Getting to Paris from London is, in a word, a hassle. Air travel has all the usual time restrictions and considerations that are normal with that method of transport, and Eurostar, while providing an invaluable service, is peppered with obstacles that all lead to an overwhelming impatience to get the journey over and done with: the departure lounges are small, the passengers are always impatient to get on board to stow their luggage, service on the trains themselves is slow1 and then the infamous snail crawl through England just further detracts from what should be a glorious experience.
The torture doesn't stop there. Paris has changed since the mid-1990s when this Researcher lived there. There are far too many people on the streets, there is gridlock at 2.30am and the sight of teenagers skinning up at 4 in the afternoon is oddly disquieting. Having said all this, it is still a beautiful city with much to offer residents and tourists alike. This entry does not deal with any of the grand pieces of architecture which are swarmed daily with tourists of every language and nationality, in fact it doesn't deal with a tourist attraction at all. What it will hopefully give is a slice of Parisian life that goes largely unnoticed by the visiting masses.
A Simple Road
The Rue des Vertus is a tiny road in the north west corner of Le Marais district of central Paris. The best Métro station is Arts et Métiers on lines 11 and 3. Arts et Métiers ('Arts and Crafts') is one of those great Métro stations of Paris that has been decorated to pay homage to its name - as you walk along the Châtelet or Gallieni sides of the 11 line, you have the sensation of walking inside copper piping as the station is entirely decked out in that lush metal. All along the platform there are displays of the arts and crafts which were traditionally practiced in the area, giving you a frisson of entertainment as you wait for the next train. Taking the Réamur exit and heading towards République, the street's entrance is on your right. The road is only 150m long and barely three metres across in parts, and it ends on the Rue des Gravailliers, one of the arteries of the Marais. The road is divided into two: the half leading from the Réamur is dedicated to traffic and the road veers to the right onto the Rue au Maire. It is at this point that there is a chain link fence which signals the start of the pedestrian area. The road has existed under its current name since 1546.
There is nothing of any great distinction on the road, it is a typically urban Parisian scene with a bar, a few little hotels, a school, a Chinese shop and a few garment wholesalers. Approaching the road from the north, your feet will have to accustom to the cobblestones underneath. In the architecturally-precise tradition of French construction, the cobblestones are unique and perfect. On the top they look like any old cobblestone from any city in the world. However, if you uproot one, you will discover that it is like removing a wisdom tooth - there is more embedded underneath than you would expect. The stones are spiked which gives them a rare stability which in turn means they haven't needed to be replaced in centuries. It also means that they become fearsome weapons during France's frequent protests - they were most notably used during the riots of May 1968.
There are two hotels on the road and they have two things in common - they are both one-star establishments and they both house working men's bars underneath - there is no soft lighting and attention to decor here - the floors are bare, the language is coarse and the lights reveal more cigarette burns in tables than the eye can register. The road's one and only bar - La Petite Vertu - is short and narrow whose windows are tinged with the ochre of thousands of filterless Gauloises cigarettes. The bar looks foreboding but the people are friendly, the prices honest and the air surprisingly convivial. The bar is also a meeting place for the Parisian Jewish gay and lesbian group Beit Haverim and it also plays host to many speeches, debates and exhibitions provided by the Marais' extensive gay community. If you do decide to partake of an afternoon's glass of wine or two, be careful as you step out, because, being a truly Parisian street, the road is littered with as much dog crap as there are cobblestones.
The Rue des Vertus' Chinese supermarket not only offers traditional, and truly international, Eastern fayre, but it supplies fresh fish which is brought in on a daily basis. The proprietors speak very little French, and as the shop is set out in very much a higgledy-piggledy fashion, it will be necessary to rummage for what you are looking for. And rummaging is highly recommended as this shop not only has some great bargains (saffron at 10f a packet), but also has some wonderfully exotic and surprisingly threatening-looking dried objets... try them at your peril.
The Rue des Vertus never has and never will be a road of great distinction. What it does do, and does admirably, is reflect the make-up of the area it sits in - people of all ages, races and social backgrounds living, working and socialising together. The road does not merit a special trip to see it, in fact it is a little out of the way of most tourist sites, but if you do find your self at Arts et Métiers station heading down towards the Hôtel de Ville, jump off the train and walk down. Not only will you then be able to experience the Rue des Vertus for yourself, you'll be seeing Paris as the Parisians do, on foot.