Marais, the Heart of the City of Light
Discovering one of Paris’ most enjoyable neighborhoods
by Melissa Schulz
Smoker greets the morning in the Marais. (photo billhocker.com)Once a mere swampland, the Marais (meaning swamp) is now one of the most sumptuous and surprising quarters of Paris. Who would have ever thought such splendor could arise from the murky waters of a marshland?
It is one of the few places in Paris that nourishes the eccentric, mixes classic beauty with quirky charms, cradles tradition while breathing life into creative minds that cherish innovation.
In walking distance of the Louvre, the Seine, the Sorbonne, and Notre Dame; it is the city within a city, where one can be who they want to be.
Consisting of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, the heart of the Marais started beating in the 12th century when the religious institutions began to build, followed by the Jewish community.
But the area really began to flourish when the Kings left the Louvre to live in the Hotel Saint-Pol and Henri the IV and decided to build la place Royale, today known as Place de Vosges.
Around the seventeenth century, the Marais suffered through a dark spot in history. Versailles took over the spotlight and the noblemen began to sell their hotels to the bourgeois. Its luster temporarily dulled, especially at the time of the French Revolution, but in nineteenth century the Marais developed a new charm with the settling of artists and small merchants in the community.
In 1962 the law of Malraux permitted destruction and renovations, which gave it a much-needed face-lift, but destroyed some parts of its history. Luckily, in spite of the demolitions, the historical sites are still plentiful.
Large Gay Population
My first experience in the Marais was with a French friend who has strong ties to the gay community. Apparently, the Marais is the place to shop, being home to a large gay population which the French people attribute to their “bon gout” or good taste.
I, of course, was on a student’s budget and all I needed was a winter coat. He assured me that not only the choicest, but also some of the most inexpensive clothes could be found in the second hand stores. So we decided to make a day out of it.
What a day it was. The silky November winds had picked up just enough to clear the air of all the pollution. A normally shy sun came out behind its veil of clouds to warm the air just enough for a promenade. The scent coming from the street vendors roasting chestnuts exposition at the Georges Pompidou art and cultural center, we left the mass crowds and entered the Marais.
Suddenly, the streets began to thin out like a river into a stream and the noisy crowd transformed from loud street performers, beeping cars and boisterous adolescents into a more tranquil crowd. Not to say that the area does not have life–au contraire–it is spilling over with sensations.
At first sight, I could not help but think of my former home of San Francisco. The small chic shops lining the streets, the rainbow flags above cafe windows flapping proudly in the sharp Parisian air, couples of the same sex walking unabashedly hand in hand, and people dressed in trendy outfits with a casual flair that consists of old jeans and a favorite shirt topped off by a colorful wool scarf. The strict attire of the more affluent arrondissements only showed itself occasionally in this more lighthearted part of Paris.
As we walked down the most flamboyant part of the Marais, St. Croix de la Bretonnerie, I felt a sense of relief. Maybe it came from the reminder of home, although mild in comparison to places like the Castro, or maybe just to feel a sense of liberalism again. My friend knew everyone on the streets so every five minutes we had to stop and give kisses.
The shopping did not disappoint me. One particular store that did not deprive any further my already starved wallet was a second hand clothing store on the same street. It remains true to the sense of the original concept of second hand, which is to provide clothing at more affordable prices.
It was a small two-level store overstuffed with clothing, mainly coats, from top to bottom. Nothing I tried on was over 20 dollars and half the fun was in the search.
If you have a little more money to spare try the stores on Rue de la Imports, glass lamps, eccentric art galleries, creative jewelry, and lively colorful clothing stores. Buy a must have bottle of vin de rouge for a drink in the park later. It is worth a peep just for the perfume of freshly baked bread to sweet smell of the small flower shops and to find delicious croissants. A Cheesecake Detour
After the purchase of a much needed winter coat and even more needed bottle of good wine we decided to fill our grumbling bellies. We walked down rue des Rosiers that today is one of my favorite streets in Paris. The odor of frying onions and Falafel filled our senses. Passing pedestrians lined up outside of the small Jewish delis selling falafel out of small windows. He took me to Chez Marianne, which I frequent to this day.
The walls are covered in poetry and pictures of Marianne, the female symbol for the French Republic. We had a simple meal, falafel, tzatziki, dark bread, and some good Bordeaux, served to us without frills on wooden tables. The service is friendly, as I find with most restaurants in this area. Apparently, this is a favorite among the local Jewish community and everyone seemed to know each other.
We skipped desert there in favor of the bakery across the street. A real Jewish Deli, filled with bagels, dark rye bread and fat square slices of cheesecake, which are a rarity in Paris.
The portions are generous, holding up to American expectations, and the same sweet elderly man serves me with a smile each time. I always rob the place of their supply of cheesecake.
On the way out of the Jewish Quarter we made one last stop to pick up some sausages for my carnivorous friend, which meant a quick drop into Jo Goldenberg’s deli, a family owned business started before the war by Joe’s parents, who were killed in a concentration camp.
The store’s walls are covered with pictures of the family he lost. He is a great host, a welcoming change to many restaurants I have visited in Paris. He greets you with a smile and puts you at ease. This is a common trait in the Jewish quatier, maybe that is one reason I have fallen so deeply under its spell. Picasso en Route
We decided to take a quick detour to pass by the Picasso Museum. The museum is in the former mansion of Lord of Fontenay, built around 1656. He made his fortune as a collector of the salt tax. Some people consider it one of the finest historical sights in the Marais due mostly to its decoration rather than its architecture.
The vestibule at the entrance boasts an elaborate staircase, adorned with sculptures from the two Marsy brothers, Gaspard and Balthasar, who contributed to the decoration of Versailles. The contents of the museum are a surprise itself representing all the eras of Picasso’s versatile creativity. An extraordinary collection of the artist’s works: 203 paintings, 158 sculptures, as well as ceramics, drawings, sketches, etc…
Our next stop was the Place des Vosges initially called the Place Royal; it was built between 1605-1610 by Henri IV for the “Royals” but there are some question as to who really occupied these rooms. Most people agree it was used for the royals’ mistresses.
It is the oldest public square in Paris and was known as the center of aristocracy in the 1600s, where many jilted lovers fought over a fair, lovely heart. In the 1800s Napoleon re-christened it Place de Vosges. Nowadays, it is a square filled with expensive galleries and antique stores. It even is the proud home of Victor Hugo.
We find a spot in the garden of the square just in time to see the sky turn a honey yellow as the sun quickly set. The children ran past us screaming after each other. Couples on the park benches snuggled up to keep warm. We opened a bottle of wine and drank out of plastic cups.
Soon, our conversation was interrupted by the the park supervisor. He apologetically told us that glass containers are not allowed in the park, and to please keep the bottle low. I smiled thinking that in America that would have been a ticket for sure. Actually, are we even allowed to drink wine in a park? I couldn’t remember anymore.
I felt like a child who just discovered a secret garden. I peacefully watched the yellow sky blend into rose colored clouds and the sun disappearing behind the walls of Henri the IV.
Melissa Schulz currently teaches English in Paris, and is moving back to the States to pursue her Masters in Social Work. She will travel anywhere.
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