the Heart of the City of Light.
Discovering one of Paris' most enjoyable neighborhoods.
by Melissa Schulz
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. They constructed around it the sublime hotels, turning
it into a charismatic square and some of the hotels we can still
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
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 5 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
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