A civilized, elegant Parisian park that wasn't always so

There is a park in Paris encompassed by buildings of exactly the same height so that it seems a tremendous, ceilingless room with red-brick, windowed walls. The streets leading to the park are narrow and run through a poor neighborhood like hallways in a tired, sad house. There are six entrances to the park, one at each corner and two through thick, arched stone gates.

Stepping through one of these entrances is stepping from darkness into light. There are trees where there were none. Where there was closeness there is space.

What is now park was once marshland, owned in the Middle Ages by the church and occupied by its monks. Although it was drained hundreds of years ago by the Knights Templar and inhabited in their turn by the nobility and the workers of Paris, the district is still known as Le Marais (or the Marsh).

The Place des Vosges, as it's now called, is large and grassy, with carefully positioned, well-pruned trees and a playground to the side with children riding seesaws under the canopy of a tall tree. Along the edges are many benches, comfortable and attractive, places to sit quietly insulated from the working quarter that lies outside. Behind are arched brick roofs of the arcade that traces the perimeter of the square, and above, the pink facades and tall slate roofs of ancient mansions. It is very civilized.

It was not always so. In the late 1400s, before the park existed, civilization meant something very different. It was the age of chivalry, and jousting was a favorite recreation. The object of the sport was to shatter one's lance on an adversary's chest. The knight with the most lances broken was proclaimed champion of the tourney.

Early in the summer of 1559, not far from today's children's park, King Henri II, a formidable athlete and avid sportsman, was host at a day of feasting and games. He had jousted twice with the captain of his Scottish Guards and twice won. He insisted on yet another contest, but this time the captain prevailed. The king sustained a fatal injury.

His wife, Catherine de Medicis, had his palace destroyed. These ruins were to become the site of the Place des Vosges.

The weather of the park, protected as it is, is mild, and elderly people of the neighborhood like to sit on the benches, singly or in pairs, talking and feeding the pigeons. In the afternoon, children spill out of the schools that occupy some of the old mansions and race noisily about.

At Nos. 2 and 25, the park's elegant restaurants, Coconnas and La Guirlande de Julie, serve fine, expensive meals. A visitor might also choose to eat outdoors, picnicking on a bench and enjoying the almost tangible sense of timelessness.

Until the end of the 16th century the ruins of the king's palace were used for trading horses, a kind of medieval used-car lot, a place that attracted some rather unsavory characters. Then, in 1605, Henri IV chose the location as a likely spot for one of his urban-renewal projects.

Paris, in those days, had the unfortunate reputation of being, in the words of a contemporary, a ''stinking sewer,'' but Henri had a vision that was to transform the city. It was his idea that buildings should be the same height and have similar facades, that avenues should run straight and lead the eye to vistas at each end, and that formal parks should relieve the congestion of residential quarters. Near the place where his grandfather had been killed he planned the construction of 38 connected mansions around an open square, unornamented except for intersecting paths cut into the lawns.

In 1612 the Place Royale was inaugurated. It became the showplace of Paris, awing visitors with its grandeur, and soon was the city's most desirable address.

Old patterns gave way to new; chivalry was dead, replaced by strict codes of honor; and the armored joust evolved into the gentlemanly duel. Encouraged by their ladies, the cream of French youth seemed bent on theatrical self-extermination, and the Place Royale was their stage.

The ladies who lived in the royal square were themselves of a new order. Openly and unashamedly promiscuous, they vied with one another in the number of their lovers. Creating a new form of social evening - the precursor of the literary salon - they opened their homes to the wittiest and brightest of Parisian society.

Soon fashion changed again, and in the 18th century society abandoned the Place Royale for Faubourg St. Honore. Artisans and tradesmen, Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of eastern europe, the working poor of Paris, took their place, and the Marais became a commercial district. The magnificent houses were saved from destruction only by their usefulness as factories and storehouses. The stately arcades were chopped into stalls and became a teeming bazaar.

The symbol of privilege became the slums of the oppressed, and it was from the Marais and the Place Royale that revolutionary mobs streamed to attack the Bastille and, ironically, to lead to the guillotine the descendants of noble families that had, a hundred years earlier, inhabited their own quarter.

In 1800 the Place Royale ceased to exist, renamed the Place des Vosges in honor of the first region of France to pay taxes to the new revolutionary government.

The Marais remained a depressed area, but gradually the Place des Vosges began attracting wealthy businessmen and artists. In 1832, Victor Hugo moved with his family into No. 6, followed by other young writers who took residence in the area. No. 6 is now a small museum, containing not manuscripts and first drafts, but handmade furniture and woodwork and hundreds of lovely drawings.

Essentially, however, it was part of a forgotten quarter, and by the 1950s the once royal park had declined almost beyond rescue. Then, in the '60s, Andre Malraux, minister of culture under Charles de Gaulle, ordered the area rehabilitated in a second edict, 350 years after that of Henri IV.

Reconstruction continues. The arcades are once more open and elegant. Facades of the mansions have been or are being restored. The park has been planted with trees, a bone of contention with those who would like it to be a broad, unobstructed expanse, as originally designed.

Unknown to strangers, many of the doors to the inner courtyards of the houses are unlocked, and open to reveal unexpected treasures. Some contain lovely gardens, or vestiges of ancient stables or small ateliers. Others house schools and galleries, or sculpture and decorations from the earliest days.

Tucked under the arcades are lovely small shops, fitted gracefully into the old structures. Some sell paintings and prints, antiques and country artifacts. There are gift shops, a bookstore, and even a popular sporting goods store. The Place des Vosges belongs to today as surely as it did to the knights of the Middle Ages, the aristocrats of the Renaissance and the revolutionaries who overthrew them.

Despite its present-day utility, the area is so unlike anything else in Paris that it appears to have an existence of its own. After all the centuries of turbulence and change, it seems at last to have found its proper function. It is a haven, a cloister, a refuge from the city's rush, a place for anyone in search of beauty and peace.

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