From the Medieval era onwards, Les Halles embodied the best and worst of Paris.
The city’s main food market, Les Halles near the Marais was a labyrinthine chaos of fruit-sellers and vegetable-hawkers that French novelist Emile Zola lauded in his novel, Le Ventre de Paris. But Les Halles was also known for crime, for butchery (of humans as well as the animal) and, by the mid-20th-century, had become positively seedy.
In the 1980s, Les Halles underwent a renovation: transforming the square into a shopping mall. Today, la ventre of Les Halles – several stories underground – is nothing special: every shop a chain, the food far from the restaurants Paris is known for. It’s easy to dismiss Les Halles as an example of development run amok: hyper-modernity in the heart of its history.
But look closely. In the parks that cover the mall’s “roof”, I see a different – strangely bucolic – Paris emerging. Vines creep over pergolae; flowers burst up between escalators. New glass archways give way to the 16th-century Fontaine des Innocents – commemorating a cemetery that once stood on this very spot. Here, near the Marais, the past breaks into the present in ways uncanny and intoxicating.
In the midst of all this relentless renovation, I find the 12th-century Saint Eustache Church remains: a medieval monument to what remains. Before it: a sandstone sculpture, by Henri Miller, of a man’s head, his ear pressed upward. Écoute, the statue’s name tells us. Listen.