I have yet to see a guide book to Paris which did not urge upon its readers the desirability of visiting les Halles (pronounced, Lay Al) the great Central Market of Paris. Unfortunately, all of these guide books invariably tell the reader that in order to see this market at its best it will be necessary for him to come here at dawn-and nobody is going to get me up in Paris at dawn. Nevertheless, I have never come to Paris without paying a visit to this market-though it has always been closer to noon than to dawn-and I think you should visit it too. There is, of course, another very good reason why you should visit les Halles and that is that the Church of Saint Eustache is right next to it. But let us talk about the market first.
When Paris was still a Medieval city all the produce was brought into the city on boats and unloaded and marketed at what is now the square in front of the Hotel de Ville. But in 1108 Louis VI, who was also known as “Louis the Wide-awake” had the market part of it transferred to a spot somewhat out of the city, or roughly to the spot where these markets are now.* At first this was merely an open market place, but in 1183 PhilippeAuguste built two houses there so that the market people could find some shelter during inclement weather. He also had a wall built around it so that the entire market could be closed at night. However, in those days the market was more of a fair than a produce market, but as the city grew, the dealers in merchandise other than provisions were gradually forced out of the enclosures so that the market in time came to handle only meats, fish, dairy products, fruits, vegetables and, I assume, flowers. If we except the flowers, which are a very prominent part of the market today, this market has, therefore, been the chief distributing center for all the provisions to feed Paris for nearly eight hundred years. Emile Zola called it le ventre de Paris-the belly of Paris-and so it is.
The modern buildings which make up this market today were erected between the years 1854 to 1866 at the order of Napoleon III and it was then that the market became known as les Halles. These buildings consist of twelve huge double halls, which cover an area of five city blocks in one direction and a little more than two in the other. The Rue Baltard, which is named after the architect, runs through approximately the center of it *Since this was written the news has come out that these markets will be moved to the outskirts of Paris sometime during the next two years. Let us hope that the city planners of Paris will make a little park out of the site. The area has need of one. This would also give the little restaurants around it, some of which have been there ever since their knifes and spoons were still fastened to the tables with chains, a chance to survive. and is open to the sky. All the other streets which run through the market are covered by huge, steel-supported skylights, so that they become in fact permanently covered market areas. As all travel guides mention it, perhaps I ought to mention too that this entire area is dotted with little restaurants and bistros, some of the most famous of which are, unfortunately, open only at night.
Nevertheless, I still think that the les Halles area is a good place to stay away from at dawn and even more so at night. First of all, you must not forget that this is no ordinary market, but a market that sells to both the large consumer and the small householder. The first people to arrive here are, of course, the vendors who come in from the country with fruits, vegetables and flowers, from the slaughter houses with meats and from the railway stations with fish. All these various commodities will then have to be unloaded from lorries and carried on strong backs into the stalls. And that is the time when the travel books tell you you should visit the market! But for me it has always been sufficient to get here about ten or eleven o’clock in the morning. All I have to do then to picture the early morning activity is to look at the mountains of empty crates, barrels, boxes and what not that have in the meantime been piled up all around. The next phase starts with the buyers from the large restaurants and hotels, and after that comes the ordinary housewife, and that’s when I like to get here too. By that time all those mountains of refuse will have been removed, the cats from blocks around will have taken their share of what it is that cats like, and by noon the streets will have been washed down and again become spick and span. Or should I say, comparatively spick and span?
Next to les Halles the most important attraction in this area is, of course, the Church of Saint Eustache. This church is generally considered to be the most beautiful church in Paris, next to Notre-Dame. Yet, if you look for the spectacular in architecture, excepting of course, the interior of it, you might easily be disappointed. First of all, the church is so completely surrounded by houses on two sides that about. the only thing you can do is to imagine what it would look like if the houses weren’t there. If you ever visit the Church of Saint Gervais near the Hotel de Ville, you will notice that exactly the same thing is true there. But that is nothing new in Paris where a church has sometimes stood in the same spot for four or five hundred years and the city has just grown up around it. Even at lNotre-Darne, as we shall see later, the houses were built right up to the church before Baron Haussmam had them torn down. However, no such luck befell Saint Errstache. But even though I have searched old prints, no one has yet been able to explain to me why the south wall of this church should continue at a considerable angle from about its midpoint, or what the obstruction was that caused it to be built that way. However, in Paris, buildings, including churches, are sometimes built to fit the space that is available for thema very good example of this is the comparatively modern Church of Saint .lugustine, which is built on a piece of ground that comes to a sharp point on the Boulevard Malesherbes. It was the first church in Paris where steel beams were employed, and the architect was the same Baltard who had employed steel beams so successfully when he built les Halles.
The main part of the Church of Saint Fustache was built between the years 1539 and 1637, which means that it was more than a hundred years in the building. It is Gothic in style, but the decorations are Renaissance. However, the facade of it was not completed until 1754, and then in a rather unattractive and heavy classical style. Fortunately, the Rue de Jour, onto which the front of the church faces, is so narrow that it is impossible to obtain a proper view of it and that is probably the reason why one never sees this church pictured from the front. To appreciate its beauty, one has to see it from the rear. It is from the rear that the immense bulk of its outside walls, supported by an intricate arrangement of flying buttresses is so impressive. No doubt for reasons of space limitations the transept of this church, even though the roof for it is there, does not extend beyond the outside walls of the church. There are also no towers to speak of. The church is three hundred forty-eight feet long, one hundred forty-five feet wide and the vaulting is one hundred fifteen feet high. This makes it exactly the same height as NotreDame, except that Notre-Dame is seventy-nine feet longer and about thirteen feet wider. As in the case of the Church of Saint Sulpice, the Church of Saint Eustache is known for the excellence of its organ music. It is also known for the church where many famous funerals have been held, amang which were the funerals of La Fontaine, Moliere, Mirabeau and Colbert. Colbert was originally interred in this church, and his tomb, though now empty, is at the right behind the altar. Like Notre-Dame, this church was desecrated during the French Revolution too, and we are told that for a long time the inside of it looked more like a low tavern than it did like a church. But then, I guess, it stood in the right neighborhood for that.
Some of the other points of interest in the les Halles section, if you care to walk about a bit, are the Bourse du Commerce, or the grain exchange, which is housed in the circular building you will see at the extreme western end of the market. This is a modern building and stands on the site of a palace Catherine de Medici built here for her residence after an astrologer had told her to beware of the neighborhood of Saint Germaine-1’Auxerrois. This palace was demolished in 1748, but the one-hundred-foothigh tower, which looks like a Doric column, was left standing. It was from this tower that her soothsayers, in whom she placed great confidence, as some people still do today, used to observe the sky. It has sometimes humorously been called the first observatory in Paris. The second point of interest might be the Fountain of the Innocents, so-called after a cemetery which was located in this general vicinity ever since the time of PhillippeAuguste. This fountain was designed by Pierre Lescot and’ ornamented by Jean Goujon, the same combination who, built the early part of the Louvre for Francis I. It was first set up at the beginning of this cemetery, but was. later moved to the little park bordered by the Rue St. Denis, which is just a short block east of the market. But although the fountain is still the same, the base of it has been considerably modified.
As I already mentioned, up to the end of the Eightteentlr century this entire area was occupied by the sprawling twelfth century cemetery known as the Cime ti6re des Innocents. This cemetery was surrounded by a, gallery into which the bones of the dead were thrown when the cemetery got too full. When we get to the Church of Saint Severin on the Left Bank of the Seine you will see that its little cemetery is surrounded by a similar gallery, which was used for the same purpose, but is, of course, no longer used today. All in all, the area around les Halles could not have been any gloomier than the rest of ancient Paris, at least not until several hundred years later, by which time the -round had become so soaked with decay that the entire area began to smell. It was finally abandoned in 1785 when the bones of some one million two hundred thousand dead were transferred to the Catacombs down by the Place Denfert Rochereau, which you may visit on Saturdays with a candle in your hand if you have a mind to-there are no electric lights. In his History of France, Guizot tells us that there still exists in the city records of Paris an expense account for interring eleven hundred bodies here which had been thrown into the Seine during Saint Bartholomew’s night. They had become stuck at the bends of the Seine and threatened to decompose in place. But now, let us take in a few more other things in the immediate vicinity.
If, after you have examined this fountain, you will walk a very short block down the Rue St. Denis toward the Seine, you will come to the Rue de la Ferronerie, which means the “street of the iron mongers.” It was on this street that Henry IV was stabbed to death on May 14, 1610, on his way from the Louvre to visit a friend. It was the narrowness of this street, which had been temporarily blocked by a cart, which permitted Ravaillac to jump on the running board of the King’s carriage and stab him to death. His wife, Catherine de Medici, had had a dream about that too, and if he had listened to her this might not have happened. Anyway, after this murder, they built no more running boards on Royal carriages. They used short ladders or retractable steps instead.
This will be all I shall have to tell you about the les Halles area. Everything here is close together and the entire trip, no matter from which direction you approach the area, shouldn’t take you more than an hour. When you are at the Fountain of the Innocents, you will be only a five- or ten-minute walk from the Place du Chatelet, which you can reach by walking down the Rue St. Denis. But the Rue St. Denis, being also one of the very old streets in Paris, is a horribly narrow street which, here abouts, is dotted with little hotels, or what the French call a pied-d-terre. And where you have pied-a-terres you will also have girls. If you wish to avoid this, all you have to do is walk another short block east to the parallel Boulevard de Sebastopol and turn right. Since the Rue St. Denis runs at a slight angle to this boulevard, both of them come to a point at the Place du Chatelet. I will see you next at this square and then we will sit down at a sidewalk cafe and have a little refreshment.