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Paris: Le Marais

New Yorker magazine featured one of Victoria Roberts’ cartoons that read, “I’m going to France. I’m a different person in France.” Perhaps she’s on to something.

The last time we saw Paris we were rapt in its grandeur and had to see it all — magnificent boulevards, museums and palaces, parks and gardens, churches and cathedrals. It was fabulous, romantic, and left us knowing there was so much more. We had to return.

We flew to Paris for two of Viking River Cruises’ itineraries. We traveled from Normandy to Paris and then Paris to Provence. The trip included a day and evening in Paris. Not enough for the City of Light. We added a few days before and after our sailing, just to linger in a neighborhood and savor the City of Light.

boulangerie, Paris, France
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A feast can be assembled from the tempting array of baked goods at Paris’ boulangeries and patisseries.

This time, there was no sense of urgency to see it all. We immersed ourselves in Le Marais, a Parisian neighborhood known for its architectural style in the conveniently-located 3rd and 4th of Paris’ twenty arrondissments, or districts. We lingered at sidewalk cafes and took leisurely strolls along grand boulevards and tiny winding streets. We watched daily life unfold and became a part of what it means to be Parisian—la vie en rose.

Paris, France
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Rent a bicycle or linger at a sidewalk café like this one overlooking the Opéra Bastille.

Accommodations

We arrived two days before our cruise—a good policy in case of a flight delay. It is also an opportunity to overcome jet lag and a chance to see more of a cruise departure port.

Our pre- and post-cruise hotels reflected the dual facets of fashionable Paris—one chic and trendy, and the other steeped in tradition.

Le Général, 5-7 Rue Rampon, is ultracontemporary and part of a new generation of 3-star boutique hotels. Designed by architect Jean-Philippe Juel, it is said to be the coolest hotel in Paris. It’s an oasis on a quiet street off the lively café-lined Place de la République. The warm and welcoming lobby and simple reception desk is designed to be hip and personal. The 47 rooms, with modern lines and warm colors, silvery metal and light wood, overlook red chimney tops and balcony gardens. Vibrant bathrooms include fragrant L’Occitane de Provence toiletries and a silver rubber ducky. A wide assortment of vitamins and supplements is included with the breakfast buffet, and at night–apples on the pillows. There is free Internet in the small business center, wi-fi throughout, and a sauna and exercise room.

Villa Beaumarchais, 5 Rue des Arquebusiers, is a refined and traditional European-style 4-star hotel with hand-painted furniture. The fox hunting theme befits the Marais neighborhood and its link to royal hunting grounds. A bountiful breakfast buffet with includes fresh breads, cereals, yogurts, fruits, juices, eggs, meats and cheese, fruits and vegetables is graciously served with crisp linens amidst palm trees of the atrium conservatory. Discreetly tucked away on a quiet side street in a residential area, it is a quick walk to a wide range of restaurants, lively Saturday night cafes, shops, the Metro, and nightlife of the Bastille area. The staff is friendly and helpful, and Internet is available for a fee.

Le Marais— crème de la crème

Le Marais, “The Marsh”, was undeveloped when aristocrats and nobles of the 17th century sought land outside the overcrowded Ile de la Cité for their palatial mansions, or “hôtel particuliers”. It is now known for its designer boutiques, exclusive art galleries, museums, historic Jewish neighborhood, and Paris’ oldest and loveliest square. The neighborhood retains pre-Revolutionary look of Paris before Baron Haussmann designed and created broad boulevards to accommodate Napoleon’s military marches and parades.

In 1605, Henry IV ordered Paris’ best artistic talent to build a fashionable and aristocratic center of business and festivities in the place known as Place Royale. He intended to live there, but was assassinated two years before it was completed. A major site of duels, Henry II was killed while jousting here in 1559, and wife Catherine de Medici had his palace, Hôtel des Tournelles, torn down.

Thirty-six matching brick and stone structures were built in the 17th century in Le Marais, creating Paris’ oldest and loveliest square, Place des Vosges.
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Thirty-six matching brick and stone structures were built in the 17th century in Le Marais, creating Paris’ oldest and loveliest square, Place des Vosges.

Place Royale, later known as Place des Vosges, is surrounded by thirty-six matching brick and stone structures, reminders of the area’s prestigious past. Designed for perfection, the height of each red brick facades equals its width, and the height of the triangular slate roofs equal half the height of the façade. Innovative covered arcades were constructed to enable shopping in all weather. Today’s visitors find art galleries, antiques, designer shops, cafes, and sidewalk art. Such notables as Descartes, Cardinal Richelieu, and Pascal once lived here, and one former resident’s home is open to the public.

Maison de Victor Hugo is where Place des Vosges’ most famous resident lived from 1833-48. He moved to #6, now a museum, at age 30, with wife Adèle and their four children. Already a successful writer, he wrote many of his major works here, including much of Les Misérables. The furnishings and displays depict the three major periods in his life—before his voluntary exile to the Channel Islands when Napoleon III came to power, during exile, and after.

Victor Hugo wrote many of his major works at #6 Place des Vosges, including much of Les Misérables.
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Victor Hugo wrote many of his major works at #6 Place des Vosges, including much of Les Misérables.

Hôtel de Sully is a Renaissance mansion built in 1624 for the Controller of Finance. From Place de Vosges, walk through courtyard and archway to, a convenient and bustling shopping street. Turn left onto rue Saint Antoine, a place to stroll and shop by day, and drink and dine by night. A statue of Beaumarchais, who wrote The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville, is.

At nearby Place de la Bastille victims of the Revolution are honored with the bronze Colonne de Juillet (Column of July), crowned with a gilded Spirit of Liberty statue. An angry crowd stormed the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789, igniting the French Revolution. The prison, perhaps best known today for “The Man in the Iron Mask”, was demolished. July 14, Bastille Day, has been celebrated as French Independence Day ever since. Lively by day, it’s at night that the bars and restaurants of the Bastille area come alive.

The bronze Colonne de Juillet (Column of July), topped with a gilded Spirit of Liberty statue, honors victims of the Revolution at Place de la Bastille.
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The bronze Colonne de Juillet (Column of July), topped with a gilded Spirit of Liberty statue, honors victims of the Revolution at Place de la Bastille.

Place de la Bastille seems fitting site for “the people’s opera house”, the Opera Bastille, opened by François Mitterrand in 1989 for the bicentennial of the Revolution. The controversial glass structure was designed to be open to outside world, and offers more seating capacity and a wider variety of performances than the older, more aristocratic Opera Garnier.

There are two fine museums in the neighborhood that should not be missed.

Musée Picasso, in Hôtel Salé, the 1659 mansion built by a salt-tax collector, houses the world’s largest Picasso collection. All periods are represented—blue, pink, cubist—as well as works of such contemporaries as Braque, Cezanne, Matisse, and Miro from Picasso’s collection.

Musée Carnavalet is in two adjoining 16th century Renaissance mansions with courtyard gardens, one the former home of Madame de Sévigné. The collections bring to life the Gallo-Roman, Medieval, and, most impressively, the Revolutionary history of Paris. View paintings of rural Paris, chessmen of Louis XVI, and illustrative wrought iron signs from a time when most were illiterate, and an elaborate cradle given by the city of Paris to Napoleon III when his son was born.

Paris, France
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Treasures of the Musée Carnavalet range from Roman antiquities to an elaborate cradle given to Napoleon III by the city of Paris when his son was born.

Rue de Rosiers, “street of the rosebushes”, is Paris’ historic Jewish quarter. It’s also the place to find Jewish delis, most notably Chez Jo Goldenberg at #7. There are numerous kosher foods and unusual delicacies available and inexpensive falafel stands.

Walk in historical footsteps. A seven year old Mozart lived at Hôtel de Beauvais and played in the court of Versailles. Louis XIV gave the house to the wife of Pierre de Beauvais, Catherine Bellier, who is said to have had more than a rendez-vous with the sixteen year old king.

Rue Charlot is a place to stroll, if only to window shop. It’s the place to find chic boutiques and couture. The narrow winding lanes of the Marais are a great place to discover up-and-coming artists and designers.

Pompidou Center was built during the period when President Pompidou and his wife promoted modern art. Many were shocked by revolutionary metal and glass industrial design. Boldly colored exterior conduits –blue for air-conditioning, white for fresh air, green for fluids, red for transport.–allow for unencumbered interior spaces on each floor. It is a center for visual arts, cinema, and research, with performance areas, a free library, and the National Museum of Modern Art—with works from such artists as Picasso, Chagall, Magritte, Matisse, and Pollock. It attracts more visitors than the Louvre—over 25,000 daily. Street artists perform on the plaza.

Paris, France
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Street artists perform on the plaza around the Pompidou Center.

Cuisine: Bon Appétit!

Many menu items require no translation, for it is the French who define the art of gastronomy. The ever-popular sidewalk cafés and Art deco brasseries have been favorite meeting places for generations of painters and writers as well as those seeking an intimate tête-à-tête. Sip some pinot noir or a café au lait while you people watch or contemplate who else may have dined in that very spot.

Fine meals are available in all price ranges. From the haute cuisine of the world’s leading chefs (over 100€) to a croissant and coffee on a bench by a palace (2€), dining in Paris can be a regal experience.

Place des Vosges cafe, Paris, France
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Today’s visitors to Place des Vosges find art galleries, antiques, designer shops, and delightful cafes under arcades designed in the 17th century .

Assembling a picnic can be an adventure, and by living in a neighborhood, it is all just footsteps away. There are fresh croissants, brioche, or baguettes at the boulangerie, meats, caviar, or fois gras at the charcuterie, an array of cheeses in the fromagerie, and fresh fruits at sidewalk stands. And let’s not forget the patisseries—tarts, éclairs, crème brulée, macarons, truffles, and napoleons…and then there’s the chocolaterie…

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast. 
   Ernest Hemingway

Planning

Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau— information on transportation, museums, restaurants, and events:
Charles de Gaulle Airport—With Tourist Information Centers, HSBC bank branches, and ATMs at the terminal, you’ll be well prepared to start your trip.

To find out what’s going on in the city, pick up a copy of the inexpensive weekly publication Pariscope at a kiosque.

 

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