Oh My, Marais!

Thankfully, Baron Haussman’s crew never got around to demolishing and rebuilding most of Paris’ Marais neighborhood during the 19th century.

If they had, its charming, winding streets and ancient, low-slung buildings with thick walls and exposed timbers wouldn’t be here today.

Historic authenticity was the main reason I decided to stay in this neighborhood on my last visit to Paris.  It was a stoke of genius, if I do say so myself.

The Marais is a lovely, quaint neighborhood that encompasses parts of the 3rd and 4th arondissements, on Paris’ Right Bank.  It’s lively and thriving. It’s elegant, yet hip.  Quiet, yet buzzing with great energy, probably because it’s blissfully free of chain restaurants, stuffy establishments and the starchiness that sometimes permeates Parisian neighborhoods and robs them of their soul.

It’s one of the most charming old neighborhoods left in Paris.  It’s a glimpse of what Paris used to look like, before Haussmann’s grand boulevards and sloping Empire roofs took over the scene.

The Marais’ picturesque medieval streets are lined with cobblestones. Hundreds of buildings, many dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, house traditional and trendy shops and boutiques that offer everything from olive oil, imported tea, fine chocolate, handmade couture clothing, homemade gelato, art galleries, custom-made shoes, rare books and  fine leather goods.  Restaurants,  bistros, patisseries and cafes spill over onto the sidewalks and serve a wide variety of fare, from traditional French to exotic ethnic dishes, including Ethiopian and some the best falafel I’ve ever eaten.

Museums sit seemingly around every corner – from the Musée Picasso and the excellent Musée Carnavalet, to the Pompidou Centre.  A city square worthy of being in a museum is the elegant Place des Vosges — architecturally stunning, yet somehow devoid of spirit with many dusty, shuttered shops under its arcade.  Still, it’s a feast for the eyes.

The Marais is a real neighborhood that’s filled with a great mix of locals. There are dog-walking housewives and businessmen.  School children and pensioners.  Gays and straights.  This real neighborhood that has all the necessary services, too, whether one is looking for a 24-hour pharmacy, laundromat, or internet café.

Things have certainly changed over the past few years, though. Today, Rue des Rosiers, once a thriving hub of Jewish life for centuries, is struggling to maintain its identity.  With its population decimated years ago by the Nazis, the street is sadly and slowly being engulfed by high-end boutiques.  However, a few fading reminders of its Jewish heritage remain and are well worth a visit, including its excellent synagogue, L’as du Falafel (source of my now-famous falafel sandwich), and the decadent Sacha Finkelstajn bakery.

Other not-to-be-missed streets include Rue Vieille du Temple and Rue des Francs Bourgeois, both of which are a shopper’s and stroller’s paradise.  Don’t miss the excellent cafes and bistros on Rue Vieille du Temple, including Les Philosophes (a haven for people-watchers), L’Etoile Manquante, a local hangout with a happy-go-lucky bartender, and Au Petit Fer a Cheval, with its funky horseshoe-shaped zinc bar.

Luckily, the majority of Paris’ sites are within walking distance, and others, just a short metro ride away.  With the Seine, Notre Dame and the Île Saint Louis only about a 10 minute walk away, coming and going is easy.  But there’s almost no reason to leave the neighborhood.

And, if you’re like me, you won’t want to leave at all.


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