Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is one of my favorite stories of all time. I’ve read both the full and abridged versions and even made my now-husband accompany me to the musical while we were dating so he would really “understand” me (because I clearly have so much in common with a man in 1800s who stole a loaf of bread, but at the time it felt important). Further fun fact- I was actually wearing my dad’s Les Mis sweatshirt that he bought after seeing the show in LA in the early 90’s when my husband proposed, so there ya go.
Naturally, I was really excited to see the new film version when it came out in 2012, and equally excited to track down some of the filming locations when I moved to Paris years later.
Until I googled it and found out… the whole film was filmed in the UK! Wait, what?
But then I got to thinking… no offense to Hugh Jackman and Co. but wouldn’t it be way better to find the original locations of the actual historic events in Paris that inspired the book anyway? Victor Hugo wrote the story of Les Misérables after living in Paris and witnessing firsthand the violent uprising known as the June Rebellion of 1832. This was NOT the French Revolution (this is a common misconception), but a much smaller rebellion that occurred 43 years later, led by French students and workers in protest of an economic crisis that was widening the income gap between the city’s have and have-nots and deteriorating working class conditions.
Because Victor Hugo’s famous novel is based on historic events, there are many places throughout the city of Paris that you can still explore on foot today. Here is a suggested walking tour or “pilgrimage” of sorts for those who would like to retrace Hugo’s earlier steps, and see how they connect to the powerful story (and song lyrics!) that many of us know and love today.
Jardin des Tuileries
This is undoubtedly where you should begin your walking tour, as this is where Victor Hugo was sitting when the June Rebellion began. According to his journal, on a sunny summer day in 1832, the 30-year-old Victor Hugo was sitting in the Tuileries Gardens, writing a play, when he heard gunshots coming from the direction of Les Halles and decided to investigate. At this point, the streets were fairly deserted, but he was not aware of the extent of uprising and barricades that were occurring north of him.
The Les Halles (pronounced lay-all) neighborhood is now a large shopping district with an underground mall called Forum des Halles, but historically, the neighborhood was Paris’s central food market. For centuries, it was known by Parisians as the epicenter of working class daily life, but gained international renown after Émile Zola published a novel set in Les Halles called “Le Ventre (The Belly) de Paris.”
This is the area that Victor Hugo heard the gunshots were coming from, and where the majority of the 1832 barricades were built (although it was documented that some barricades were built on the Left Bank as well). The maze-like labyrinth of footpaths and alleyways in this area of town allowed Hugo to cautiously sneak through the area, and inspired documentation of the construction of barricades in his book. This is the real area of Paris where everyone would be running to when Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) shouts, “To the barricades!”
Passage Ben Aiad
Although it was named Passage du Saumon at the time, this small passageway located on the northern end of Les Halles is the alley Victor Hugo was eventually forced to stay hidden in on June 5, 1832 as barricades closed in on either end of the passage and bullets began flying. This is the furthest extension of Hugo’s known exploration of the barricades before seeking shelter, and undoubtedly where he pulled inspiration to document the fighting in the book.
“Halfway down the alley, the grilles at either end were slammed shut. Hugo was surrounded by barricades and flung himself against a wall, as all the shops and stores had been closed for some time. He found shelter between some columns. For a quarter of an hour, bullets flew both ways.” Graham, Robb (1998). Victor Hugo: A Biography. W.W. Norton and Company.
Today, this beautiful neighborhood church backs up to the bustling public square with the Stravinsky Fountain and whimsical modern sculptures. It is also caddy corner to two pedestrian streets, Rue Saint-Martin and Rue du Cloître Saint-Merri, where the last-standing barricades in the June Rebellion of 1832 were located. This was where Enjolras and the Friends of the ABC Cafe held out through the night in the film, and both Javert and Jean Valjean joined them. Both in real life and the story, the rebels hoped other Parisians would “join in the fight that will give you the right to free,” but as we know, very few came, and in real life, most of the fighting ended by the evening of June 5. The musical and film has them lasting throughout the night, undoubtedly for further plot development and so that we can hear Jean Valjean wow us with his vocals during “Bring Him Home.”
Place de la Bastille
In real life, the rebels decided to build their barricades on June 5, 1832 once it was determined as the day of General Lamarque’s funeral (“We need a sigggggn!”), a well-known and well-loved war hero who had fought for reform. During his public funeral, rebels rerouted the procession to lead everyone to Place de la Bastille, where the French Revolution began in 1789 when the revolutionaries famously stormed the prison. You see this real moment in history recreated in the film as rebels sing “Do You Hear the People Sing” in hushed voices. That prison is long gone and today Bastille is known as a lively area of town with lots of cafes, bars and the modern Bastille Opera House.The famous Colonne de Juillet (tall monument in middle of the circle that commemorates the French Revolution) reopened to visitors in October 2021.
Bastille is also the set location during the number “Paris/Look Down” earlier in the film, where Gavroche climbs out of an elephant. While the real Place de la Bastille does not have a large elephant statue like the one you see in the movie, such a statue did exist in 1832- or at least, a plaster model that Napoleon intended to have converted to a majestic bronze statue. That conversion never happened, and the elephant eventually began to fall apart, which Victor Hugo documents in his book, writing that it became a local eyesore known as a sad, shabby gathering place for drunks.
Victor Hugo’s Apartment
Just a few blocks from Place de la Bastille, nestled in the corner of Place des Vosges and now part of the trendy Le Marais neighborhood, Victor Hugo lived in a beautiful apartment from 1832-1848 and wrote some of his famous works there, including part of Les Misérables. It is now a museum, and you can still visit his second-floor apartment and see many of his personal effects and paintings. The main exhibition is free and walks you through his life pre- and post-exile in Guernsey (where he finished writing Les Mis).
The Maison de Victor Hugo house museum is open 10 AM- 6 PM (10h-18h), but is closed on Mondays.
As beautiful as this apartment is, we can all be relieved that Hugo decided to leave it and walk to the Tuileries Garden on June 5, 1832. This is a great place to conclude your self-guided tour of the real-life events that inspired Hugo’s prolific writings and you can follow up with a bite or drink at Café Hugo across Place des Vosges.
Last but not least, if you are revived from that drink and up for a bit more walking, you can cross the Seine River and up the hill to the Latin Quarter to visit Victor Hugo’s final resting place. He is buried in the crypt of the Panthéon, alongside other famous French writers and poets. It costs 11 euros to enter the Panthéon, and after you check out the paintings, exhibitions and and exact replica of Foucault’s Pendulum on the main floor, you have to descend under the monument to enter the Crypt and visit Hugo’s grave.
Bundle up if you are visiting in the winter months, and after paying your respects to our friends Victor Hugo, look for the graves of Voltaire, Émile Zola, Louis Braille, Josephine Baker and Marie Curie.