Tourists on their way to Paris often say, we want to stay near the center so where should we stay? The answer
is always another series of questions: What can you afford? Do you want small and quaint? Broad and regal?
Near the River? Near the crooked lanes of Montmartre? It is entirely a personal choice. One thing is certain,
you can't go to Paris and skip the Marais. It's very similar in feel to the West Village in Manhattan, with a
different architecture of course, but the small crooked medieval lanes are alive with bars, restaurants, hotels,
high and low fashion boutiques, trendy shops, hip designers, old fashioned bread shops, jewelry, wine shops, fashionable
art galleries and museums all crammed into one small area.
Le Marais is the closest you will get to the feel of medieval Paris and has more pre-revolutionary buildings and
streets left intact than any other area in Paris. A glance at some of the beautiful buildings and houses indicates
the wealthy status of the former residents. After the revolution, much of the area was abandoned by the rich,
and poor bohemian types moved in. (almost the opposite of Soho in NY) The area was considered so squalid at this
point it was nearly destroyed by city officials who wanted to modernize Paris. (A huge avenue cutting through
the center of the Marais was only avoided by the start of WWI.) You should keep in mind that before Napoleon showed
up the Marais is what most of Paris looked like--- a labyrinth of cobblestone alleys. The rest of Paris was razed
by Napoleon and Haussman who wanted to build huge avenues and gigantic squares such as the Place Concorde. These
are now the glory of Paris, but they were originally conceived so that armies and artillery could be moved around
the city to keep the poor in check and defeat invaders. On a more metaphysical level, the purpose of such broad
space is to make the citizen feel small and powerless when faced with the giant civic machine of government, or
an obedient army. In the Marais we are privy to the small and approachable Paris of the past, the place to wander
in maddening circles and never find your way, the place to hole up and read Sartre or Camus in a café window
or stare at that Parisian beauty with her slim cigarette and wild scarf. The Marais is also the most famous Jewish
quarter in Paris and in much of Europe, still maintaining strong traditions.
To begin exploring the area the best place to start is to take the metro to Bastille unless you walk from Notre
Dame and the Hotel de Ville. The Bastille is the site of the great fortress that saw the beginning of the French
Revolution on July 14, 1789. Nothing is left of the original historic building but a little brickwork in the ground.
The giant column in the center actually commemorates two later revolutions (they got the hang of it) in the mid-1800's.
The most obvious building today is the glass Opera house built by Mitterand, which looks a little like my glass
brick shower stall… It was a controversial project supposed to bring Opera to the masses but that remains to be
seen. As cheap as opera tickets can be, you are unlikely to see unemployed street sweepers and truck drivers at
La Boheme. Notice the canal that seems to end right at the Place de la Bastille and then go take a closer look and see that it continues underground. This is the Port de Plaisance and those who take the cruise to the Canal St Martin may be surprised to find that perhaps a kilometer or so is spent under the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir before you finally emerge into the light of day.
The Place des Vosges is considered by many to be the most beautifully built square in Paris. It was built by Henry
IV and soon became one of the most exclusive areas to live. Napoleon himself considered it the jewel of Paris.
Notice the small variations in the building's heights lining the square, the delicate brickwork, the special color
tone of the stone, the exquisite park with its sculpture and tended gardens and children playing--- the scene is
almost unreal at times. Victor Hugo lived at # 6 while he wrote Les Miserables but during the 19th century much
of the aristocracy had abandoned the neighborhood and the area was taken over by shopkeepers and immigrants, vagrants,
artisans and artists and Jews. If you are interested in what the area was like at the height of its grandeur,
the Carnavalet Museum (23 rue de Sevigne) is filled with the history of Paris and is worth seeing even if it's
a little confusing and nothing is in English…. but it's FREE. (closed Mondays) Nearby, at # 5 Rue Thorigny ,
you will find the Picasso Museum which is also worth visiting if you have any interest in art. If you have no interest
in art, you have an even better reason to go--- it's time to learn a few useless facts the same way I was forced
to study Boolean systems in college. The museum is closed Tuesday.
If you are interested in the Jewish quarter just stroll up the rue des Rosiers. This was once the largest Jewish
community in Europe but 75% of the population died tragically in concentration camps. Today the street is packed
with delis, bakeries, old hamams, and East European Jewish restaurants. I'd recommend strolling around here on any day but
Saturday when things are a little too quiet.
The rue St. Antoine in the center is also marvelous. You can walk along and drool at pastry shops or anything
else imaginable. The little square of St. Catherine is one of my favorite places--- go at night and you will be
amazed at the atmosphere in this small square ringed by old apartments and giant trees with soft yellow light filtering
down through the leaves and glow of street lamps. There are some nice little bars and restaurants strung around
the perimeter of the square where you can sit at night and eat outside or just have a glass of wine. There are
also a few decently priced hotels in the very near vicinity. The 2-star Hotel Agora is situated in a pedestrian street a few steps from the Pompidou Centre. Conveniently located between Les Halles and Place de la Bastille, the 2-star Hotel Pratic offers cosy and classic Parisian accommodation at economical rates. The 3-star Hôtel Turenne Le Marais benefits from a central location, near Place des Vosges as does the Hotel Caron. The 3-star Hotel de la Bretonnerie is probably your best bet, located in the heart of the charming Marais district, near the picturesque Place des Vosges. Rooms are individually decorated and include free Wi-Fi access.
The Marais is also known for its numerous art galleries and design shops. A bit like Soho in Manhattan, the high
end art tends to lean toward the more conceptual schools influenced by post-modernism and the success of Brit-Pop---
in some cases it is an enormous waste of beautiful space, in others, interesting work appears form time to time.
For those with a greater interest in the early 20th century artists, the rue de Seine in St. Germain is a better
spot to look.
For those few who have come to Paris looking for beer visit La cave à bulles, at 45 rue Quincampoix with its huge selection of artisinal beers, many of which will be unknown to even the most knowledgeable beer aficionados.