Le Marais is one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Paris. In fact, this is the closest anyone can come to experiencing medieval Paris. The wonderful mix of history, culture, trendy shops and eateries, along with some of the most important buildings for French polity, means that walking around in Le Marais, is a feast for the senses, and a unique way to experience Paris.
While Le Marais is one of the most fashionable and trendiest districts of Paris, this piece would introduce you guys to some of the historical aspects of this neighbourhood. Stay put for our next couple of pieces on the best place to shop and eat at Le Marais.
Why is it called Le Marais?
The French word marais literally translates to ‘swamp’ in English, and the name came about because of the marshy quality of the land on the banks of the Seine. During the Middle Ages, it became an important place for many religious orders who tended the land and developed it. Interestingly, Paris wasn’t always known for its la vie en rose! It once used to be an insignificant provincial cathedral city. It was under the rules of the Carpetian dynasty between 987 and 1328 that it became a powerful centre for the country.
Much of what we know as Paris’ architecture and style, was the result of the 17 long years of urban renewal project, led by Georges-Eugène Haussmann. He was chosen in 1850 by Emperor Napoléon III to “aérer, unifier, et embellir” (aerate, unify and beautify) Paris and modernize it. This means that a lot of what we recognise as Parisienne style dates back to the 1800s. All except for Le Marais! This place miraculously managed to evade the massive renovations. Thus, it still has some beautifully preserved buildings and roads from medieval Paris.
Where do we start? Of course, at BHV!
On second thought, maybe Hôtel de Ville is a better spot for our historical tour! Let’s leave the shopping spots for later.
Displaying statues of Voltaire, Colbert, Molière, this Hôtel de Ville was built in the 16th century. The word “hôtel” in French derives from the Latin hospitālis “pertaining to guests” and hospes, meaning a stranger or guest. In French, ‘hôtel’is used for any grand townhouse, and the addition of particulaire implies it is privately owned. Hôtel De Ville means city/town hall.
This particular city hall was built between 1535-1551. The enormous square was known as Place de Grève, a place infamous for its bloody and unusually cruel public executions. During the 13th century, heretics (anyone not subscribing to Catholicism, essentially) were executed here. Suspected witches were burned at the stake here as late as the 17th century; while others were hanged on the gallows. The final execution to take place on the Place de Grève was in 1830; and the square was subsequently referred to under its current name, Place de l’Hôtel de Ville.
Follow @paris_shuffle for more photos of Le Marais
Rue Francois Miron & Hotel de Sens
Just 10 minutes away from Hôtel de Ville, as you walk along the Seine, you will reach Rue Francois Miron. There is a church here called, Église Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais right at the beginning of the street. Sadly, this stands as a reminder of a fated Good Friday service in 1918, when a German artillery shell landed on the church, tragically killing 88 people and wounding many others.
Walking along this road, you will find 2 houses that stick out from everything else on the street. They date back to the medieval ages, and their architecture is a sight to behold. Take a look at them in the gallery below!
A couple of minutes away, is the Hotel de Sens. It is one of Paris’ only remaining medieval-era mansions, or hotels particuliers. The other one is across the Seine, called Cluny Museum. It was erected between 1475 and 1519 by the Archbishop of Sens, Tristan Salazar, who aimed to build a residence that would symbolize the political power and wealth of the Parisian archbishops. It ended up housing many royal figures. The most famous, or infamous occupant was Marguerite de Valois, also known as Queen Margot, who lived here after her marriage to King Henri IV was annulled.
Walk through Village Saint Paul
Just around the corner from Hôtel de Sens, you will find the Village Saint Paul. Do observe the medieval walls of Old Paris along the village! Village Saint Paul is a quaint corner of Le Marais, full of museums, artists’ studios, antique shops and a lot of curious knick-knacks that would transport you straight to some foregone time. Don’t forget to check out some of the beautiful courtyards here!
A short distance away is the Church Saint Paul, built between 1627-1641. It is an imposing, beautiful building form the outside, but it is even more impressive from the inside. The chandeliers all lit up inside the church, are a sight to behold! Victor Hugo immortalized this church in Les Misérables. It was built 1627 and 1641.
Place des Vosges
Cross the street from Church Saint Paul and walk a couple minutes away to be transported to the Place des Vosges. This is one of the most beautiful squares in Paris in my opinion. This is also where Paris’ most famous writer, Victor Hugo lived, and from one of the apartments here, produced a majority of his written work and lived a deliciously scandalous life of course. Today, his house is a museum, and it has a very pretty courtyard!
Above (clockwise) photos of Place des Vosges, Hôtel de Ville and the medieval houses in Le Marais. For more, follow @paris_shuffle
Rue des Rosiers
Rue de Rosiers is home to many buildings which date back to the Middle Ages. The name of the street translates to “street of the rosebushes”, and there has been written mention of the street found as long back as the 13th century. The Jewish population migrated here around the end of 12the century. This street is an amalgam of buildings, libraries and eateries which have been enriched by their connection to Jewish culture. Here, you can find some of the oldest Jewish architecture in Paris, while enjoying some of the best falafels in Paris!
On a sombre note, this place is also a reminder of the Shoah, which is the French word for the Holocaust. Though it is easy to be swept away in the colourful and festive atmosphere of Le Marais and forget some of the worst historical injustice, it requires iteration and memorialisation. After France’s armistice with Germany, French police in collaboration with local authorities began rounding up Jews and other people targeted by the Nazis for deportation to the concentration camps. About 200,000 men, women and children were deported between 1940-1944, including Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and political opponents.
At the end of Rue des Rosiers, is a school from which 165 students who were forcibly deported to Auschwitz via the transit camp at Drancy (outside Paris) during the Holocaust. Despite the headmaster’s efforts to prevent their deportation, it was carried out and none of them survived to return home. A plaque commemorates this injustice. There is a memorial for these deported martyrs, called Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation across the Seine, in Ile de la Cite.
Today, Le Marais is one of the most chic areas of Paris, with property prices soaring. It also remains one of the areas with the densest population of Jews, who have stayed here since the middle ages and enriched this place with their culture and gastronomy. Another community which has famously made Le Marais their home, is the LGBTQ community.
I hope you enjoy the curious mix of cultures and histories in Le Marais, which has created such an elegantly diverse neighbourhood. You can finish off your walk with a quiet walk in the garden of Hôtel Soubise (the French National Archives) or a drink in one of the many may bars strewn along! Or you can shop in one of the many interesting boutiques and vintage shops here!
I also just finished designing a Le Marais walk with Questo App. I’ll be sharing it here soon too!