Renowned for its ‘authentic’ and eclectic ambiance, the trendy Parisian area of Le Marais is the meeting point of the city’s most talented artists and ardent philosophers. But this is not exactly a recent phenomenon…Le Marais was once a mecca for some of the most rebellious intellectuals of the 18th century. Indeed, this area is considered the birthplace of the Enlightenment period and quite possibly the very inception of the French Revolution.
What is perhaps a little puzzling, is realizing that Le Marais was also the residential area for the city’s aristocracy. In fact, what makes walking the streets in this area so enjoyable, is the fact that it is so intensely packed with some of the most grandiose buildings in the whole of France. Castles and mansions, once belonging to the French elite, are now some of the most visited museums and hotels in the whole country.
Curiously enough, it is this very opulence which instigated, and angered, the great philosophers at the time: Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu among many others. Perhaps it was the very proximity of the obvious social inequality which provided infinite fuel for their quarreling ways.
Les Philosophes loved to congregate in local cafés and debate for days on end. If retracing the philosopher’s steps is your cup of tea, then we suggest you start with a morning session at Café Les Philosophes, located on the corner of Rue Vieille du Temple and Rue des Tresor. Snag an outdoor table, order a café crème and channel your inner intellectual. It would help considerably if you can manage to look incensed and bored at the same time. That’s really the key!
Trying to solve the injustices of the world, while savoring a mouthwatering ‘croque monsieur’ at Les Philosophes, is almost too Parisian for words. This now modern French brasserie offers a delectable food and drinks menu, and its optimal location means you can sit for hours simply watching the crowd roll on by. Just don’t forget to discuss the true essence of life with your travel companions, whilst enjoying the view.
To further conjure up the tortured souls of the past, head to the Place de la Bastille, where the epitome monument of the French Revolution stands defiant. The Enlightenment period, which preceded the storming of the Bastille prison and the downfall of the French monarchy, is said to have been the true catalyst for the popular uprising. It must have been quite satisfying, for men like Voltaire, to see their most ardent dreams come to fruition. Voltaire was once imprisoned at the Bastille for a year for publicly insulting a Duke…and we all know that a little sweet revenge can certainly satisfy one’s soul.
This area is very lively, and is brimming with bars, cafés, restaurants and shops. Many concerts and event are held at the footsteps of the ‘July Column’ and it seems as if the ‘defiantly independent’ symbolism of the monument is still very vivid. If there is ever a political protest in Paris, this is where it is held.
If you happen to be visiting on a Thursday or Sunday, don’t forget to check out the local open-air market. Considering Le Marais is a melting pot of nationalities and creeds, this particular market is possibly the most interesting in Paris.
It may be now time to concentrate our efforts on understanding the grudges of les philosophes. The best way we can do this, is by visiting one of the most opulent buildings in the area: the Hôtel de Sully. Named after the Parisian Duke who used to live here (incidentally the same Duke whom Voltaire offended), the Hôtel de Sully is found on Rue Saint Antoine and is now the headquarters of the National Monument association. While the interior of the building is not always accessible to the public (the term ‘hotel’ is a misnomer in this case) the extensive garden and courtyards are always open and well worth visiting. It is easy to understand why Monsieurs Voltaire and Rousseau would criticize such opulence in the face of obvious popular struggles, but nowadays one can simply admire such richness whilst being content with the knowledge we live in a somewhat more ‘balanced’ society.
For a spot of modern-day philosophizing, head back to Place de la Bastille and grab a table at the ever popular Café des Phares. This melting-pot café was the brainchild of a local Parisian lecturer, Marc Sautet, who gave up his literary career in 1992 and followed (quite literally) in the footsteps of 18th century philosophers.
He set up several so-called ‘philo-cafés’ around Paris and held daily popular discussions. This proved to be such a hit, both here and overseas, that at last count over 100 philo-cafés have sprung up around the world.
So if you happen to be in an argumentative mood… head to Café des Phares and you’ll be sure to find more than one willing challenger.