The “Marais” takes its name from the swamps which covered this area at the time when the first gallic tribe settled down in what would become Paris and for many centuries. This where the Parisi won their first battle against the roman legions who caught trapped in the swamps.
In the middle ages, part of the swamps were drained , convents were built and started cultivating the fields.King Philippe August and Charles V decided to protect Paris from invasions, more efficiently, by building fortifications, including the Bastille fortress. In the 16th, 17the centuries, kings and aristocrats were attracted to this area, to get away from the City ,which was too crowded, and they built elegant townhouses “between courtyard and garden”. in the 17th century, the “place des Vosges”, formerly ” place Royale”,typical of the LouisXIII style, became the heart of the “Marais”, a center of elegance and entertainment.
After the 1789 revolution and the storming of the Bastille, the district is partially destroyed and abandoned. Many craftsmen move in the outbuildings, in the courtyards of the formerly elegant houses, even, in some cases , in the houses themselves. Fortunately, in the past few years, the district underwent a careful and efficient restoration and, even if the old splendor is gone, it has become a trendy place to live in or to go out to.
Museums are now occupying some of the old townhouses, which allow you to admire both their classical architecture and the collections inside. One of them is particularly interesting because it is dedicated to the history of Paris. It’s the “hotel Carnavalet”. Another one is worth a visit, the former “hotel Salé” , now the Picasso museum, which just reopened after a full renovation. Walking around the “Marais” will also give you the opportunity to discover hidden alleys and gardens, always full of charm and typical of the old Paris.
The “Bastille” was part of the old fortification which protected the Hotel St Paul where King Charles V lived in the 14th century; there is nothing left of the fortress which served as a jail . Some famous prisoners were there such as the legendary Iron Mask, whose real identity remains unknown, Voltaire, Mirabeau and many others. In 1784, the letters of “cachet”, which allowed the King to send people to jail without judgment, were abolished and the Bastille was almost empty when it was taken by the people of Paris in July 1789. It was immediately demolished and now, in the middle of the square stands the the column of July, with the “genie of victory” on top of it. It commemorates the revolution of 1830 which chased Charles X.
The main monument on the square is contemporary, it’s the modern Opera house inaugurated in 1990. Nearby is the St Antoine borough, an old densely populated district where you can find a lot of workshops of cabinet makers and also popular bars and nightclubs. During “la Belle Epoque”, people from different social classes would mingle and the popular figures, from the lower social classes. were called “Apaches”.