Les Halles, Paris' belly since the Middle Ages, was destroyed after its move to Rungis in 1969. In their place, a huge hole finally gave birth to a shopping centre, pompously named Forum, which was never anything but an oppressive, dirty and labyrinthine underground space. The underbelly was then reduced to a series of bowels, frequented by hordes of travellers passing through this large railway junction where five metro lines and three RER lines intersect. Parisians could hardly have expected worse with the Canopée project, which they followed with little interest except for its cost. The result is not prodigious in beauty. However, its construction enabled a good reorganisation of the space and traffic flows. Of the twelve Baltard pavilions made of cast iron and glass, only one remains, reinstalled in Nogent sur Marne. It is regrettable that at least one of them has not been kept in the centre of Paris, thereby preserving the memory of the vital vocation of this district, which ensured the supply of Paris for over eight hundred years.
Therefore, one can wonder if this district is worth a stroll, apart some nice and interesting spots around cooking (namely Dehillerin, Detou, Simon, la Bovida, Mora and the Librairie Gourmande). Indeed, this colorful district has always had a bad reputation; in the past it was populated with many mobsters and prostitutes around the market, and before its reorganisation the forum contributed in maintaining its bad image.
However, the district has changed a lot in recent years with the attraction of the Montorgueil district, the redesign of the Forum and its gardens and finally to the exhibitions in the beautifully renovated former Bourse du Commerce. In addition, this very old district with a number of beautiful listed facades has one of the most beautiful churches in Paris at its centre.
We start from the rue de l'Arbre Sec, easily reached from the rue de Rivoli and via the Louvre Rivoli metro station, and make a wide loop round the Halles district.
Rue de l'Arbre Sec
Most of the photographs taken by Atget around Les Halles show many carts left in the streets by the «merchants of four seasons» or food peddlers.
The old private mansions, such as those at n° 48 or n° 52, confirm the interest that one can have in this district.
Hôtel Trudon 52, rue de l’Arbre Sec Atget (Musée d’Orsay)
Hôtel de Saint-Roman 48, rue de l’Arbre Sec Atget (BnF)
Incorporated into the building on a corner of the street with the rue Saint-Honoré, the Fontaine de la Croix du Trahoir no longer evokes the dark ages of this location. The circular mark on the ground is a reference to the gibbet which stood there from the Middle Ages. The convicted were taken to the Croix du Trahoir for their final prayers before execution. In 1634, the fountain was transferred to its current location, leaning against a wall and with a room above it from which the judges could observe the executed prisoners. In 1776, it was re-built by Soufflot, who was more inspired for the construction of the Pantheon. Little attention is given to this fountain, and even less to its nymph, very badly located, sculpted by Boizot, as a reference to the one sculpted by Jean Goujon for the initial fountain.
Fontaine de l’Arbre Sec – Rue de l’Arbre Sec Atget (Musée Carnavalet)
At 115 rue Saint-Honoré, have a look at this old pharmacy created before 1715. On its facade with fine mascarons, one can read inscriptions of that time. It is reported that Fersen used to come here to get invisible ink for his correspondence with Marie-Antoinette.
Let's now take rue Sauval. From there we can see the Bourse du Commerce recognisable by its circular shape and the Medici column.
Bourse du Commerce Medici Column
The column is all that is left of the palace Catherine de Medici built for herself. Legend holds that Cosmo Ruggieri, Queen's Florentine astrologist, predicted she would die near Saint-Germain. Therefore, the queen avoided the castle of Saint-Germain en Laye and the area around Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois and had a palace built here, which she lived in for fourteen years. At the time of her death in the castle of Blois, an abbot approached her. His name? The Abbot of Saint-Germain... The Column was inside the mansion, in a corner courtyard, the first floor of which was the Queen's appartment. The Column has a narrow spiral staircase, which her astrologist had to climb to observe and decipher the constellations. The palace, later the Hotel de Soissons, was demolished in 1748. However, the Column was considered of sufficient interest to be preserved and integrated into the new Corn Exchange, transformed in 1885 into the Bourse du Commerce. Superbly renovated and now part of the Pinault Collection, I recommend that you visit it to find out more about its history and also to discover contemporary artists.
Bourse du Commerce (Ancienne Halle aux Blés) Atget (Musée Carnavalet)
hurch of Saint-Eustache
Today, the best view toward this superb church is from the new gardens facing the south side, once dominated by the Baltard pavilions.
Wandering one night in Paris in this area in October 1852, the writer Gerard de Nerval let these lines: “’What a lovely night!’ I said as I saw the stars sparkling above the immense expanse of Les Halles: to the left, next to the poultry market, you have the dome of the corn market with its cabbalistic column…to the right, you have the butter market and further on, the meat market, still under construction. The picture is completed by the greyish silhouette of Saint-Eustache…beautifully illuminated by moonlight, which plays on its Gothic armature, its flying buttresses which protrude like the ribs of some prodigious whale…"
The image is so true, so moving: like the ribs of some prodigious whale …
Rue du Jour et l’église Saint-Eustache Atget (Musée Carnavalet)
Its main entrance rue du Jour, on the west side, looks like a small copy of Saint-Sulpice. From the gardens, you might have noticed the deer's head at the top of the south transept. Saint-Eustache was a Roman general converted to Christianity after a miracle during a hunt.
The church, built upon the foundations of a chapel consecrated to Saint Agnes, has also several references to the Saint, notably on le banc d'œuvre; This impressive ornate bench was reserved for officials and important parishioners.
Part of these important parishioners were the merchant guilds. Some of them donated the curious stained-glass window dedicated to Saint Antoine, patron saint of charcutiers (pork butchers), where a pig and even sausages can be seen...!
Stained glass window (with a cute pink pig!)
Unfairly ignored, the church also preserves the memory of many historical figures: Molière, born on rue Saint-Honoré at the corner of rueSauval, was baptised here. Louis XIV made his First Communion here and Colbert, buried here, rests under a magnificent mausoleum sculpted by Coysevox.
I also like the colourful and naive sculpture by Raymond Mason depicting with some bitter tenderness, the departure in 1969 of the last fruit and vegetable merchants. Another work, also full of tenderness, is the triptych by Keith Haring.
If you like organ concerts, there are free organ concerts on Sunday afternoons. I remember Jean Guillou, who was the titular organist for more than fifty years. He excelled in the interpretation of all works, both classical and modern, playing with a breathtaking and energetic virtuosity. In contrast, somehow with his size and age, he was making this big church all vibrating with absolutely Dantesque sounds.
I would like also to say a word about the church tradition of serving meals with the help and generosity of volunteers. Same generosity that could be the origin of the French word clochard (tramp). There are several hypotheses on the origin of the word, but this one I prefer: Each day, a bell (cloche in French) in the Halles was announcing the end of the market so that the poor could benefit of the unsold goods.
Le Départ des Fruits et des Légumes du Coeur de Paris le 28 février 1969 Raymond Mason (1971)
La vie du Christ Keith Haring (1990)
One day I was leaving the church by the south side, I saw two skateboarders racing down from the garden, finishing against the wall of the church with a laughing barbarian gesture. I got a similar exasperation a little bit later in front of the Fountain of the Innocents, all degraded by its use as playground, display of political slogans and dustbin.
Fortunately, the sculpture by Henri de Miller, a big soft head turned down on the ground, invites to calm and pause. Its name is Ecoute (Listen). Let's walk towards the gardens from where we have a unique view of Saint-Eustache. Let's sit down and ... listen the past rumour of the crowd coming every evening, with the products from the coast and the countryside.
Halles de Baltard
Les Halles – Marchande de volailles Atget (BnF)
I cannot speak about Les Halles, so lively described by Zola in his book the belly of Paris, since they were transferred to Rungis in 1969. The only memory, and rather vague is an onion soup taken with all the family after a late night. I just remember that I was rather sleepy. And certainly I could see no point in taking a broth with some disgusting smell, so late in the night or so early in the morning!
My first precise memory is when in the early 70s, I went with my mother to a restaurant in les Halles where the former market was replaced by a huge hole. Impressive was also the view of the church of Saint-Eustache, standing as if on the edge of a cliff, like resisting to an other wind of History.
Les Halles Atget- 1910/1911 (MoMA)
To get some idea of the market, I could recommend reading the Belly of Paris, giving a prodigious description of the food market at the end of the 19th century.
The French movie Deadlier than the Male (Voici le temps des Assassins) shot by Julien Devivier in 1956, gives also a hint of the nocturnal atmosphere of the market. Especially this scene of Danièle Delorme going out from Les Halles metro station and wandering through the bustling Pavilions.
Au Marché des Halles – Pavillon Baltard Boucherie de Madame Huvey Atget - 1898 (Musée Carnavalet)
Les Halles – Tripier Atget (BnF)
We now walk towards the east side of the church, where was standing in medieval times the pillory of the Halles. The pillory was used to punish the indebted or the dishonest traders. The former rue Pirouette, now sunk under the forum, was named so because the street was near the pillory. The pillory was a rotating device where the condemned man was exposed for two hours. Two hours were the time it took for the device to make a complete turn, and therefore to make a complete pirouette.
Eglise Saint-Eustache Atget – 1926 (Médiathèque de l’architectecture et du patrimoine)
Let's now take rue Montorgueil, which is an extension of the rue Poissonnière (meaning Fish monger), the street used by fish merchants during centuries, coming from the fishing ports in Normandy to Les Halles.
The street has still many food shops. In the past more modest, today quite a bit trendy under the effect of gentrification. There are also beautiful buildings such as the one above the former Passage de la Reine de Hongrie (Passage of the Queen of Hungary). It is said this name would evoke a shopkeeper at Les Halles Market who looked quite as Marie-Antoinette's mother … not a good thing in those times, since she was beheaded by the guillotine too …
Let's continue up to the nice Stohrer's pastry shop, the oldest one in Paris, opened in 1730. Famous for its Baba au rhum, created by Stohrer, pastry chef for King Louis XV.
Au Compas d’Or 51, rue Montorgueil Atget – 1907 (BnF)
Next to the pastry shop, the doorway of the building has a globe and a compass. The café across the street is also called the Compass, the name of the Inn photographed by Atget. I am just fascinated by this photo, which could have been taken somewhere in the country. Right in the heart of Paris, a large timber-framed shed of a 6th century inn, demolished in 1927.
Auberge du Compas d’Or 64, rue Montorgueil Atget – 1909 (BnF)
Let's turn onto rue Marie Suart, and enter inside the Grand-Cerf passage (last passage of the Covered Passages stroll). At the end of the passage, we turn on our right onto rue Saint-Denis.
The new playful Museum of Illusion, where brain is confused with optical illusions may seem more attractive than the near grey church of Saint Leu-Saint Gilles, meeting place of knights. Would you see in the street several knights wearing cloaks and white gloves, it will not be an illusion! These are the knights of the Holy sepulchre attending a mass in the crypt.
Rue St-Denis – Eglise St Leu St Gilles Atget – 1907/1908 (BnF)
A little further, at the corner of rue Saint-Denis and rue de la Grande Truanderie (which took its name for the many thieves in this street), there is one gabled house typical of old Paris, dating from the 16th century.
Maison à pignon – 111, rue Saint-Denis Atget (BnF)
Fountain of the Innocents
The beautiful 16th century fountain very much damaged is being restored and should be finished by the summer of 2024. It is to be hoped that skaters will give up this spot that they liked so much because of its long steps and a curb...
The Innocents cemetery once stood between rue des Innocents, rue Saint-Denis and rue Berger. At that time, there was a large mass grave where is today the fountain. The fountain was initially built against the church of the Innocents, formerly located at the corner of the rue aux Fers (today rue Berger) and the rue Saint-Denis. This fountain was designed in June 1549, for the solemn entry of King Henry II into Paris. It was not a fountain in itself, rather a loggia of honour designed by the architect Pierre Lescot. The loggia was made of three arcades, from which distinguished people could greet the royal procession. Two arcades were facing the rue Saint-Denis and the other one was facing the rue aux Fers. Designed for a royal event, it called for a renowned sculptor in his time: Jean Goujon. Later for hygienic reasons, the cemetery of the Innocents so close to the Halles had to be removed in 1780. This led to the transfer of millions of bones to the old quarries of the Tombe-Issoire, now the Catacombs. As a new market was built, it was decided to install the fountain in its centre. The fountain was removed and rebuilt stone by stone. A fourth side had to be created in the same style. the sculptor Pajou was very faithful to the original work of Jean Goujon. The fountain was relocated later, this time by only a few metres, when the Halles de Baltard were built. It was at this time that the base of the fountain was modified and that Davioud created the stepped basin.
Fontaine des Innocents Atget (INHA)
Rue de la Ferronnerie
Between 2 and 14 rue de la Ferronnerie the rear facade of this large group of houses dating from 1669 once dominated the Innocents Cemetery. Used since the Middle Ages, it was very important. In the early 14th century, it was enclosed by galleries with arcades where the bones removed from the mass graves were piled up. One of the charnel house walls was frescoed with the Danse Macabre, of which a partial version can be viewed in La Ferté Loupière in Yonne. The Fresco was made up of thirty paintings describing a scene between a living man and a dead. 'the dead being the mirror image of what the living will soon become" (le mort étant le double du vif, ce qu'il serait tout à l 'heure).
Surely what the inhabitants of the building above the Cemetery were thinking...
Rue de la Ferronnerie Atget – 1907 (Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris)
King Henri IV was killed rue de la Ferronnerie on May 14th 1610. The king was on his way from the Louvre to the Arsenal, where he was to meet his minister Sully. The street bordered by stalls along the wall of the cemetery, was very narrow and crowded. Stuck in traffic, Henri's coach had to stop, enabling Ravaillac to stab the king twice.
A plaque on the ground in front of n°4 of the street commemorates the assassination, in front of an inn. This one, like a sign of the fate, was bearing the name of « the Heart crowned with an arrow » (l'auberge du Cœur Couronné percé d'une flèche).
Let's continue on rue Saint-Denis up to rue Courtalon, a dank, dirty lane for Zola. We arrive Place Sainte-Opportune. In the corner, there was the Guild of Merchant Lingerie, an old corporation run by women since the Middle Ages. The house, photographed by Atget was demolished in 1902. The portal, however, was kept, moved to different places to be finally at n°22 rue Quincampoix. This is how a modern building can magically become the "Bureau des Marchandes Lingères 1716".
Ancienne maison des Lingères Angle rue Courtalon et place Sainte-Opportune Atget (Musée d’Orsay)
Rue des Halles
We cannot miss the Aurouze pest control shop at n° 8, rue des Halles, where there is a row of impressive big sewer rats displayed in its window since they were captured in 1925 in the Halles. All dried up, they are still hung by the traps. The shop, open since 1872, was even featured briefly in the film Ratatouille.
Pixar, what a good ad ! Though I do not think that the Aurouze is going to close with the millions of rats in Paris ... the ratio would be of almost two rats per Parisian!
Now let's take the rue des Lavandières Sainte-Opportune in front of the shop. We will turn right into the rue du Plat-d'Etain.
Rue du Plat d'Etain - Rue des Déchargeurs
We walk along simple old houses from the 16th century... before reaching rue des Déchargeurs. This name makes me think of the strong men (Forts des Halles) who unloaded the meat quarters and carried them on their shoulders to the pavilions. Recognisable by their blouse and their large leather hat, called the coltin (from which the verb se coltiner - deal with originates), they were part of a very old corporation, founded in the Middle Ages under Saint-Louis. Strong men who got their title and their medal as Forts after a successfull test of carrying two hundred kilos over a distance of sixty metres. The narrow streets and alleyways through the covered market made it necessary to carry goods on the back. The Forts disappeared with the transfer of the modern and mechanised Halles to Rungis.
Old Houses 1 et 3, rue du Plat d’Etain Atget – 1908 (BnF)
Fort des Halles Atget – 1898/1900 (BnF)
We turn left onto rue des Halles that we follow up to rue Saint-Honoré.
At the corner with the rue des Prouvaires, you cannot miss the elegant balcony of the old mansion. From the rue des Prouvaires, the eye is also caught by the beautiful view of Saint-Eustache.
A little further, at n°93, two old signs of a pharmacy and of a former grocery shop.
We are reaching the rue de l'Arbre Sec from where we started. Personally, I am not able to leave the district without going to my favorite cookware shop: Dehillerin rue Coquillère, where French-made utensils can be found at reasonable prices. I will also go to G. Detou rue Tiquetonne, my favorite grocery shop.
I cannot end without mentioning the many thrift shops that can be found in the Halles neighborhood, such as Mad Vintage, close to the Innocents fountain.
If not interested in cookware or vintage clothes, you also can certainly enjoy walking along the lively rue Saint-Honoré to the Palais-Royal!