by Janine Lea Oesi,
The Place des Vosges, in the Marais district of Paris, is one of the most beautiful and unique squares in the city. The present-day Place des Vosges started life as la Place Royale under the auspices of King Henri IV, who built the square between 1605-1612 in the Marais district of Paris which straddles the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. Napoleon changed the name to Vosges, apparently in recognition of the fact that the department of the same name was the first to pay him taxes. During the years which followed its inauguration the square became a favourite place of residence for the French nobility.
History of the Marais and the square during the twentieth-century
Like all urban spaces the Marais has undergone many changes which have also affected the Place des Vosges. Eventually abandoned by the nobility in favour of the Faubourg Saint-Germain (at that time a semi-rural area), it subsequently became a commercial area and the heart of the Jewish community in Paris. In the 1930s and ’40s it had metamorphosed into a very run-down working-class immigrant area. Readers will find a very good description of it during this period in George Orwell’s book Down and Out in Paris and London.
Rejuvenation under André Malraux
President de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture, André Malraux, together with the Paris municipality oversaw the restoration of this entire area in the 1960s. Many of the former aristocratic mansions were restored and turned into museums. Most notable amongst these are the Hôtel Carnavalet which houses the museum of the city of Paris and the Hôtel Salé, now the Picasso museum. The Hôtel Rohan-Guéménée, where Victor Hugo once rented an apartment, was inaugurated as the Victor Hugo museum in 1902. The Hugo museum, the musée de la vie Romantique and la maison de Balzac are acknowledged as the three most important literary museums in the city.
The Marais today
Paris is a city made for walking and no more so is this true than here. For the tourist the area offers quaint shops, fashionable galeries, good restaurants and cafés and, of course, beautiful architecture and a wealth of history. On a spring day you can sit in the square and read or just watch the world go by. No-one will bother you.
One of my loveliest memories is walking through the square in winter and listening to some very good musicians playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. On another occasion my son and I discovered an antique music shop displaying instruments we had never before seen in our lives. Hesitant at first, we finally went inside and the elderly owner was quite happy to enlighten us. Each time I visit the area I find something new. For some reason this part of the city takes me back to childhood: I expect to discover a treasure on every street corner and I am rarely disappointed!
You can walk to the Marais from the Latin quarter and it is easy to get to by metro (line 1, alight at St Paul) or take bus line 29 from Chatelet-Les Halles and get off right at the square.
George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, Victor Gollancz (London).