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)

The main entrance is rue du Jour, where the narrow facade on the west side, evokes a small copy of that of Saint-Sulpice. From the gardens, you might have noticed the deer's head at the top of the south transept. Saint-Eustache was a Roman general who converted to Christianity after he had a vision of a crucifix between a deer's antlers.

The church, built upon the foundations of a chapel consecrated to Saint Agnes, has also several references to Saint Agnès, notably on le banc d'œuvre; This impressive ornate bench was reserved for officials and important parishioners.

Among these important parishioners were merchant guilds. Some of them donated the curious stained-glass window dedicated to Saint Antoine, patron saint of charcutiers (pork butchers), where a pig and even sausages can be seen...!

Quite today underestimated, the church also preserves the memory of many historical figures: Molière, born on rue Saint-Honoré at the corner of rue Sauval, was baptised there. Louis XIV made his First Communion there and Colbert, buried here, rests under a magnificent mausoleum sculpted by Coysevox.

Stained glass window (with a cute pink pig!)

I also like the colourful and naive sculpture by Raymond Mason depicting with bitter tenderness, the departure in 1969 of the last fruit and vegetable merchants. Another work, also full of tenderness, is the triptych by Keith Haring.

If you like organ concerts, there are free organ concerts on Sunday afternoons. I remember Jean Guillou, who was the titular organist for more than fifty years. He excelled in the interpretation of all works, both classical and modern, playing with a breathtaking and energetic virtuosity. In contrast, somehow with his size and age, he was making this big church all vibrating with absolutely Dantesque sounds.

I would like also to say a word about the church tradition of serving meals with the help and generosity of volunteers. Same generosity that could be the origin of the French word clochard (tramp). There are several hypotheses on the origin of the word, but this one I prefer: Each day, a bell (cloche in French) in the Halles was announcing the end of the market so that the poor could benefit of the unsold goods.

  • The Departure of Fruits and Vegetables from the Heart of Paris
    Raymond Mason (1971)

  • The Life of Christ
    Keith Haring (1990)

One day I was leaving the church by the south side, I saw two skateboarders racing down from the garden, finishing against the wall of the church with a laughing barbarian gesture. I got a similar exasperation a little bit later in front of the Fountain of the Innocents, all degraded by its use as playground, display of political slogans and dustbin.

Fortunately, the sculpture by Henri de Miller, a big soft head turned down on the ground, invites to calm and pause. Its name is Ecoute (Listen). Let's walk towards the gardens from where we have a unique view of Saint-Eustache. Let's sit down and ... listen the past rumour of the crowd coming every evening, with the products from the coast and the countryside.

Les Halles Food Market

Les Halles
Poultry Merchant
Atget
(BnF)

I cannot speak about Les Halles, so lively described by Zola in his belly of Paris, since they were transferred to Rungis in 1969. The only memory, and rather vague is an onion soup taken with all the family after a late night. I just remember that I was rather sleepy. And certainly I could see no point in taking a broth with some disgusting smell, so late in the night or so early in the morning!

My first precise memory is when in the early 70s, I went with my mother to a restaurant in les Halles and discovered there a huge hole of the former market. How impressive was the view of the church of Saint-Eustache, standing as if on the edge of a cliff, like resisting to an other wind of History.

Les Halles
Atget- 1910/1911
(MoMA)

I can only recommend reading the Belly of Paris, which gives a prodigious evocation of the market life at the end of the 19th century.

The French movie Deadlier than the Male (Voici le temps des Assassins) shot by Julien Devivier in 1956, gives also a hint of the nocturnal atmosphere of the market. Especially this scene of Danièle Delorme going out from Les Halles metro station and wandering through the bustling Pavilions.

Finally, there are the precious images of the INA, such as for example: the Halles in 1952

  • Les Halles food market
    Baltard's pavilion
    Madame Huvey's butchery
    Atget - 1898
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Tripe market
    Atget
    (BnF)

Now let's go back towards the east side of the church, where was the pillory of the Halles. The pillory was used to punish the indebted or the dishonest traders. The former rue Pirouette, now sunk under the forum, was named so because the street was near the pillory. The pillory was a rotating device where the condemned man was exposed for two hours. Two hours were the time it took for the device to make a complete turn, and therefore to make a complete pirouette.

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

Cabaret de l’Ange Gardien
9, rue Pirouette
Atget – 1907
(BnF)

In the Belly of Paris, Emile Zola describes the Halles market and all the streets in the area. One of them is rue Pirouette, where the Quenu's charcuterie displays a world of good things, mouthwatering things, rich things.
In this street, Atget photographed a tavern, A l'Ange Gardien (Guardian Angel). I discovered that in fact the guardian angel was a small profession attached to large taverns in Paris. Their duty was to escort any late-staying customer, keeping them out of the reach of thieves and taking them home safely. The profession does not of course exist any more. But, this reminds me one evening I saw a famous French artist in a bar. And I saw this artist's guardian angel, a beautiful young woman, tall and slim. She arrived in a taxi, looking resigned and used to receiving calls from the café owner. Melancholic evocation of Jacques Villeret, popular for his comic roles and used to give way to melancholy. He used to say: "I am not sadder than anybody else, it is just than when a comic is sad, his sadness sounds bigger".

Rue Montorgueil

Let's now take rue Montorgueil, which is an extension of the rue Poissonnière (Fish monger), the old route that fish merchants took over from centuries, from fishing ports in Normandy to Les Halles.

The street has still many food shops. Once more traditionnally working class, many have become quite a bit chic under the effect of gentrification.
There are also beautiful buildings such as the one above the former Passage de la Reine de Hongrie (Passage of the Queen of Hungary). It is said this name would evoke a shopkeeper at Les Halles Market who  resembled Marie-Antoinette's mother … quite not a good thing in those times, since she was beheaded by the guillotine too …

 

Au Compas d’Or
51, rue Montorgueil
Atget – 1907
(BnF)

Let's now go up to the charming Stohrer's pastry shop, the oldest one in Paris, which opened in 1730. Famous for its Baba au rhum, invented by Stohrer, the pastry chef for King Louis XV.

Next to the shop, the doorway of the building has a globe and a compass. The café across the street is called the Compass, but this is more related to the old Golden Compass Inn photographed by Atget. This inn was like a  foretaste of the country, right in the heart of Paris, with its large timber-framed shed. This 16th century  inn was demolished in 1927.

Let's now take the rue Marie Suart, just in front of us, then the Grand-Cerf passage (see the stroll Covered Passages). Exiting the passage, we will turn on the right into rue Saint-Denis.  

 

  • Auberge du Compas d’Or
    64, rue Montorgueil
    Atget – 1909
    (BnF)

Rue Saint-Denis

Rue St-Denis
Church of Saint Leu-Saint Gilles
Atget – 1907/1908
(BnF)

The new Museum of Illusion, very playful, with optical illusions confusing your brain, may seem more attractive than the near church of Saint Leu-Saint Gilles, which is nevertheless the meeting place of knights. Would you see in the street several knights wearing cloaks and white gloves, it will not be an illusion!  These are the knights of the Holy sepulchre attending a mass in the crypt.

Gabled house
111, rue Saint-Denis
Atget
(BnF)

A little further, at the corner of rue Saint-Denis and rue de la Grande Truanderie (which took its name for the many thieves in this street),  one gabled house typical of old Paris, dating from the 16th century.

Fountain of the Innocents

Fountain of the Innocents
Atget
(INHA)

It is a shame that this beautiful fountain, dating from the 16th century is so damaged by tags and rubbish. The basement of the fountain is crumbling certainly under the action of time. But, the damage is also caused by the skateboarders, less sensitive to the art of the Renaissance, and enjoying more the spot for its long steps and curbs ... Hopefully restoration work is planned for 2021, thanks to the action from the locals.  

All the space between rue des Innocents, rue Saint-Denis and rue Berger was occupied in the past by the Holy Innocents cemetery (cimetière des Innocents). Where the fountain is today, there was a large mass grave. The first fountain was leaning against the Church of the Innocents, once located at the corner of rue aux Fers (now rue Berger) and rue Saint-Denis.

The fountain was also different. It was completely rebuilt to celebrate the royal entry of King Henry II into Paris, on June 1549.  Renowned  artists were commissioned. Pierre Lescot designed the fountain which had initially only three arcades, forming a sort of loggia from which local notables could greet the king. Jean Gougeon did the sculpture of the arcades, two opened onto rue Saint-Denis and the other one onto the rue aux Fers.

Due to sanitary reasons, it was decided in 1780 to close and destroy the Holy Innocents cemetery. This is how millions of bones were moved into the old quarries of the Tomb of Issoire, transforming them into the Catacombs.

When the cemetery was converted into a new market, it was decided to install the fountain in the centre of the square. The fountain was dismantled, reconstructed stone by stone, and a fourth facade carved by Pajou, in line with the three original arcades.
To make way for the new Baltard pavilions, the fountain was moved few metres, to its current location, with a new stepped based designed by Davioud.

Rue de la Ferronnerie

Rue de la Ferronnerie (from rue Saint-Denis)
Atget – 1907
(Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris)

The rear of the houses, from n°2 to 14 rue de la Ferronnerie, built in 1669, was over the Holy Innocents cemetery. Used from the Middle Ages, it was an important Parisian cemetery. When the space ran out in the mass graves, charnel houses were built at the beginning of the 14th century. These were arched structures all around the cemetery, where the bones exhumed from the mass graves were piled up.

A wall of these charnel houses along rue de la Ferronnerie was covered with a large mural known as the Dance of Death (la Danse Macabre). A partial copy of this mural can still be seen today in the Ferté Loupière church (Yonne - Burgundy). Thirty paintings represented a dance of both living and dead figures, "the dead dancers being the mirror image of what the living will soon become" (le mort étant le double du vif, ce qu'il serait tout à l'heure).
Certainly what the living people in the rue de la Ferronnerie houses above the cemetery were thinking...

3, rue de la Ferronnerie
Atget – 1907
(BnF)

Rue de la Ferronnerie is the place where king Henri IV was killed on May 14th 1610. The king was on his way from the Louvre to the Arsenal, to meet his minister Sully. Bordered by stalls along the wall of the cemetery, the street was very narrow and often crowded. Stuck in traffic, Henri's coach had to stop, enabling Ravaillac to stab the king twice.

A plaque on the ground in front of n°4 of the street commemorates the assassination, in front of an inn. This one, like a sign of the destiny, was bearing the name of « the Heart crowned with an arrow » (l'auberge du Cœur Couronné percé d'une flèche).

Place Sainte-Opportune

Former Office of Lingeres Merchants
Corner rue Courtalon and place Sainte-Opportune
Atget
(Musée d’Orsay)

Let's continue on rue Saint-Denis up to rue Courtalon, a dank, dirty lane for Zola.  
We arrive Place Sainte-Opportune. In the corner, there was the Guild of Merchant Lingerie, an old corporation run by women since the Middle Ages. The house, photographed by Atget was demolished  in 1902. The portal, however, was kept, moved to different places to be finally at n°22 rue Quincampoix. This is how a modern building can magically become the "Bureau des Marchandes Lingères 1716".  (Office of Lingères merchants, 1716).

  • Place et rue St Opportune
    Atget
    (BnF)

Rue des Halles

We cannot miss the Aurouze pest control shop at n° 8, rue des Halles. In its window are displayed impressive rows of big sewer rats, captured in 1925 in the Halles. All dried up, they are still hung by the traps. The shop, open since 1872, was even featured briefly in the film Ratatouille. A good advertising, though the Aurouze shop has still certainly good days ahead when it is said there are millions of rats in Paris ... with a ratio of almost two rats per Parisian!

Now let's take the rue des Lavandières Sainte-Opportune in front of the shop. We will turn right into the rue du Plat-d'Etain.

Rue du Plat d'Etain - Rue des Déchargeurs

Rue du Plat d’Etain, we pass by simple, but old houses from the 16th century.
The name of rue des Déchargeurs (unloaders), reminds me of the « forts » (strong men) of Les Halles, easily recognised by their canvas smock and wide leather brim hat. They were unloading the meat quarters from the trucks and carried them on their shoulders along the narrow alleys to the pavilions. To be a Fort, a test had to be passed : carry a charge of two hundred kilos over sixty metres !
This corporation from the Middle Ages disappeared with the transfer of the old market to the new modern and mechanised Rungis market.  

Rue Saint-Honoré

Fort des Halles
Atget – 1898/1900
(BnF)

We have turned right into rue des Déchargeurs, left into rue des Halles that we have followed until rue Saint-Honoré. 

At the corner with the rue des Prouvaires, you cannot miss the elegant balcony of the old hotel. From the rue des Prouvaires, the eye is also caught by the view of Saint-Eustache.

A little further, at n°93, two old signs of a pharmacy and a former grocery shop.

We are reaching the rue de l'Arbre Sec from where we started.
Personally, I am not able to leave the district without going to my favorite cookware shop: Dehillerin rue Coquillère, where French-made utensils can be found at reasonable prices. I will also go to G. Detou rue Tiquetonne, my favorite grocery shop.
I cannot end without mentioning the many thrift shops that can be found in this district, such as Mad Vintage, close to the Innocents fountain.

If not interested in cookware or vintage clothes,  you also can certainly enjoy walking along the lively rue Saint-Honoré to the Palais-Royal.

  • Old mansion
    54 rue Saint-Honoré and
    1, rue des Prouvaires
    Atget
    (BnF)

  • Au Bourdon d’Or
    93, rue Saint-Honoré
    Atget
    (BnF)

Copyright 2020 - Martine Combes - text and photos of today Paris