Le Marais Through A Straight Eye
Written by Nancy Bear, PA (Paris addict)

I suppose everyone copes with some form of addiction -- mine is voyeurism. Not the depraved sort, but the want to poke my nose into people’s lives, cultures, countries, make them mine and write about them. So, it was no fluke that propelled me to Paris recently--it was strictly need of a fix. Why Paris? That’s easy -- I get all soft and mushy for this alluring city of light and ten days of moseying along it’s winding cobblestone streets and stalwart Boulevards, ogling it’s treasures, gives me a buzz.

It was my intention to base myself in Le Marais for the entire visit, but for sake of economy, I booked a bargain Air France package in advance, which included four nights in a two star hotel in Bercy Village, a very decent and boring suburb with many cloned condos, and far from the center of the city. Two nights away from the dazzling lights of Paris was all I could bear, so I spent the next two at the three star Standard Design Hotel in the Bastille. That was a good move--nicely designed, indeed. Totally black and white, including the china in the lovely breakfast café on the top floor. Breakfast was perfect. The bread baskets were continually refilled with warm, fresh croissants. It was an easy walk to the Marais, however, I wanted a hotel in the 3e or 4e district--not easy to come by due to a Transit strike. Commuters were stranded and filled hotel rooms throughout the city. Many booked in anticipation, so for me, it was a night here, two nights there. I didn’t mind. I had never actually stayed in this area, so it was an opportunity to check it out. Two stars or three, the hotels are always clean and friendly, though the rooms are small. Sometimes breakfast is included, which is nice. Not to say I don’t enjoy the sybaritic pleasures of a luxury hotel, which leaves more to say about the hotel situation, but am saving the best for last.

One chilly November day, as I sat at an outdoor Café (a Salon de The on the Place du Marche) A revelation came my way: You don’t need to be Gay to love the Marais

That is my straight eye observation of the Marais. This neighborhood, in addition to being the center of gay/lesbian life, is also Senegal in the Marais and if you go to Rue des Rosiers (The Street of Rose Bushes), which was the heart of the Medieval Jewish quarter, (the Pletzl) you will find vestiges of the halcyon days of the Jewish ghetto. And now, there are Kosher butchers and bakers as well as a Synagogue designed by Hector Guimard, who was a leading light in the French Art Nouveau Movement. You know him; he designed the fan lighted Metro entrances.

The French have a keen appreciation of beauty created in the past as well as the present, and an innate understanding of the artistry of fashion attested to, by the ubiquitous Museums throughout the city. As Paris continues to redefine elegance, it remains the “Capitale de la Creation”, and so the Marais has it’s own panache. Once the core of high culture, it had it’s sordid period-- falling into severe disrepair following the Revolution. Revitalized in several incarnations, it retained the best from each and is now the coolest, chicest quarter in town, attracting all the young trendy designers. Same with galleries. The Picasso Museum is probably the best known of the many museums in the Marais. It’s an extraordinary collection, more than 3000 pieces, donated by the heirs to pay inheritance taxes. In addition to the broad spectrum of Picasso’s work, you will also see Picasso’s private collection of works by many of his friends, including Braque, Cezanne, Rousseau.

It is impossible not to collide with spectacular landmarks while roaming about -- spectacular by day, wickedly dazzling at night. Pont Neuf, for example -- the oldest bridge in Paris, which dates from 1607. It was a major thoroughfare with turrets for jugglers and acrobats. Legend has it that “You can’t cross Pont Neuf without meeting a monk, a whore and a white stallion”. Well, that’s what I hear. Another landmark fact that is hard to believe is that the Cathedral of Notre-Dame plunked itself in the Seine in the 10th century. And that’s the truth.

As an American, I feel compelled to address the subject of “attitude”, before it is assumed that I am blinded by love -- you know, the Parisians who claim not to understand your high school French. Well, my experience is that as my infatuation with Paris grew and I developed a bond with the city, my high-school French was not only tolerated, but appreciated. I did , however, discern “attitude” from Air France people. I guess they weren’t aware that I had become one of them. Their loss.

To return to Le Marais and the oldest and most gorgeous square in Paris, maybe the world -- the Place des Vosges. More than four hundred years ago, King Henri IV built a so-called King’s pavilion in the center of the southern side of this perfectly square plaza. On the northern side is a duplicate; the Queen’s pavilion. He ordered all thirty-five other buildings bordering the square to replicate the same design and so, to this day, the park is surrounded by slate roofed red brick buildings with white stone facades. It was known as ‘Place Royale’ and it was Napoleon who changed the name to Place des Vosges. It went back and forth again and finally in 1870, once and for all, became known as Place des Vosges. Victor Hugo of Hunchback and Miserable fame, lived at #6, which is now his own museum. My favorite café at Place des Vosges carries his name -- Hugo. What is more serene than sitting at a heated café, sipping an aperitif while listening to Vivaldi being performed by young musicians under one of the arches which support the surrounding buildings. The acoustics were surprisingly excellent, but why not? This is Paris, after all.

Walking across the fastidiously kept park -- it appears the leaves are collected as they fall, I see the fountains still carry the name of King Louis XIII who was in power when the square was completed. I’m not sure that they had mini sand pits and climbing things for children’s amusement then, but they did have a magnificent carousel to celebrate the wedding of Louis and Anne of Austria when the square was inaugurated in 1612. Seems like only yesterday. Continuing along the arcades under the arches, are shops and restaurants, cafes and galleries, even the home of Cardinal Richelieu. On the north side is the well-known Gallery Vivendi and next to that at #28, the entrance through the gateway under the Queen’s Pavilion is the hotel, Pavillon de la Reine. This is where I spent my final night in Paris. And I have saved the best, on the subject of hotels, for last.

Pavillon de la Reine represents a universal quiet elegance, a sense of authenticity. It is a place I would like to call home. There is a total of 56 rooms and suites and it appears as a very modest size mansion-not a hotel at all. The furnishings, the carpets, the flowers, to say nothing of Louis XIII style antiques, gives a sense of well being. There is not a bar, but rather a parlor where guests help themselves, making their own drinks and miraculously someone appears with nibbles. I took advantage of an available computer in a private little room on the ground floor. I was leaving in the morning, so it was time to start making the transition. The rooms and suites are all different from one another, all equally stylish. My bed was the largest and most comfortable of the trip and I had the best night’s sleep of the whole ten days.

When I awoke, it was as Alice in Wonderland--was it all a fantasy? The breakfast room was under the vaults of the cellar decorated with Dutch tapestries. There was every wonderful fresh fruit, cheeses, meats, warm baked things -- ideal last meal in Paris and at the Place des Vosges to boot. To book at le Pavillon de la Reine: http://www.parismarais.com/5-star-hotel ... -paris.htm

Nancy Bear is a long time editor and journalist who travels the world and writes about it and it’s inhabitants. She has authored hundreds of magazine articles and was the recipient of the prestigious PATA Gold Award for Journalism. She lives in New York City.

This article was first published on www.frenchsoiree.com <http://www.frenchsoiree.com>

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