Not so very long ago, the gentrified charms of the Marais were hidden by the more popular, working class aspects of its melting pot cultural soup. Butchers, bakers, cheap cafés and restaurants, ‘zincs’ selling rough wines, tradesmen and a broad range of ethnic groups gave colour to this still boisterous neighbourhood.
The Marais today is renowned for its sophisticated mix of architecture, museums, fashion, contemporary art and fine dining. It is synonymous with historical Paris, culture and class and one of the most sought after neighbourhoods in the city. Traditionally the Jewish quarter, it has also become home to Paris’ gay scene. A disproportionate number of artists, film and theatre people, gallery owners, fashion stylists, designers, architects and culturally savvy politicians have reclaimed the former mansions of the aristocracy and have raised rents so high, the traditional working class residents can no longer afford to live there.
Ancient vineyard & modern souvenir
The rue Beautrellis provides an indication of the area's vineyard past. The Hotel Royal Saint Pol was a royal residence built by Charles V on a foundation laid by Louis IX. The Hôtel Saint-Pol was not a single building, but rather several dwellings making up a royal residence. Between them, they had rooms for banquets and other entertainments given by the king, rooms for guests, and other rooms reserved for the king and his family.The grounds of this estate, which included extensive vineyards, stretched from the Quai des Célestins to the Rue Saint-Antoine, and from the Rue Saint-Paul to the Rue du Petit-Musc, passing through the rue Beautrellis.
The vines that have recently been planted in the Joseph Mignaret Garden remind us of the viticultural history of the quarter. This tiny vineyard of about 50 vines is planted to Chasselas Doré and Muscat, white grapes that are well suited to the cooler climes of the north, though Muscat is also grown in the Rhone and Corsica. Chasselas may be the oldest known grape varietal, probably brought to Europe by the Phoenecians from what is now Lebanon. Once cultivated all over Eastern Europe, it can still be found in Alsace and the Haute Savoie. Near Paris it was cultivated around Fontainebleau and cuttings from there were taken to Switzerland where it became widespread.
The Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, Paris was divided into small village parcels with narrow houses tightly built one next to the other. Historically, the Marais (which means marsh or swamp) only came to be populated following its draining in the 12th century. It was a swampy area because a branch of the Seine flowed through here. This undeveloped area then offered fertile soil for growing vegetables for market and being outside of the city walls, allowed merchants and craftsmen to flourish without being taxed.
Henry IV, who was an enlightened king and the first with an interest in urban planning, gave the Marais a new lease on life. In 1605 he introduced the Place Royal Project, the modern day Place des Vosges. The courts noblemen and bourgeoisie soon followed suit, as this part of town was not yet developed and so offered large plots of land to build upon. Through the 18th century, they built magnificent hôtels particuliers - large one-family houses or mansions - many of which resembled genuine palaces.
Where the King goes, so do I
The population follows its king. Louis XIV and his court choose to reside at Versailles. The Marais and its centre, the Place Royale, began to reflect the king’s disinterest and the area was deserted. Only Marie de Rabutin Chantal, known as the Marquise de Sévigné, a worldly literary figure, favoured her home at the Hôtel Carnavalet, today a museum of the history of Paris. The nobles and bourgeois owners of the ‘hôtels particuliers’ of the Marais, compelled by the revolution and the storming of the Bastille, so close by, moved to the provinces.
Left to disrepair, altered, transformed, the beautiful mansions of the Marais suffered from careless conversions to workshops and cement buildings well into the 1960’s. Large-scale urban projects endangered this cultural heritage. Fortunately, passionate lovers of the Marais, such as architect Albert Laprade or puppeteer Michel Raude alerted public opinion and the government. André Malraux, the culture minister at the time, acted quickly to preserve and protect the area. Through government acquisition of historic sites, a preservation and restoration program and a festival in different prestigious neighbourhoods of the quarter enabled the Marais to be saved from certain destruction.