Now, however, instead of aristocracy, the vast lawn is a gathering place for the plain people of Paris. Splashing fountains add a playful note. In the center of it all, a statue of Louis XIII grins out over the scene. Beneath his gaze and smile, children play, lovers hold hands and people of all ages promenade.
In keeping with its history and in ways a somewhat offbeat nature, the Marais is home to many enticing small museums. While these little gems can’t compete in size with the major attractions of Paris, they offer delightful introductions to people and pages of history, often lost in the appeals of better-known collections.
The best-known name from the past holds forth at the Picasso Museum. It’s housed in the Hotel Sale (“salt”), a stylish 17th-century mansion that at one time was home to the ambassador from Venice.
While the exhibits include only a handful of Picasso’s better-known masterpieces, together they comprise the largest collection of his works in the world under one roof. Also of interest are miscellaneous memorabilia that provide intimate glimpses into the man behind the fame. I was especially taken by photographs of Picasso playing with his children.
The house at No. 6 Place des Vosges, where Victor Hugo lived and worked for 15 years in the mid-19th century, is smaller and more intimate. The past came alive in the place where he wrote several chapters of Les Miserables and other books. Among items on display are many of Hugo’s illustrations for his novels, a bust of him by Rodin and a stand-up desk at which the author created his literacy masterpieces.
Other museums scattered about the Marais District attract visitors who have a special interest. Most important is the Carnavalet, an imposing 16th-century mansion that houses the Historical Museum of the City of Paris. Four centuries of the city’s past (15th-18th) are brought to life in paintings, models and furniture. A diorama dated 1527 dramatically depicts the cramped, narrow streets of Paris in the Middle Ages.
Some exhibits depict themes from that time in a very personal way. For example, shop signs from the 18th century, when few people could read, identified a butcher shop by a rendering of a pig and indicated a baker’s workplace with a sheaf of wheat. A telling exhibit about the causes and results of the French Revolution includes an itemized laundry bill for the royal family’s very extravagant clothing and a rope ladder that some prisoners used to escape from the Bastille.
The Jewish Quarter of Marais
A very different page of history is turned in the Jewish quarter of the Marais, which somewhat ironically is centered along the Rue des Rosiers (Street of Roses). The complex of narrow, twisting streets has retained its distinctive flavor for centuries.
Kosher bakeries and butcher shops vied for my attention with store windows filled with silver plated menorahs and books written in Hebrew. I strolled among elderly men sporting dark beards and equally dark suits, women wrapped in shawls and boys wearing skull-cap yarmulkes who jostled for space on the crowded sidewalks with sightseers from around the city and the world.
The tempting scents of fresh pickles, brisket of beef and other traditional treats wafted out through open shop doors. Today those familiar odors mingle with the aromas of falafel stalls, which serve as evidence of an influx of Jewish people from North African nations in recent decades.
This frenetic setting is close to the quiet elegance of the nearby Place des Vosges, yet is far removed in terms of atmosphere. To me, this juxtaposition of unlikely attractions is among many appeals that give the Marais neighborhood its unique character, and which provides enough reasons to include it on the “must see” list in Paris.
If You Go to Marais
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Author Bio: After gallivanting throughout the United States and to more than 75 other countries around the world, and writing about what he sees, does and learns, Victor Block retains the travel bug. He firmly believes that travel is the best possible education, and claims he still has a lot to learn. He loves to explore new destinations and cultures, and his stories about them have won a number of writing awards.