It’s crazy that I can look up at any given moment and see a building that was built several centuries ago, but that’s Paris. Having lived in more “modernized” cities all my life (Hong Kong, Taipei, then Shanghai), for the most part, buildings are several decades old – the only buildings that have lasted centuries (and in some cases millennia) are temples that have become tourist sites. The rest has been torn down to build high-rise apartments, skyscrapers, and more “modern” structures.
But Paris… the whole city is a tourist site. Apartments? Locksmiths? Supermarkets? Shopping malls? Almost the entire city (except for La Défense) is made up of buildings that were built in the 1800s and refurbished later. That’s why walking in Paris is so pleasurable: if you just look up (making sure you’re aware of your pockets, of course), you get a glimpse of how historically rich the city is, and how well that richness has been preserved in spite of everything.
Today, instead of visiting le Musée de l’Orangerie, I walked in Paris with a friend. We started at l’Hôtel de Ville, the building that houses the Parisian administration and walked toward Bastille. Normally it’s a 10-15 minute walk, but we wandered from place to place, looking at whatever caught our eye and that 10-15 minute walk become a 2-hour affair – and we didn’t even reach Bastille. We did see a lot, though.
We met up at the metro station Hôtel de Ville (which I went to daily for about four weeks when taking French classes near there), and looked around. There happened to be an ice rink right next to it, so while waiting I just watched them skate. There were two really really good skaters that were doing pirouettes and skating on one leg and skating backwards and everything, but for the most part people were either clinging to the side of the rink or falling on their butts. They kind of reminded me of myself when I last went skating two years ago (the people falling over, not the skaters doing pirouettes). I’m a terrible skater.
Anyway, when we finally met up my friend wanted to see la Rue des Barres, which is a really short section of road with some really, really old buildings. Most of the buildings in Paris today were built in the late 1800s/early 1900s, but the buildings here dated from the 16th to the 19th century. It actually reminded me of Cusset, which has a lot of old buildings from back when it was one of the primary sources of thermal springs, where the buildings had sections jutting out of them because the only part of the land that cost money was the part of the building touching the floor. Here’s a picture of what I mean (not mine), to illustrate my point:
Moving on, though, we kept walking and looking around. We even saw the Notre Dame and La Tour Saint-Jacques in the distance. I thought I took pictures of those when I walked past it before, but I can’t seem to find them. For now this picture will have to suffice.
A bit of wandering later we wound up at a road that used to be part of Grenier Sur L’eau but was renamed Allée des Justes (Grenier Sur l’eau was x-ed out and a new sign was put below). Opposite of it was le Mur des Justes, a wall dedicated to those who sheltered and hid Jews during the Nazi occupation of Paris. The list was impressively long :).
Le Marais must have a lot of tourists or something, because as we were walking there were signs everywhere with interesting little tidbits of information about the history of said building. One of the signs that we read was about La Prison de la Force, which was converted from a hôtel (using this in the French way of meaning where people can live) to two prisons: La Grande Force and La Petite Force, which were used for political prisoners during the French revolution. Several hundreds of prisoners, including la princess de Lamballe, were massacred there in what was known as les Massacres de septembre.
After reading that thoroughly depressing segment, we walked on la Rue François-Bourgeois, which was packed with people watching a band of street musicians playing some country music. I didn’t film them, but I was there with my parents in October. It was a different band of musicians back there, but they were playing some very French music, like Sidney Joseph Bechet’s Si tu vois ma Mère (If you see my Mother), which was featured in the movie Midnight in Paris. I put up a link to those videos here. Check out the old lady dancing. Isn’t she the cutest thing ever!
We kept heading in the general direction of Bastille, getting distracted by all the buildings left and right (which, in this case, is a wonderful thing). We nudged and bumped our way through a crowded road that, for some reason was filled with German bakeries and Falafel shops selling Strudels and, well, falafels, respectively and eventually ended up on Passage St. Paul, looking at l’Église St-Paul St-Louis.
Free entrance, so we figured why not. I walked in and was stunned, as I often am with old churches in general, by how they could have built something so intricate and so big centuries ago without modern-day machines and just manpower (probably had some pulleys and levers, though). On the ceiling of the church there were alternating sections marked “MA” and “JHS.” We asked one of the tour guides there, an old lady who was standing there, what they meant, and she happily explained to us the MA stood for Mother Mary, and JHS for Jesus Sauveur des Hommes (I thought it was weird that it was JHS and not JSH, but I didn’t deem to question her). She went on to show us some of the architecture of the building. There was a large dome near the back of the church that extended upwards, and what we thought were sculptures within them. She explained that they were examples of “trompe-l’oeil,” literally “trick the eye,” a style of painting that makes you think that you are looking at a 3D image when really it’s just flat. I thought that it was a relatively new thing (I’ve seen example of street art that make use of this), but apparently it’s been around since the 1620s!
We also then walked to a part of le Marais called le Village Saint-Paul, which was a little plaza-like area that was filled with quirky little shops selling lights, glassware, cabin gear (the shop was called La Cabane d’Ours, the cabin of the bear), and even photos of people in Beijing, of all places.
By then we were pretty pooped, so we decided to hit the Metro (St. Paul) and head home. Pretty sweet way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Saw a lot of just small part of Paris, Le Marais, that was in between two metro stations. Just goes to show that all of the city of Paris is really one huge, incredibly historically rich museum. Looking forward to doing more walking soon.