National Geographic : 2003 Aug
from the Marais and toward the west side of Paris, nearer the focal point of power. The Marais became, said Louis-Sebastien Mercier, an 18th century writer, "the refuge of families in decline." As the wealthy moved out, industry moved in. The area became a place of small manufac turers, workshops, and craftsmen, who set up shop in the courtyards of dilapidated mansions. By 1950 the Marais had more substandard housing than any other part of Paris. The whiff of urban decay floated through the quarter. A third of the buildings lacked running water. Two-thirds of the units lacked private toilets. "In the 1960s a friend asked a taxi at Orly Airport to take her to the Place des Vosges. The driver said: 'Where is that?'" recalled historian Alexandre Gady, author of a guidebook about the Marais. If near oblivion wasn't bad enough, the Marais became a junkyard. "Developers broke into houses and grabbed architectural ele ments-woodwork, wrought iron-whatever they could cart away." In 1965 the French government tucked the Marais under its wing and protected it under a law that proclaimed it a historic neighborhood. In the classic scenario, developers moved in, rents soared, craftsmen and longtime residents were forced out. Renovation revived the area and launched the Era of Exposed Beams. The Ma rais became smart and perhaps a little too slick. A neighborhood bakery became a glitzy The Marais, says a film director, is de guingois, slightly askew. Many who live there are too. shoe store. The butcher is now a fashion shop. The old Jewish bathhouse, or hammam, nearly became a McDonald's-the developers even pledged to sell kosher hamburgers-until pro testers quashed the move. Stores patronized by women wearing fashionably frayed jeans, impossibly high heels, and bored looks sell lava lamps, African baskets, and batik skirts. "You walk along the street; you see shirt, shirt, dress, dress," says Therese Bernardac, who owns the antiques shop Les Deux Orphelines in the Place des Vosges with her son, Edouard. Do you feel like a dinosaur? I ask. "Yes," she sighs, looking around the shop 42 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * AUGUST 2003 crowded with old porcelain and furniture. "It turns out we are the antiques." "Sundays are the worst," she adds. "You have to cleave your way through tourists." "Without tourists and their credit cards, busi ness in your store might languish," I counter. She lifts an eyebrow. "You can't have every thing" she says with a faint smile. "But you can have regrets." magine a dusting of magic has fallen our way. A genie (with a Gauloise cigarette dan gling from his lips) grants us a wish. We wish for an apartment in the Marais. Fetch a copy of Le Figaro.Leaf through the classifieds and find our dream come true: the perfect pied-a -terre. A few caveats. An ad with the words rue ani mee (lively street) means the street is so noisy you can't hear yourself think. Atypique signals that the apartment is over-the-edge strange; perhaps the rooms are triangular in shape. Coquet (cute) is code for an apartment so small you can't swing a cat in it. And nous consulter (price on request) hints that unless you have the resources of a sultanate, you can't afford it. Now, throw caution to the winds. Suppose you have experienced a coup defoudre-love at first sight-and you are irrevocably and des perately infatuated with the idea of buying an apartment, not just in the Marais, but in the Place des Vosges. It so happens that Emmanuel de Poulpiquet, director of the Marais office of Daniel Feau, a high-end real estate agency in Paris, has a list ing for an apartment in the Place des Vosges. We will get to the price tag later, but for now, let's find out something about Paris real estate from an insider's perspective. De Poulpiquet sits behind his desk on the Rue de Turenne (not such a good street, he tells me) in a crisp white shirt, striped silk tie, and gray wool suit with a discreet plaid check; the glint of gold flashes from a ring inscribed with a crest. "The Marais is difficult," he informs me. "Nar row streets. No room to park the Mercedes. For Elegantly eccentric, Fabien Douillard, an antique-textile restorer, has decided he prefers the 18th century-and now dresses accordingly. "For the moment," he says, "it enriches my life."