Paris Part Cinq (Place des Vosges, Le Marais…)
This is part five of a seven-part series on my trip to Paris. Read the other parts here.
For those of you paying attention at home, by this point in Paris I’ve enjoyed quite a bit of food but – somehow – not a single croissant!
That was quickly remedied on Friday morning when I walked just the two blocks from our flat to Des Gateaux et du Pain, a bakery named by multiple sources as home to the best croissant in all of Paris.
Folks, this is not a drill.
This croissant changed my life.
But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’d done so much in the week I’d been in the city that my list of must-dos was getting shorter by the day. I still had an entire day exploring the Louvre on my list (see next post!), but I wanted to use at least one day to wander some of the familiar spots I’d discovered over a decade ago while hopefully stumbling across some new gems, too.
So after picking up the magical pastry wonder that is the Parisian croissant, I jumped on the Metro to get myself to Le Marais, one of the posh districts in the city and home to even more history (are you sensing a theme here?). I was headed for one spot in particular: Place des Vosges. This centuries-old square (Henri IV built it in the early 1600s) is just that, a manicured park in the middle surrounded by uniform rows of red brick houses; the only way in is under them through one of the few entrances on either side.
I’d been there once before, having stumbled into it my first time in Paris and instantly falling in love with it. At the time, I had no idea its history; I was simply taken by the storybook feel of it all, from the architecture to the park lawns and trimmed trees to the French nannies and their charges playing on the grounds. It was the best moment of my brief time in France, one I clearly remember over a decade later.
It was there that I sat and enjoyed my life-changing croissant. Well, sat until the pigeons found me, and then I strolled and ate and soaked it all in. When the croissant was gone (sad face!), I made my way to the southeast corner, to 6 Place des Vosges for a tour of Maison de Victor Hugo, where the author lived for 16 years. The apartment isn’t in quite the same state as it was when he was there in the 1860s, but the stewards have taken care to restore his own furnishings in many of the rooms. In fact, the room that was his bedroom has all the original furniture (saved by his grandchildren), including the bed in which he died.
Makes sense to pause here and spend a moment on one of the many themes that seemed to follow me around during this visit. History was certainly the most prominent, as I walked halls and caves and castles that’ve been around for centuries. And food and wine, of course, made for a major player in this whole production. But another that kept creeping in to my various escapades was literature, the classic stories I’ve loved for years. For example, touring around the Paris Opera made for a wonderful reason to have Masquerade stuck in my head.
Along those lines…I can’t understate how in love I am with the story of Les Miserables. Have been since high school. Yes, the musical. But also the story itself – I have actually read the book by Hugo. And the history wrapped up in the fictional narrative just adds to its allure for me. So it was a special treat to make my way to Hugo’s apartment; granted, he only started writing that best-known novel before moving out of Place des Vosges, but it was still quite powerful to be there.
These Paris-centric stories kept popping up, from imagining Sofia Coppola filming her pop-punk Marie Antoinette right there at Petit Trianon to the towering Liberty Leading the People hanging at the Louvre, with the portrait of the young boy who inspired Les Mis‘s Gavroche (more on that later). It was a welcome added layer to the whole trip, carrying this added context with me. So even though it was just a half of one day of a week-long stay, my time at Place des Vosges was some of the most special time of the whole trip.
But like all good things, it couldn’t last forever. I’d seen all there was to see at Hugo’s apartments and took one last turn through the square before meandering off for my next adventure: exploring the rest of the Marais neighborhood. I didn’t have much of a plan about where I wanted to go, and soon I found myself in the heart of the Jewish neighborhood; it doesn’t take much French to recognize the stars of David, Menorahs and Hebrew writing on storefront windows.
As I debated grabbing a bagel in Paris, I happened upon a more promising prospect: dozens of people spilling out of one particular restaurant. A traveler’s pro-tip for you: when dozens of people are spilling out of one particular restaurant, eat there. Never one to ignore my own advice, I stepped into the take away line for L’As du Fallafel, which I later learned is – like the croissant I had that morning – the best in its class in Paris. And again, they weren’t kidding. My pita, filled with cabbage and eggplant, hummus and hot sauce – and of course amazing falafel – was as good as the crowd would have you believe, and I devoured it as I walked further through Le Marais.
With more of the afternoon to enjoy, I continued my exploring with a few hours at the Picasso Museum (and a lovely espresso on their rooftop cafe), and a quick trip over to the Cinémathèque Française for a look at their museum and screen space. A veritable temple to all things film, their museum space is particularly dedicated to very early efforts in the art of the moving image; I geeked out aplenty over the old set pieces, early cameras, promotional posters and studio models.
With that sort of banner day behind me, I finally let myself call it and head back to the apartment; now into my second day pretending like I didn’t have a cold, it was all I could do to get home, make a quick meal and crash.
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The Paris Pass got me into both the Picasso Museum and the Museum of Cinema.