in Four Months.
In fact, we streamed the whole walk on Facebook. Get a taste for the walk here and subscribe on Patreon for the full hour-long walk, in which we showcase the entire island.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about in this blog post.
I wanted to talk about Cow Island, which more or less vanished off the face of the earth some 400 years ago. Kind of.
But like all good stories, this one started years ago at a Paris dinner party on the Left Bank. The host had a huge old map of Paris in the living room. And there’s nothing I love more than old maps and I was fascinated by it. I studied it.
I was probably looking for the lines of the old city walls, but what really caught my attention was the islands in the middle of the city. Because while usually there are just two islands, the Ile-Saint-Louis and the Ile de la Cité, this map had four.
“Arnaud,” I said, because the host’s name was Arnaud, after all. “Why are there four islands on your old Paris map?”
Arnaud, who’d lived in Paris for decades and who’d had the map for years, couldn’t believe his own eyes.
“By god, you’re right Oliver. There’s an extra two islands there, I’d never even noticed them before,” he said.
The map said that one of the islands was called the Ile Au Vaches, or “Cow Island” according to my own crude translation.
Arnaud invited me back to join the guests at the dinner table, but I was long gone, my imagination running wild like a cow in the pastures of 17th century Paris.
I hit the books to find out more and found the full story and let me tell you, it’s not easy to find. But here’s the gist. Around 400 years ago, there was indeed another island in the Seine where cows grazed.
The island was just a stone’s throw from Isle Notre Dame and it was called Ile Aux Vaches or Ile au Vaches depending on which map you’re looking at. In fact, you might even notice a fourth island further east on the old maps, but that island had no cows on it and is far less interesting (it was swallowed up by the right bank a few centuries back).
Anyway, as the story goes, the pastures on cow island were home to a number of cattle and even pigs. But when Queen Marie de Medici was subdividing all the land, she asked for the two islands to be made into one.
In 1614, city planners connect the left and right banks of Paris with a bridge that ran right through the channel between the two islands pictured above. Under the eye of famed contractor Christophe Marie, they filled in the channel and now the resulting bridge and road is rue Poulletier.
In doing so, the two islands became one – and the resulting super-island was renamed Ile-Saint-Louis.
Now, Ile-Saint-Louis is famous today, often swarming with tourists looking for that perfect Paris photo. But how many of those tourists realize that the eastern part of the island was once “Cow Island”?
Not many, I’d wager. But the clues are there. Eagle-eyed flaneurs will see there’s a restaurant called Ilot Vache, which was named in honour of the former island. Inside the window is a collection off little cows as a nod to the past.
And as Carin said in our video, it’s actually the eastern part of the Ile-Saint-Louis that’s the most pleasant to stroll around if you’re looking for empty streets and picturesque views of old Paris. When we were there this morning, there wasn’t a tourist in sight.
Nor any cows, for that matter, but I suppose that’s to be expected nowadays…
In any case, one of my favourite things in Paris is squinting hard enough so that you can see the past – right there in front of you. And it seems to that Ile-Saint-Louis is one of the better places to do it.
To watch the full one-hour walk around the Ile-Saint-Louis with Carin, become a Patreon supporter of The Earful Tower here to get into the member’s lounge. To hear Carin’s appearance on The Earful Tower podcast from earlier this year, simply press play below (and subscribe)!