The new Paris Immigration Museum, the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, proved so controversial that no senior politician could be found to open it.
Perhaps that’s because, for all of its messages of tolerance and acceptance of difference, it presents what are likely to be, for many, unpalatable truths. The visitor climbs the stairs of the uncomfortably fascist-feeling building (it was built for the International Colonial Exposition of 1931 and the huge facade frieze shows colonial labourers toiling for the empire’s glory) to start their tour beneath a series of maps.
These are facts, presented raw and enlighteningly, movement of people over the past century or so presented as broad sweeping arrows whose width corresponds to the numbers of people on the move.
There’s a powerful reminder that for at least the first half of the 20th century, and certainly at its start, the flows were almost all outward from Europe. It was a continent, it seemed, with huddled masses without hope at home.
In Paris you’ll find almost always in every direction flavours of the Belle Epoque. You’ll never have to look much further to find the earlier 18th century, or indeed the 17th, but pieces of really old Paris – the medieval origins, are thin on the ground. Yet if you look hard around the 4th arrondissement, there are some fascinating survivors.
First up, and centrally from the medieval viewpoint, are the city’s walls. Not wanting to leave Paris unprotected when he went crusading, Philippe Auguste in 1190 started build walls on right bank and from 1200 started on the left. They enclosed together 253 hectares with space for the inhabitants, and, of course, the vineyards essential to human survival. (London was much smaller, not having the same idea of “essentials”.)
And these were serious defensive measures – every 70m reinforced with a rampart that stood 9m high and 3m in diameter. Yet a scant two centuries later in the reign of Charles V the fortifications were lost except for a few fragments.
The biggest of these is outside the Lycee Charlemagne. You’ll find it at the corner of the Rue des jardins saint-paul and the Rue de l’ave. (Beside is the Village Saint Paul, a fun collection of arts workshops and antique bric a brac shops arranged around a central courtyard.)
You don’t so much visit the Place des Vosges as be the Place des Vosges. To reach that blessed state you should stroll from the Metro Bastille, up the Rue St Antoine, then right into the Due de Birague. Then in the distance you will see that incredible warm glowing terracotta red of the brick, offset by the careful march of studied beige stone. And you are there.
To get fully into the appropriate state of mind you should then make a slow progress, a complete circuit of the arcades, stopping here and there to enjoy the objet d’art in the boutiques that line the Place. I don’t know if any academic has so named it, but there is definitely a â€œschool of the Place des Vosgesâ€. This is modern art, but distinctly accessible modern art.