Once described by Émile Zola as ”the Belly of Paris”, Les Halles (pronounced ”Ley-All”) is a thriving commercial district in the heart of the French capital. The origins of Les Halles (literally ”The Halls”) can be traced to a public market created in the 12th century. In this post, Lodgis, the Parisian real estate agent specialising in furnished apartment rentals, looks at how a historic neighbourhood in Paris’ 1st arrondissement has transformed over 800 years, whilst still preserving a unique identity
The origins of Les Halles
The neighbourhood of ”Les Halles” dates back to 1110 when King Louis Le Gros commissioned a public marketplace to be founded near the River Seine. This was later expanded under King Philippe Auguste, who built the ”Grand Pont” bridge (now Pont- Notre Dame) to fortify Paris before going away on crusades. These additions gave birth to a local community and a growing number of travelling merchants.
Les Halles in medieval Paris
In 1269, food stalls were introduced to the marketplace and a number of new buildings were put up for the sale of fish from the Chemin des Poisonniers. This historic street was later divided into the Rue Poisonnière, Rue des Petits Carreaux and Rue Montorgueil. Little by little, the medieval market evolved to accommodate the likes of shoemakers, drapers, leather workers, weavers and tinkers. However, by the 16th century, the sheer scale of the markets had become a logistical problem, and all of the original buildings had to be torn down. A smaller, central area was earmarked for the markets to resume operations, but now exclusively for sale of food.
It was also around this time that construction began on the church of Saint-Eustache, a late- Gothic masterpiece that still stands today at the bottom of the Rue Montorgueil. Its completion was one of the great architectural triumphs of Rennaissance Paris.
Les Halles in the 18th century
Between 1763-7, a vast Corn Exchange was built under the supervision of Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières. The circular courtyard was originally covered by a large wooden dome. For many years the building was used to store flour, but it became the ”bourse” where food products were traded.
This historic building, which was later the home of the Paris Commodities Exchange, is now owned by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. You can visit it today and admire its glorious interior and magnificent cupola. Towards the end of the 18th century, the Les Halles area faced a different kind of crisis. The Cimetiere des Saints-Innocents, the oldest and largest cemetery in Paris, which lay in the Place Joachim-du-Bellay, was literally overflowing with decomposing corpses. This is what prompted the authorities to demolish the cemetery and transfer the mass graves to the Paris catacombs, a 300km2 network of tunnels built from the old city mines.
Les Halles in the 19th-20th century
In the 19th century, the metal architect Victor Baltard designed a steel roof to cover the bustling food market. Unfortunately, his project was controversially received by the public, who saw Les Halles as belonging to the end of a fading era. After the Second World War, the stalls at Les Halles were struggling to compete in the new market economy. Despite widespread opposition, the site was dismantled in 1971 and moved to the Rungis suburbs.
To facilitate the rapid expansion of Paris’ public transport networks, a huge Metro and RER station (Châtelet – Les Halles) was commissioned to be built beneath the central square. For a number of years the former marketplace was nothing more than a pit in the ground, dubbed ”le trou” by the local residents. But the station was finally opened in 1977 and has since become one of the busiest commuter train hubs in the French capital. In 1979 the Forum des Halles was opened, comprising a multi-storey shopping center with retail boutiques, restaurants and cinema screens.
Les Halles in the 21st century
Just as you might think work would be finished on the Les Halles complex, two eminent French architects won an award in 2007 that endorsed their ambitious architectural project, called ”La Canopée”. This has involved the construction of a huge glass and steel umbrella with shops, restaurants and a new entrance to the Forum des Halles. Another feature of the revelopment has been the creation of the Jardin Nelson Mandela, a brand-new green space in the heart of the French capital with trees, bridges and an adventure playground.
When Mayor Anne Hidalgo unveiled the Canopée in April 2016, after much apprehension, she proclaimed that Zola’s ”Belly of Paris” had been transformed into ”the beating heart” of the City of Light.
As we look back at this historic neighbourhood and marvel at how one space has evolved over the course of 800 years, it is also astonishing to think that such a site, which began as a 12th century market, remains to this day a Parisian hub for retail and commerce.
Lodgis: the furnished rental specialists
Are you coming to Paris as a tourist, a student, an expat or a family? Are you looking for a place to stay in one of the city’s historic arrondissements? Lodgis offers a fabulous selection of furnished rental apartments that cater for all tastes and budgets.
Their studios, lofts, 1, 2, 3 and 4-bedroom properties come fully furnished with period features, terraces, panoramic views and much, much more. Click here to see Lodgis’ great range of offers.