A former marshy area (marais) devoted to cultivation and farming, the Marais occupies a triangle formed by the Hôtel de Ville, the Place de la Bastille and the Place de la République. From the 12th century onward, the marshy land was cleared by the Church and members of the aristocracy for later development of the area.
The golden age of the Marais began when Henri IV built the Place Royale (now Place des Vosges) in 1605. Once the site of jousting tournaments, its 36 houses with red-gold brick and stone façades, slate roofs and dormer windows were laid out with striking symmetry in 1612. Although originally built for silk workers, the likes of Cardinal Richelieu and playwright Molière quickly moved in, and from then on, the whole district became the center of a brilliant social scene in which the arts and literature flourished. It became French nobility’s favorite place of residence and they built their sumptuous urban mansions (hôtels particuliers) there, such as the Hôtel de Sens and the Hôtel de Sully, which still remain to this day as museums. The Marais became the ‘place to be’.
The Revolution gave the area a fatal blow as the aristocracy moved away, which set off a long period of decline: buildings were demolished and the hôtels particuliers became run down or given over to trade. Saved from Haussmann’s reformations by the fall of the Second Empire, the atmospheric jumble of streets and lanes were left intact, which add to the quaint atmosphere of the Marais we know today.
In the 19th century it became an industrial district as businesses and small-scale manufacturers moved into the buildings. However, most of the architectural masterpieces were in a bad state of disrepair, prompting General de Gaulle’s Culture Minister André Malraux to make the Marais the city’s first secteur sauvegardé in 1964 for the protection and conservation of its special cultural significance. From then on, the area underwent a striking renaissance that hasn’t stopped since.
The district also hosts one of Paris’ main Jewish neighborhood, referred to as the Pletzl (meaning ‘little place’ in Yiddish), centered around rue des Rosiers and rue des Écouffes. It was established in the 13th century when Parisian Jews were expelled from the city – the Marais was just outside the city wall at the time. At the end of the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th, the depth and diversity of the community grew through immigration from Eastern Europe and North Africa. The darkest days for this community came during the Second World War, when Vichy collaboration with the Nazis resulted in the raids in which many residents were abducted and sent off to concentration camps.
The area is now characterized by its synagogues, kosher butchers and falafel vendors which provide a social and cultural fabric for its inhabitants, but these are slowly being replaced by glamorous bars and restaurants, sophisticated fashion and homewares boutiques, and edgy art galleries. This mix of different cultures, together with the 17th-century hôtels particuliers and the winding cobbled streets, has made the Marais today a vibrant and diverse see-and-be-seen spot for a soirée on the town.
Written by Nadine Baroudi.
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