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Châtelet – Les Halles

1st & 2nd Arrondissements
M° Châtelet, Les Halles, Etienne-Marcel, Pont Neuf, Louvre-Rivoli

The Place du Châtelet gets its name from the Grand Châtelet fortress that used to guard the bridge to the Ile de la Cité. Today the square is dominated by twin 19th-century theatres, the Théâtre du Châtelet and the Théâtre de la Ville (formerly known as the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre), overlooking a sphinx fountain commemorating Napoléon’s war victories.

Pronunciation tip: It’s a good idea to pronounce this important transportation hub correctly: Châtelet is pronounced chat-lay’, and Les Halles is pronounced lay-al’. Don’t be tempted to pronounce those final consonants!

Begin your exploration of the neighborhood at the Quai de la Mégisserie, a busy Seine-side street lined with pet shops and garden boutiques. Cross the street to browse the famous bouquiniste stalls selling vintage prints and books. Views of the Conciergerie and Pont Neuf are particularly good from here. Up until the Revolution, this quay was the location of a public slaughterhouse. Overlooking the bridge is La Samaritaine, a 1920s department store with excellent Art Deco architecture and an Art Nouveau interior (unfortunately closed in 2005 for fire code violations, no reopen date scheduled as of 2006).

Follow the Rue de l’Arbre Sec around to the Eglise St-Germain-l’Auxerrois. The royal family used this church when they moved to the Louvre beginning in the 14th century. Many of the court’s poets, artists, and architects are buried in this church, but it’s best known for ringing the bells that gave the signal for the St-Bartholomew’s Day Massacre on August 24, 1572.

Take the back streets Rue de l’Arbre Sec and Rue Sauval (crossing the Rue St-Honoré) to the circular Bourse du Commerce, home to the French Chamber of Commerce and Commodities Market. The strange 98-ft high column on the south side of the building is the only remaining vestige of the Grand Hôtel de la Reine built for Catherine de Medici in 1575. The column’s platform was supposedly built for her personal astrologer, Ruggieri. This public display of mysticism probably contributed to the popular belief suspecting her of witchcraft.

Wander through the gardens of the retro-futuristic Forum des Halles, a soulless commercial center built in 1971 to replace the city’s 800-year-old central food market known as Les Halles. Parisians still mourn the loss of the old glass and iron market halls, if not the inconvenience of having an overgrown wholesale market in the middle of town (it’s now near Orly Airport). The stunning Eglise St-Eustache was thankfully spared the wrecking ball. Its gothic architecture and Renaissance décor make it one of the most beautiful — and underrated — churches in Paris. Louis XIV’s First Communion took place here, as well as Molière’s baptism and funeral service, but St-Eustache is better known for its prestigious organ concerts, including first performances of works by Liszt and Berlioz. Check their website or stop by for the current schedule of weekly concerts.

Historical Detour
The horrid chain stores and fast food restaurants crowding the east side of the Forum des Halles are best avoided, but history buffs may want to see the Fontaine des Innocents (corner of Rue Berger and Rue Lescot), where the city’s most crowded cemetery festered until the late 18th century, when the remains were finally transferred to the Catacombes. Around the corner, on Rue de la Ferronnerie, is a plaque commemorating the assassination of Henri IV. On May 14, 1610, the king was stabbed to death in his carriage outside #11 by the crazed Jesuit mystic Ravaillac, who believed the king was going to declare war on the pope. He was hung, drawn and quartered 13 days later.

Behind St-Eustache is the beginning of the Rue Montorgueil (pronounced mon-tor-guy’), a popular pedestrian market street. Across the Rue Etienne-Marcel is the heart of the Montorgueil district, renovated in the late 1980s. Its distinctive white (now graying) cobblestone side streets hide a number of trendy boutiques and cafés, particularly along Rue Tiquetonne. Don’t miss the unique designer creations in the historic Passage du Grand Cerf. Do miss the Rue St-Denis if sex shops and loitering ladies of the night (and day) make you uncomfortable.

The 2nd
North of Rue de Réamur is the Sentier Quarter, heavily dominated by the wholesale clothing industry and a growing hi-tech community optimistically dubbed “Silicon Sentier”. The shops are never (officially) open to the public.