If you are looking for a day out in the country you can find it, astonishingly enough, at the end of the Metro line to Créteil. Créteil, characterized by charmless 1960s architecture, is the last place on earth where you would expect to find four small islands, linked to each other by footbridges, containing only old houses and country villas hidden by trees and encircled by riverside walks and weeping willows.
Apart from a moribund swimming pool, a park and a farmhouse converted into a restaurant, the islands are exclusively residential. The roads feel like footpaths, with scarcely a car in sight.
In the Middle Ages the islands were owned by the canons of Notre-Dame in Paris, who leased the land to the local villagers to ensure the maintenance of the weeping willows, necessary to protect the fertile soil from the incursions of the River Marne. The neglected state of the land after the Second World War made it a cheap and attractive proposition to some of the disaffected 1968 generation who were looking for a rural alternative to the new town created by ’60s planners in Créteil. In 1978, these new residents formed an association to preserve the islands from urban development and succeeded in getting the site listed in 1982. Today it is an unexpected survival of the country at the edge of the city, a favorite place for the residents of Créteil to take their Sunday walks, but still relatively unknown to Parisians.
Suggested visit to the islands
From the Metro station at Créteil-Université take the left exit for the rue des Mèches, following signs for St Maur Eglise. Cross the road at the church, go past the little playground and take the rue Dr Plichon on the right, which becomes rue du Moulin. It leads down to the river and the main footbridge to the islands. Turn right into the chemin du Bras du Chapitre and follow the riverside path until you come to no. 11 at the corner of the rue Robert Legeay.
Victor Hugo lived upstairs here in the days when it used to be an inn and wrote about it in La Lavandière (The Washerwoman), a poem published in 1865. Until quite recently, it was a restaurant, the Cochon de Lait, an unpretentious, old-fashioned place, with high-backed chairs and lace curtains, unhurried service and a modest clientele, with prices to match. The owners had been there since the 1950s and I suppose they must have retired, ending the history of an establishment largely unchanged since Victor Hugo’s day.
Continue along the quiet Bras du Chapitre, past the occasional fisherman, until you reach the rue du Moulin Berson. This road leads to a bridge which links the Ile Ste Catherine to St Maur on the other side of the Marne. Take the footpath at the Impasse du Moulin Berson past a farmhouse with ducks and hens outside, which seems to be in the depths of the country. The gate on the left leads to a footbridge to the park on the Ile des Ravageurs, which in itself is not particularly remarkable, but which seems to exercise a great attraction on children. Go back across the footbridge to the avenue des Peupliers through the center of the island, a delightfully quiet walk past secluded houses, each of which is built in a different style, from 1960s modern to traditional French rustic. The river can sometimes be glimpsed through the trees. The avenue de la Ferme, reached via the avenue des Uzelles on the left, is even more rural and it’s difficult to believe that you are not far from Paris.
Cross onto the Ile Brise-Pain via the footbridge and follow the allée Centrale to the Domaine Sainte Catherine, a 19th-century farmhouse hidden by trees which has been converted into a restaurant and tea room. It’s bigger than it looks and the shady garden extends to the river. The menu isn’t particularly imaginative but you can stop here just for a drink at the friendly bar or for tea in the garden overlooking the Marne. I have tried the moules/frites and they were delicious, especially in the garden setting.
Follow the allée Centrale past the swimming pool and turn left across a series of footbridges which will bring you to your starting point at the Chemin du Bras du Chapitre, a favorite place for ducks and people to congregate. It was from here that I briefly glimpsed what I took to be an otter on two separate occasions, its little muzzle just visible above the water. I have since learned that the islands have been colonized by the coypu (ragondin in French) a beaver-like rodent originally introduced to France from South America and bred for its fur. Take the Chemin de Halage (towpath) to the right, past weeping willows, swans, ducks, benches and fishermen. At the bridge take the steps up to the busy Pont de Créteil and follow the road to the right, across the Marne to St Maur. A ten-minute walk along this main road will bring you to the RER station at St Maur Créteil. This is slightly shorter than the walk back to the Metro at Créteil-Université, although the traffic presents a disconcerting contrast to the oasis of calm you have just left.
Distance from Paris 11 km (7 miles)Depart Métro BastilleArrive Métro Créteil-UniversitéJourney time 20 minutes approxLength of visit Half a dayAlternative return fromRER St Maur CréteilCarte Orange Zone3Single ticket (RER) 1.80 €Distance from Métro to islands 1 and a half km (1 mile)Distance from islands to St Maur1 km (half mile)
Getting thereMetro line 8 to Créteil-Université.RER A2 trains to Boissy St Leger, stopping at St Maur Créteil, leave Châtelet every 10 minutes. The last train back to Paris is at 12:29am. Car: A4 from Porte de Bercy, then A86 to Créteil. N19, then N186 to the Pont de Créteil or Chemin Bras du Chapitre.
Copyright Annabel Simms 2003, text adapted from her book “An Hour From Paris” (Pallas Athene 2003), available from www.pallasathene.co.uk as well as at WH Smith, Brentano’s, The Red Wheelbarrow and other Paris bookshops. Can be contacted at http://www.annabelsimms.com