It’s hard to believe that the Marais (which means marsh) started life as a soggy bog. In 1139 the Knights Templar built a fortified free town – a haven for tax dodgers – on the drained land here, but nothing of that remains nowadays. Instead, elegance and wealth loom large.
When, in the 14th century, trendsetter Charles VII moved his court into the Hôtel des Tournelles, which sat on what is now Place des Vosges, a host of titled disciples and their magnificent mansions followed. Henri IV is responsible for the gloriously symmetrical Place des Vosges, the city’s first planned square.
Just off Place des Vosges is the perfectly restored 17th-century Hôtel de Sully, home to France’s photographic archives and a dainty French garden. The ardent 17th-century letter-writer Madame de Sévigné lived in the nearby Hôtel Carnavalet, so it’s fitting that this Renaissance gem has been reborn as a museum devoted to the history of Paris.
The Hôtel de Soubise, with its superlative Rococo interiors and paintings by Boucher and Van Loo, houses the national archives, including letters from Joan of Arc, while Hôtel Guénégaud, a superb mansion built by French architect François Mansart in around 1650, displays stuffed animals and weapons in its Museum of Hunting and Nature.
In contrast to the other Marais mansions, the Hôtel de Retz bears no signs of its patrician-era interiors, which have been replaced by a series of art exhibition spaces designed to echo the building’s 19th-century spell as a furniture workshop and sculptor’s studio.
Hôtel Carnavalet 23 Rue de Sévigné;
Hôtel Guénégaud 60 Rue des Archives;
Hôtel de Retz 9 Rue Charlot;
Hôtel de Soubise 60 Rue des Francs-Bourgeois;
Hôtel de Sully 62 Rue St-Antoine;