M ozart resounds under the arches of the Place des Vosges. Passersby have gathered at the edge of Paris's oldest and loveliest square to listen to an eleven-piece string orchestra and enjoy a Saturday afternoon. This is Paris's most fashionable area, Le Marais in the 4th arrondissement, where this kind of impromptu weekend entertainment is more the rule than the exception. The district buzzes with an infectious sense of creativity and diversity. The streets are lined with clothing boutiques and book shops, art galleries, churches, bakeries and bars. Chic Parisians sit in cafés or zip by on their Vespas. Black-hatted Jews pour in and out of a synagogue. Taking in this bustling scene, it's hard to imagine that Le Marais was once as its name attests just a swamp, or that the French government almost allowed this historic quarter to become completely dilapidated before giving it preservation status in the late '60s. ARISTOCRATIC PLAYGROUND Paris's most venerable square, Place des Vosges, is the ideal place to begin exploring Le Marais. In the 17th century, the perfectly square Place was the city's finest address, and was once 26 BLUE WINGS OCTOBER 2007 home to Cardinal Richelieu and much later to author Victor Hugo. The upper crust of Paris built a plethora of majestic private palaces in Le Marais in order to be close to the royal court, which was still based in Paris. Typical of these palaces were gateways that opened onto cobble-stoned front courtyards with peaceful gardens stretching out behind them. Nowadays most of these are open to everyone as many are museums or galleries: one of the most elegant is the Picasso Museum near Place des Vosges, which features a breathtaking collection of the artist's work. In the late 1600s when Louis XIV, the Sun King, moved the court out of Paris to nearby Versailles, most of the aristocracy also quit Le Marais. They were gradually replaced by poor bohemians, and the neighbourhood began to slowly decay. The sweeping renovations of Paris in the 1850s and '60s bypassed Le Marais, so much of its architecture remains original. THE JEWISH QUARTER IS BORN In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Le Marais became home to another group who have shaped the area ever since: Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, who are still a ABOVE: Café culture is an essential part of Parisian life. RIGHT: Many of the aristocrats' magnificent private palace gardens are open to the public.
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