The Paris of Les Misérables
Paris: City of light, city of love, and city of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables! Immortalized in its many incarnations, from the page to the stage to screens both big and small, Hugo’s Paris of 1832 largely exists no more. Learn about Les Misérables‘ real Parisienne locations—some of which are forever lost, and some that you can still visit today—and see a slideshow of filming locations that stand in for the settings that so vividly define the epic story.
The Paris we know today, with its Étoile around the Arc de Triomphe, its Bois de Boulogne, and the spire that until recently crowned Notre Dame, is a relatively recent creation. Between 1854 and 1870, much of the old, medieval city of Paris was destroyed and built into something entirely different by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who was commissioned by Napoleon III to remake a healthier, less congested, and more beautiful city. Some critics of his vision, with its network of wide, grand boulevards, argue that one of the motivations for razing the city’s neighborhoods was to rid them of the narrow, winding, dark streets that allowed for barricades, like those in Les Misérables, to be built.
Before the commencement of Haussmann’s radical modernization, the city’s official photographer, Charles Marville, was commissioned to document Paris’ ancient, soon-to-be-demolished, quarters. His photographs served as inspiration for Les Misérables‘ production team, who cited them as a crucial reference for a city lost to the past.
Jardins de Luxembourg
One of Les Misérables‘ key locations is the Jardins de Luxembourg (Luxembourg Gardens). There, Marius and Cosette first catch one another’s eye as Cosette and Jean Valjean stroll the tree-lined promenades—an ideal setting for the beginning of a love story!
The Jardins de Luxembourg originated in 1611, when Marie de’ Medici, widow of Henry IV and regent of King Louis XIII, purchased the Hôtel de Luxembourg, known today as the Petit Luxembourg Palace. She then commissioned the construction of a new palace, and over the ensuing decades she had the famous Medici Fountain built, and gardens and parklands developed in the Italian Renaissance style of those she’d appreciated during her childhood in Florence. As time went on, the Jardins de Luxembourg evolved into the style of jardin à la française (French formal garden), the most famous example of which are the gardens at Versailles.
Musée des Égouts de Paris (Paris Sewer Museum)
What can only be described as the opposite of the Jardins de Luxembourg (in light, in odor, and in order!) are Paris’ sewers. They feature prominently in Les Misérables, when Jean Valjean, after escaping the horror of the barricade, experiences a dark night of the soul while carrying a severely wounded Marius through the pitch-black sewer tunnels that course below the streets of Paris. At the locked gate blocking his exit from the sewer, he encounters Thenardier, who has been hiding out in the sewers since his escape from jail.
Before the middle ages, Paris’ wastewater was dumped on fields or the city’s unpaved streets; when the streets were paved around 1200, drains for wastewater were incorporated in the center. Later, the first sewers were constructed under Rue Monmartre in 1370, moving the city’s wastewater to the Menilmontant Brook and transforming the old small river into an uncovered sewer that drained in open air. Public health suffered and insanitary conditions spread disease. It wasn’t until Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign that the first covered sewers were built, and under Napoleon III, in 1855, new aquaducts and sewers were commissioned, executed by none other than Baron Haussmann. While Haussmann did away with the old sewers just as he did Paris’ ancient neighborhoods, you can still get a sense of the notorious subterranean tunnels at Paris’ Musée des Égouts (Sewer Museum). That such a museum exists may surprise, but Paris’ sewers have long been a tourist destination—even back in Victor Hugo’s day, tours were given of the sewers, where sight-seers were transported by carts suspended from walkways that traced the walls, and later by carriages pulled by a locomotive!
Les Misérables made us les joyeux when Cosette and Marius wed one another in beautiful Église Saint-Paul Saint-Louis. The Église Saint-Paul Saint-Louis is the only remaining Jesuit church in Paris. Built in an elaborate baroque style in the heart of the Marais quarter, it was financed by King Louis XIII and constructed between 1627 and 1641. The church was plundered during the French Revolution, when it was used as a storehouse for books. Many of its artworks were destroyed at that time, as well as relics including the hearts of King Louis XIII and Louis XIV! Another revolutionary piece of the church’s history can be found on a faint message inscribed on a pillar on the right side of the nave: “République française ou la mort” (French Republic or death). It was written during the violent resistance of the Paris Commune of 1871, when Versailles troops entered Paris to put down an insurrection.
The Convent of Petit-Picpus
After their close escape from Javert in a dead-end alley, Jean Valjean and Cosette end up in the convent of Petit-Picpus, where they live for several years in quiet safety and contemplation. Yet unlike so many of Victor Hugo’s other Les Misérables locations, the convent of the Petit-Picpus did not exist. It was, however, based on an amalgam of other locations Hugo had heard about or encountered in his life, and a number of scholars, in search of the real Petit-Picpus, have identified the primary model for the convent as the monastery Bénédictines du Saint-Sacrement. It was Hugo’s mistress Léonie Biard who provided him with information about the convent, having learned about its school from a relative, and having visited it while considering a school for her own daughter.
Also considered a model for Petit-Picpus was the convent of the Dames de Sainte-Madeleine. Another of Hugo’s mistresses, Juliette Drouet, had been a pupil there, and he drew notes from her experiences. Finally, in pre-Haussmann Paris there was a Rue Picpus and a Picpus Cemetery. Adjacent to it was the convent of the Sacrés Coeurs de Jésus et de Marie de l’Adoration Perpetuelle.
Now that you’ve seen the real Paris locations of Les Misérables, see where many of its scenes were filmed and get inside information about the real-life locations and the filming!