Hop, skip, jump onto the Eurostar and over to Paris. In less than three hours from London you can be immersed in Le Marais, one of the city’s oldest districts, which lies across the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. It is a maze of beautiful architecture, ranging from sandy townhouses with wooden window shutters the colour of Cotswold Legbar eggshells, to bold red brick 17th century abodes that hint at the nobility once drawn to the area. It’s a part of the city that’ll induce pipe dreams of buying and shaking up with some French lover or other, and the place where I finally get what all the fuss is about Paris.
Where centuries ago the area was dominated by agricultural farmland, Le Marais – which literally translates as ‘The Swamp’ – is now a cobbled warren of narrow streets leading off in various directions, some taking you to picturesque squares and courtyard gardens, others bordered by an array of art galleries, independent boutiques and wonderful little places to eat and drink. It’s undoubtedly a ‘touristy’ area, but not at all in the padlocked bridge and Eiffel Tower sense. Nonchalantly chic, it feels the epitome of French, and as such, makes you want to dress up and roll out your best Franglais.
It is not the place to do Paris on a shoestring, there’s much too much temptation for that. The likes of Manoush, for eclectic, colourful clothing, with intricate detailing that could only come from hours of painstaking needlework; Merci, for kitsch homeware, jewellery and pretty stationary; De Bouche à Oreille, for a treasure trove of curiosities (including a fine collection of globes), and L’Artisan Fleuriste, if only to pop by and sink my face into one of the bunches of silky, fragrant roses. As well as the likes of Diptyque, Fragonard and Palais des Thes.
My first visit to Le Marais was aided by a tour of the area, which I was invited to do as part of a new partnership with tailor-made tour company, Localers and the Hotel du Petit Moulin, the boutique bolt hole, I was staying at for the weekend.
Localers specialises in walking tours aimed at showing visitors how to explore Paris, ‘the local way’, tailored to different interests, from fashion, to art, architecture, or food. It’s geared towards solo travellers or very small groups; definitely no umbrellas to follow, monologues of incomprehensible bore, or feeling like you’re on a year 9 school trip. We joined our guide Bianca on a fashion-themed walk, to match the haute couture connections of our hotel (more on which in a moment). It lasted around three hours, and took in the main shopping streets for designer and vintage fashion, as well as highlighting points of historical interest. Preferring to get lost in a place, guided tours aren’t usually my bag, but it was a handy way of getting to know the area quickly, and I came away with a notebook jotted with shops I wanted to head back to for a proper browse.
The hotel itself is in the upper section of Le Marais, or Haut-Marais, as it is referred, a five-minute stroll from the Picasso museum in one direction, and the main shopping street rue Vieille du Temple, in another. It’s on the corner of rue de Poitou and rue de Saintonge, housed within the 17th century building of what was Paris’ first bakery, where Victor Hugo used to frequent for his baguette du jour. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a bakery today, with its original glossy black, 1900 shop-front façade, and ‘Boulangerie’ painted in gold Art Deco font. What lies inside, is something equally as tempting as the bakes I imagine it once sold. Much like Le Marais, it’s a bohemian maze of intimate corners, with a monochrome polka-dot carpet hallway and stairs leading up to 17 individually-designed bedrooms, and from the moment you walk into reception and take in the world of rich furnishings, it’s clear this is no ordinary hotel.
The décor throughout is inspired by elements of Le Marais, playfully re-imagined by French fashion designer Christian Lacroix, who was commissioned to design the interior, while the main structure, complete with creaky floorboards, remains very much as it always has. As such, the Hotel du Petit Moulin, a member of the Small Leading Hotels of the World, feels like being in a theatrical dolls house.
Strokable fabrics and trompe l’oeil wallpapers line the walls – a deep burgundy satin in my boudoir, room 101, mingles with images of cherubs, exposed beams and two mustard-coloured, 1970s, wingback chairs. Down the hall, there’s a room decked in zebra print, and upstairs, a pink room boasts a roll top bath, made for sinking into with a coupe de Champagne. For this is Paris, after all, mon cher.
It’s a hotel that certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously, except when it comes to the important things, such as cleanliness and service, which are both on point. Guests also have the perk of complimentary access to the spa facilities and bicycle hire at its sister hotel, La Pavillon de la Reine, on nearby Places des Vosges, which incidentally is the oldest planned square in Paris and where Monsieur Hugo had a home.
Another welcome touch, is the option to have ‘your breakfast tray’ brought up to you at the requested time, allowing you to wake up properly in the quiet confines of your room, rather than rush up and out to sit among strangers in the lounge. Downstairs, an honesty bar is open 24/7, with various games dotted around to tempt you to play, and just next door, the receptionists are armed with detailed maps of the area and on hand to make reservations.
Above all, it’s a super base from which to peruse Le Marais, with no need to set foot on public transport, except to take you to and fro the 15-minute journey to Gare du Nord to hop on the Eurostar home. There’s no restaurant at the hotel, but with so many wonderful haunts nearby, it’s not necessary. Les Choupettes is highly recommended, reluctantly so, being a place we found out about from a local, and would rather like to keep as a secret. A former print press, serving superb cocktails and fine French cuisine, it’s worth popping by just to admire the structure and décor, and the fact that even on a Friday night, there are no ridiculously long queues for the bar, or problems finding a seat (the waiters are quite delicious too).
Another place I’ve jotted into my little black book is the cave-like Grand Coeur, where the food is joyful and the gin cocktails a must. And, for un petit café au lait head to Au Petit Fe à Cheval, a tiny café, with an internal capacity of about six (I may have promised to keep that last one under my hat too..). Oh, and do lunch at Glou, if you have time – it’s less than five minutes from the hotel and serves up some interesting twists on French classics, and a good selection of wines by the glass. But that is just the tip of the croquembouche, this marvellous corner of Paris is brimming with places to spend, feast, sleep, and repeat.
Hotel de Petit Moulin, 29/31 rue de Poitou, 75003 Paris. Rates start from €205, per room per night. Stays from €443 based on two sharing an overnight stay on a B&B basis, with a three-hour personal shopping tour of Le Marais. Subject to availability. For more information, visit www.hoteldupetitmoulin.com.
Eurostar operates up to 21 daily services from London St Pancras International to Paris Gare Du Nord with one-way fares starting from £29 (based on a return journey). Tickets are available from www.eurostar.com or 03432 186 186.