I’m finding that it is important to diversify my daily excursions to Paris. One day a trip through a historic cathedral, another day might be a quiet stroll through a park, days of intense learning at world class museums, and occasionally a thorough examination of Paris’ many neighborhoods. Monday was one such day, where Brittany and I took off for our first trip through Le Marais, or The Marsh in English.
Known as the medieval heart of the city, Le Marais was first conceived when the Knights Templar built their fortified church just outside of Paris’ walls, in the marshy land. Subsequently, the area became an attractive spot for various other religious institutions. Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis was constructed in Le Marais from 1627 to 1641 by Jesuit architects under the command of King Louis XIII. I couldn’t pass up stepping inside for a quick photo. The design is more Italian than traditional French but remains an excellent architectural anchor along Rue Saint-Antoine.
From the 13th through the 17th century, Le Marais was THE hot spot for French nobility to build their urban mansions (hôtels). A favorite section for French aristocracy was near Henry IV’s stylish Place de Vosges. This is the oldest planned square in Paris (1605) and a stunning example of perfect symmetry. There are nine houses per side, all adorned with charming red brickwork and slate roofs. A statue of Louis XIII stands in the center.
One such example of a fantastic aristocratic mansion near the Place de Vosges is the Hôtel de Béthune Sully. Built between 1625-1630, the once private home offers a stunning view of a classical French garden. In 1634, it was purchased by Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully, former Superintendent of Finances to King Henri IV. His family remained in the home until the 18th century and although it is a state-owned building now, it still bears his name.
Just outside Le Marais, the Place de la Bastille is a square in Paris where the Bastille prison once stood. On July 14, 1789, a mob attacked it, freeing all of France from the tyranny of its presence. Following the storming of the Bastille, the area was turned into a square celebrating liberty, and a column was to be erected there. Construction never began and instead, a fountain was built in 1793. In 1808, as part of several urban improvement projects for Paris, Napoléon planned a monument in the shape of an elephant to be built in the Place de la Bastille. This too, was never constructed. In 1833, Louis-Philippe finally built the Colonne de Juillet (July Column) that was originally planned in 1792. It commemorates the July revolution of 1830.
After the French Revolution, Le Marais became a dumpy bohemian neighborhood that officials were considering destructing. Its only saving grace was the start of the First World War, which halted the plans to destroy the narrow winding streets of Le Marais to make room for wide boulevards.
Le Marais is also home to Paris’ Jewish Quarter. Rue des Rosiers (or Street of the Rosebushes) slices through the heart of the Pletzl (Yiddish for little place). This tiny yet colorful Jewish neighborhood was once considered the largest in Western Europe. Shopping and eating are fantastic along Rue des Rosiers. Falafel stands and Jewish bakeries still line the narrow street. Our visit coincided with lunch time and it was nearly impossible to restrain ourselves, but alas, our tight budgets prevailed.
One can imagine that the narrow winding alleyways of a medieval district were not made for automobile traffic. The worst part about Le Marais is the traffic and incessant horn-honking. I also found this area to be severely lacking in fresh air since the car fumes have nowhere to go. I enjoyed my visit through this historic district but was ready for the fresh air of Maisons-Laffitte when I got back home!