In the mad rush to its more fashionable neighbours, Paris’s Arts et Métiers-Temple district is, regrettably, too often overlooked, says Jennifer Ladonne
Every time I passed through this quiet corner of the Marais, it was always on my way to somewhere else. But its near desertion – compared with its teeming neighbours – and shadowy air of mystery always intrigued me. It was something about the quiet, vaguely claustrophobic streets, where high stone walls hid all but the elegant windows and turrets of ancient mansions glimpsed through the interstices of a locked gate or a briefly opened door; dingy, antique town houses listing with age bellied up to narrow, cobbled passageways. And time seemed to stand still.
One of my first discoveries, before it became a pilgrimage point for avid Harry Potter fans, was the actual home of the alleged alchemist Nicolas Flamel (51 rue Montmorency). Dated 1407, the curious stone house with its mullioned windows and mysterious medieval inscriptions seemed right off a movie set. It is credited by some to be the oldest house in Paris – though that distinction is also claimed by an equally atmospheric half-timbered building a few minutes away at 3 rue Volta.
THE STATUE OF LIBERTY
Barrelling down the rue de Turbigo from the République métro station on my way to Les Halles or Beaubourg, I would marvel at the massive 12th-century structure – part church, part abbey – that houses the Musée des Arts et Métiers (Museum of Arts and Trades) presided over by a miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty. But it wasn’t until my first visit to the peculiarly named Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, which artist friends swore was the coolest in Paris, that I began to view the neighbourhood as something more than a tiny Bermuda Triangle wedged between the chic neighbourhoods of République and the Canal Saint-Martin, Beaubourg, the central Marais, and newly fashionable Sentier-Grands Boulevards. I decided to have a closer look.
As well as harbouring two of Paris’s most wonderful and inexplicably overlooked museums, I found that this quiet enclave is also home to the capital’s oldest Chinatown, principally on the rue au Maire – thus solving the mystery of the graceful garlands of crimson silk lanterns I’d noticed strung across rues Chapon, Montmorency and Gravilliers every early spring around Chinese New Year.
THE SQUARE DU TEMPLE
And there was absolutely nothing in this greenery-starved corner of Paris to rival the lovely Square du Temple park, named for the Knights Templar’s sinister- looking castle-keep that had stood here until the 19th century, before the square was established. The castle had been used as a prison during the Revolution; it was here that Louis XVI was held after his arrest, and where he spent his last few months, stripped of all titles, before being taken to his execution at the place de la Révolution.
Now, mallards drift along on a charming pond lined by plants and trees, which look glorious in their springtime blossom; neighbourhood kids run in the grass and Parisians vie for a bench in the sun.
In the 11th century monks had drained this land, which at that time was still outside the city gates, to enlarge a property that already contained the remains of a Merovingian chapel and an abbey. The Saint-Martin-des-Champs priory was repurposed at the time of the Revolution as a repository for several small collections of inventions and early machinery, and now houses the Musée des Arts et Métiers.
The museum’s vast halls house some 80,000 objects and stand as a monument to the “evolution of scientific knowledge and technical progress”. Split into seven sections that include scientific instruments, energy, transport, and construction, you can follow the advent of the television, radio, telephone, phonograph and personal computer from the earliest models, see how the giant “mole” drill bores métro tunnels through Paris’s bedrock, and see, with the help of tiny scale models, how the Statue of Liberty was constructed. There is also a captivating collection of automatons; and antique transport buffs will delight in seeing Paris’s first ever bus. You can even see a copy of Foucault’s pendulum, which conclusively demonstrated that the Earth did indeed rotate on an axis at the Panthéon in 1851. The original was here, but when its cable broke in 2010 it was damaged beyond repair.
LE MUSÉE DE LA CHASSE
Another world altogether, the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (the Museum of Hunting and Nature) may have a long-winded title but is one of the city’s more elegant, imaginative and delightfully eccentric museums. Its parent foundation is also a champion of environmental conservation and biodiversity.
I avoided going for years. How could a museum whose collection consists of hunt-themed artworks, tapestries, weaponry, antique furniture, taxidermied animals and assorted objets d’art be interesting? The answer came to me during what turned out to be one of my most enjoyable ever afternoons in Paris.
The museum’s setting in an impeccably restored 17th-century mansion creates the atmosphere of a private home owned by slightly batty, nature-loving aristocrats who see the inherent elegance in everything from a stuffed elk (recently swathed in red silks by the contemporary artist Sophie Calle) to a gorgeously inlaid 16th-century firearm or an African spear.
Keen eyes will notice a number of artworks by an impressive list of contemporary artists ingeniously interspersed throughout the antique collections, all following the themes of art and nature. Opulently furnished salons give way to artist installations and tiny cabinets of curiosities, where drawers can be opened and buttons pushed to reveal, for example, instructions on how to load a musket. Alternatively, if you prefer, you can choose to watch a moody black-and-white video of a unicorn in the rain.
Besides its permanent collection, the museum hosts quarterly exhibitions of contemporary artists whose work “enriches our perception on the human-animal relationship” and which have included wondrous exhibits of the work of Walton Ford, Sophie Calle and, until July, an exhibition of works by Parisian artist Gérard Garouste on the theme of Diana and Actaeon, the myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Though it took me years to uncover the mysteries of an area smaller than the Tuileries Garden, the neighbourhood is easily explored in a day or afternoon. And with its two chic boutique hotels, this quiet corner of Paris is also a wonderful place to stay.
WHERE TO SHOP
A block from place de la République, rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth is lined with art galleries, fashion boutiques, pop-up stores and even an épicerie specialising in artisanal products from Greece – Kilikio, at no. 34. Of particular note is Happyflash (no. 12), which mixes the work of young artists, fashion designers, and whatever hyper-creative flotsam happens to take owner Nathalie Maucolin’s fancy in any given month.
Front de Mode (42 rue Volta) is one of the city’s more fabulous small concept stores, and is adored by hipsters from far and wide for its handpicked selection of “sustainable” fashion and accessories from a range of some 60 young French and international designers.
Slightly further afield, the soaring concept store Empreintes (5 rue de Picardie) assembles the wares of French artisans and artists on four floors, including furniture, tableware in glass, ceramic and porcelain, jewellery, fashion and accessories, lighting, sculpture and limited-edition artworks – and it has a sweet little café.
WHERE TO EAT
The popular neighbourhood neo-bistro Elmer (30 rue Notre-Dame- de-Nazareth) gets high marks for both its market-fresh dishes and its stellar selection of natural wines. Cave Elmer (19 rue Notre-Dame-de- Nazareth), its more casual sister across the street, includes a gourmet grocery and is good for a quick glass of wine and a petit plat of charcuterie, sardines or smoked tuna.
The minuscule Love Juice Bar (26 rue Chapon), offers a menu of vegan “beauty drinks”, that includes nut-milk and banana-based shakes made with berries, dates and a mix of superfoods like chia seeds, goji berries and mushroom powder. This being Paris, you can also get espresso drinks.
An address not to miss, Pastelli Mary Gelateria (60 rue du Temple) offers some of the city’s finest all-natural artisanal gelato and sorbets, handmade with love on the premises. Passionate about her work, Mary Quarta will be delighted to introduce you to her flavours (there will be about 12 at any given time), which include an absolutely sinful chocolate, orange-blossom, pistachio, sheep’s milk yoghurt, almond, mandarin, passion fruit, and her award-winning espresso gelato. But you might just as well find tomato, avocado, hazelnut, or kiwi.
In Mary’s words,“Whatever I can imagine, I can make.”
WHERE TO STAY (AND DRINK)
The Hôtel National des Arts et Métiers (243 rue Saint-Martin) is one of the city’s more gorgeous newcomers. Set on its own handsome square, across from a historic church and adjacent to the Musée des Arts et Métiers, it’s at the crossroads of all the neighbourhoods you’ll want to visit, but it’s also wonderfully self-contained if you feel like staying in. Aesthetically, the sumptuous décor, which designer Raphael Navot says is “dedicated to the timeless”, capitalises on luxe raw materials: jewel-toned velvets, linen, copper, marble and wood. It has a hip café, a fine Italian bistro, and the dusky Herbarium bar, where the drinks are made from hand-mixed or distilled botanicals with the meticulous care of a perfumer, and which is already a go-to destination for cocktail aficionados. Some rooms on the higher floors benefit from terraces and fabulous views of the neighbourhood. The hotel also offers a spa and gym and a splendid rooftop bar.
When the discreet Hôtel Jules et Jim opened in 2011 it was the coolest kid on the block and a trailblazer in the neighbourhood. Set back off the quiet rue des Gravilliers, it’s still a clandestine address known to a fashionable but low-key crowd for its dedication to comfort, service and chic. What it lacks in space it makes up for in the rooms’ smart layouts and pleasantly streamlined décor. Guests love the courtyard replace crackling away in all seasons; and the oh-so-hip cocktail bar, decked out in French cinema photos, is another favourite among the cocktail cognoscenti.
From France Today magazine