Destinations
Why You Should Spend a Day in the Marais When You're in Paris
Explore this part of the city whose medieval feel will have you thinking that time stood still.
IMAGE Jon Arnold / Corbis
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It comes as a surprise to many tourists that most shops, even the well-known Galerie Lafayette and Bon Marche, and restaurants in Paris, are closed on Sundays. Oxford Street in London used to be that way, too. But tradition, which attracts tourism, and snobbery, which repels it, eventually yield to the necessity to make ends meet in a bad economy. A bad economy, time and again, is what Europe has been withstanding. You would think with the millions of tourists that invade the “City of Lights” the French would forget tradition and go for more business. But unlike the English, the French won’t yield even the lethargy of Sundays, when everyone makes it a point of national honor to do nothing. Just let the day slip by, perhaps taking a walk with grand-pere and grand-mere, ending in a family dinner in their apartment. Sundays can truly be dull in most parts of Paris—deliberately—in the spirit of being contrary.

So if you ever find yourself alone on a Sunday in Paris, like I did, the best if not the only place to spend the day is in the Marais. This is one of the oldest and enchanting quarters, stretching from the 3rd to the 4th arrondissement, where turning a corner after a long walk uncovers yet another facet of the city.

There is much to see, do, and eat. The Marais, which means “swamp,” became the favorite place of residence of the nobility in the 1600s around the time of Henri IV (the Protestant prince who converted to Catholicism because “Paris is worth a Mass,” as he cynically put it). The nobility built magnificent sand-colored mansions with beautiful, wholly enclosed courtyards called hotels, symbols of their wealth and grandeur; fine examples of the architectural style that, surviving Georges-Euge?ne Haussmann’s sweeping renovations in the mid-1800s, made Paris the most beautiful city in Europe.

So if you ever find yourself alone on a Sunday in Paris, like I did, the best if not the only place to spend the day is in the Marais. This is one of the oldest and enchanting quarters, stretching from the 3rd to the 4th arrondissement, where turning a corner after a long walk uncovers yet another facet of the city.

The streets of the Marais escaped Haussmann’s attention and remain narrow and made of cobblestone, which Napoleon III wanted to do away with because they could serve as missiles and could be heaped up as barricades by anti-government demonstrators. The buildings still squeeze against another, some with streets cutting through their structure, used in Medieval times for horse and carriage. But what adds to the charm and excitement of this district is the diversity of people that have made Marais their home.

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When a number of aristocrats shifted residence to the more chic Faubourg Saint-Germain, the Marais became home to many eastern European Jews. A lot of commercial activity started in the area in the latter part of the 19th century. It is here that Jews were rounded up and deported by French police to German death camps. The memory of those murdered in the Marais accounts for the lingering air of melancholy in a place that comes alive on Sundays.


Jewish quarters in Marais

Now we find the nobility largely replaced by celebrities known for their notoriety, if not for their wealth. It is common knowledge among the shop owners surrounding the Place des Vosges (one of the most beautiful enclosed garden squares in the whole city) that No. 13 is the home of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, politician and former managing director of the International Monetary Fund. The man who owns the jewelry shop next to its main door nonchalantly confirmed that it was indeed Strauss-Kahn’s home. “He has the whole first floor,” he said. A glimpse at the well-manicured garden behind the huge wooden door hints at the elegance of the man’s home. Not too far away is No. 6, where Victor Hugo lived and wrote Les Miserables. Now it is a museum in his honor.


Place des Vosges and the surrounding parks

All around the garden square are red brick and stone pavilions that house art galleries and restaurants. There are nine pavilions on each side. Place des Vosges is one of the prettiest parks I have ever seen. Rows of trees whose leaves and branches come together to form a bright green canopy around the wide square. On Sundays, artists choose their little corner to perform or show their work. There is a cool jazz group at one end and another playing Latin music, by turns jaunty and languid. In a corner is the 200-year-old restaurant Ma Bourgogne that serves the best steak tartare, perhaps in the world. The bow-tied and black-aproned waiters serve it to you immediately as if they had anticipated your order. The plating is stark, just the tartare, not even a sprig of parsley. The best, after all, need not be served with anything else.

Walking away from the Place des Vosges is difficult. One is tempted to just sit on one of the park benches or stretch out on the grass and while away the afternoon. But the hum of activity lures you to explore more of the area. The Marais has attracted not only artists but also the gay community. A bakery called Legay sells cookies and pastries shaped like the part of the male anatomy that makes a lady look away or giggle. A friend actually bought one for the novelty of it. Neither of us ate it. There also remains a thriving Jewish community. One finds the Agoudas Hakehilos synagogue, a Jewish school, a restaurant that boasts of kosher pizza, shops specializing in Jewish books, and groceries that display sweets and canned goods particular to the Jewish palate and tradition. The shops are open on Sundays; I never checked if they close on the Sabbath.

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Falafel At L'as du Falafel and restaurants within Place des Vosges

As you walk around on that slowest day of the week, you suddenly feel you have just entered a vibrant neighborhood. Human traffic can be heavy. On the main street island, there is a carousel. Many streets have performers, from string quartets to club crooners—one man sounded exactly like Sinatra. Rue des Rosiers, a major center of the Paris Jewish community, is one of the busiest streets. There are several trendy boutiques, artisan shops, and popular restaurants in this area. There are two restaurants that catch your attention because of the long lines outside both. One is L’As du Fallafel, whose owner brags of having “the biggest pita” and promises to fill it up with falafel (ground chickpea fritters). The other is Mi- Va-Mi. You have the choice of dining inside or simply lining up on the street for your falafel or shawarma and eating it there. My French friend told me that although L’As du Fallafel is in most guidebooks, she believed Mi-Va-Mi was more authentic and superior in taste. Following her advice I joined the line at Mi-Va-Mi. Both restaurants have barkers: two guys loudly enticing passersby to patronize their establishments. They reminded me of the men who shout the destinations of the jeepneys in Baclaran. Both men tried to outdo the other in their come-ons. One tried charm; the other gave discounts to anyone carrying a guidebook that had his restaurant in it. L’As du Fallafel had “Toujours Imite, Jamais Egale” (always imitated, never equaled) on its wall, while Mi-Va-Mi had “Authentique Falafel, The Best of the Street” written above its take-out window.


L’As du Fallafel, one of the most popular restaurants in Marais

It was hard to believe this happens in Paris, where people are known to be quite snobbish about their food. The competition was intense. It was five euros for a pita full of falafel and seven and a half euros for shawarma. You pay the barker and he gives you a colored ticket depending on what you ordered. It was a good 20 minutes before it was my turn to hand over my purple ticket for a grilled chicken shawarma. There were some nine containers in a line at the window, filled with various things like diced cucumber, shredded cabbage, hummus, grilled eggplant, fresh tomatoes, tahini, balls of falafel, slivers of chicken, strips of meat, red salsa, and some other secret sauces. Soon, I had a stuffed pita bread topped with four balls of crispy falafel and lots of salsa and a plastic fork stuck down the middle. They also sell French fries, but I would have needed a third hand since I ordered a soda. The next challenge was how and where to eat this “thing.” Ladylike instincts prevented me from sitting on the sidewalk. There was but one chair by the door and a large woman was occupying it. I had no choice but to eat standing up. It looked amazing, but there was the challenge of not having most of the pita’s contents fall on the street rather than in my mouth. A sheet of parchment paper held the pita together. You couldn’t dig in too deep for the veggies for fear the falafel would fall out, or mix it all up because the sauces would drip out and the wrapping would grow soggy. I stood by a planter so I could put my soda down. I managed to get alternately a few bites and several sips and voila, the plump lady had left. I made a dash for the chair. Finally I could enjoy my meal properly. It was truly filling and satisfying; like having three courses jumbled up. There was the appetizer—the hummus; a salad—all the cabbage, tomatoes and roasted eggplant; and the entree—the grilled chicken with a siding of falafel. I was amazed at how the others ate theirs. Some sat on a doorstep, others lower still on the sidewalk, some leaned against a wall, and there were those that ate while they walked. This isn’t exactly French dining as we think it. But trust the French to add flair to pita and falafel and make it a culinary affair.

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Chez Marianne, another restaurant in the Jewish neighborhood of Malais


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Louie B. Locsin
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