When you travel to France as I do every year, you often get shopping requests from friends. Occasionally, these requests send you to special stores or neighborhoods you have not visited for a while. This week, honoring such a request, I traveled to a favorite Right Bank neighborhood, Le Marais. A long time ago, that area, flat as a pancake like most of Paris, used to get flooded by the Seine river. These days are long gone, thankfully.
Le Marais is easy to get to. A mere 15-minute walk from le Louvres, It is flanked on one side by La Bastille neighborhood, and on the other side by les Halles (the former food market, and the location of the Modern Art museum, Le Pompidou Center a.k.a. Beaubourg.) Le Marais has it all, quaint medieval streets left untouched by the great Paris remodel undertaken by Napoleon III and his wingman Baron Haussmann in the mid 1860s, more boutiques and restaurants than one will ever need, world-class museums, trendy art galleries, gorgeous architecture, excellent people-watching. Le Marais, in a nutshell, is Paris at its most iconic best.
I fell in love with le quartier a long time ago, while I was a college student in Paris. I will get back to this part of the story later on. For now, I have to take you out of the St. Paul Metro station, off the bustling rue de Rivoli, and to the heart of the Jewish neighborhood, la rue des Rosiers. Fleeing persecutions, thousands of Eastern European Jews flocked to this area from the late 19th to the mid 20th century. It was known as “The Pletzl” (the small square.) They settled down and many specialized in the clothing industry. Le Marais became a thriving commercial area. During World War II, le Pletzl and its population were targeted by the Nazis. Many died in concentration camps. Today, la rue des Rosiers is still the heart of the Jewish community in Paris. It is a lively street, neighbors chatting with neighbors, shopkeepers standing outside their door on a sunny afternoon, tourists, and a French Girl from Seattle.
I told you I was sent on a special errand by a friend. She asked me if I could bring back a special fragrance that can only be found at the Paris boutique of Miller & Bertaux, a business created in the mid-1980s. When I looked up the address, I was delighted to find the shop in Le Marais. What a fun visit I had in the small, but elegant boutique! I was treated to an informative lesson in perfume-making as Julie, the friendly salesperson, introduced me to Miller & Bertaux’s exclusive fragrances. Not only will my friend get a supply of her favorite perfume, but I also found one pour moi!
|Miller & Bertaux’s fragrances|
|A seasonal selection of comfortable but trendy clothes|
Since I was in Le Marais, I decided to make the most of the afternoon, and took a stroll in the neighborhing streets. Everywhere I looked, there were boutiques with their doors open, enticing customers with “Soldes” (sale) signs. Ever since the Middle Ages, sales have been regulated by the French government. Shopkeepers are allowed to run sales twice a year (do you hear that, Macy’s?). When the time comes for the summer sale in late June, customers flock to local stores! I was tempted often, but was very good, and only made one purchase at a favorite boutique.
|J’adore le Comptoir des Cotonniers!|
|Les soldes! Les soldes!|
Finally, I arrived at the heart of Le Marais, la Place des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris. This is the French capital at its most elegant. A long time ago, le Marais was an aristocratic district of Paris where French nobility lived in beautiful mansions, complete with private gardens, les hôtels particuliers. Many became museums where [it is common in Paris] art collections compete with the buildings for the visitors’ attention.
|Hôtel Salé (built 1656-1659) hosts the Picasso museum|
|A favorite: Hôtel Carnavalet, and the Paris historical museum|
The Picasso museum is undergoing major renovations and is closed for another year. (2018 update: The Picasso Museum has now reopened.) I went to the Carnavalet museum last December. There was another option: French novelist Victor Hugo’s house on la Place des Vosges. In the USA, he is best known for writing Les Misérables. In France he is famous as a playwright, poet, novelist, and a man of strong political convictions.
|Victor Hugo lived at the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée from 1832-1848.|
While Victor Hugo lived in le Marais, in this dark mansion overlooking la Place des Vosges, or as it was known then, la Place Royale (the Royal Square) he enjoyed amazing views from his windows:
|La Place Royale was built between 1605 and 1612|
|The gardens in the middle of the square were added in 1682|
|Under the arcades, antique shops, galleries, and cafés|
I mentioned earlier that I had a special reason to love le Marais neighborhood.
In 1985, after I returned from Atlanta, GA where I attended college, I completed my Master’s Degree at the Charles V Institute of English and American Studies. The Institute belonged to a major Parisian university. The building, (2018 update: now gone) was located a few streets away from la Place des Vosges, in le Marais. My friends and I were lucky enough to study (and cram for finals) in this amazing neighborhood. Studying under the watchful eye of King Louis XIII in the beautiful gardens must have helped us focus!
|A trip down memory lane for this French girl|
|Charles V Institute of English and American Studies|
As I walked the old streets, I was happy to find some of my favorite landmarks, the American grocery store where I (and local expatriates) could satisfy our cravings for Cheerios, cream cheese, or pumpkin-based products.
|A legendary American grocery store on the Right Bank|
The old café where some of the Institute students would meet for drinks and lively conversation.
|Le Temps des Cerises|
All good things have an end: Thank you for taking a stroll in le Marais with me today. I have enjoyed our walk through the old streets and I hope you have too.
|Au revoir, Paris!|