At the Bastille end of the Marais on the right bank is a small square of Parisian Paradise. Place des Vosges is the city’s oldest square. It’s tiny compared to the Jardin du Luxembourg on the left bank or Jardin des Tuileries alongside the Louvre. It’s a garden bed in comparison to one of those great beauties but Place des Vosges has proportions that please.
It started in 1604 as a royal pavilion built by Henri IV. The king loved the design of his regal townhouse so much that he comissioned another thirty-five to surround the square. Some say this was seventeenth century urban planning, whatever, the result is a triumph. Not surprisingly, it was called “Place Royale” and it became the prototype for all subsequent residential squares throughout the cities of Europe. In 1800 Emperor Napoleon changed the name, because he could, and to acknowledge the department of Vosges – they actually paid their taxes, the first to do so.
When you visit, i’ts a good idea to stroll around the ground level of the stone arcades now populated by restaurants, galleries and designer boutiques. Very often, musicians play the classics in a most extraordinary busking performance. Settle on a bench under a row of square Linden trees that knew Victor Hugo. Between 1832 and 1848 when the great author was writing “Les Misérables” (the book not the musical) he lived on the second floor of townhouse number six in Place des Vosges – then known as the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée, now known as Maison de Victor Hugo. On a still evening, with a window thrown open, he may have even heard the bells of Notre Dame, home of his hunchback hero.
You may even create a vision of your own, where dappled grey horses with heads held high stop obediently in the street beside an arch of the arcade… in my dream the red brick and white stone is mirrored on the sides of the gleaming black enamel carriage. A woman in rustling cornflower blue silk taffeta and blonde hair piled high, is helped down by a man wearing breeches and buckled shoes. In the square, two men are back to back, about to pace out the agreed distance for their duel.
It’s so easy to be transported back to the past in Paris. It’s all around. The locals come here for the same reasons people go to parks anywhere in the world, for space, tranquillity and to snatch a moment of time away from their city life.
A writer and producer in Australia, Gai Reid says ”The next best thing to being in France, is writing about it to share my joy with others who feel the same connection.”