The Secretly Real Places in Victor Hugo’s Novel, Les Misérables

Let's travel to Victor Hugo's Paris! Join Hayley as she gives us a tour of the city based on the French writer's masterpiece, Les Misérables.

Published by Hayley on 13/11/2017

The exact position of the barricade in Les Misérables was already erased by urban development when the novel went to press in 1862. Victor Hugo drops his fictional team of revolutionaries into the true-story hotbed of 1830’s Les Halles, somewhere under Rue de Rambuteau which was paved in 1838 (the republican insurrection was on 5 June 1832).

A City Made By People Paris Les Miserables Rue D Alexandrie

Image of the view from “our barricade” towards the Garde Nationale approaching with bayonets glinting.

I am frustrated not to have GPS coordinates for the book's most iconic moment. I need to stand on the spot where the heroes fell; I need to peek down the very street towards the glinting bayonets of the advancing Garde Nationale. I decided to take the criteria for the barricade's position and find a current-day match. 

We're looking for a short east-west street, approaching Rue Saint Denis to the east, easy to block from the west, with a clattering café to represent the novel's cabaret Corinthe, and positioned to gain territory from powerful Louis-Philippe. We need a place to laugh, weep, fall in love and break into song à-la-Eddy Redmayne in the musical version.

Rue d'Alexandrie? With our backs to the triangular place animated by Edgar, the stylish hotel/bar/brasserie, we can defend what could easily have been the northern limit of the insurgents' territory. Safe(-ish) behind our barricade, we can make merry at the Baretto di Edgar or lick our wounds (hopefully metaphorical ones) in the place. The other streets openings are narrow and easy to defend. It's not a perfect match, but it feels right - it has that Parisian quality: the impression that astonishing things can happen here. 

A City Made By People Paris Les Miserables Combined2

Image of Saint Merry near Les Halles (left) and Les Halles as it is today (right).

Who knows if cabaret Corinthe ever existed? The mostly-fictitious Les Misérables pauses at addresses that do, did, or never existed throughout its pages, across France and as far as as Waterloo in Belgium - but mostly in Paris. 

16 rue de la Verrerie, the garret where Courfeyrac hosts Marius, now offers sculpted patisseries labelled Michalak (try the Mon Koeur cake). 6 Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire, Marius' grandfather's apartments is today a hip shopping spot in Le Marais. The lovely Jardin de Luxembourg where Marius and Cosette first laid eyes on eachother is now... Jardin de Luxembourg. The route that little Gavroche took that fateful day of 5 June makes for an entertaining 5km ballade through the liveliest areas of Paris, starting at the Edith Piaf Museum in Belleville and ending at our barricade.

A City Made By People Paris Les Miserables Quai Aus

Image of Quai d’Austerlitz

The insurgents took one of today’s edgiest sections of the Seine, revolting opposite pre-Wanderlust Quai d’Austerlitz and stopping at Pavillion de l'Arsenal, although probably not to check out Paris' hot-off-press urbanisation schemes. I have enjoyed tracing it out on the fun website Sygic. In fact, the book alternates between sections with no specified position, and others so frequently referenced that we can literally trace the steps through today's Paris, even after Hausmmann, and the shiny developments on display at l'Arsenal.

A City Made By People Paris Les Miserables Passage Caire

Image of the curious Passage Caire (Cairo Passage) near “our barricade.”

No wander through Victor Hugo's Paris would be complete without stopping at the author's pre-exile apartment on Place des Vosges in the bubbling heart of the Marais. Victor Hugo was self-exiled from France from 1852 to 1870 and Les Misérables was written during this time. Hugo's nostalgia for Paris is clear. I was a fan of Paris long before living here, thanks in large part to the novel itself and the evocative music of Boublil & Schönberg's famous musical version. It is enormously rewarding to walk the steps that the characters took, and that Hugo must have taken many a time.

Words by Hayley Azar

If you enjoyed this little tour of Paris, check out Issue 2 of A City Made By People! We've got more unique tours of cities for you there, don't miss out! 

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