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Vive la Resistance!
I’m chucking my copy of Time Out Paris in the bin. It’s my third visit to Paris and I’m looking for the best the city has to offer according to Parisians, not on the recommendation of a guidebook. When I recently mentioned an interest in the Marais, one of my French friends beamed, proclaiming that if you were to spend your whole holiday in the Marais you would not have wasted your time. Over glasses of wine, my friends have told me where to go, their recommended locations marked with a splatter of “X”s on my map. I plan to meander through the Marais as the wind takes me.
My first stop, on the east end of the quartier, is Place des Vosges. Built of bright reddish stones, it’s one of the prettiest squares in Paris. I’m charmed by the serenity of the place and its beautiful fall foliage. Its benches are the perfect seat on which to perch, enjoy a croque-monsieur, and do some leisurely people watching. From the center of the square, a mustachioed statue of Louis XIII looks in the direction of the Louvre. The arched colonnades surrounding the square are lined with quaint art galleries, perfumeries, and cafés.
In one corner of Place des Vosges lies a museum dedicated to the great Victor Hugo, formed from a collection of rooms that were his one-time apartment. There is a video at reception (in French with French subtitles), but it’s more enjoyable to wander through his rooms with an audio guide (in English) at your ear. Some rooms have been restyled after the eccentric taste found at his famous country home. As a writer, I found this museum particularly inspiring. In his day, Hugo was a national treasure. Hugo-themed calendars and even Hugo-branded ink and inkpots stand on display, along with his passport.
The Marais was once a Jewish neighborhood of Paris, and evidence of this history can still be seen throughout. Jewish restaurants and bookshops still operate there, though they stand within a stone’s throw of French and international designer couture. Owing to its Jewish heritage, the Marais is one of the few areas of Paris where shops remain open on Sunday. At the weekend, the Marais draws throngs of shoppers. All the big labels are there. But peeking out from among them, up-and-coming fashion designers and artists appear, trying to direct footfall down to their shops situated in courtyards just off the main thoroughfares.
Now, didn’t my guidebook (now in the rubbish bin) say something about a spa in the Marais? I locate one via my iPhone, les Bains du Marais, inconspicuously nestled in the Rue de Blancs-Manteux . The Street of White Coats. I imagined that the street was named for doctors, perhaps, but in fact, it’s named for a religious order of antiquity.
The traditional Moroccan- themed baths are known as “hammam” and derive from Islamic purification practices. In my continuing quest to undergo every spa experience worldwide, I must try their “gommage”, a popular scrubbing treatment. After undressing, I enter the deliciously-scented wet steam room, the “hammam” itself, and muscle by muscle my travel-weary limbs loosen. When I’m toasty warm and fully relaxed, I explore the entire floor of women’s baths to find showers and a dry sauna, which I use to cool down and heat up in turns. After settling into a chaise-longue with a sigh, my name is called.
I am asked to wait inside the steamy heat of the Hammam for several minutes, which can only help soften my skin for the scouring I’m about to receive. Then, I am politely escorted into a small, windowless room nestled at the back of the Hammam. An obese Moroccan woman with a large kind smile scrubs the length of my body with a rough cloth mitt (which is mine to take home). As she astutely rubs off layers of my dead skin, she tells me that I must go to Morocco right away. Once I do, she says, I will want to return each year. I promise her I will go as soon as I can and she rewards me by asking me if I’m Parisian (ha, ha…this is truly a compliment since the French can pick out my American twang in a heartbeat). No, I say, I’m American, to which she replies that American girls are all so lovely.
After scrubbing me until little grey curls of skin litter the foam slab beneath me—think of the bits scattered on your notebook after erasing graphite pencil—my Moroccan friend hoses me down with cold water. It may all sound a little bit less than luxurious, but my reward is a glass a mint tea and a lie-down in the incensed Relaxation Room.
All of this comes with amazing service, which in touristy parts of Paris, can be sadly hard to find. At the Bains du Marais, there is also a café and beauty salon, but I decided that since the hours have flown since my arrival at the baths, I’d better get moving.
My day in the Marais is nearing its close, so I wander to its west end, arriving at the Hotel de la Ville. The architecture of this government building is stunning in its grandeur. There’s no public entry, but I walk around the perimeter to view its unique statues, lingering finally among the fountains in its adjacent square to take in a sideways view of Notre Dame Cathedral. The square itself has infamous associations with Revolution-era executions, but after my steam and gommage, I’m too loosey goosey to mutter more than a half-hearted “Vive la Resistance!” before heading to the Metro station.
Back at the hotel, I fish out my copy of Time Out Paris, which is luckily still in the bin (I paid 8 dollars for it!) and turn to the section on The Marais. Of course, the Place des Vosges, the Bains du Marais, and the Hotel de la Ville are all listed inside, but the descriptions seem flat and empty. I’m ready to throw it back in the bin when I remember that all guidebooks are flat…that’s why we go to the places and don’t just buy the guidebooks! I suppose I’ll keep this one for a little longer after all in the hopes that there are other gems waiting to be discovered.
* All photos by Karen Regn © All rights reserved
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