Travel: In Paris, Place des Vosges and Victor Hugo

There are many rewarding strolls among Paris’s landmarks

October 21, 2018 16:04
HE BEAUTIFUL buildings in Place des Vosges, Paris



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If you like to feast yourself, from time to time, on the beauty and mystery of Paris, may I strongly suggest one of the most beautiful squares your eyes will ever behold. Need we say more than the Place des Vosges built by Henry IV and finished in 1612, the oldest square in the French capital.

What adds to its beauty, I immediately discerned on my first visit a while back, is that the square enjoys impressive symmetry – 36 houses, nine on each side. Noticeably, the 17th century buildings are composed of red brick and white stone, each one containing deep slate windows and dormer windows over arcades. Uniform houses with arcades flank the square.

There are only two exceptions to the regular geometry of the square: The King’s Pavilion (Pavillion du Roi) to the south, balanced by the Queen’s Pavilion (Pavillion de la Reine) to the north of the square. Both buildings stand one story higher than the rest of the square’s pavilions. No, they never housed the king or the queen. The King’s concierge used to live in the King’s Pavilion, which is built on top of a gateway,

This location stands as only one example of Renaissance Paris. The square’s first name was Place Royal, home to the aristocracy – changed to Place des Vosges in 1800. Here one does not trek; one takes small steps through Place des Vosges to absorb the beauty, including history. I remembered from my French history that a three-day tournament was held to celebrate the marriage of Louis XIII to Anne of Austria in 1615. Other literary and political figures lived here, included Cardinal Richelieu. Madame de Sevigne, the famous literary hostess, was born here in 1626. 

The square served as the site of jousting tournaments and other royal spectacles. Sadly, in the 17th century, duels were fought in the center of the square. What a sight that must have been. Today, fountains grace the central courtyard.

How fitting that Victor Hugo, the author of the novel Les Miserables should have resided at No. 6 Place des Vosges, where his house is now a museum of his life and work. Not only did I see the show on Broadway, but I just finished reading Hugo’s Les Miserables for the second time. Quel masterpiece!

Hugo resided in Maison de Victor Hugo, for 16 years. His apartment stood on the second floor of the former Hotel Rohan-Geumenee from 1832 to 1848. Here he wrote most of Les Miserables. Anyone reading this classic knows of his “political inclinations.” He often promoted  humanitarian principles in the pages of his literary works.

The museum shows different periods in the writer’s life, from childhood to his exile from Paris in his last days. On display are Hugo’s inkwell, the amateur artist drawings, and other items, such as a painting given to him by the Duke and Duchess of Orleans.

A marble bust of Victor Hugo by famous sculptor, Auguste Rodin, can be viewed, as well as reconstruction of some of the rooms in which he lived, pen-and-ink drawings, books and mementos. In the elegant salon, he entertained writers, artists and other luminaries, among them Alexander Dumas and British novelist, Charles Dickens. The latter described Hugo’s abode as a “most extraordinary place, looking like an old curiosity shop, or the Property Room of some gloomy vast old Theatre.”

The Chinese-themed drawing room is a must. Adorned with a colorful lantern hanging from the ceiling, an elaborately wrought mantelpiece and an array of furniture and delicate china – all a testament to the writer’s penchant for interior decorating. The room is a re-creation of the one Hugo designed for his longtime mistress, Juliette Drouet, in her house on the island of Guernsey, where she joined him in his exile. This Hauteville House on Guernsey is closed now for renovation and will reopen in April 2019. As correspondence is a major feature of the museum’s manuscript collection, the institution contains more than 18,000 handwritten letters.

NOT FAR from Place des Vosges is the Musee Picasso Paris, which boasts the largest collection of Picassos in the world, and the Musee Cognacq-Jay, an exquisite collection of 18th Century paintings and furniture.

Temple des Vosges, at 14 Places des Vosges, fronts directly onto the Place des Vosges and is located in the building, Hotel de Ribault. This house of worship is now known as Synagogue Charles Liche. In 2006, the synagogue was renamed after Cantor Chales Liche, a survivor of Auschwitz. Daily services are held here.

To really admire the Place des Vosges, one must saunter around its boundaries. After sitting on a bench in this beautiful square, do what Victor Hugo said, and did: “To err is human, to stroll is Parisian,” he wrote.

The square is located in the very heart of the picturesque Le Marais district, also known as the Pletzel, still somewhat a viable center of Jewish life in Paris, as well as a popular tourist haven for shoppers. A five-minute car ride takes one to rue des Rosiers in the Marais.

Speaking of the Marais, even though a recent wave of new, boutiques and townhouses have taken over the district, tourists should know that the Marais is not just a “gentrified” Jewish neighborhood of stores, but historically, the site of the 13th century ghetto of Paris, known as the juiverie.

The memories of the past here in the Marais, are evident in the buildings and monuments: The Shoah Memorial and Holocaust Center, rue Geoffroy l’Asnier; the historic synagogue, Agoudas Hakehilos, rue Pavee, which was designed by Hector Guimard, the famous art nouveau architect of the metro, and the Musee d’Art et d’Historoire du Judaism, in the Hotel de Saint-Aignan, 71 rue de Temple.

There is nothing like visiting Paris’s familiar landmarks. So, have a nice stroll in the Place des Vosges, which has remained intact since its construction, isolated like a peaceful sanctuary, away from the busy areas of the French capital.

The writer, a travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 4th edition, (Pelican Publishing); Klara’s Journey, A Novel, (Marion Street Press) and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press). Follow him at twitter:@bengfrank

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