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This is the ninth in a series of walking tours highlighting the sites and stories of diverse districts of Paris.
Coming up the steps at the St Paul metro station, where the Rue de Rivoli meets the Rue St Antoine, I’m thinking of the elegant Place des Vosges a few minutes’ walk away, of Victor Hugo and of the gossipy 17th-century socialite Madame de Sévigné, who both lived in this area. But I’m snapped back to the 21st century at the top of the steps by a cheerful community action group dispensing snacks to volunteers for a neighborhood clean-up, and a group of street musicians jollying things along. There’s a piled-high pavement fruit stall and a backdrop of enticing foodie shops. I’m already looking forward to returning after my walk!
Just along the Rue St Antoine is the Church of St Paul and St Louis which I know has popped up numerous times in the history books; Cardinal Richelieu, no less, celebrated the first mass in the new building in 1641, but in the next century, the revolutionary Robespierre followed him into the pulpit, railing against religion and preaching his Cult of Reason. Not unconnected, in 1792 five parish priests were murdered here, in the September Massacres, which followed the revolution.
But as I gaze at the beautiful high-domed ceiling, the person I think of is Victor Hugo. This was his church, the place where his children were baptized and to which he surely came for solace after the death of his favorite daughter Léopoldine. She was married here, then drowned in a boating accident just months after the wedding. She was 19 and pregnant and her husband drowned trying to save her.
Crossing the Rue St Antoine, I take the little Rue de Birague as a direct route to the Place des Vosges. I pass charming little shops like Y-Ness, where the window is filled with those nonchalantly thrown-together smart-casual outfits the French are so good at, and then go under the archway at the end to find one of my favorite Paris vistas. Occasionally it’s my privilege to take someone who doesn’t know what’s coming along this route and I always await their delight with anticipation. For, just through the arches, the stunning Place des Vosges opens up in all its 17th-century glory.
Along all four sides are terraced mansions, their pleasing stone and brick-patterned façades rising above the pavement level arcades, providing regularity and architectural harmony for the nobility who could afford to live here in its 17th-century heyday. Half-hidden under the covered walkways lining each side, cafes and restaurants nestle among the entrances to the grand buildings. The central garden has a symmetrical design, divided into four squares, dominated by a statue of Louis XIII on horseback in the middle and by large, elegant stone fountains in each quarter.
Today being sunny, the garden is full of sunbathers, of couples on benches and of families, relaxing while their toddlers enjoy the sandpit. I imagine that some of those criss-crossing the square are just taking a little detour on their route through the Marais. It would be a waste not to see the Place des Vosges as often as you could!
Of course, the square is full of history. Originally, the area was occupied by the Hôtel des Tournellles, a vast property where the kings of medieval France were invited to joust and feast. In the 16th century, Henri IV used the area to promote the city’s prosperity, having a silk factory built here, and setting up arcades to attract silk merchants to sell their wares. In 1615, Louis XIII decided to rename it La Place Royale and, as the nobility began to settle here, the central garden was established and fenced off for their exclusive use. Naturally, after the revolution, things had to change. The garden was opened up for public use and the regal name was ditched in favor of La Place des Vosges. The new government opted to call the square after the first département – the Vosges, in Alsace – which paid the new taxes they demanded.
The square is associated with many famous names. Madame de Sévigné was born at number 1 in 1626 and number 6, in the south-east corner, was rented by Victor Hugo in the 1830s and 40s. Today, this house is the Victor Hugo Museum, where you can see the rooms where he lived and wrote during the first two decades of his literary career. The writers Théophile Gautier and Alphones Daudet lived here too, and so did some of the most politically influential Parisians.
The Hotel de Sully, whose idyllic gardens you can enter at the southwest corner of the square is named after Maximilien de Béthune, Duke of Sully, the hugely influential minister and adviser to Henri IV in the early 17th century. A little later, number 21 was the home of the fearsome Cardinal Richelieu, Chief Minister to Louis XIII, who once wrote “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”
I left the square along the Rue des Francs Bourgeois, towards the Rue de Sévigné and the Musée Carnavalet, dedicated to the history of Paris. Since entry is free, it’s easy to pop in to see something specific and I was on the trail of Madame de Sévigné. Rooms 101-3 are devoted to her, being the site of the apartment she rented for the last 20 years of her life, from the 1670s until 1696. As a wealthy widow who did not re-marry, she was unusually independent for a woman of her time and she captured her life as a frequenter of literary salons and lively participant in Parisian social life at the noblest level in the gossipy letters she wrote to her daughter.
It was such a pleasure to see where she wrote, and especially to find her black lacquered writing desk, decorated all over with gilded fruits, flowers and birds and full of the sort of hide-away drawers every writer likes to have. There are portraits and documents too, audio extracts from her writing and the chance to look out of the window, just as she described in one of her letters, rejoicing that in this apartment she would have “fresh air, a beautiful courtyard and a beautiful garden.”
On my way back to the St Paul metro station, I passed the almost-hidden Place du Marché St Cathérine, a pretty little square lined with cafes and benches. Just the place for a picnic and so an excuse to continue into the Rue St Antoine and choose some treats. The cheese shop nearest the metro is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, so a winner of the sought-after quality award, and their many varieties of Brie – with figs, perhaps? or nuts? – were tempting, as were the pâtés in the window of Ducs de Gascogne Foies Gras Épiceries Fines.
Just along the road, Paul, a Parisian bakery chain with a long heritage, promised pâtisseries et viennoiseries. They will pack your shopping, even if it’s only one item, into a smart little cream box with a black trim bearing the wording “Paul, depuis 1889.” So, a picnic was easy to assemble and a bench between two trees in the Sainte Cathérine market square was just the place to enjoy it.
Enjoying our “Flâneries in Paris” series? Read Marian’s previous article, surprises at the Sèvres-Babylone metro station, here.
Lead photo credit : Place des Vosges. Photo credit: Marko Maras/ Flickr