Le Marais: The Volatile History of Paris’ Trendiest District

During our visit to Paris, Neil and I stayed in an apartment located in the historic district of Le Marais. The area gets its name from the marshland (marais) that could once be found at this location, but was drained in the 12th century.

Le Marais is located on the right (north) bank of the Seine river, and is spread across the third and fourth arrondissements. The neighbourhood’s history begins in 1240 when the Knights Templar (a Catholic military order) built a fortified church just outside of the Paris city walls, in the northern area of Le Marais. More religious institutions were soon built nearby, and the area became known as the Temple Quarter.

In 1250, Charles I of Anjou, King of Naples and Sicily (and brother to Saint Louis IX of France), built his residence. King Charles V followed suit in 1361, building a mansion known as the Hôtel Saint-Pol which hosted the royal court. From this point on, Le Marais became the favoured area of residence for many French aristocrats. They built private urban mansions (known in French as hôtels particuliers) such as the Hôtel de Sully, the Hôtel de Sens, the Hôtel de Carnavalet, the Hôtel Salé, and many others.

Today, Le Marais is a trendy area with lots of art galleries, museums, high-end shopping, and restaurants. It also contains the Jewish Quarter.

A few typical streets in Le Marais.

The view outside our apartment window.

A cute postcard I found. Le Marais is the little pink rectangle (the fourth arrondissement) and the pink triangle on top (the third arrondissement) located just to the right (east) of Notre-Dame, along the Seine river.

Le Marais began to fall out of fashion in the late 18th century, and the French Revolution saw it being completely abandoned by the nobility. Bohemians, the poor, and immigrants moved in to take their place. Many of the large mansions were carved up into apartments, workshops, and stores.

Paris underwent a population explosion in the mid-nineteenth century: it went from 759,000 residents in 1831 to over a million in 1846. The city was overcrowded, dirty, and sanitation conditions were abysmal, with cholera and typhoid outbreaks killing tens of thousands of people. In 1848, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (nephew and heir of Napoleon I, later known as Napoleon III) returned to Paris to become President of the French Second Republic. He had spent the previous twelve years living in exile in London, and he was appalled by the conditions of his native city upon his return. He decided that Paris should be more like London with its grand parks and gardens, a modern sewage system, and wide tree-lined avenues.

Two pictures below show a couple of the narrow, old streets of Paris.

The Rue St. Nicholas du Chardonnet, one of the narrow medieval streets near the Panthéon on the left bank, in the 1850s. Charles Marville. Circa 1853-1870. From Wikipedia.

The Rue du Marché aux fleurs on the Ile de la Cité, before Haussman. The site is now the place Louis-Lépine. Charles Marville. Circa 1853-1870. From Wikipedia.

In 1853, Napoleon III hired Georges-Eugène Haussman to overhaul the city. Many of the medieval streets in the city centre were razed to the ground. 12,000 buildings were torn down, and 137 kilometres of new boulevards were created. It certainly didn’t hurt that these new wide streets made it easier to control the local populace; residents couldn’t block the streets as easily, and the army could be dispatched quickly and in large numbers. This was definitely an advantage for those in power, as seven armed uprisings broke out in central Paris between 1830-1848. People tore up paving stones from the street to build barricades. This project is big enough to warrant a post of its own (which I may or may not write) but, suffice it to say that, Haussman was largely responsible for how much of Paris looks today.

What a lot of Paris now looks like, below: Haussman-style apartment buildings and wide tree-lined streets.

From Pixabay.

A street in Le Marais that did get a Haussman facelift.

Le Marais mostly escaped Haussman’s attentions, which is why it has managed to retain some of the city’s former medieval character in its narrow streets and buildings. Le Marais, with its labyrinth of cobblestone alleys, is what most of Paris used to look like. Now, I’m going to show you some of the sites we came across in this district.

Below are two medieval dwellings that can be found at numbers 11 and 13 Rue François-Miron. They are known to have existed in the 16th century, and possibly date back even further to the 14th. They were built prior to a ban on this style of wood framing, which was later deemed a fire risk. Their exteriors were actually covered up with plaster for this reason in 1607. In 1967, the houses were restored and their original façades uncovered once more.

Look at how the bottom corner of the house is rounded! I imagine this was done to make it easier for carriages to pass by!

How cool are these buildings? I’m so glad they survived!

There was another old house, located at 3 Rue Volta, near our apartment. It was built between 1644-1655. The street is a little narrow, so it was difficult to get a full shot of the building.

It contains a Chinese shop on the ground floor and five narrow floors that contain apartments (one per floor).

I love these old timber-frame houses!

Below is Rue de Montmorency, which contains the oldest stone house in Paris at number 52, the Nicolas Flamel house. Nicolas Flamel was a scribe, manuscript-seller, and philanthropist who lived from 1340-1418. He built the house at number 52 Rue de Montmorency himself in 1407, which was one of a few properties that belonged to him and his wife Perenelle. They were a wealthy and generous couple noted for their philanthropy. They donated to churches and commissioned sculptures. It sounds like they had a nice, relatively normal life.

However, things took a turn for the weird in the 17th century when some papers on alchemy were ascribed to Flamel. Legend surpassed fact as Flamel became celebrated as the alchemist who discovered the philosopher’s stone, which could turn lead into gold. By doing so, Flamel and Perenelle supposedly amassed endless riches and gained immortality. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the real Nicolas Flamel was involved in alchemy at all. His will reveals that he and his wife were financially well-off, but they weren’t in possession of an exceptional fortune gained through alchemic means. Their wealth had more base origins: Flamel owned two shops, and Perenelle was a wealthy widow twice over by the time she married Flamel in 1368. As for immortality? Well, in 1410 Flamel designed his own tombstone, which can be seen at the Musée de Cluny. That’s not the behaviour of a man who believes he’s going to live forever. Records show that he passed away in 1418, at the age of 77-78.

From Wikipedia.

The building now contains a restaurant, the Auberge Nicolas Flamel. There is an inscription on the exterior that translates as: “We, men and women, labourers of this house, which was made in the year of grace, four hundred and seven times each, in law, say every day a Paternoster and Ave Maria, praying to God for his grace to forgive poor sinners trespasses. Amen.”

From Wikipedia.

Other streets we explored included Rue Tibourg, Rue Vielle du Temple, Rue du Tresor, and Rue de Roi de Sicile, among others. The area around the Rue des Rosiers is the Jewish Quarter, known as “the Pletzl” (Yiddish for “the little place”).

Rue du Trésor is fairly cute.

Our wanders brought us next to the Place des Vosges and the Square Louis XIII. Known originally as the Place Royal, this is the oldest planned square in Paris. It was a very fashionable (and expensive) place to live in during the 17th and 18th centuries (I’m sure it still is, today). Many members of the aristocratic class lived in the pavilions that were built here, and they would meet up in the square.

The Pavilion de la Reine, in the north, shown below.

The Place des Vosges is located on the former site of the Hôtel des Tournelles, a medieval royal residence. It was named after its many little towers (tournelles). It was where Henri II died of a fatal wound he received in a joust in 1559. His widow, Catherine de Médici, abandoned it shortly thereafter. It was demolished in 1563 and parcels of the land were sold off and served several functions over the intervening years (gunpowder magazine, horse market, silk weaving factory). At one point, it became a traditional site for duels. On April 27, 1579, three favourites of Henri III of France (son of Catherine and Henri II) met and fought with three favourites of the Duke of Guise. All six men ended up dead or seriously wounded.

View of the Hotel des Tournelles after a period drawing (1550). From Le Magasin Pittoresque, 1851. From Wikipedia.

In 1604, Henri IV donated a portion of land to his noblemen for them to build their residences. He stated that the buildings would require the same layout, materials, and main dimensions as set out by architects Androuet du Cerceau and Claude Chastillon. These are the pavilions that can now be seen. Having all the house fronts feature the same design was a new development, and this residential square served as a model for many others that were to follow throughout Europe. Construction took place between 1605-1612. It was inaugurated in 1612 as the “Place Royal” in celebration of the marriage of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. Queen Anne even lived in the Pavilion de la Reine for a short while.

There is a vaulted arcade located on ground level, running beneath the residences. Shops and office space can be found there. Victor Hugo lived in one of the pavilions, number 6, from 1832-1848, in what was then the Hôtel de Rohan. Today the same building is now a museum dedicated to his memory. It’s in the corner of the photo below, where you can see the French tricolour flag.

Inside the arcade. I’m sure it once served as a popular promenade for many ladies in big dresses.

Two pavilions, one on the north and one on the south, are raised a little higher than their surroundings. They both contain a set of three arches that allow access into and out of the area beneath them. The Pavilion du Roi, in the south, is shown below. (The Pavilion de Reine is the other one, located at the north side of the square).

As you can imagine, “Place Royal” was not a name that could last long in the post-revolutionary era of Paris. It was renamed the “Place des Vosges” in 1799, to honour an eastern administrative region of France that was the first to pay its share of a tax that was used to support a campaign of the revolutionary army.

A bronze statue of Louis XIII is shown below.

Let’s continue on! Below is the Hôtel de Sully. Built between 1624-1630, it was a private mansion (a hôtel particulier) that was built for a wealthy financier. Since 1967 it has been the home of the Centre des monuments nationaux, which is a public body that manages French historical buildings and monuments.

A statue located in the courtyard.

Here are a few more pictures of the building from Pixabay.

From Pixabay.

From Pixabay.

From Pixabay.

The Musée Picasso is located in the Hôtel Salé, the largest hôtel in Le Marais. It was built between 1656-1659 for Pierre Aubert, seigneur de Fontenay, who became wealthy while collecting the salt tax (salé means “salted”). It became the Picasso museum in 1985. Neil and I got a chance to go inside to see the exhibited works, and I’ll do a separate post on it.

A few more pictures of the hôtel.

The Hôtel de Sens was built in 1475 to serve as a residence for the archbishops of Sens, a commune located 125 km south-east of Paris. At the time, Paris was not yet a separate archdiocese, and was instead part of the bishopric of Sens/Lyon. A prior hôtel had been built at this location for the archbishops in 1345, and was later used by Charles V as part of his Marais royal residence, the Hôtel Saint-Pol (which was built in 1361). Charles V moved onto the new Louvre Palace when it was completed in 1380, and the previous hôtel was destroyed to make room for the new one. Tristan de Salazar, the archbishop at the time, had the new Hôtel de Sens built in the flamboyant Gothic style.

In 1622, Paris became its own archdiocese. The archbishops of Sens spent less time in Paris, and so the building was rented out to other prominent individuals. The Hôtel de Sens was confiscated from the Catholic church during the French Revolution, and then sold and privately owned throughout the 18th century. It served as an industrial building and served in various incarnations as a warehouse, a factory, a laundry, and housed different shops. The condition of the building deteriorated throughout this period. It was classified as a historic monument in 1862, and was bought by the City of Paris in 1911. By this point, it was very dilapidated.

The tower of the Hotel de Sens before its reconstruction in the 20th century. Paul Robert, 1892. From Wikipedia.

Restoration work began in 1929 and ended in 1961. Many elements had to be reconstructed due to their poor condition. The Hôtel then became the location for the Forney Library. The Hôtel de Sens is actually a good example of what was going on in the broader district of Le Marais in the middle of the 20th century. By the 1950s, Le Marais had become a working-class neighbourhood, and many of the buildings were at risk of turning to ruin. In 1964, France’s cultural minister appointed Le Marais as the first secteur sauvegardé (safeguarded sector). The move recognized the area for its historical value and cultural significance, and sought to protect it.

Over the following decades, both the Paris municipal and the French national government worked together to restore the district. Many of the hôtels particuliers were turned into museums. Other hôtels I haven’t yet covered include the Hôtel Carnavalet (the Paris Historical Museum), the Hôtel Donon (the Cognacq-Jay Museum, which features fine art and decorative items with an emphasis on 18th century France), and the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan (the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme).

The reconstructed tower, shown below.

I didn’t know this at the time (so sadly didn’t get my own close-up picture of it), but apparently there is a cannonball lodged in the main façade of the building. It has the date it was fired (July 28, 1830) inscribed in the wall underneath it. It was shot during a street fight that took place during the Trois Glorieuses (Three Glorious Days) of the July Revolution of 1830.

From Wikipedia.

You can spot it in the picture below. Start by looking at the tower on the left. Look right to the window beside the tower, then glance up. There’s a tiny little black spot—that’s the cannonball.

From Wikipedia.

Below is a (romanticized) image of a street fight taking place outside of the Hôtel de Ville, located about a kilometre away from the Hôtel de Sens. This would have been one of the armed incursions that may have motivated Napoleon III to overhaul the narrow medieval streets of Paris, so that rebellions like this one could be put down more easily.

The Battle for the Town Hall, 28 July 1830. Jean Victor Schnetz, 1833. From Wikipedia.

The Hôtel de Canillac (also known as the Hôtel Berruyer), located at 4 Rue du Parc Royal, was built in 1620. Today it consists of a restaurant and apartments. I like the pretty pink brick and the stones framing the windows and the corners of the building. It reminds me of the pavilions in the Place des Vosges. This hôtel certainly might have taken style inspiration from the square, as it was built 15 years after those pavilions.

The Place de la Bastille is a square in Paris, located close to the Place des Vosges, where the Bastille once stood. The Bastille was originally built as a fortress from 1370 to the 1380s to defend the eastern approach to Paris from the threat of English invasion during the Hundred Years War. It consisted of eight towers and protected the entrance to the city at the Porte Saint-Antoine. In 1417 it was declared a state prison, and by the 18th century it had become a symbol of tyrannical political control. It was torn down between July 14, 1789 and July 14, 1790. July 14 commemorates the founding of the French Republic, and is a national holiday. Very little remains of the prison (although in my post on the Eiffel Tower, in the footnotes, you can read about how it was temporarily reconstructed for the Exposition Universelle of 1889). During an excavation to build a Metro station in 1899, the foundation stones of a tower were uncovered; they were moved to a nearby park (the Square Henri-Galli) where they can be seen today on the side of the Boulevard Henri IV. The original outline of the prison is marked by special paving stones on the street.

Historical reconstruction showing the Bastille, the walls of Paris, the moat below the walls, and the Port Saint-Antoine in 1420. Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer (1839-1922). From Wikipedia.

What you can find now in place of the Bastille, at the centre of a large roundabout, is the July Column. It commemorates the Trois Glorieuses (Three Glorious Days) of the July Revolution of 1830. An earlier column had been initially planned for the spot that would celebrate the Fall of the Bastille. A foundation stone was laid on July 14, 1792, but didn’t advance beyond that. The July Revolution saw the fall of King Charles X and the “July Monarchy” of Louise-Philippe (who reigned from 1830-1848). Louise-Philippe commissioned the column, and laid its first stone down on July 28, 1831—the one-year anniversary of the revolution that brought him to power. It was inaugurated on July 28, 1840.

The winged figure atop the column is reminiscent of the Roman god Mercury. He perches atop a golden globe on one foot, holding the torch of civilization in one hand and his torn chains in the other. The column is engraved in gold with the names of those who died during the July 1830 Revolution. In the foundation of the column rest the remains of 615 victims from July 1830, and 200 victims of the Revolution of 1848 were later interred there as well. In July 1848, Louis-Philippe’s throne was symbolically burned in the square as well. The elected government of the second Republic was now in power. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, later Napoleon III, would be elected President that December.

Before I wrap up this post on Le Marais, I am going to discuss one of its darkest chapters. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the Jewish Quarter/the Pletzl welcomed many Eastern European Jews (the Ashkenazi). France was the first European country to recognize Jews as citizens with human rights, and so it was an attractive place for an influx of  thousands of Jewish immigrants. Horrifically, this population was later targeted by Nazis during the French occupation and 75% of them died in concentration camps.

There are plaques located on some of the buildings commemorating those who were deported and did not return. I did not know to look for them at the time so, with regret, I don’t have any pictures of them to share. But if you are visiting the area, keep your eye out. (Paris isn’t all macaron shops and art galleries. It’s important to remember and honour that).

Neil and I stopped one night in a park, the Square du Temple–Elie Wiesel, near our apartment to eat some take-out for dinner. There was a beautiful garden, a pond, a playground, some interesting-looking birds, as well as a couple of ping-pong tables and chessboards.

From the website of the French Tourism Board.

One of the birds we saw in the park.

There was also a sobering reminder of the pain that this community has experienced. Situated in the park is a plaque that reads: “Arrested by the police of the Vichy government, accomplice of the Nazi occupier, more than 11,000 children were deported from France from 1942-1944, and murdered in Auschwitz because they were born Jews. Over 500 of these children lived in the 3rd district. Among them, 87 toddlers did not have time to attend a school. Passing by their name, your memory is their only burial.” It lists the name and the ages of the children who were taken from the neighbourhood, ranging in age from 2 months to 6 years old. “Passing by their name, your memory is their only burial.” Doesn’t that just break your heart?

“The Square of the Temple” in the garden’s name refers to the fact that this area was once part of the grounds that made up the Temple that was built in 1240 by the Knights Templar—the same temple that kick-started the growth of Le Marais as a residential district. Since 2016, the garden has also paid homage to Elie Wiesel, a Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor. It’s fitting, somehow, that this historic spot that calls back to the district’s establishment doesn’t shy away from recognizing its most hurtful moment. Even as local residents and tourists alike enjoy the park today, we are all reminded of the brutality that was exercised on members of that community. That ignorance, complacency, and hatred have a real human cost. It happened once, not long ago, to people and children (as young as 2 months old!) who also enjoyed this exact neighbourhood. And it’s our duty not to forget, to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Memorials like this are sobering, and they’re crucial.

Also located in Le Marais is the Jardin Anne Frank, a community garden that pays homage to Anne Frank. The plaque below reads: Anne Frank lived in hiding from 1942-1944 in Amsterdam where her family, German Jews, took refuge during the Nazi persecutions. The Franks were denounced, arrested, and deported. During these two years of illegal immigration, Anne Frank wrote a book published for the first time in 1947. The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the most famous books in the world. On May 13, 1944, Anne wrote from her hiding place: “Our horse chestnut tree is totally in bloom, full of leaves and more beautiful than last year.” This horse chestnut is a graft of the real Anne Frank horse chestnut tree. It was planted during the inauguration of the Anne Frank garden on June 20, 2007 (by the Mayor of Paris, the Mayor of the 3rd arrondissement, and the Director of the Anne Frank House of Amsterdam).

The tree. (Sadly, my picture of it didn’t turn out well).

From Wikipedia.

The rest of the garden. It is a nice, tranquil place.

The Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme (Museum of Jewish Art and History) and the Mémorial de la Shoah (the Holocaust Museum) can both be found in Le Marais. The Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation can be found on the Île de la Cité, underground behind Notre-Dame. The Centre for Contemporary Jewish Documentation, which maintains a large archive of Holocaust materials, is also located in Paris.

Paris has a rich, fascinating, and often-tragic history. It’s a place where the residents have fought the establishment in the street, literally ripping up the stones beneath their feet. They push forward with cries of  “Liberté!”, “Egalité!” and “Fraternité!” but then just as quickly falter and take a step back. They’ll kill a King and then elect a Dictator. The city’s trajectory has been bloody, imperfect, and very human. There are so many layers to experience, even when one is just looking for a place to eat. Le Marais is an essential district to explore, and I hope that if you’re fortunately enough to find yourself in Paris, that you’ll have time to check it out yourself.

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