Paris in a day? Check out Le Marais

It's now a mere two hours and 15 minutes from St Pancras, London to the heart of Paris


By Jan Shure, March 19, 2009
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Places des Vosges: one of the ciy's prettiest squares

Places des Vosges: one of the ciy's prettiest squares

The person who originally said that to travel was better than to arrive, could very well have been talking about the Eurostar service from London to Paris following its move north from Waterloo.

With a reduced journey time (now from a mere two hours 15 minutes to the heart of Paris), and operating out of a slick, spankingly clean, shiny and spectacularly glamorous St Pancras, Eurostar makes nipping off to the French capital a joy even before you set foot on the platform at Gare du Nord. And to make life even easier when you arrive, you can buy Metro tickets on board — though buy early as they sell out fast.

Once there, of course, the visitor has the dilemma of anyone hitting a major city for a day: how do you choose what to see. You cannot do it all — though a family seated near us for the return journey had taken a Cityrama tour and very much felt they had done it all — so you have to choose a slice of Paris and focus on it.

Our slice, for this visit, was Le Marais, the historic Jewish quarter of the city, now a deeply fashionable district, crammed with wonderful shops, magnificent galleries, esoteric museums, marvellously atmospheric cafés, restaurants and, at its heart, one of the city’s most beautiful squares, the Places des Vosges.

Built in the 17th century by Henri IV and comprising four perfectly symmetrical sides of arcaded shops, galleries, cafes and restaurants, the square is a perfect start to a tour of the area. Drop in to the Modus Gallery to see the off-beat, somewhat disturbing, devorée sculptures of Bruno Catalano, or to the Art Symbol Gallery to see the bold, colourful graphic “celebrity” paintings by Israeli artist Dganit Blechner, or to the Lisette Alibert Gallery to see the oddly textured sculpted animals, or to the Salvador Dali Print Gallery for limited editions by the master surrealist.

There is a synagogue on the square, the Consistorial at number 14, so discreetly signposted you could miss it, except for prohibited parking, and nearby, the house where Victor Hugo wrote most of Les Miserables. Today, the literary master’s former home is a dusty museum and a treasure-trove of memorabilia.

After a delicious fish lunch at the romantic Guirlande de Julie with tables facing the square for warm-weather lunching, or something more casual at Café Hugo, visitors can head to the Musée National Picasso, a 10-minute walk away in rue Thorigny. Here, beautifully displayed within a grand former mansion gussied up with pastel coloured glass, are paintings, sculptures, ceramics and photographs by the artist himself, as well as his archives and a huge collection of works owned by him, by Braque, Matisse, Miro, Derain and many more.

Two big museums in a single day may be too much culture, but the city’s Jewish museum — Le Musee d’art d’histoire de Judaisme — on nearby rue du Temple is well worth a stop. Located in the hotel de Saint-Aignan, a gracious 18th-century mansion set back from the street around a rectangular courtyard, it is crammed with fascinating exhibits, including paintings, photographs and ritual objects, that tell the story of the French Jewish community and its contribution to the state and its culture from the Middle Ages, through the renaissance and the emancipation to the present day. There are particularly good permanent exhibitions on the fate of the community during World War 11, and on Alfred Dreyfus, the French army captain whose trial led to him becoming a cause celebre in the dying years of the 19th century.

The Marais is also home to the Musee Cognacq-Jay, one of Paris’s charming but little-known free museums. It is the former home of avid collector Ernest Cognacq-Jay, founder of the La Samaritaine department store, and his collection of 18th- and 19th-century furniture, paintings, sculptures, porcelain, mirrors and tapestries, is displayed in the four-storey mansion.

One of the joys of Paris — indeed, of many Continental European cities, — is the huge number of independent shops which remain in even its smartest streets. And while Place des Vosges itself is fashion-lite, the streets surrounding it are just crammed with indie boutiques or outposts of small, local chains. On rue de Turenne, check out Bourgeois and Lipsic for womenswear and accessories, Vito for designer menswear, Coton Doux for shirts, Swoon for ravishing babywear and Laurent Guillot for stunning, contemporary costume jewellery with statement pieces in Lucite and gold-leaf.

And if — after all that culture and retail therapy — you are in need of afternoon refreshment, avoid the overpriced, factory produced fare on offer at Gare du Nord and stop for afternoon tea with tender tarte tatin or crunchy made-on-the-premises meringues au chocolat at L’Atelier Boulangerie in rue de Turenne before heading off for Eurostar and your journey home.

Travel Facts

Eurostar (www.eurostar.com; 08705 186 186) has around 20 trains per day in each direction between London and Paris, with return fares from £59 one way. Journey time from St Pancras to Gare du Nord, from 2 hours 15 minutes. Consistorial Synagogue, 14 Places des Vosges, 75004 (www.synadesvosges.com; 0033 1 48 877945); Jewish Museum (www.mahj.org; 0033 1 53 01 86 53) 71 rue du Temple, 75003; Musee Cognacq-Jay, Hôtel Donon 8, rue Elzévir 75003 (www.cognacq-paris.fr; 0033 1 40270721); Guirlande de Julie, 25 Place des Vosges (00331 48 87 94 07).

    Last updated: 12:35pm, July 20 2009