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Bohemian Rhapsody
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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By Cathy NewmanPhotographs by William Albert Allard

In the trendy Paris neighborhood of the Marais, cultures and lifestyles mix and match, and laissez-faire rules.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

In the Marais enchantment seeps up from the cobblestones, wraps around the wrought iron lampposts, suffuses the narrow alleys. You walk down a street, and a vendor conjures a bouquet of pink roses. Behind the stiff facade of a 17th-century building lies a garden drenched in the fragrance of lilacs. Then there is the Place des Vosges—with nine nearly identical mansions on each of the four sides, except for the grander King's and Queen's Pavilions, which anchor the southern and northern sides. In the soft morning light, the brick blushes faint pink. Linden trees pruned into a perfect geometry border a garden, which stands as the centerpiece of the square. Lovers lie on the grass, entangled in each other's arms. Why shouldn't a prince appear?

The history of the Marais (which translates as the "marsh") is a riches-to-rags-to-riches fable that began in the 1600s when Henry IV built the Place des Vosges, making it the most fashionable address in the realm. Almost two centuries later it started a gradual descent into slum, serving also as the Jewish ghetto (by custom, rather than law). Only recently has it emerged from the grime to become, if not the highest rent district in Paris, then certainly one of the most chic addresses in this capital of chic. Call such transformation magic if you will. Better yet, shrug as the French do and accept it as part of the ineffable sweetness of life.

There is a grandeur to parts of the Marais, with its 17th-century mansions built when the quarter was ultrafashionable, but on the whole the Marais is not grand. There are more extravagant neighborhoods in Paris: the 16th, for example, a tony arrondissement, or district, of art nouveau and art deco apartments, where the women carry quilted Chanel bags, shop for their clothes in Franck & Fils, and dress their children in navy blue and bottle green.

The Marais—which incorporates most of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements of Paris—is not at all like that. In fact, once you cross the Rue de Bretagne into the northern apex of the Marais triangle, the neighborhood turns quiet and ever so slightly frayed.

The Marais—chic and not-so-chic sections alike—is quirky. The 16th- and 17th-century buildings lean over the streets as if slightly tipsy; narrow lanes turn and twist and bear strange names like Rue du Pont aux Choux (the Street of the Bridge of Cabbages) or Rue des Mauvais Garçons (the Street of Bad Boys), named after the criminals who lived there in the 14th century. The Marais, says Jacob Berger, a film director who lives and works in the neighborhood, is de guingois—that is to say, slightly askew. Many who live there are too.

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VIDEO For photographer Bill Allard, walking through Paris is like "walking through a city of one-act plays."

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to 19th-century Paris where le Café de l'Enfer (Hell's Café) offered a devilish good time to its patrons.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

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The Marais's narrow 16th-century streets, historic homes, and grand palaces have nearly been destroyed twice since the mid-1800s. In 1853 Napoleon III appointed Georges Haussmann prefect of the Seine and charged him with transforming Paris from a medieval city into a modern one. During his 17-year reign Haussmann cut wide, straight, tree-lined avenues through the tangle of small Parisian streets, created new systems of water supply and drainage, established parks, and increased the number of streetlights and sidewalks. But in the process of redesigning the historic city, he destroyed large sections, wiping out entire neighborhoods, and would have demolished more—including the Marais—had the new liberal government not dismissed him for his suspected misuse of public money.

By the 1950s the Marais was still intact, but it had suffered two centuries of neglect and was rapidly decaying. Municipal authorities decided to tear down all but a few of the historic buildings, widen and straighten streets, and build modern offices and middle-class homes. Some areas were condemned and residents relocated, but a lack of money to build replacement housing stopped officials from carrying out their plans.

—Cate Lineberry

Did You Know?

Related Links
Place des Vosges
Discover more about the history of the oldest square in Paris.

Picasso Museum
Explore the history of the museum and its collection of Picasso's work.


Eyewitness Travel Guides: Paris. DK Publishing, 2003.

Everyman Guides: Paris. Everyman Publishing, 2000.

Gady, Alexandre. Le Marais: A Historical and Architectural Guide. Le Passage, 2003.

Karmel, Alex. A Corner in the Marais: Memoir of a Paris Neighborhood. David R. Godine, 1998.


NGS Resources
Grescoe, Taras. "Insider's Paris," National Geographic Traveler (March 2003), 70-85, 118-23.

O'Keefe, Susan. "April in Paris (and Provence)," National Geographic Traveler (April 1999), 52.

Robbins, Pat. "Let's Go to Paris!" National Geographic World (February 1994), 10-3.

Weber, Eugen. "Paris: La Belle Époque," National Geographic (July 1989), 158-74.


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