Culture And History In Paris

From Swamp To Marsh To Magnifique—Life In Paris’ Historic Marais

The Marais literally means “marsh,” and that is exactly what this Parisian neighborhood was one thousand years ago. Before the area was drained into a fertile marshland, it was a swamp, and unfortunately the swamp-like odors remained even centuries after the transformation. Narrow cobblestoned streets, exposed stone, and beamed-buildings with slanted walls and rooflines are still a common sight, a testament to the Marais’ medieval history.

As early as the 13th century, the Marais began to serve as the heart of Paris’ Jewish community. Today, the Marais is one of Paris’ most trendy and desirable neighborhoods. It is the hub of the gay community in Paris. The Marais is also home to many restaurants, cafés, and boutiques, many of which stay open on Sundays, an unusual practice in France.

Despite this modernization, the Marais still retains so much of the medieval character that was bulldozed in the 19th and 20th centuries for bigger and better structures in other parts of the City of Light—but thankfully not the medieval smell. The most prevalent smell these days emanates from the numerous seductive boulangeries (bakeries) and pâtisseries (pastry shops). And built on what was once swampland, the land where my Marais apartment sits is not even deemed a flood zone.

Just about anyone who took French in high school has thought, seriously or hypothetically, about moving to France one day. The romanticism of Hemingway’s Paris or “Midnight in Paris” does still permeate central Paris, but it is juxtaposed against a certain reality that is not always as rosy. I speak from experience, as I am an American expat who has lived and worked in Paris for the last six years and who recently purchased property here in the Marais, one of Paris’ most loved neighborhoods.

What makes the Marais stand out from the other districts of Paris? To live in the Marais is to live in the heart—geographic, cultural, historical, architectural, and social—of this city that is considered by so many to be the ground zero of refined western culture. When you look through those rose-colored glasses at the romantic Paris of literature and movies, the cityscapes in your memories may well exist in the Marais. Take a look too at my video of the Marais, a brief, colorful tour of this beautiful slice of Parisian life.

The Marais oozes culture and history. The neighborhood has an excess of historical sites and museums, including:

  • Place des Vosges, including the home of Victor Hugo
  • The rue des Rosiers and the historic Jewish quarter
  • The Pompidou Center
  • Hôtel de Sully
  • Hôtel de Sens
  • The Cognacq-Jay Museum
  • The Picasso Museum (to reopen after extensive renovations in Spring 2014)
  • The National Archives
  • The Carnavalet Museum
  • The European Photography Museum
  • The Hôtel de Ville (including temporary exhibits)
  • The Memorial of the Shoah
  • The Museum of Jewish Art and History
  • The Museum of the Hunt and Nature
  • The Agoudas Hakehilos Synagogue
  • The Nicolas Flamel and François Miron historic houses

If you expand the list to include other landmarks within a 20-minute walk, you can add Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, La Conciergerie, the Pantheon, the Louvre, and countless more.

For access to the heart of Paris, there is no better location…

Abby Gordon

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