The last time I visited Paris I was invited to see a film about an American journalist (Kristin Scott Thomas) who was investigating the 1942 Vel’d’Hiv’ Roundup of Jewish families in Paris. I had a free day with nothing scheduled so I decided to visit Le Marais Paris, the former Jewish area feature in the film.
I contacted Eye Prefer Paris Tours and Richard Nahem, a New Yorker who now lives in Paris customised a tour for me. To my surprise, I discovered that Le Marais is one of Paris’ trendiest quarters.
Le Marais Paris
I easily filled my day admiring architecture, hunting out gems of Jewish history, eating pastries, trying on shoes and clothes in hip boutiques and peeking into gay bars.
Spending the day in the 3rd and 4th arrondissement opened my eyes to a whole different aspect of Paris away from the tourist clichés of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triumph and Notre-Dame.
A man in the black fedora with a flowing beard walked past the lunchtime queue outside L’As du Fallafel.
“Come and try the best falafel in Paris,” said the dark-haired boy as he pushed a paper menu in my hand.
Glancing at the leaflet I discovered it was a photocopy of a review published in the travel section of the New York Times.
People stood outside the eatery on the cobblestone street with bits of falafel spilling out of their paper wrappings.
With the help of the New York Times, the tiny shop on rue des Rosiers, located in the heart of what was once Paris’ Jewish neighbourhood, was doing a roaring trade.
I followed the man in the black fedora further down the street into Sacha Finkelstein’s Jewish bakery where freshly baked Jewish pastries such as challah (Jewish bread), cinnamon chocolate babka and mazurka pastries were going out the door like hotcakes.
I had stumbled upon an area in Le Marais called Pletzl, Yiddish for little place.
The Jewish influence in the neighbourhood extends to one of Paris’ darker eras between 1942 and 1944 when 76,000 Jewish people were forcibly removed from France as part of the Nazi plan to rid Europe of the Jewish.
11,000 were children. Most were assassinated in Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps and only about 2,500 people survived.
It may be an era the French would prefer to forget but the memorials and plaques subtly dotted among hip Le Marais’ hip boutiques are a constant reminder.
The main Jewish landmark is the Memorial de la Shoah and documentation centre, which has a collection of documents and an exhibition on the Holocaust.
Le Marais Mansions and museums
While waiting to join a tour of the area, I found myself constantly stopping to admire grand mansions and peering at carvings and statues.
The neighbourhood has retained most of its pre-Revolution architecture and is home to several ancient piles including the oldest house in Paris, a 13th century house at 3 rue Volta. Cardinal Richelieu, Victor Hugo and the mistresses of French kings once called the area home.
The Duke of Orleans was assassinated here by his brother King Charles VI for sleeping with his wife.
Henri IV built place des Vosges in 1612 and turned the area into a fashionable residential district for aristocrats who flocked here to build luxurious mansions known as “hotels particuliers”.
These mansions are now museums and government institutions. The most famous “hotel particuliers” is the neo-Renaissance Hotel de Ville, which has an ornate façade decorated with 108 statues of notable Parisians. But many other “hotel particuliers” are not as obvious.
After checking my bag, a security guard allowed me to enter the gated courtyard of Hotel de Beauvais, which houses government offices.
The grand mansion was a gift from Louis XIV to Catherine Bellier, lady-in-waiting to Anne of Austria. Mozart lived here in 1763.
The museums in Le Marais are more than just a backup plan for a rainy day. Worth visiting are Musee Carnavalet, which displays the history of Paris in its 140 rooms, Musee des Arts et Metiers, the oldest science and technology museum in Europe, and Musee d’art et d’histoire du Judaisme, on Jewish history.
The covered walkways of Place des Vosges are a treasure trove of art galleries with colourful contemporary art hanging in the windows. One of the best galleries in Paris is located in Le Marais, Gallery Emmanuel Perrotin on rue Turenne.
In a corner of the square is the author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo’s former home at Hotel de Rohan-Guemenee. It’s now Maison de Victor Hugo, a museum on the life of Victor Hugo.
When Victor Hugo wrote: “As the purse is emptied, the heart is filled” he could have been referring to Le Marais in 2010.
After WWII, aristocratic mansions became warehouses that now house trendy bars, cafes and galleries.
The narrow streets are lined with cutting-edge fashion stores and home-design boutiques, with cool brands sold only in France, and most shops are open on Sundays when shops in other parts of Paris are closed.
My guide is American expat, Richard Nahem, an event planner from New York City who moved to Paris five years ago. Nahem’s tour evolved out of a demand from family and friends who eagerly came to visit.
The tour offers a peek into Nahem’s local neighbourhood with a friend.
We start with food stores like Izrael Epicerie du Monde (spice shop of the world) where the shelves are crammed with spices, jars of oil from around the globe, beans from Mexico and pickled herring from Scandinavia.
On occasion, you can even buy vegemite here. We visit Josephine Vannier, a chocolate shop with chocolates sculpted to resemble champagne bottles and high-heeled shoes.
A stop at a button shop is followed by a visit to Dammann, where three generations of the Dammann family has been selling tea since 1925.
The shop is a sleek contemporary tea library with designer décor and floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with tea tins.
I discover avant-garde fashion shops like Fashion L’Eclaireur, which has a space-age interior with tv screens installed to portray light and visual movement.