Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur
D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble!
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble!
Les soleils mouillés
De ces ciels brouillés
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes
De tes traîtres yeux,
Brillant à travers leurs larmes.
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.
— Charles Baudelaire – from L’Invitation au Voyage
Empty shop front (well, not quite), Place des Vosges, Paris 4e Arrt.
Not how one would expect a ‘swamp’ to be described, and that is the literal meaning of Le Marais, the centre of vieux Paris, but Baudelaire’s words conjure for me the allure of the indulgence and delight to be found in the neighbourhood that is my home from home. Nestled around the languid grandeur of the Place des Vosges, formally place Royale, Le Marais is formed of a complex of ancient, labyrinthine streets of buildings and aristocratic maisons or ‘hôtels’ of 16th and 17th provenance, from Saint-Paul up to the Beaubourg (Centre de Georges Pompidou), largely untouched by the emperor of the grands boulevards, Baron Haussmann. I have loved it since I first found myself there years ago by trailing up rue St Antoine from the Opera at place de la Bastille on a grey April day. As I said, it feels very much like my own quartier and I return often, so it was naturally going to be the setting for my novel ‘The Conductor’s Wife’. Far from the exclusivity of the area, reputedly the most expensive place to live in Paris, it has a quirky bohemian feel that lends itself to its inclusive spirit – gay men with toy breed dogs attired in chic canine fashion may be seen on the same street as Orthodox Jewish jewellers carrying heavy cases bearing their wares.
In fact one of my favourite things about Le Marais is the small Jewish district that developed here after Jewish emancipation in the early 1800’s (although it had been a Jewish area on and off for centuries), spreading out from rue de Rosiers, known in Yiddish as the Pletzl or little place. Here you will find gorgeous pretzels and pastries in the many boulangeries in this petit quartier. Otherwise, Le Marais tempts with many of Paris’ highly fashionable niche boutiques, my favourites of which are the charming handbag emporiums of designers Jamin Puech in rue Vielle du Temple and L’Echoppe à Sacs Ets Richard in rue Charlot. A great place for window shopping too, if your purse cannot bear more promise! I would as happily settle at my favourite café – au Petit Fer à Cheval in rue Vielle du Temple nursing drip-fed coffees (the waiters will know what I want before I have had the chance to say “un autre…”!) I think I am still welcome there, even after a strange birthday celebration with my best friend, where we drank a lot of free champagne plied on us by a waspish Indochinois, who claimed to be a political journalist, and his peculiar chum, who dragged us off to Le Baiser salé for late night jazz and a subsequent mess in which were witness to said Indochinois and taxi driver having a fist fight in the 8e! Au Petit Fer is a long time favourite hang-out with young French actors Romain Duris and Louis Garrel. I have never seen either of them there sadly, particularly in the case of le beau Louis!
A day’s roaming Le Marais must include a visit to the place des Vosges (the epicentre of my book) and one of Paris’ best museums – the wonderful Maison de Victor Hugo, where the author and activist lived before and after long exile, and wrote Les Misérables standing up! In this large corner apartment house, the writer dedicated its rooms to opulent and grand comfort to entertain his friends such as his ally in romanticism and neighbour, Théophile Gautier.
Vivement, to conclude with dîner in Ma Bourgogne or the cute and more local le Royal Turenne, where Georges Simenon sent Maigret to retire with his pipe and cidre.
Speaking of Paris and the young French actors I mentioned, no less than the the Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo of today, makes me think of this cute tribute to the Nouvelle Vague – ‘Dans Paris’. Recommended, apart from the slightly overlong singing on the phone scene, redolent of ‘Les Parapluies de Cherbourg’. Louis is completely charming, as usual.