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Central Paris treasure awaits discovery

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  • Les Halles maze of ancient streets remains but is rarely visited by tourists
  • Market once lapped at the sides of the church and filled Parisiens' stomachs
  • Butchers tuck in to enormous buffet after mass at inner city church
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By Mark Tungate
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CNN Traveller

(CNN Traveller) -- Tucked away in a corner of the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris is a colorful if not particularly attractive bas-relief dating from 1969. The work of British sculptor Raymond Mason, it depicts a crowd of boisterous market porters bearing fruit and vegetables and pushing laden handcarts. Occasionally, you will catch an older visitor pausing quietly in front of the piece and heaving a little sigh. That is because it captures the moment when the great food market of Les Halles was exiled to the suburbs -- forever.

Central Paris comes alive as dusk falls over the city. Les Halles is one of its underrated gems.

A sea of comestibles, Les Halles once lapped at the sides of the church and filled the stomachs of Paris citizens, as it had done since 1181. Its rambunctious atmosphere was captured by Emile Zola in his 1873 novel Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris). Many Parisians are nostalgic for the old market, but in the 1960s it was considered cramped, unsanitary and dangerous. And so, in 1969, the decision was taken to shuffle it off to the southern Paris commune of Rungis and replace it with a shopping mall. Tragically, this meant dismantling the airy glass and cast-iron pavilions built by Victor Baltard to cover the market in the 19th century.

People tend to grumble about the modern version of Les Halles. They feel that the 1970s shopping center is ugly and unworthy of Paris; that the open spaces around it attract drug dealers and loitering youths. They are keen to see what will happen when the city authority embarks next year on its long-awaited redevelopment, which will involve partly destroying the shopping center and building something smarter.

Most of the accusations aimed at Les Halles are founded on snobbery, as the Châtelet-Les Halles metro disgorges thousands of visitors from the suburbs, many of them ethnic youngsters. It is unlikely that the redevelopment will change the character of the area, however, as Les Halles has always been a crossroads, attracting Parisians of every sort. The smart financial district of Bourse de Commerce, the shopping paradise of rue de Rivoli, the chic Marais and the sleazy rue Saint-Denis all jostle nearby.

Few tourists visit Les Halles, which is a pity: the maze of ancient streets surrounding the former market remains intact, and the quarter's tangy flavor lies just below the surface. In rue Montmartre you can buy jars of foie gras and bottles of sauternes dessert wine at Le Comptoir de la Gastronomie -- a gourmand's delight founded in 1894. In the evening, you can dine at Le Cochon à l'Oreille, an authentic bistro. Market scenes play out on colorful faïence tiles, and if you do not get a chance to slurp onion soup at one of the establishment's handful of tables, you can stand at the bar sampling wine from an eye-popping list. Your hunger can be catered for down the street, at Le Tambour -- another lively bistro that remains packed until the early hours.

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On the nearby rue Montorgueil you can find a genteel Parisian dreamscape of café terraces, patisseries, florists and chic locals clutching their baguettes.

The movie-set Paris of rue Montorgueil is in direct contrast to the area's maligned centerpiece, the Forum des Halles shopping mall. But while it appears to be an unpre-possessing concrete labyrinth, the Forum is not without its merit. Just ask Sandrine de Cirugeda, who handles public relations for the place. "We have 50 million visitors a year, with 180 shops, a public swimming pool and the biggest UGC cinema in France," she says. "It's one of the most popular destinations in the city."

The center's art house cinema, Le Forum des Images, has also just been refurbished; not far away, boutiques are rented out to young fashion designers at preferential rates, with French favorite Isabel Marrant getting her start here: the mall is not a culture-free zone. "Our clientele is mostly young, urban and switched on," de Cirugeda says. 'But you have to remember that Les Halles is a real quartier too, with people living all around us, and they come here to do their shopping.'

In other words, the Forum is not just a money-making machine, but part of the fabric of Paris. Although the building is 70 per cent owned by a Franco-Dutch property company called Unibail-Rodamco, the rest belongs to the city authority, La Ville de Paris.

"Our ambition is to contribute to the life of the area," de Cirugeda says. "We organize fitness events and musical performances. In the summer our roof terrace is transformed with flowers, deckchairs and parasols. You can come and do yoga and tai chi."

The echoing corridors of the Forum play host to a variety of jugglers, street musicians and break-dancers. It may not be the creative hub of Saint Germain, but it is a more realistic slice of Paris life. However, its dual public-private role caused problems when it came to deciding how to improve the area.

Proposals were presented in 2004 by the architects Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, Winy Maas and David Mangin.

When the newspaper Le Parisien held a poll, residents favored Jean Nouvel's design: extravagant suspended gardens with shopping facilities below. But Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë opted for David Magin's far less ambitious scheme, which involves removing the 1970s structures above the shopping centre and concealing the rest with a landscaped garden. Mangin originally proposed a sweeping redesign of the subterranean mall itself, but this was eventually rejected.

A lighter revamp will now be carried out in stages. The feathers of Unibail-Rodamco remain unruffled, but Parisians feel cheated. This is the city, after all, that once had the guts to plonk a glass pyramid outside the Louvre.

If it is an architectural marvel you are after, look no further than Saint-Eustache, only slightly smaller than Notre Dame. As you emerge from the metro at night, the Gothic church looms like a giant bat, all spikes and flying buttresses. Building started in 1532 and was never completed due to lack of funds: the spire remains stumpy. All this despite the efforts of its famous curé, Réné Benoist, nicknamed The Pope of Les Halles, who throughout the late 1500s was forever pushing his parishioners for contributions.

What strikes you on entering the church is how busy it is. And not just with the footsteps of tourists -- there were none on my visit -- but with normal Parisians: schoolchildren making sketches, an elderly woman lighting a candle, a homeless man keeping himself warm, a young goth couple, their pallid faces turned reverently towards the vaulted roof high above.

"The church is very popular with goths," confirms Raphael Cottin, its resident historian, with a smile. "Most of all, it's a living church, inspiring a great deal of affection. Many local associations meet here, from Alcoholics Anonymous to a collective of prostitutes. We also stage art exhibitions and concerts -- we're lucky to have the largest church organ in the whole of France. I always say that Saint-Eustache has three lives: spiritual, cultural and artistic."

To really grasp the significance of Saint-Eustache in relation to Les Halles, you only have to attend Le Messe des Charcutiers -- the Pork Butcher's Mass. This has been taking place at the church every November, around the 20th of the month, for 200 years. Members of the French pork butchers and vendors' association gather here to sing, give thanks and tuck into an enormous buffet of charcuterie and wine.

The market of Les Halles may have long gone, but its heritage lingers on.

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