Le Marais, Paris, partie un (1): Place des Vosges

Behold Le Marias!

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This famous district began its life in the history of Paris as the home of the king and the capitol city’s many aristocrats.  Le Marais spreads across parts of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements in Paris, on the Rive Droite.

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Today Le Marais is enjoying the latest of its many incarnations as the trendiest shopping district in Paris with the top stores in Rue des Francs-Bourgeois and Rue des Rosiers. The most famous stores are BHV Marais, Merci, and Uniqlo Le Marais.

From the 13th century forward, Le Marais was developed as the French nobility’s favorite place of residence. Things reached a crescendo in 1605 when King Henri IV of France built Place Royale (today called the Place des Vosges), and subsequently French nobles built their urban mansions, or hôtels particuliers, such as the Hôtel de Sens, the Hôtel de Sully, and the Hôtel de Beauvais, throughout the district, so they could be near the seat of power.

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The Royal Square is also notable because it was the oldest planned square in Paris.  Comprised as a true square (140 m × 140 m), the Place embodied the first European program of royal city planning.

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One of the many new aspects about the Place Royale in 1612 was that the house fronts were all built to the same design, probably by Jean Baptiste Androuet du Cerceau.

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The facades are all composed of red brick with strips of stone quoins over vaulted arcades that stand on square pillars. The steeply-pitched blue slate roofs are pierced with discreet small-paned dormers above the pedimented dormers that stand upon the cornices.

 

 

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One section of the square’s 4 long vaulted arcades:

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This section of the arcade is the home to this small but fine art gallery:

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This section of the arcade is also home to one of the city’s most exclusive restaurants. Our guide told us that Michelle and Barack Obama were taken here during their state visit. He promised us that they won’t let Trump come there…just checking to see that you are still reading my text!

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Le Marais is the closest you will get to the feel of medieval Paris and has more pre-revolutionary buildings and streets left intact than any other area in Paris. A glance at some of the beautiful buildings and houses indicates the wealthy status of the former residents. After the French Revolution, much of the area was abandoned by the rich, and poor bohemian types moved in.  You should keep in mind that before Napoleon showed up the Marais is what most of Paris looked like— a labyrinth of cobblestone alleys.

The rest of Paris was razed by Napoleon and Haussman who wanted to build huge avenues and gigantic squares such as the Place Concorde. These are now the glory of Paris, but they were originally conceived so that armies and artillery could be moved around the city to keep the poor in check and defeat invaders.

On a more metaphysical level, the purpose of such broad space is to make the citizen feel small and powerless when faced with the giant civic machine of government, or an obedient army. In the Marais we are privy to the small and approachable Paris of the past, the place to wander in maddening circles and never find your way, the place to hole up and read Sartre or Camus in a café window or watch the Parisian life go by.

The Marais is also the most famous Jewish quarter in Paris and in much of Europe, still maintaining strong traditions.

The area was considered so squalid at this point it was nearly destroyed by city officials who wanted to modernize Paris. (A huge avenue cutting through the center of the Marais was only avoided by the start of WWI.) Fortunately, Le Marais was one of the first areas in Paris to establish very strict preservation laws. Beginning in the 1960’s, efforts have been made to restore and preserve the façades of historically important (in the case of The Hotel Albert for instance) and typically Parisian (in the case of charming early 20th-century boulangeries for instance). That’s why in this neighborhood, you’ll see bars with Boulangerie signs and a Nike store that looks like a bookstore from the outside.

 

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