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There are many good reasons for spending time in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris. A few of the things to see and do are the tried and true museums: The Musée des Arts et Métiers with its mechanical wonders; The Picasso museum with 5,000 pieces covering the scope of the artist’s work; the unique Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature containing exceptional installations of art highlighting the relationship between humans and animals.
However, if you want to make the most of the August weather as it slowly starts to cool down, and you feel happier outside than in, here are a few plein air gems you can see in the area south of Rue Réamur hiding in plain sight.
But first you have to get to the marvelous Marais. When the train on line 11 of the Métro stops at the Arts et Métiers station, the doors open on what appears to be the inner workings of a steampunk submarine. Looking like Jules Verne’s Nautilus, the platform features riveted copper panels, plus gears, cogs, pulleys and authentic looking portholes containing apparatuses similar to those exhibited at the Musée des Arts et Métiers above. This unique station was designed in 1994 by a Belgian comic artist, known for illustrating the graphic novel Cities of the Fantastic. A total work of art, François Schuiten designed everything – from benches, to station signs to garbage bins –for the station’s total immersion in a Steampunk universe.
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At street level, if you crane your neck up the façade of 57 rue de Turbigo, the thirty-foot Lighthouse Angel comes into view. This caryatid was designed in 1860 by an architecture student Emile-August Delange. He failed in his bid to design a lighthouse, but eight years later his design caught the eye of the architect of this Haussmann-style building who added Delange’s angel to the building’s façade.
Heading in a southerly direction along rue de Turbigo or rue Saint-Martin you’ll pass the medieval gothic church of Saint-Nicolas des Champs. This church was erected in the parish in 1184 – its flamboyant Gothic style construction, covers the 12th, 15th and 17th centuries. Accessible at 254 rue Saint-Martin, an independent tour may be possible.
Further south still to 223 Rue Saint-Martin where a sign on the lopsided lintel above a dusty blue door reads Passage de l’Ancre. The door maybe shut, but yes, you can go in. Push, and…voila! you’ve stepped into another world, an ethereal oasis in the old heart of Paris. This little passage is the oldest in Paris dating from the 16th century. Open to the sky, it links rue Saint-Martin to Rue de Turbigo and boasts vines and sun-dappled greenery, where tubs of ficus and bougainvillea flourish between the jewel-toned windows. The Passage de l’Ancre owes its name from a tavern once called l’Ancre Nationale (see if you can spot its mermaid) and this little alley was once the location of the city’s first horse-drawn cab stand in 1637. Once lined with small shops the passage still hosts a special one, the magical Pep’s, which has been custom-making and repairing all types of umbrellas – parapluies – since 1967. A Greek-influenced restaurant, Stou Fred Paris, can be accessed off the passage’s cobblestones, as can a classic men’s shoe boutique, Atelier Beaumarchais Maroquinerie. Private residences back on to the passage and a few can be rented as accommodation.
Passage de l’Ancre is mentioned in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – “opposite the passage de l’Ancre a drummer received a blow from a dagger.” It’s safer now.
Just a minute’s walk away from the spot Hugo mentions is the Rue de Montmorency, where the house once belonging to the famed alchemist Nicolas Flamel is found. Flamel is not just a character that you might be familiar with from reading the first installment of the Harry Potter stories. Flamel was a very real philosopher and his life is well documented. The apocryphal rumors that Flamel found the secret to eternal life serve to ennoble this house, which was originally maintained as a hospice.
Flamel had other residences attached to his name; however, this house at number 51 rue de Montmorency is the best known, and is Flamel’s sole surviving house. If not the oldest in Paris, it certainly is at least one of the city’s few remaining medieval buildings. Completed in 1407, as inscribed on a frieze above the ground floor, where other strange symbols from a different age are etched into its façade. Again it was Victor Hugo who stoked the fire that Flamel had found the secret to never-ending life in his 1831 Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) – the conflicted Archdeacon Frollo had been seen digging in the cellars of one of Flamel’s houses looking for the philosopher’s secret of immortality. The house has been a national monument since 1911, it is now a restaurant, appropriately taking the name Auberge Nicolas Flamel.
Setting off in an easterly direction past the boulangeries and epicieries of Rue de Montmorency, continue to rue Beaubourg and carry on north to rue Chapon to number 8 on your left and then through Passage des Gravilliers. In this alleyway, you’ll find a giant monochrome mural adorning the path’s 16 porches and shutters. The street artist unSolub has created a world of Escher-like staircases, cogs, chains, and flying machines far too crazy for the Musée des Arts et Métiers, co-existing in a jungle of spray-painted vines. Perhaps the old mechanical workshops housed in the passage’s past influenced the current owners’ vision of unSolub’s fresco. The galleries – The Under Construction Gallery, Galerie Satar, Galerie Christian Berst and the design studio Paper Tiger came up with the idea in 2015.
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Alighting on rue des Gravilliers, there’s a super secret Marais gem that’s one of my favorite Paris cafés: Café Ineko at number 13. The staff is so enthusiastic about what they do and rightly so. The atmosphere at Café Ineko is redolent of the seaside Mediterranean. If Covid requirements allow, enjoy a lunch there. Their market cuisine featuring vegan, vegetarian (and sometimes meat plates) is astounding.
These Marais side streets– especially rue Beaubourg, rue au Maire and rue Volta– capture the vibe of a bygone Chinatown. At the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese immigrants settled here, creating the first Chinatown in France. Also known as the “Chinese path” or “Little Wenzhou,” a Chinese New Year celebration is organized in these streets, in partnership with the mairie of the 3rd arrondissement. The penchant for Asian food is obvious, as those in the know are seen lining up for pho at Song Heng’s at 3 Rue Volta. A touch incongruous, this is another great example of an old building dating back to the mid-17th century – built in the decade between 1644 and 1654.
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Whether you want a 30 minute eye stretch or whether you want to take in the bistros and boulangeries while walking the bricks of the 3rd arrondissement, you’ll experience some of the gems of Marais – hidden in plain sight.
Lead photo credit : Passage de l’Ancre. Photo © Hazel Smith