Majestic Marais District of Paris

Strolling along the twisted streets lined by aged buildings in a jumble of architectural styles, my first thought was that the setting would be a city planner’s nightmare.   Then my mind wandered to the rich history that has unfolded in the often-overlooked neighborhood in one of the most-visited cities in the world. Throughout the Marais district of Paris, crumbling mansions that cling to memories of past glory days are neighbors to trendy shops and galleries. Bustling restaurants abut small, offbeat museums.

A compact section of the enclave has been a Jewish quarter since the 13th century.   Not far away is what many people consider to be the most beautiful square in the city, and perhaps in all of Europe.

This eclectic neighborhood in the heart of Paris has been called the Marais (“marsh”) since Roman times. The name described the swamp that was created by a fork of the Seine River. The marsh was drained in the 12th century to provide more living space as Paris grew, but the name – like the oozing mud that once covered the area – stuck.

Despite its colorful history and present-day attractions, much of what the Marais has to offer is overlooked today by many visitors to Paris. While some seek out the magnificent square named Place des Vosges, they often pass up the colorful side streets that surround it like a maze.

After being opened to habitation, the Marais evolved quietly until 1612, when King Henry IV took up residence overlooking the Places des Vosges. His presence sparked a transformation of the neighborhood into a fashionable quarter which attracted aristocrats, people of wealth and intellectuals.

Then came the Revolution. Many of the prestigious residents of the Marais district were imprisoned, or worse. The area surrounding the Bastille, whose storming sparked the uprising that changed France forever, fell into a state of decline.

In recent years, this trend has been reversed. What had deteriorated into a backwater neighborhood once again became fashionable.  I noted example after example of how renovation has brought about upgrading without upheaval.  Most of the gracious 17th-century mansions, or “hotels” as they were called in the past, have been spared.  Some have been converted into offices, shops, and museums.

This preservation and transformation provide an opportunity to delve into the past while keeping one foot planted firmly in the present.   The logical place to begin an exploration is the Place des Vosges.  That graceful square was laid out in keeping with the design imposed by Henry IV, who envisioned the neighborhood as a splendid urban quarter fit, in fact, for a King.

The setting is one of perfect symmetry.  Identical mansions surround an elegant grass square.  Their rose-colored brick walls are topped by blue slate roofs.  Restaurants and upscale art and antique shops fill the covered arcades that connect the buildings.

Now, however, instead of aristocracy, the vast lawn is a gathering place for the plain people of Paris.  Splashing fountains add a playful note. In the center of it all, a statue of Louis XIII grins out over the scene.  Beneath his gaze and smile, children play, lovers hold hands and people of all ages promenade.

In keeping with its history and in ways its somewhat offbeat nature, the Marais is home to a number of enticing small museums. While these little gems can’t compete in size with the major attractions of Paris, they offer delightful introductions to people, and pages of history often lost in the appeals of better-known collections.

The best-known name from the past holds forth at the Picasso Museum. It’s housed in the Hotel Sale (“salt”), a stylish 17th-century mansion that at one time was home to the ambassador from Venice.

The exhibits include a handful of Picasso’s better-known masterpieces, along with the largest collection of his works in the world under one roof.   Also of interest are miscellaneous memorabilia that provide intimate glimpses into the man behind the fame.  I was especially taken by photographs of Picasso playing with his children.

The house at No. 6 Place des Vosges, where Victor Hugo lived and worked for 15 years in the mid-19th century, is smaller and more intimate.  The past comes alive in the place where he wrote several chapters of Les Miserables and other books.  Among items on display are a number of Hugo’s illustrations for his novels, a bust of him by Rodin and a stand-up desk at which the author created his literary masterpieces.

Other museums scattered about the Marais district attract visitors who have a special interest. Most important is the Carnavalet, an imposing 16th-century mansion that houses the Historical Museum of the City of Paris. Four centuries of the city’s past (15th-18th) are brought to life in paintings, models and furniture.    A diorama dated 1527 dramatically depicts the cramped, narrow streets of Paris in the Middle Ages.

Some exhibits depict themes from that time in a very personal way.  For example, shop signs from the 18th century, when few people could read, identified a butcher shop by a rendering of a pig and indicated a baker’s workplace with a sheaf of wheat.  A telling exhibit about the causes and results of the French Revolution includes an itemized laundry bill for the royal family’s very extravagant clothing and a rope ladder that some prisoners used to escape from the Bastille.

A very different page of history is turned in the Jewish quarter of the Marais, which is centered along the Rue des Rosiers (Street of Roses). The complex of narrow, twisting streets has retained its distinctive flavor for centuries.

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Kosher bakeries and butcher shops vie for attention among store windows filled with silver plated menorahs and books written in Hebrew.  Elderly men sporting dark beards and equally dark suits, women wrapped in shawls and boys wearing skull-cap yarmulkes jostle for space on the crowded sidewalks along with sightseers from around the city and the world.  The tempting scents of fresh pickles, brisket of beef and other traditional treats wafted out through open shop doors.  Today those familiar odors mingle with the aromas of falafel stalls, which serve as evidence of an influx of Jews from North African nations in recent decades.

This frenetic setting is close to the quiet elegance of the nearby Place des Vosges yet is far removed in terms of atmosphere.   This juxtaposition of unlikely attractions is among many appeals that give the Marais district its unique character, and which provides enough reasons to include it on the “must see” list of visitors to Paris.

If you go.  For more information about France, and the Marais district of Paris, log onto  us.france.fr.