This stroll between the Musée des Arts et Métiers and the northern part of Le Marais district encompasses the original Chinatown. Usually, many people refer to the 13th district of Paris when speaking of Paris Chinatown. However, the influence of the Little Asia of the 13th district is essentially Indochinese, even though the refugees who arrived in Paris in the late 1970s from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were ethnic-Chinese for a large part. In the 3rd district, the community is clearly Chinese, essentially from Wenzhou, a southern province of Shanghai. They came to France during World War,to replace the men who left the yards and factories for the front. The French Ministry of Labour sent a commission to China in order to recruit voluntary civil workers. When the war ended, some workers went back to China, others stayed in France. They worked on the reconstruction of railways and roads. Or as related in the novel "The Great Swindle" by Pierre Lemaitre, they were hired to clean the battlefields or in the military cemeteries to bury the bodies of soldiers. About one thousand Chinese were in France in 1929.They settled in the northern part of Le Marais only at the end of World War II, and took over flats and Leather Goods activities left by the large numberof deported Jews. Even though the Chinese wholesalers moved massively to Aubervilliers (a north-eastern suburb of Paris) these last years, there are still many Chinese shops and restaurants in the district around rue du Temple, rue au Maire, rue Volta and rue des Gravilliers.
During the Chinese New Year, many red lanterns are hanging everywhere in the streets, contrasting with the classical buildings of the 17thand 18thcenturies.
I suggest you take metro line 11 and stop at Arts et Métiers. The station was designed in 1994 by François Schuiten, a Belgian comic artist, known for the graphic novel Cities of the Fantastic.
We will pass by the Musée des Arts et Métiers, the churches of Saint-Martin des Champs and Saint-Nicolas des Champs, we will walk through the streets of the Chinese Quarter, then through the charming Passage de l'Ancre and we will finish by the Marché des Enfants-Rouges before we return to our starting point.
Arts et Métiers metro station
Stepping out of the train, you immediately embark on Jules Verne's Nautilus. With its copper walls, the subway transforms into a submarine operated by the huge cogs on the ceiling. Along the platform, the portholes open onto some of the collections presented above in the Musée des Arts et Métiers(Museum of Arts and Crafts). It is a shame that it is not sufficiently known, as it presents a vast array of machines invented through the centuries.
Jules Vernes in his own way was quite an inventor himself. As a matter of fact, in his novel, Paris in the twentieth century (Paris au XXème siècle), he imagined Paris in 1960, a hundred years ahead of his time when he wrote it. In a stunning and quite visionary way, he painted a highly technological world at the service of money where culture became marginal, if not an exception. He described a machine that could give immediate result of complex depreciation and interest calculations with all possible rates simply by pressing keys on a keyboard. So close to a computer! Yet so far from machines already known at his time, like the ones invented by Pascal, Perrault and Thomas de Colmar, that all can be seen in the interesting Musée des Arts et Métiers.
Musée Arts et Métiers
Going out of the metro station, let’s go southwest towards rue Réaumur and turn right onto rue Réaumur where the museum is located.
In the courtyard of the museum, the first bronze model of the Statue of Liberty is welcoming the visitors. Being the achievement of the combined talents of the sculptor Bartholdi and the engineer Eiffel, it is indeed a fine symbol for this museum of Arts and Technology. The old church of Saint-Martin des Champs, built in the middle of the 11th century, is the remains of a priory suppressed during the French Revolution in 1789 and transformed into the Conservatory of Arts and Crafts in 1794. Part of the museum, the medieval church displays the Foucault's pendulum along with Ader's and Blériot's airplanes, creating an amazing contrast.
Let’s carry on straight ahead and turn left onto rue Saint-Martin to see an other church, Saint-Nicolas des Champs.
Church of Saint-Nicolas des Champs
During the Middle Ages, many churches were under the patronage of Nicolas, protector of sailors and boatmen. At the beginning of the 12th century, Saint-Nicolas des Champs was a chapel, belonging to the Abbey of Saint-Martin located in the fields, outside the walls of Paris. In 1420 the building was completely rebuilt. At the end of the 16th century, the church was too small for the growing population and it was considerably enlarged with new constructions. The church that we see today is one of the longest in Paris and we are actually more impressed by its size itself than by its very simple architecture.
This simplicity may come from the fact that the church was hidden by high surrounding houses and basically only the gate on the southern side rue Cunin Gridaine was exposed.
The small elegant gate on the southern side is a copy of a gate of the Royal Hotel des Tournelles, demolished after King Henri II died there in 1559 from the wounds he received in a joust.
Gate - Church of Saint-Nicolas des Champs Atget (INHA)
I entered once into the church, during the daily mass around noon. I remember how I was immediately stunned by the religious fervor of the people gathered for the mass. The priest was singing and his clear voice was rising along the high arches of the church. I remember also that it was Valentine's day for the lovers outside. Inside, the priest was celebrating the brothers Cyril and Methodious, Apostles to the Slavs. What a contrast !
Comparing today with the photo taken by Atget ca 1898, there are very few changes; only a new clock, now barely visible and the walls of the mass grave now removed and replaced by a fence.
Saint-Nicolas des Champs Atget – 1898 / 1900 (BnF)
After strolling along rue Cunin Gridaine, where I saw very impressive ravens, let's cross rue de Turbigo and go onto rue au Maire.
Rue au Maire
We are now entering into the Chinese district, centered around the streets au Maire, des Gravilliers, Chapon and Volta. The change of scenery in this part of le Marais is guaranteed! The classical buildings tell us that we are still in the northern part of le Marais, yet they are all lined up with Chinese shops. Most of them are wholesalers of leather bags, imitation jewelry, and clothes together with food stores and restaurants. I was surprised to see that the quaint clothes store photographed by Atget was neither replaced by a Chinese clothes wholesaler nor by a Chinese mini-market, but just an ordinary cheap supermarket. Only the headless mannequins and the "nombreuses attractions"(numerous attractions) are all gone, leaving a blank wall, all grey and dirty.
Boutique, 61 rue au Maire Atget
We are now walking past rue Volta where the half-timbered house looks so medieval that it was long thought to be the oldest in Paris. In fact, the oldest house in Paris is the house of Nicolas Flamel, built in 1407 located nearby rue de Montmorency. (Medieval Paris)
Maison Nicolas Flamel
Rue des Vertus / Cour de Rome
If possible, enter into Cour de Rome (private lane) at no 7 of rue au Maire to arrive directly rue des Gravilliers. Otherwise, turn right onto rue des Vertus and right onto rue des Gravilliers.
Cour de Rome – Rue des Vertus Atget - 1901 (BnF)
Rue des Vertus actually means Street of Virtues. Without a confirmed origin of the street name, there can be no certainty that it was related to prostitution. In any case, in a book about Paris, I have found these lines potentially confirming that yes indeed prostitution took place in all the area:
Dans la rue des Gravilliers Elles y sont par milliers, Dans la rue Pastourelle Autant de putains que de maquerelles ; Dans la rue des Vertus Autant de coupeaux que de cocus
That I would translate as follows ...
In the street of Gravilliers Thousands of hookers here to play, In the street of Pastourelle As many whores as brothels In the street of Vertus Plenty of cuckolded spouses
Rue des Gravilliers
Let's take the shortcut on n°19, rue des Gravilliers leading to rue Chapon. Created in 2015 by the artist unSolub, a giant wall fresco ranging from white to deep black covers all the walls and the ceiling. It is as if entering into an incredible scenery of a comic strip. Flying machines inspired by Gustav Mesmer's universe swoop down on impossible staircases, among vegetation and huge cogs; a door opens if you cut round the dotted lines. Towards the end of the path way, close to rue Chapon, art galleries (initators of the fresco) have replaced the old mechanical workshops.
Nous tournons à droite dans la rue Chapon.
At nr 13, as can be seen on Atget’s photograph the old 17th century mansion was occupied by several craftsmen like an engraver, a photographer and a jeweler. Today the large commercial signs are gone and we can see a smiling faun above the the porch.
With its ornate balcony, its wrought iron banisters and its arched side wings, the courtyard is very elegant too.
Front door 13, rue Chapon Atget – 1902 (BnF)
At nr 22, a pair of sphinxes are guarding the entrance of the mansion. Their Egyptian aspect is in contrast with the red Chinese lantern; though it should not be taken as a proof of the theory claiming that the Chinese civilization would come from Ancient Egypt! …
We turn right onto rue Beaubourg and left onto rue des Gravilliers.
I remember having met once with Marius, an on-site knife sharpener. He was driving his black London taxi in all Paris to offer on-site sharpening services. Marius is now living in the country and he traded his beautiful cab for a horse-drawn wagon).
Knife sharpener Atget – 1899 (BnF)
Rue des Gravilliers
The mansion, Hôtel d'Estrées, at nr 70, rue des Gravilliers has also quite an elegant courtyard.
It is just located in front of an other d'Estrées mansion built by the grandfather of Gabrielle d'Estrées – (she was mistress of King Henry IV of France). At the back of the pretty courtyard, you will find the entrance of Derrière (back ...), a trendy and good restaurant with a funny cosy decor as per their sense of humour.
We turn now on our left onto rue de Turbigo up to nr 30 where we enter into the charming passage de l’Ancre.
Mansion 70, rue des Gravilliers Atget (BnF)
Passage de l'Ancre
The passage de l'Ancre is aligned with the passage de Bourg l'Abbé (last one of Covered Passages), across boulevard de Sébastopol. But this one is an open-air passage and older since created in 1792. Although it has very few stores, it is quite nice. Until January 2021, there was Pep's, the last umbrella manufacturer and repairer in Paris. There is still a shop that I like very much, La Mécanique du Pull, manufacturer of eco responsible sweaters. A beautiful work that lasts. The creator is a passionate person. He comes from a family tradition in knitting for three generations. His grandfather had his weaving machines in the heart of Paris, passage Vendôme.
Passage de l’Ancre 223, rue Saint-Martin Atget – 1908 (Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris)
Going out of the Passage, we arrive rue Saint-Martin that we cross to go onto rue Chapon. Then we turn right onto rue Beaubourg. There are plenty of Chinese restaurants for a lunch break; such as Royal China, excellent value for money, serving home-made rice noodles and rolls.
In the past, there was a Carmelite convent between rue Chapon, rue de Montmorency and rue Beaubourg. It was closed during the French Revolution and demolished in 1796 to be replaced by several buildings and a theatre Theatre Doyen. They were photographed by Atget before their demolition in 1914 to be replaced into a school and office building.
The today rue Beaubourg is the result of merged streets. One of them, the rue Transnonain was between rue au Maire and rue Michel le Comte.
Rue Beaubourg – Former Theatre Doyen and house where the massacre occurred rue Transnonain on April 14th, 1834 62 , rue Beaubourg (since 1851)
Atget - 1901 - (BnF)
No sign today reminds a violent repression against a popular uprising on April 14th, 1834. The day before, several riots ensued in reaction of several measures decided by Louis-Philippe's government restraining freedom of expression and banning political associations. During the night of 13th to 14th, several barricades built around rue Transnonain were rapidly suppressed by soldiers. As the fight seemed over, a shot was fired from a house at the corner of rue de Montmorency. It was immediately followed by a brutal slaughter under the lead of General Bugeaud who subsequently got the surname of the Butcher of rue Transnonain; an image rather far from the famous nursery song having to do with Bugeaud's cap, that led children to believe in a friendly General... The soldiers entered the building shooting all the inhabitants, men, women and children. Of the lithograph made by Daumier memorializing the horrible event , Baudelaire wrote: Under this cold mansard, only silence and death reign.
Rue de Montmorency
Let’s turn left onto rue de Montmorency.
This street gets its name from the oldest noble family in France who lived in the neighborhood from the 13th century until 1632, when Henri II de Montmorency was beheaded in Toulouse. For having participated in a rebellion against the King Louis XIII, Montmorency's death was decided by Richelieu, chief Minister of the king. All the ownings of de Montmorency were confiscated by Richelieu, including the two statues made by Michelangelo offered by King Henri II to the Constable Anne de Montmorency. These two statues, the Dying Slave and the Rebel Slave are today in Louvre Museum. They were owned by Richelieu family until the French Revolution. Found in the Hotel de Massa, they were saved by Alexandre Lenoir. (Hotel de Massa in Montparnasse stroll).
Twenty years later, in 1651 the hotel de Montmorency got a new owner, Nicolas de Fouquet, famous for his ambition which lost him. In 1653, Nicolas de Fouquet became Superintendent of Finances and became very wealthy. For his magnificent chateau in Vaux-le-Vicomte, he hired a great architect: Louis Le Vau, a great interior designer: Charles Le Brun, and a great garderner: André Le Nôtre, who all worked later on Versailles. He invited king Louis XIV to a spectacular party in his honor in Vaux-le-Vicomte. The king was so deeply affected he suspected Fouquet of misusing public funds. Fouquet was arrested and thrown into the prison fortress of Pignerol where he died 20 years later.
Strange and rather funny to know that the mansion owned by Fouquet, rue de Montmorency is now occupied by services of the Ministry of Finance!
Hôtel de Montmorency 5, rue de Montmorency Atget - 1900 (BnF)
Further in the street, we can see a beautiful old shop front.
Now let’s turn right onto rue du Temple, then left onto rue des Haudriettes to continue up to rue des Quatre-Fils.
Rue des Quatre-Fils
From Nr 24 of rue des Quatre-Fils, we can see the back of the Hôtel Guénégaud des Brosses, today Hunt Museum (Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature– entrance 62, ruedesArchives). Built by François Mansart also known as the architect of the château de Maisons-Lafitte, the mansion was later used from mid 19th century by small commercial and industrial companies, as shown on Atget's photo. The mansion was acquired by the City of Paris in 1961, restored and transformed into a museum with a rich collection.
Mansion 24, rue des Quatre-Fils Atget (Musée Carnavalet)
At the Nr 20 the Hôtel Le Féron, or also known as Hôtel de Brabançois was inhabited between 1800 and 1828 by Raymond Romain de Sèze, one of the three defence lawyers of Louis XVI when the king was tried in December, 1792. He shared this quite overwhelming and risky task with Malesherbes andT ronchet. One may wonder what was missing in the final argument to save the king. One may also wonder if a secret ballot would have been held, how different would have been the results of the death penalty. After the execution of Louis XVI, de Sèze was arrested into the prison of La Force and finally transferred to another place where he managed to lay low. Under Louis XVIII (brother of Louis XVI) who succeeded to Napoleon, he was made as a peer and a member of the French Academy. When he died in 1828, the famous writer Chateaubriand read his funeral oration. Malesherbes was less fortunate as he and his family were guillotined in April, 1794, whilst Tronchet managed to hide and lay low until the end of the French Revolution.
During the construction of the district around la Madeleine, three new streets in 1824 got the name of the three defense lawyers. The smallest one got the name of de Sèze, but still an honor as it was done when he was still in life!
Hôtel de Brabançois – 1747 Unhabited by de Sèze, defense lawyer of King Louis XVI 20, rue des Quatre-Fils Atget - 1901
nside, an elegant staircase can be seen …
Staircase, Hôtel de Brabençois 20, rue des Quatre-Fils Atget (International Center of Photography)
At 16-18, the mansions were partially reduced with the transformation of the street. However, at the Nr18 we still can see the old hotel de le Rebours behind the modern wall. The mansion at Nr16 was partially destroyed in the 1930s, however its impressive porch was kept.
Hôtel de le Rebours – 18, rue des Quatre-Fils Atget - 1901 (BnF)
Hôtel de Crisenoy 16, rue des Quatre-Fils Atget (BnF)
Let’s turn onto rue Charlot.
Like every where in le Marais, the eyes are caught by shops and galleries. Since then, we can be distracted and may forget to notice the mansions, especially since some of them are not easily visible from the street, like the one at Nr7, rue Charlot. Built in 1616, there are still remaining parts from that time.
Hôtel Claude Cornuel 7, rue Charlot Atget
A little bit further at the nr 8-10, in front of the Armenian Cathedral Sainte-Croix Saint-Jean, the old hotel de Turmeny was built in 1611. One of his inhabitants was Maurice Debelleyme, a magistrate quite dedicated to the public order. As prefect in 1828 he led a series of reforms. One of them was to increase the number of Paris policemen, wearing a blue uniform and a bicorne hat. Paris has been grateful for these measures since a street no far away bears his name.
Hôtel de Turmeny 8, rue Charlot Atget - 1901 (BnF)
Marché des Enfants-Rouges
at nr35, rueCharlot, let's enter into the Market des Enfants-Rouges (Children in red. It is the oldest covered market in Paris. After near destruction and replaced by a parking, it was fortunately saved and renovated in 2000. It is always a pleasure to stop there either to buy products or to have a nice lunch with Italian or Oriental meals. This quaint market was created in 1615; It got its name from an hospital founded by the King Francis I and his sister Marguerite de Navarre for orphans dressed in red.
Marché des Enfants-Rouges Atget – 1898 (Musée Carnavalet)
Rue de Bretagne
Let's exit from the market onto rue de Bretagne. I love this street where it is so nice to wander with all the tantalizing shops: an interesting bookstore, plenty of (good) food stores, bistros, delicious pastries in a coffee shop with a tiny cute yard atNr57, … yummy!
We are here in the Temple neighborhood, so dear to my heart. I remember when my great grandfather, a watchmaker, was taking me with him on Thursday morning (there was no school on Thursdays when I was a child). He was regularly purchasing watch components in this district traditionally specialized in watchware and silvery. We were going to a long and narrow shop, at Vénot, where the sales girls were in white coats. I remember them when they were opening tiny drawers, extracting tiny watch components with tweezers and slipping them in tiny glassine bags. After that, we were going to the Temple public garden that we can see now on our right. On a bench we were eating a pastry or an ice-cream depending on the season and we were coming back home by taxi.
Today, there are very few shops selling watch and clock components; and the jewelry wholesalers are primarily Chinese.
Let’s walk up to rue Réaumur where we will stop at the metro station Arts et Métiers.