This is the third part of our blog series on Victor Hugo in Paris. In this part, we talk about where to walk, eat, and drink around Hugo's haunts on the Right Bank of Paris. And oh has it changed...
The Cénacle plaque
On the Left Bank, rive gauche, Hugo's friends in the group called Cénacle met and seriously discussed the merits of Romanticism and the role of the artist and writer in society during the 1830s. They met at Hugo’s residence on rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs in the countryside of the then 11th arrondissement, a little byway near the old tax wall of Paris. It looks very different today.
After the Second Empire redesign of Paris, the street is now in the 6th arrondissement and just another city block with a row of stereotypical Haussmannian buildings. There hangs a plaque that indicates Hugo lived in this spot. As for the haunts of the Petit Cénacle, the youthful anti-salon to the anti-salon, well, there is no plaque to be found...
The erased neighborhood Le Quartier du Doyenné
Let’s cross the Seine to the rive droite, the Right Bank, in the 1st arrondissement of Paris. If we stand in front of the Carrousel opposite the Musee du Louvre’s entrance at Les Pyramides, I.M. Pei’s controversial 1989 project, we see a long vista with an impressive series of obelisks and triumphal arches for miles. To recreate the view as it was in the 1830s, there are two important things missing from this current view.
First, Tuileries Palace once stood behind the Arc du Carrousel. (As a side note, the Arc du Carrousel is adorned with Hugo's friend Alfred de Musset’s great-great… aunt, Joan of Arc.) The palace was burnt to the ground in 1871, by the Communards on Paris, but more on that later...
Second, we no longer gaze out on an important and infamous neighborhood, le Quartier du Doyenné. This neighborhood was just in the way of Imperial Louvre's private garden, military parade ground, and thought-to-be-impenetrable fortress for the Emperor’s security, as depicted in the center of the map above.
This area was decidedly lower rent than the grand country house of Hugo and those humorless old men of Cénacle. It was where the bawdy younger members of Cénacle and Petit Cénacle mixed with craftsmen and wash-women for the adjacent palace complex that had grown around it for centuries.
These young Bohemian men of good families remained alone in Paris after their fathers retired to the countryside - without a franc or a even a sous after financing a century of wars. The Quartier du Doyenné was a sunken hole of a neighborhood, prone to flooding, without a sewer, and in a state harrowing disrepair. But the decrepit decay was the ideal place for a young romantic to pen dark, brooding poetry. It indeed resembled the ramshackle narrow streets of Paris of Hugo’s Les Misérables.
The other entrance to the Louvre Palace
What does remain, however, is a first stop for many visitors to Paris: The Louvre in the first arrondissement of Paris, the former seat of the monarchy that today houses a breathtaking collection of the Empires’ spoils.
While it may seem romantic to descend into the Louvre through the Pyramids, waiting in line for hours to then again wait in line for hours, may we suggest buying your ticket ahead of time online and waltzing through the shops named Carrousel du Louvre the entrance to which is at 99, rue de Rivoli? This lesser known entrance is at the very end of the underground gallery of shops, just opposite the inverted glass pyramid of Da Vinci Code fame.
Art at the Palais-Royal
After visiting which ever exhibit is of interest to you in this massive museum, you might want to take a break and return to Hugo’s Paris. Exit through the Cour Carrée onto rue de Rivoli. You have two great options for dining within easy walking distance with a grand tour of Hugo’s Paris on the way.
As you cross the street, you will notice a rather colorful and bubbly structure on your left: "Le Kiosque des noctambules," or "Nightowls’ Kiosk," by the artist Jean-Michel Othoniel. Commissioned by the state in 2000, it is made from hand-blown Murano glass and aluminum. It is also entrance to the Métro stop Palais Royal – Musée du Louvre. Behind this Métro entrance is the Comédie-Française, and next to this is the entrance to the 17th century Palais-Royal.
The Palais-Royal was adjacent to the Louvre for one reason. The vast size of the Louvre was unable to accommodate the French court, so in the 1600s the Palais-Royal was built to house them. When the court expanded again (and as Paris became increasingly more hazardous to the monarch) they decamped further out of the urban area to Versailles.
Here you will most likely see Parisian children playing leapfrog over black and white columns. They are by French conceptual minimalist artist Daniel Buren. "Les Deux Plateaux," as the work is officially titled, has been subject to heated debate. At the furthest edge of the Palais-Royal is the rue de Beaujolais.
Where to dine and sleep on the Hugo path
At number 17, you can dine at Victor Hugo’s favorite restaurant, originally known as The Café de Chartres but now called Le Grand Véfour. The menu has been reinvented by Guy Martin, who seems to be vying for a Michelin star. Therefore reservations are strongly recommended. The interior of the restaurant looks very much the same today as it did when Hugo, de Musset, and the rest of Cénacle dined before the Battle of Hernani and the triumph of Romanticism.
Perhaps, however, you would rather go to the hippest foodie destination in town, Les Halles. Les Halles was the main food market in Paris for hundreds of years until it was relocated outside of the city to Rungis in 1967. Imagine the traffic nightmare? This article by Bon Appetit gives a few Les Halles food options. For les noctambules, the nightowls, many establishments are open 24 hours a day!
Perhaps you do not want to walk too far after your visit to Le Grand, so may we suggest one of two hotels? Hotel Crayon at 25, rue Bouloi in the 1st arrondissement is a cozy boutique hotel with a focus on gracious hospitality. They are proud to call themselves a guest house. The rooms are small even by Parisian standards, but the bathrooms have fantastic shower pressure - an issue in Paris because the city's water flows through chalk - makes up for any lack of closet space.
The same friendly hotel group runs the futuristic Hotel Odyssey at 19, rue Hérold, designed by Ora-Ïto. The rooms are more spacious, but the bathroom design is not traditional and quite open, which could be a concern for people who are just traveling together and not intimate. Of note, the bar at Hotel Odyssey is staffed by friendly mixologists who love to discuss their craft and anything else. They all speak English, having been to Brooklyn, and we highly recommend the Cointreau Fizz infused with vanilla pods.
More to come! Check back tomorrow for more on the Hugo in Paris tour.