We were staying on the Canal St. Martin, an area I knew only from the film Amélie, and from watching Jean Vigo’s great film, L’Atalante – a love story between the captain of canal barge and his new wife, in which the Canal St. Martin plays a cameo role when the couple arrive in Paris. In real life it’s as fascinating as it seemed on film. It’s certainly come a long way from the days when it was synonymous with drug use and crime.
To be fair, it still has some rough edges, but gentrification seems to be smoothing those edges out. Today, it’s one of Paris’ trendiest neighbourhoods, filled with quirky shops, vibrant cafes, microbreweries and good restaurants, attracting Parisians and tourists alike. On a warm day people sit along the banks of the canal giving it a park-like feel; later, the area turns into an open-air nightlife hotspot, which gets a little raucous in the early hours of the morning.
The canal was constructed in the early 19th century on the orders of Napoleon, to bring fresh water to Paris’ citizens, and was paid for by a tax on wine. The canal goes underground just south of where we were staying, re-emerging just before it reaches the Seine near the Gare de Lyon. In the 1960s there was a plan to fill the canal in and turn it into a road. Thankfully it was saved from destruction.
The canal forms the centrepiece of a quirky and alternative cultural scene. It feels a bit like London’s Hoxton before the bankers started moving in. As we wandered around we came across some street artists putting up posters and filming themselves. We started to chat about what they were doing and, it transpired, they were promoting illustrations about an African superhero who fought corrupt politicians and businesses.
Our walk brought us to the vast space of the Place de la République. The square named after the French Republic has an impressive statue of Marianne, the personification of the French nation, at its heart. Marianne’s left hand rests upon a tablet inscribed with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, one of the foundational documents of the French Revolution guaranteeing the rights of all French citizens.
Place de la République forms the boundary between the Canal St. Martin and the Marais, and is a natural meeting place for people from across the city, and for protests to take place. When we arrived, there were protesters playing drums and fundraising to pay the legal fees of someone who had lived in France for decades, who was now in danger of being deported. Marianne looked on impassive.
The Marais proper starts south of Place de la République, and we plunged into its narrow streets and elegant squares full of people enjoying the warm weather. We were looking for a small square where, over a decade ago, we’d enjoyed a fantastic and lazy lunch. We couldn’t remember the square’s name or location, but the memory of the fun afternoon we’d spent there drove us onwards. We never did find it, but had a lot of fun searching.
The Marais is the definition of fashionable. The whole area is filled with designer shops, trendy bistros, art galleries and high-end restaurants catering to an affluent clientele. That seems fitting for an area that was founded as the home of French royalty. French nobles started building palaces here in the 13th century, culminating in 1605 with Henri IV’s Place Royale, today’s Place des Vosges. It remained the royal area until Louis XIV moved everyone to Versailles.
Four hundred years later Paris’ oldest square oozes aristocratic sophistication, and was the start point for our walk through the area’s winding streets and numerous extravagant houses. It’s an entertaining place to explore, with lots of life in the streets and plenty of world-class museums, many of them in the Marais’ most historic buildings, but also includes the 1970s Centre Pompidou.
One of the joys of the Marais is that it escaped the makeover that Paris received at the hands of Emperor Napoléon III and his chief architect, Baron Haussmann, during the second half of the 19th century. The wide avenues that Haussmann made the main feature of contemporary Paris are notably absent in the Marais, which has a different feel to much of the rest of the city. To me, Le Marais is, alone, worth making the trip to Paris.