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The Marais: The classiest slum in Paris

Derelict isn’t always a bad wordÃ?Â?at least in France. It can mean that once-fashionable areas were abandoned at some point, and left to age gracefully. While the rest of Paris went through varying degrees of rejuvenation over the centuries, the Marais district is the best prince and the pauper story on the Right Bank.

And what a rollercoaster of a story it is. This wedge of Paris within walking distance from the Sorbonne is a cross-section of Parisian history contained in 310 acres. Through the ages, it’s been in turn the place to be among French aristocracy, a refuge for Jews, a filthy slum, a vibrant artists’ commune, and the heart of the Parisian gay community. What this means to the visitor is a hodgepodge of fabulous mansions, crooked alleyways, and the hippest bars, cafes, and shops in the cityÃ?Â?which can all be experienced on a minimal budget.

Place des Vosges

Before the Marais (which means “swamp” in French) was the coolest place in town, it was the coolest place in France. When Henry IV built the Place des Vosges between 1605 and 1612, he made it the most fashionable place in the country. Today it is still considered one of the most beautiful plazas in Europe. Exactly 36 grand houses rim the square, which is bridged with arcades bursting with bustling shops and cafes.

One of the most historic of these stately buildings is the Maison de Victor Hugo (6, Place des Vosges), where the author wrote most of his masterpiece Les Mis�©rables. For no charge, you can enter this museum for a glimpse of his rooms, including his writing desk, pens, and ink drawings.

Looking at the sun streaming on the pink brick and linden trees that line Hugo’s house on the Place des Vosges, it’s hard to imagine that within 200 years, the Marais was a dump. In the late 17th century, when Louis XIV packed his bags for Versailles, wealthy families followed. They left their big houses, though, which made prime commercial real estate. Manufacturers and craftsmen junked up the mansions, gradually letting the area slide into crime and squalor. By the 1950s, the neighborhood reeked of raw sewage and had little electricity and even less indoor plumbing. Something needed to be done, and in 1965, Paris named the Marais a protected heritage district. It’s been on the up-and-up ever since.

Through all the ups and downs since the 13th century, the Jewish community has made its home here. Its peak was when thousands of Jews flooded from Eastern Europe in the 19th century, and they congregated at the Pletzel (Yiddish for “little place”), along the Rue des Rosiers. Jewish history pervades the areaÃ?Â?from commemorations of Holocaust victims to one of the oldest spots in the neighborhood, a 16th-century building on Rue Ferdinand Duval 20, to a trÃ?¨s cool Art Nouveau synagogue (10, rue PavÃ?©e) designed by Hector Guimard, the same guy whose trademark designs are all over the Paris metro.

Falafel fare

But one of the best reasons to visit the Jewish quarter is the foodÃ?Â?not the haute cuisine at haute prices elsewhereÃ?Â?but grub that would make any Jewish grandmother proud. Bagels, cheesecake, rye, pickled herring, and borscht can be found in any number of delis along the Rue des Rosiers. Falafel abounds, but L’As du Fallafel (34, rue des Rosiers) takes top slot. This legendary restaurant serves steaming hot pitas bulging with chickpea fritters and a heap of toppings that make it not only heavenly, but also a smashing good deal at less than $5.

After gorging on cheap falafel, a quick walk to Rue des Blancs Manteaux will not only jog the digestion, but also get you ready for utter relaxation at Les Bains du Marais (31-33, rue des Blancs-Manteaux), a funky Moroccan-themed Turkish bath. A mere 30 euros buys you access to the hammam (steam room), and a modicum of modesty with a rented robe, towels, and slippers. Another 30 euros will buy a vigorous gommage (scrubbing) and massage. Call ahead for a reservation (01-44-62-02-02) and to find out what days are reserved for men or women.

Shabby and chic shopping

Shopping in this part of town is where you’re more likely to find one-of-a-kind deals. Some of France’s best designers have set up shop in the Marais, and you can find unique clothing, jewelry, and objets d’art that are worth the investment. The arcades of the Place des Vosges offer shopping for funky and chi-chi boutiques, but backpacker budgets stretch farther in the vintage stores along Rue des Rosiers, Rue Roi de Sicile, Rue Saint-Martin, and Rue de SÃ?©vignÃ?©. Along Rue de Rivoli, those precious euros will stretch even farther among the cheaper clothing chains. Guys searching for French chic without the price tags to match should browse the shops along Rue Ste-Croix-de-la-BretonnerieÃ?Â?especially the store called Free’p’star, where retro fashion reigns.

If you’re shopping for a memento to hang on your wall or set on a table, you can hit any of the hundreds of galleries in the Marais. Art galleries are tucked where you might least expect to see themÃ?Â?as in behind an old bakery facade or in the courtyard of a gutted mansion. The Galerie Yvon Lambert (108, rue Vieille-du-Temple) shows anything from photography to reconstructed basketball courts. The Galerie Cent8 (108, rue Vieille-du-Temple) is out of most price ranges, but is still worth a look for its internationally famous artists, as is the Galerie Daniel Templon (30, rue Beaubourg).

The shopping, the knishes, and the history are what make the Marais with its crooked streets and hulking mansions singular. But hurry and visit now. This area is still largely devoid of the chain stores, suburbanites, and white-sneakered families snapping photos that could turn it into Euro Disney Deux. The Marais has proven itself to be a volatile property over the ages, from hip to hovel to hip again. Derelict might become a word visitors to the Marais pine for.

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