You want elegant mansions? How about museums, galleries, restaurants and boutiques jostling for position down narrow cobbled streets? The Marais is to me the most charming area of Paris. Barely wide enough for a car, this is Paris’ oldest neighborhood – borne from ancient swamp lands – and best encountered today by foot.
A place of royal residence and neighbourhood for the monied classes of the 17th century, it was abandoned to the people during the Revolution of 1789–1799, and descended into a chaotic wasteland before being resuscitated in the 1960s. I discovered The Marais’ appeal during the autumn of 2010…
Rising from its own ashes, The Marais is once again immeasurably fashionable and indeed has transformed itself into the epicentre of Parisian gay life. It is now a medley of hip emporiums along the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, the Jewish ghetto of the Rue des Rossiers that dates back to the 13th century and some of the trendiest brasseries of all Paris.
A stroll toward the Île de la Cité found me braced by the symmetry, proportion and geometry of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris’ town hall. Glorious Renaissance architecture of this building endows the city with revivalist ancient Greek and Roman elements, the structure itself stylistically following Gothic architecture with nods to the Baroque.
It was in 1533, when King Francis I decided the then largest city in Christendom deserved a refined city hall. Building was not finished until 1628 during the reign of Louis XIII.
Today I stroll across the pedestrianized square, musical horse carousels amusing children and adults alike. However this very square was once the site for hangings, burnings and other executions. It was here that François Ravaillac, King Henri IV’s assassin of 1610 was quartered alive, his body ripped apart by four horses. Right here where I walk.
To more godly pursuits, I pay a visit to the church of Saint Nicolas des Champs, which has its origins in 1420 and enlarged significantly in 1541. In 1615, another building project was completed that gives Paris the church before me. Philippe de l’Orme, the architect to King Henri II, gave us the splendor of this Renaissance nave.
Inspired, I ramble onto the Gates of Paris! Porte Saint-Denis – the triumphal arch commissioned by Louis XIV to commemorate his military victories – is silent witness to Napoleon’s victorious campaign, whose troops passed through the arch, entering the city in 1816.
The arch was erected between 1671-74 by Nicolas François Blondel, and paid for by the City of Paris. Ever since 1670, reinforcement of France’s northeastern borders had allowed the removal of fortifications surrounding Paris, and this circumference was transformed into verdant promenades. During the centuries that followed, they were to become the “grand boulevards” of Paris.
It was through this gate, and along the Rue St-Denis, that the kings of France would return to Paris from religious services at the Basilica of Saint-Denis.
Now well within the city limits, evening has fallen and it is time to rest my feet. What better way than to attend the theatre. The Theatre de la Renaissance was created by Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo, who together were seeking to find an adequate conduit to express their visions of Romanticism. It closed its doors 1841, reopening after the 1870′ war, with a new theatre hall, a construction of Charles Delalande, assistant of the famous French architect, Charles Garnier, best known as the creator of the Palais Garnier and the Opera de Monte-Carlo.
Magical Marais: beloved aristocratic heart of Paris, winding your way so charmingly along the Rive Droite and into my heart, I nod my jaunty cap to you. May your cosy hearth between the 3rd and 4th arrondissements welcome me once again. I bid thee farewell for now.