04 September 2012

Le Marais, Paris

During the mid-C13th Charles I of Anjou, brother of King Louis IX, built a splendid palace in the Marais. 100 years later, King Charles V built another splendid palace which served the royal court very well indeed. But it really took until King Henri IV decided to build Place Royale in 1605-1612 that we can see the rise and rise of the Marais as a posh place of residence.

One side of Place des Vosges

Place Royale, the planned square now called Place des Vosges, was inaugurated in 1612 to celebrate the wedding of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. It provided my first model for urban town planning with trees, pre-dating London’s residential squares by quite a long time. Today’s visitors can still see the brick house facades that were part of an integrated and impressive cityscape. Cardinal Richelieu had an equestrian bronze of Louis XIII erected in the centre.

If French nobles once fell over themselves to build their urban mansions in the Marais, why did it end? Because the main French court moved from the Louvre Palace to Versailles in the 1680s, so the nobility moved away from the Marais in order to be closer to Court.

All the aristocratic building programme of the C17th became a distant memory for 19th century Parisians of the 4th arrondissment. At the end of the C19th and even after WW1, millions of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe moved west. Most went to New York, Chicago, Cape Town, Tel Aviv, London and Manchester, but thousands and thousands settled in the district around the rue des Rosiers. Perhaps they needed kosher food shops and synagogues. Perhaps they were seeking work in the Marais’ factories and retail outlets.

Main synagogue, built in 1913

Jewish bookshops, bakeries, restaurants, clothing shops and schools popped up everywhere. The largest synagogue in the Marais, close to rue des Rosiers, was designed in 1913 by the architect Hector Guimard. This delightful building was blown up by the Nazis during the war, but has since been restored to its pre-war splendour.

When the Germans invaded France in May 1940, 175,000 Jews were living in Paris. The Vichy French collaborated with the Nazis and by the time the Allies liberated Paris in Aug 1944, 50,000 Parisian Jews had been deported & murdered.

Today most Parisien Jews live in the 4th (Marais), 9th, 11th, 13th, 19th and 20th arrondissements.

Note the 4th arrondissement

In 1964, General de Gaulle's Culture Minister Andre Malraux made the Marais the first protected conservation area, a place of special cultural significance. Money poured in for the area’s restoration.

Apart from the delicious kosher restaurants and bakeries, another reminder of the deep Jewish presence in the Marais is the Museum of Jewish Art and History. Opened in Dec 1998 with special music and posters, the museum is dedicated to French Jewish life via the arts, documents and religious artefacts. And not just pre-war Ashkenazim. The Sephardi Jews of the Maghreb (North West Africa) played a very significant role in Paris after WW2, a role that is well reflected in the Museum of Jewish Art and History.

Carnavalet Museum

The main hôtels particuliers/private houses were not pulled down. Instead they became excellent museums eg Picasso Museum is in the old Hôtel Salé and the Paris Historical Museum is in Hôtel Carnavalet. Where possible, the interiors of these private houses were maintained and modernised.

Picasso had amassed an enormous collection of his own work by the time of his death in 1973. So Musée Picasso houses thousands of his own art objects, plus Picasso's own personal art collection of works by Cézanne, Degas, Seurat, Matisse and others. This museum is closed now, for renovations, but will open again next year (2013).

Carnavalet Museum is housed in adjoining hôtels particuliers and specialises in Paris’ history. Baron Haussmann may have been heavy-handed when he reorganised Paris in the 1860s, but he made a great decision on behalf of the Municipal Council of Paris. Carnavalet opened to the French public in 1880 and opened to my sons in 110 years later. The boys loved the squillions of street photographs, art works, models and furniture. And because we ate at a different kosher restaurant or bakery every night for a week, my sons now believe the Marais has the best food in the universe.

Restaurants and coffee shops in the Marais

Two other places to visit locally. Of all the people who ever lived in Place des Vosges, Victor Hugo would be the most famous. This literary genius lived in #6 during the 1832–1848 era, now an evocative site for the Victor Hugo House-Museum. And the Salon Frédéric Chopin is a small museum dedicated to the musician's life in Paris. The salon has his paintings, furniture and musical equipment.

For a good look at Place des Vosges in particular, see Melbourne - Our Home By The Bay.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
This post makes us realise that it is too long since we were in Paris, something which should be rectified at the first possible moment.

And what a fascinating district the Marais is, and one which is full of history. As you rightly say, the exterior of Gumard's synagogue, dating from 1913, is an absolute delight, positively flowing, whilst clearly a visit to the Jewish Museum and to the Carnavalet Museum is a must.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

P.S. We are intrigued! Have you been making an extended European tour?

the foto fanatic said...

I agree with Jane & Lance - it's too long since my wife and I have been there also.

The last time we were there we stayed in the Marais and it was superb!

Treasured are the memories of the cafes and restaurants; Place des Voges is truly magnificent; the architecture is wonderful. I spent a whole day just looking at and photographing doors.

Thanks for the pleasant reminder!

Andrew said...

I did not get under the skin of Paris, but my brief visit made me want to see so much more. Rainbow flag in the cafe district of Marais noted.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

There are so many historically exciting regions in Paris, a visitor doesn't know where to go first. But I am certain that the Marais is historically exciting, easily walked on foot and has (as you highlighted) truly amazing collections.

Before the grandchildren were born, Joe and I shared a large rented flat for a week with the two sons and two daughters in law. Everyone did what they wanted during the day, then we met up for dinner in the Marais each evening *sighs happily*.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

Every winter in July we get 4 weeks holiday which we spend in Europe and the Mediterranean. So no extended tour, alas - just 4 weeks in Spain and Portugal.

Next year? 4 weeks in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco perhaps.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

Tourists can eat themselves to a standstill in Paris, especially if they prefer kosher, north african or non-meat meals. I used to plan to walk two ks per day for each pastry eaten.

Hels said...


There has always been something very alternative and tolerant in the Marais. Jewish families of course, but also Muslims, gays, political refugees etc etc. I hope France doesn't lurch to the right in these tough financial times.

Parnassus said...

I am glad to hear that Jewish culture is thriving in Paris, especially after the checkered history you have presented. I never thought of Kosher food in Paris, but it sounds great. I understand that any type of food is the best in France, because of the care in preparation.

I further am captivated by your photo of the Carnavalet Museum; it is such an attractive building. What did you think of the displays inside? It sounds more like an historical society.

Two features of Paris which I am dying to see but which no one mentions are the Bibliothèque nationale, and the Cité de la Musique, which I believe houses the old collection of instruments from the Conservatoire de Paris. Did you ever get to these?
--Road to Parnassus

We Travel said...

You would enjoy a small museum called The Salon of Frédéric Chopin, in the same (4th) arrondisement. They have his original music, furniture, paintings and books.

Hels said...

We Travel

I will add the Salon of Frederic Chopin to the post, many thanks.

Hels said...


it is a vexed question. In 1970 there was an enormous and creative Jewish community in France: 530,000. But increasing anti-Semitic terrorism in the last 20 years has seen tens of thousands of people emigrate. Even worse since the massacre of children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in March this year.

I know and love the Bibliothèque nationale, although it is not in the 4th arrondisement. But I do not know the Cité de la Musique. Yet :) Thank you for the tip.

a touch of silver said...

Nice place to visit and sight seeing.
An ideal place to have a date.

Hels said...

a touch of silver,

couldn't agree more. It is an ethnically diverse, bohemian, louche suburb with fascinating history.

P. M. Doolan said...

I loved reading this post. The Marais is one of my favourite areas and I've sometimes stayed in the neat little hotel "Hotel Place de Vosges". Carnavalet is one of my favourite museums, which reminds me, I'll be heading back to Paris for my annual French Revolution study trip at the ned of November. Just another two months...

Hels said...


Paris in general is a dreamy city to visit, and of course I love Montparnasse and Montmartre in particular. But Le Marais is a condensed area of culture, history, food, architecture, religious sanctuary, books and more food. What more could an academic ask for?

Anonymous said...

There is a great blog on this city called Peter's Paris. You will love it. http://www.peter-pho2.com/

Hels said...

Thank you anon

I will have a look straight away, especially if they are interested in architecture.