“Le Marais” – a stroll in an ancient Parisian district.

By | Category: Travel destinations
the elgance of the Place des Vosges

the elgance of the Place des Vosges

From the early Middle Ages and through the centuries Le Marais has always been a centre of French history where aristocrats, stallholders, artisans and monks lived together. Its buildings tell us a thousand-year old story and, walking through its narrow and lively streets, makes us jump from one age to the other. It is like a village inside Paris where you can visit museums and art galleries, shop in its innumerable little stores, eat in a good restaurant or have fun late at night.

“Le Marais” forms a triangle between the Town Hall, the Place de la Bastille and the Place de la Republique on the right bank of the river Seine opposite the Latin Quarter Latin. Monks were the first to build on what was a swampy area and there, the foundations of a basilica from the 4th century have been found under the present St Gervais church. From the 12th century many religious orders including the famous Knights Templar built monasteries, drained the swamp and turned it into a vast vegetable garden that fed the growing Parisian population. During the 14th century the French king Charles V decided to settle the royal residence in “Le Marais”. This was the beginning of its golden age for, following the king, the most powerful and rich aristocrats built beautiful mansions. AS they moved in, jewellers, perfumiers, tailors, cabinet makers and the like opened their shops and built comfortable houses. “Le Marais” became the most elegant district in town. Although many of these palaces and houses don’t exist anymore there are still many examples of the architecture of that time which can be seen as you stroll the streets.

This time of prosperity came to an end when King Henri II was fatally wounded during a journey in 1559. He died shortly afterwards in his palace, “Les Tournelles” which was to be found set in the middle of “Le Marais”. The royal family decided to move to the “Louvre” and later this palace was demolished and the “Place Royale” that is now known as the famous “Place des Vosges” took its place. When they moved out, the others followed.

some of the buildings the wealthy and well-connected built for themselves

some of the buildings the wealthy and well-connected built for themselves

After the French Revolution the aristocrats had to flee abroad or were beheaded. Soon workers and artisans invaded the area and, nowadays, the Faubourg St Antoine district remains famous for its cabinetmakers.

During the 19th and 20th centuries “Le Marais” welcomed several immigration waves.  Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe came to France to escape the pogroms in Russia and Poland and they rebuilt their life in the Pletzl, the Small Square, around the Rue des Rosiers. Although half of them died in the concentration camps during World War II they still are an active community that perpetuate their culture and traditions. During World War I in agreement with the Beijing government several thousand Chinese came to work in France to replace the French soldiers that had left to serve at the front. They settled in the northwest part of “Le Marais” and created a small China Town.

Since the 1980’s “Le Marais” has become a trendy district. The upper middle classes and the gay community fell in love with this lively area and its village spirit. As they did so many old buildings were restored and new chic shops and art galleries opened. And of course a festive nightlife appeared in this formerly quiet district.

Surprisingly when Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann in the late 19th century transformed the medieval Paris into a modern capital with wide avenues and boulevards lined with high buildings to create a uniform and yet harmonious perspective “Le Marais” remained little changed. For the visitor then,  we can still imagine how Paris looked before these transformations and it’s amazing to witness the overlapping and blending of times and cultures.

A good way to understand the Parisian history is to visit the Carnavalet Museum: two mansions have been united to create a remarkable one hundred roomed museum with each room dedicated to a specific period or to a great name in history.

Victor Hugo close to live here. This is the Chinese Room in his house

Victor Hugo close to live here. This is the Chinese Room in his house

The Picasso Museum is set in a beautiful 17th century building, the “Hotel Salé” and has recently been wonderfully restored. The paintings, drawings and sculptures by Picasso seem to have naturally found their place in this majestic building.

Nearby, the Cognac-Jay Museum presents the collection gathered by the owner of “La Samaritaine” a well-known Parisian department store and who was a big fan of the 18th century. Until late April, an exhibition created by Christian Lacroix – the famous fashion designer – shows clothes and costumes made from the 18th century to the present day.

Even if you’re not fond of visiting museums you can get a glimpse of this history just strolling through the streets and admiring the numerous and beautiful carriage gates which are topped with many of the most exceptional “mascarons” of Paris. Mascarons are sculptures inspired by Italian models depicting smiling, glowering or grimacing faces. These gates are sometimes open so don’t hesitate to venture in and have a look at the beautiful facades inside or discover hidden shops or art galleries.

You will also see medieval half-timbered houses in the François Miron Street or in the Volta Street where there is the house considered the oldest one in Paris. In the Rue des Archives, the Billettes cloister is the only remaining medieval cloister in Paris. It still has its four galleries and its fourteen flamboyant vaulted arches: a true rarity! Since 1808 it has belonged to the Lutheran Church of Paris.

the cafe culture today in the Place des Vosges

the cafe culture today in the Place des Vosges

Of course the “Place des Vosges” is not to be missed. Inaugurated in 1612 it is the oldest square in Paris. All of the 36 houses built around the square look the same all having a brick and stone façade; all being two storeys high and all having steep slate roofs. On a sunny winter’s day when the foliage of the linden trees doesn’t hide them it is incredibly beautiful. It was originally used for cavalcades, tourneys and even duels. The Place des Vosges has always been popular among celebrities, politicians, artists and writers. Victor Hugo lived there for almost 20 years and his house is now a museum.

There are two synagogues in “Le Marais”, the latest one in the Rue Pavée was built by Hector Guimard a master architect of the Art Nouveau who is well renowned for having designed the Parisian metro stations. His synagogue certainly is one of his masterpieces with its curves and its sober façade soaring above you. If you like Jewish food you are in the right place, just make your choice among the numerous restaurants and delicatessens in the Rue des Rosiers.

It’s quite common to see people queuing up in front of the restaurants serving falafel those delicious spicy balls made with chickpea paste. One of the most popular is named “L’As du Falafel” a friendly place where you’ll get a generous plate of falafels with marinated vegetables, hummus, tzatziki etc sitting at small tables shoulder to shoulder with your neighbours.

strudels at Chez Mariannes

strudels at Chez Mariannes

Close by you can go to “Chez Marianne” and have tasty falafel too, but most of all they have delicious strudels: these homemade cakes are made of two layers of short-crust pastry stuffed with apricots, almonds, walnuts, poppy seeds, dates… A real treat! The list of mouth-watering shop windows is almost endless: La Boutique Jaune de Sacha Finklesztajn, Chez Hanna, Korcarz… Make your choice!

One of the best and probably the best Breton “creperie “in Paris is located close to the Picasso Museum. At the “Breizh Café” they make wonderful sweet and salted crepes with the best organic produce from Brittany, but you can also have oysters, sardines cooked in cider, lobster or mackerel with seaweed or a 1000 calories piece of Kouign Amann a delicious buttery cake! Don’t forget to try a glass of one of their traditionally made ciders or a glass of organic apple juice.

Feeling like having a Portuguese meal? “Le Marais” can get you that too. “Comme à Lisbonne” is a small yet inescapable restaurant if you like ‘Pasteis de Nata’ those tasty small Portuguese cakes. Watch out they can quickly get addictive!

There are many more tempting places in “Le Marais” so while discovering its architecture and cultures allow yourself time to eat great food for the stomach as well as great food for the soul!


Text: ©Annick Dournes

Photos: ©Frederic de Poligny



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