Paris is huge and many of its beautiful spots can only be discovered with a little expert help. We found a free guided tour by two locals through Paris Marais to join.
First things first, this was one of the best guided tours we ever participated in. We had so much fun with our guides Marie and Tristan from Discoverwalks who presented the wonderful spots they had picked out really well with their charming personalities. It was obvious that the two loved their job and enjoyed showing us their Paris.
Marais is a district of Paris in the 3rd and 4th Arrondissement. The whole area used to be a moor until the 13th century when Temple Knights drained it. Back then the area was outside the city walls. When the municipal area was widened in the 14th century Marais became part of Paris.
Marais started to attract royalty in the 17th century. They built their palaces and created piazzas.
During the French Revolution royalty left the area and Marais became one of the poorest districts of Paris. Working class people moved over and cheap living space was created.
The architectural downfall of the area was stopped in 1962. Ambitious plans by Cobertin, amongst others, to build high-rises in Marais were scrapped. This secured the survival of the oldest and most pompous Hôtels particuliers (royal city palaces), the homes of the workers, the apartment blocks and the former home of the order of the Temple Knights.
Today, Marais is located in the heart of Paris between Place de la République and Place de la Bastille east of the Centre Georges-Pompidou and is one of the most trendy neigbourhoods of the city.
Worth seeing in Marais
Obviously, our guides weren’t able to show us the whole of Marais. But we were walked through the neighbourhood for about two hours and saw many interesting places.
First, we walked passed a multitude of art galleries. Marais has a diverse and vibrant art scene. We were given restaurant and shopping recommendations and were told about Jewish culture in the area. At some of the stops, the guides talked about more than facts and figures about architecture and history and told little anecdotes around a building or place, about who had lived there and what their lives stories were. They included input about today's prices for rent, famous residents of the area or amusing backstories.
I would like to talk about two places in Marais in a little more detail as I liked them a lot.
Place des Vosges
In the centre of Marais is a wonderful, old square. There is ample space in the shade of the trees, visitors lie on the grass and a water feature is gurgling in the background. An oasis in the city centre.
In the lifetime of Henry 11. (-1559) this used to be an open space that was used for knight tournaments. In one of the disciplines of the tournaments, knights would ride their horses towards each other in full armour, holding wooden lances in order to push each other off the horse. To celebrate the peace treaty with Habsburg, a tournament like this was hosted. During that tournament, the wooden lance of Count Montgomery broke and a big splinter pierced the visor of King Henry’s helmet. The splinter went up Henry’s eye and got stuck in his brain. Physicians were called to save the king’s life. The story goes that none of them had ever removed a splinter from a place like that before and they didn’t want their first go to be on the king himself. They practised on 6 random spectators who had similar splinters driven up their eyes. The test people all died during the doctor’s efforts to remove the fragment. The operation on Henry himself also wasn’t a success and he died, too.
Henry IV. had the whole space re-designed in 1605 from a place for horses to a royal square, following the guidelines of rectangular architecture with arcades much like the Plaza Mayor in Madrid. After 7 years of work, the square was re-opened.
It was renamed to Places des Vosges around 1800.
Today, visitors have access to Victor Hugo's house from here. He is the author of, amongst other pieces, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables and lived in house number 6 between 1832 and 1848.
The arcades around the piazza now house some art galleries, boutiques and restaurants.
Hôtel de Sully
Hôtel de Sully is one of the Hôtel Particulier in Marais. A Hôtel Particulier is a specific type of French city palace that was popular between the 16th and 17th century.
The building was constructed between 1625 and 1630 with a garden, an orangery and direct access to Place des Vosges. The first Duke of Sully bought the house in 1634 and it stayed in his families possession until the 18th century. In the 19th century, condos were built into the house. It came under Monument Protection in 1862 and became state property in 1944 when it also went under renovation and reconstruction.