French star architect Jean Nouvel once gave me a ride home from his studio in Paris’ edgy 11th arrondissement. I chuckled to discover that the guru of transparency, glass and steel lives around the corner from me in a 1600s building on the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, the spinal column of the Marais. Old is better?
I was amused but not surprised: after 40 years of blanket gentrification the Marais has reportedly become theplace to live for a mix of fashion designers, artists, architects, auctioneers and other professionals–plus droves of bobos, meaning bohemian bourgeois. It’s so desirable that it’s practically unlivable.
Luckily you don’t have to move here to enjoy the Marais: wandering its patchwork of streets from the 1500s-1800s is still a magical experience.
For one thing, super-rich celebs and bobos aren’t the only ones drawn here. Trawl the gay district around Rue Vieille du Temple, the Rue des Rosiers Jewish neighborhood, or the Place des Vosges-the Marais’ centerpiece square-and you’ll discover a global festival of hip hedonism.
What’s the attraction? The Marais’ storied streets spread on the Right Bank between Beaubourg (the Pompidou Center) and the Bastille, the Seine, and the dowdy Place de la République. They’re home to enough boutiques, museums, art galleries, trendy restaurants and cafés stuffed into landmark townhouses to defeat even those born to shop (the French call such people “window-lickers”). This is a safari park for people-watchers, a study in how to preserve and gentrify a unique historic neighborhood.
The penurious few who wound up here before the Marais became trendy do what we can to appreciate the hallowed atmosphere without sounding like party-poopers. Truth be told each time I step out I discover something new and wonderful in my backyard. But I always find myself at least once a day in the Place des Vosges.Often overrun, the Place des Vosges is breathtaking no matter how many sour-sounding, faux Dixieland bands invade its symmetrical arcades, and no matter how many gawkers show up to see where Dominique Strauss-Kahn and other celebs and politicos live like pashas. One of France’s swankest Michelin-3-star restaurants is here (l’Amboisie), not that I would recommend it. So is the HQ of Issaye Miyake. The parade of human peacocks never ends.
With its 400-year-old, slate-roofed aristocratic pavilions, compact park and power-elite feel, the square has always been a microcosm, the quintessence of what makes the Marais special-love it or loathe it.
Four centuries ago Madame de Sévigné-the queen of French epistolary literature and high-society gossip-was born here, then moved nearby to the sumptuous Hôtel Carnavalet (now Paris’ historical museum). The Duc-Maréchal de Richelieu, with a pavilion at number 24, seduced a catalogue of lovers that reportedly included every noble lady then resident on the square. Does similar debauchery continue today? Such is the gossip.
It must have been exciting to be here during the first great French Revolution of 1789, when the debauched aristocrats were expropriated and exiled or lost their heads-literally. Afterwards, in came wild men like Charles Baudelaire (The Flowers of Evil). They hung out in the Marais’ dicey dives and lived in the square’s rundown flats-and turned literature and poetry upside down.
The reluctant revolutionary Victor Hugo rented a corner pavilion: his apartment is now a house-museum, one of my favorite places in Paris. From his perch he witnessed the Revolution of 1830 and penned subversive books, trying (but failing) to stop the tyrant Louis Napoleon Bonaparte-better known as Napoleon III-from taking over.
Even when the Marais bottomed after World War Two, the gloomy arcades and crumbling courtyards of this sublime square were subversively inspirational, providing the backdrop for Georges Simenon’s crime novel, L’Ombre Chinoise-also a cult movie.
So now it’s the star architects, plutocratic politicians, bankers, movie stars and moguls who grace the Place des Vosges, while the other 99.99 percent of us watch the show. That’s okay. Nothing beats sitting on a bench in the center of the square and gazing gratis at the parade or sipping a coffee-still affordable-at a plebian café. This will be the ideal spot from which to watch the next French revolution unfold. I can’t wait.
Author and guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/parisand http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.