Les Halles District

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Dating from the Middle Ages, les Halles, nicknamed the Belly of Paris were torn down after their relocation to Rungis (near the Paris-Orly airport) in 1969. Their demolition left an enormous hole in the ground, from which finally emerged a shopping centre and a transport hub, known as the Forum des Halles. Quite a pretentious name for an underground, claustrophobic, dirty and labyrinthine space. The belly was to be reduced into guts, crowded with passengers using the massive hub junction with five metro and three RER lines.

As Parisians could hardly expect worse with the Canopy redevelopment project, they followed its progress with little interest except for its cost. Though the result may not be considered artistically interesting, there is now certainly more space with traffic flows quite improved.

Of the twelve glass and cast iron market pavilions designed by Baltard, only one has remained in France, re-installed in the Paris suburb of Nogent sur Marne. One can regret that at least one pavilion was not kept in the centre of Paris, to remember its vocation of food supplier for more than eight hundred years.

Therefore, one can wonder if this district is worth a stroll, apart some nice and interesting spots around cooking (namely Dehillerin, Detou, Simon, la Bovida, Mora and the Librairie Gourmande). Indeed, this colorful district has always had a bad reputation, it was populated with many mobsters and prostitutes around the market, and the forum has maintained this bad image.

However, this image is rapidly changing thanks to the charm of the Montorgueil district and the redevelopment of the Canopy and the gardens. Moreover, as a very old district, it offers beautiful listed houses. Would it be for the Saint-Eustache church alone, the area deserves the same interest as the more prestigious Marais.

 

 

The stroll starts rue de l'Arbre Sec (see map), easily reached from rue de Rivoli and from the Louvre Rivoli metro station.

Rue de l'Arbre Sec

Hôtel de Saint-Roman
48, rue de l’Arbre Sec
Atget - 1910
(BnF)

Most of the photographs taken by Atget in this district show carts left in the streets around Les Halles by the small « merchants of four seasons » or food peddlers. 

The old private mansions, such as those at n° 48 or n° 52, confirm the interest that one can have in this district.  

  • Hôtel Trudon
    52, rue de l’Arbre Sec
    Atget
    (Musée d’orsay)

Fontaine de la Croix du Trahoir
Rue de l’Arbre Sec
Atget
(Musée Carnavalet)

We now arrive at the corner of the rue Saint-Honoré, where stands the fountain of the Cross of Trahoir. In fact, the area is rather gloomy. Since the Middle Ages, gallows were standing where there is today the round mark on the ground. Before their execution, the condemned were taken in front of the Cross of Trahoir for their last prayers. In 1634, a new fountain was moved to the place where it can be seen today, leaning against a wall with a room from where the judges were attending  the executions. In 1776, it was rebuilt by Soufflot, architect more inspired by the Pantheon than this fountain … 

 

It is reported that the 1715 pharmacy at 115 rue Saint-Honoré was providing invisible ink to Fersen for his letters with Marie-Antoinette. The facade is quite pretty with the heads and the old apothecary inscriptions. 

We now take rue Sauval, from where we can see the circular shape of the Bourse du Commerce and the Medici column.

Bourse du Commerce - Medici Column

La rue de Viarmes
Atget
(BnF)

This column is all that remains from Catherine de Medici's palace. Cosme Ruggieri, his Florentine astrologer, would have predicted she would die near Saint-Germain. Therefore, the queen avoided château de Saint-Germain en Laye and the area around Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois, and had a new palace built here, where she lived for fourteen years. When she was dying in Château of Blois, she saw an abbott coming for her last prayers. His name? The Abbot of Saint-Germain ...

The column was located inside a courtyard of the palace and its first floor was at the same level as Queen's apartments. Inside it has a narrow spiral staircase, used by queen's astrologers to observe the sky and the constellations.

The palace remained as Hôtel de Soissons and was demolished in 1748. However, its column considered of interest was preserved and integrated into the new Halle aux Blés (Corn Market), later redesigned in 1885 into Bourse du Commerce (Commodities Exchange). The building is being transformed into the new art museum for François Pinault.

Church of Saint-Eustache

Today, the best view toward this superb church is from the new gardens facing the south side, once dominated by the Baltard pavilions.

Wandering one night in Paris in this area in October 1852, the writer  Gerard de Nerval let these lines :
“’What a lovely night!’ I said as I saw the stars sparkling above the immense expanse of Les Halles: to the left, next to the poultry market, you have the dome of the corn market with its cabbalistic column…to the right, you have the butter market and further on, the meat market, still under construction.  The picture is completed by the greyish silhouette of Saint-Eustache…beautifully illuminated by moonlight, which plays on its Gothic armature, its flying buttresses which protrude like the ribs of some prodigious whale…"

The image is so true, so moving : like the ribs of some prodigious whale …

  • Rue du Jour and church of Saint-Eustache
    Atget
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Church of Saint-Eustache
    Atget – 1926
    (Médiathèque de l’architectecture et du patrimoine)