LES HALLES

First of all the pronunciation : (Ley-all ) Try at your own risk because it is common knowledge and scientific fact that you will never speak French like the French do, even if they stop grimacing or finishing your sentences for you. Les Halles, which means what it sounds like, was one of the true wonders of working class Paris. Made famous by Emile Zola’s famous novel of the same name, it was nicknamed “the stomach” of Paris for obvious reasons, as well as the scale of it’s labyrinthine underground alleys selling fish, meat and vegetables. The fresh food market has always been the center and living focal point of a city. Banks and creditors may run the show, but everyone has to eat, and Les Halles was a monument to the great tradition of western markets, and retains mythical status in the minds of Parisians and anyone else who was lucky enough to have experienced it.

Les Halles, ParisFor 800 years this glorious market was the hub of all food distribution in the city. The gigantic steel arches covered the main market area which sold vegetables during the day and was also used as a general meeting point for citizens of Paris. The steelwork was designed by the famed architecht,
Baltard , and was reminiscent of the support structures now visible in the Gare du Nord, and St. Lazare or better yet, the Musee d’Orsay. While the construction was considered practical by 19th and 20th century standards, the soaring beams with their paint- encrusted rivets and glass awnings have come to represent the fading beauty of the fin de siecle. The markets were most interesting at night when the meat and fish markets would go into full steam. Thousands of tons or meat and fish were bought, butchered, traded and sold in the middle of the night. In the 1950’s It was in the Halles meat markets in the wee hours that the Greek painter NONDA unrolled canvases and painted using the blood of cow’s spleen and charcoal as a solution to expensive materials. He became known among the local fishmongers and butchers who gave him fish to paint (and then eat) as well as liver and spleen. Much later, the spleen painting were to hang in gentrified private collections and exhibitions far from the wild and raucous bustle of the Halles.

Les Halles, Paris, FranceSadly, the market’s success was the root of it’s own demise. The volume of traffic to and from the market began to cause serious bottlenecks in the city center and the site was earmarked for destruction in the 1960’s. The physical removal of the arcades left a gaping hole in the earth for many years which was eventually converted into the multi-story underground shopping mall and metro station we see today. The pavilion built on the site is now a garden that attempts to mimic certain features of the original site as well as Baltard’s architecture, but is mostly a pleasant pedestrian area adjacent to the beautiful Gothic cathedral of St. Eustache. (the church organ is world famous and contains 8000 pipes!) There is an interesting fountain there, occasional sculpture exhibitions and a lot of young pseudo gangsters milling around trying to sell hash or just look cool. The metro stop and shopping mall contain every modern shop imaginable, but there is a confusion to the layout, a million exits, masses of young hipsters and lots of policemen all crammed into an area that stimulates but tires--- it’s like an American mall on steroids, too much music blaring from too many shops, to many lights, too many colors, doors, escalators…call me a curmudgeon.

In the same vicinity there are many shops and outdoor stalls selling everything from CD’s to leather jackets. The area has become a little seedy, but not in a dangerous way, it just looks like a tame version of Times Square minus the lights. In the summer there are good street performers who occupy the main area in front of the museum, as well as skateboarders, musicians, mimes, protest groups, portraitists,drunks, hobos etc.

Pompidou Museum, ParisThere is of course the famous museum of modern art, the Centre Pompidou which looks like some kind of giant chain superstore from the future, and reminds me of the movie Brazil, and the bizarre and controversial fountains called Homage to Stravinsky designed by Jean Tingley (Kids always LOVE this fountain) Another much overlooked site which is invisible because it’s underground is Brancusi’s Studio. You can buy a ticket from the Pompido and visit the recreated workshop of the great sculptor. It’s worth it.

From the Pompidou you can walk towardthe Hotel de Ville and then across the river to the Notre Dame Cathedral, or if you are feeling sick of grand architecture and broad boulevards, walk back the the St. Eustache and cross Rue Montmartre until you find the Rue Montorgueil. This is a wonderful little street filled with shops, cafes and restaurants. I recommend it.

There are a number of  hotels in the neighborhood and this is one of the best areas to stay in because of its proximity to the Louvre and so many of the places you will want to see and the many restaurants and bars in Les Halles and the Marais. Try the 3-star Citadines Apart'hotel Les Halles, the Grand Hôtel Dechampaigne or the magnificent 18th-century 4-star Hotel L'Empire Paris nestled between the Louvre Museum and Les Halles.

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