Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Marais - Where Past is Prologue

Paris, January 19, 2006. I woke up late. There was a serious leak in my building which, after careful investigation from our gardien, Mr Luzio, happily did not originate from our apartment. My son had sent me a document overnight which needed attention. And so what did I do in response to all these domestic interruptions? I dropped everything to head straight for the Marais and get lost for a day.

The Marais is so much fun because it is simultaneously the hippest and the most historic part of town and a great place to observe the collision of trendiness and tradition . The hip bit involves “of-the-moment” people, attitudes, boutiques and restaurants. Because I am decidedly not hip, I shouldn’t make recommendations in that domain but trust me (and your guidebook), if its “trendy” you’re looking for, head for the rue des Francs-Bourgeois and enjoy the show. If it is Sunday and you have a shopping itch to scratch, this is one of the few areas of Paris where stores can legally stay open.

If its history you’re after, head first for the Musee Carnavalet where you can spend a hugely entertaining time exploring Paris from its origins to the present. The museum is spread over two beautiful and very historic mansions. When I arrived, there was a smattering of tourists and tons of French school children communing noisily with their glorious past.

From pre-historic remains to the tiny shoes of Marie Antoinette, the keys to the Bastille, the chess pieces Louis XVI played with while waiting for his execution, the bedroom of Marcel Proust, its all in there and more. I’m sure any child would be fascinated with the gruesome models of guillotines and pictures of Marie Antoinette with her head on a stake and I’m certainly going to bring Eloise along on her next trip to Paris. Whether you are a history buff or not, this engaging museum is uncrowded, fun and free. What could be better?

From the Musee Carnavalet, I dashed off to the Musee Cognacq-Jay, a short walk away, which has an exquisite collection of 18th century paintings and objets d’art in the Hotel Donon amassed by the founder of the Samaritaine Department Store ,Ernest Cognacq, and his wife Marie-Louise Jay. This is a perfect NoCrowds museum: intimate, relatively unknown and a sublime treat for anyone interested in the 18th century. There is no charge to enter.

The next stop on my Marais tour should have been the Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature ( Museum of Hunting and of Nature), based on the hilarious descriptions of its content – hundreds and hundreds of stuffed animals from elephants to bush pigs, guns of every variety and gory tapestries plus painting by Breughel, Rubens and Corot and Chardin. But dear Reader, the Musee de la Chasse was closed.

These things happen to me a lot because I do not follow my own good advice to always call and check if things are open. And if you think having a quick look at the website would help you out, it certainly did not in this case where later I found buried deep in the site, under “Practical Information”, the following: “The museum is closed from January 2005 and will open in 2006.” Practical indeed. OK, we’ll try that one later.

Sometimes, when travelling, what you enjoy is not what you would have chosen. At loose ends on the rue des Archives, I remembered that the Musee de l’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme ( Museum of the Art and History of Judaism) was around the corner, so off I went. Housed in the imposing and impressive Hotel de Saint-Aignan, I was caught off-guard by the serious security process one goes through to gain entry. Plus my Museum Pass did not cover the entrance charge of EUR 6.10. Was this a good idea, I asked myself? Well, as it turns out, it certainly was.

What I found was fascinating. To quote from the museum’s website, “At the end of the visit, the visitor will have completed a voyage through different historic periods, will have discovered the diversity of Jewish communities and acquired several essential notions concerning the foundations of Jewish culture.” There is a very good English language audio guide included in the price of your visit. The documents from the Dreyfus Affair alone were “worth the detour”. If you have any interest in Judaism, you can learn an awful lot from a visit to this museum.

At 4:00, any sane person would have stopped and had a great falafel at the most famous of all falafel joints in the Marais, L’As du Falafel on the rue des Rosiers, and had I been with Jeff, perhaps earlier we would have had lunch at out old favourite on the Place des Vosges, Coconnas, but left to my own devices, I knew I had time to squeeze in just one more museum and so it was off to the Musee Picasso.

Since this post is way too long already, I shall be brief. If you love Picasso, go. Everyone raves about this place. Perhaps it was just the end of a long day ( and an object lesson for me to nibble not gobble at the Marais’s cultural attractions) but the enormous collection of paintings, drawings, statues and ceramics spanning all the periods of Picasso’s career just didn’t get me very excited. The Hotel Sale is spectacularly beautiful but I kept remembering all the marvellous paintings that were not in the collection. The museum was quite full and for some reason everyone wanted to have their pictures taken in front of every piece. Dodging and ducking the constant parade of photographers wasn’t much fun.

I had planned to finish my day by sitting for a while in the Place des Vosges, the oldest and loveliest square in Paris but realising that even I had reached my limit, I reluctantly headed home happy to have spent an entire day in world class museums where I never waited, rarely had to pay and was hardly ever disappointed.


Musee Carnavalet
23-29 rue de Sévigné 75003 (metro Rambuteau or Saint-Paul) Tel. 01 44 59 58 58 Open 10.00-17.40 except on Mondays – free entrance except for temporary expos

Musee Cognacq Jay
8 rue Elzévir 75003 (métro Saint-Paul) Tél. 01 40 27 07 21 Open 10.00-17.45 except on Mondays
Free Entrance

Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature
60 rue des Archives 75003 (metro Rambuteau) Tel. 01 42 72 86 43
Currently closed for renovation

Musee d’Art et d’histoire du Judaisme
71, rue du Temple (metro Rambuteau or Hotel de Ville)
Tel: 01 53 01 86 60
Open 11:00-6:00 Monday – Friday and Sunday 10:00 to 6:00
Charge: Eur 6.10/3.80

Musee Picasso
5 rue Thorigny 75003 (metro Saint-Sébastien Froissart, Saint-Paul) Tel. 01 42 71 25 21 Open 9.30-18.00, 9.30-17.30 in winter, except on Tuesdays
Charge Eur 7.70/5.70 – no charge for Museum Pass holders

Food and Restaurants

L’As du Falafel
Rue des Rosiers

2 bis, Place des VosgesTel: 01 42 78 58 1
Photo of "Portrait de la Residente de Rieux" (detail) by Maurice Quentin de la Tour courtesy of the Cognacq-Jay website

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