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Paris and Its Gay Village, The Marais

Paul from Paris

Perhaps Paris may best be described as the capital of hedonism, City of Light or better even City of Delight. Its gay scene can be characterized as colorful and plentiful judging by the abundance of recent clubs, bars, saunas and gyms.

But in Paris things are best done under a cover of "charm". Where else in the world do you find gay establishments on a street called des Mauvais Garcons (the "bad boys" street, named after its 16th century turbulent inhabitants) or on a street that used to be called Tire-Boudin (roughly translated as "sausage pulling" because of the prostitutes who worked here in the Middle Ages, and has since been given the more dignified name rue Marie Stuart after a former Queen of France who is better know as the tragic Queen of Scots)?

Maybe, just maybe, Paris competes with London as the only other European city that offers such a large choice of gay venues.

 

The Marais District - Center of Gay Paris

The center of Parisian gay life is the Marais district, once a swamp until in the 13th century monks and the Knights' Templar started settling here. It is a gorgeous old neighborhood that's also home to the city's Jewish community. Now it has become an expensive, fashionable residential area, as seems to happen around the world whenever the gay set moves in.

Clustered here are the city's hottest bars along with many gay restaurants and shops, in particular on the streets (all in the 4th district):

  • rue Ste-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie
  • rue des Archives
  • rue Vieille du Temple

Adjacent to the West are two other popular extensions of the gay Marais neighborhood: Les Halles and Montorgueil.

Gay life is, however, not limited to the Marais. Traditionally the harder, leather scene has been nearer to the Bastille (rue Keller) while in more recent years also many gays tend to go out in the more popular areas of the 11th district (e.g. canal St. Martin, rue St. Maur) where many places may be a mix of straight/gay. Out of the hundreds of gay sports associations, restaurants, bars, video arcades, saunas, dance and sex clubs, many are spread all over Paris.

Map provided by Venere, used with permission.

The 20 arrondissements of Paris

A Tour of Gay Paris

As a starting point for a tour of "Gay Paree", the Open Cafe on the corner of rue St Croix Bretonnerie and rue des Archives, has almost become an institution as the axis of the Marais life. Across the street you find several very popular cafe terraces. Around the corner is the Raidd, the "in" bar now because of its sexy shows (the equivalent of Splash in New York) while the Cox remains a popular happy hour bar. To mention just two of the many naughty sex clubs: Le Depot and Impact are both located on the border between the Marais and Montorgueil areas. For restaurants you needn't limit yourself to the gay ones since many simple cafe bistros or sophisticated brasseries abound, especially if you wander away from the major streets.

One thing that most gay visitors immediately notice about the Paris scene, is that it's largely dominated by a crowd of trendy young, buffed bunnies, typically many with shaven heads (cran rase).

A Short History of Gay Paris

Most of our foreign visitors are surprised by this concentration of gays in the centre of town. This Marais Gay Village has developed really during the last twenty years.

Gay life in the 1960s and '70s used to be mainly around rue St Anne in the 1st district and on the Left Bank. These discreet, hidden clubs, where one had to ring at the door to enter, have virtually all been closed now. Then in the 1980s a bit more flamboyant, small clubs started around Les Halles (rue de la Verrerie, rue des Lombard).

Today the entire heart of the Marais area has been taken over by gay businesses that flaunt rainbow flags and have transparent windows on the street side. Trendy activity has even spread lately beyond the historic Marais to the nearby Montorgueil pedestrian area. Those who can afford to live in these fashionable areas, are often characterized as the "bo-bo's" (bourgeois-bohemian).

Wandering through Paris and Le Marais

Experienced visitors to Paris tell you that the best way to enjoy its charms is by strolling through parts of the city. On your promenade, stop regularly to sip on a real petit cafe and a croissant - this most typical experience of Parisian life. Although international food and coffee chains have opened up around Paris (including more McDonalds and Starbucks), typical traditional cafes and bistros or brasseries are still found on virtually every street.

Many trendy shops are now to be found in the many covered passageways that have been restored to their early 19th century glory. Readers of the bestseller "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown may be tempted to search for the various historic sites mentioned in the novel, starting with the pyramid courtyard of the Louvre.

Strolling about is the best way to discover the secrets of the French capital arrondissement by arrondissement (districts) and enjoy it like a local, by looking at:

  • The many house facades steeped with history.
  • Parisians relaxing at street cafes or rushing around.
  • Recognizable brown colored signs (sort of metal spatulas, designed by Philippe Starck) which explain interesting historical facts about the area, a street or a specific building.

Behind many a wooden gateway of the 17th and 18th century houses, you will be surprised by a charming courtyard, where you can still make out where the horse-drawn carriages used to be parked but now a pretty green garden has been planted for the co-owners. These important elements of the medieval city life could once be found scattered throughout the districts around the Louvre, before changes to the city forced most to disappear. Today you can still find beautiful examples mainly in the Faubourg Saint-Honore (8th district) and Le Marais (4th district).

"Le Marais" developed in the 17th century when leading aristocrats built their Palaces or Hotels Particuliers. Before that Le Marais was a vast field with flat ground and rectilinear streets, affording the space and wherewithal to build these magnificent private homes. Like contemporary gays, ancient aristos knew a good real estate deal when they saw one. Rich farming land in la Douce France formed the basis of most noblemen's fortunes and provided the sites for the stately chateaux that were their permanent homes. But when country life proved boring, and when the King did not require them to pay court at the Palace at Versailles, those who could afford it would build their own opulent town mansions. Though many of these Town Houses have now been divided into dozens of condos, their splendid facades are still a pleasure to view while meandering through the narrow streets.

Some of the best examples of these Hotel Particuliers are those preserved by the state for use as museums, such as the Picasso Museum in Hotel Aubert de Fontenay (Sale), the Historical Library housed in Hotel Lamoignon, the Parisian history museum in Hotel Carnavalet, or the Archives Museum contained in the combined former mansions of Soubise and Guenegaud. Some stunning "Hotels" in Le Marais have remained privately owned properties such as Hotel Liberal Bruand and Hotel des Ambassadeurs de Hollande.

Right or Left Bank?

Our main focus has been on the Right Bank of Paris. By crossing the river Seine which bisects the city, you can visit the famous Left Bank, or Rive Gauche, and can live the imaginary life of a writer like Sartre in 1950s Paris - observing diners at Les Deux Magots and Cafe Flore or sitting on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens or the park behind St. Julien le Pauvre, the oldest church of Paris where gospel or classical music concerts are often held. This is also the Paris of the students' Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter), boulevard St. Michel, the very bourgeois 7th district and the rather boring residential 15th district, home of the iconic Eiffel Tower.

The Left Bank is now regarded as a "has-been" area whose glory days are in the past. Today most agree that the more dynamic side of Paris is to be found on the Right Bank, Rive Droite, as demonstrated by the opening up of numerous galleries, fashion boutiques and design shops, as well as by the renovation and construction works constantly in progress there. For example, an ambitious project has just been approved to redesign and reconstruct the Forum des Halles to enable it to play better its multiple roles in the very city center, combining a huge subway hub with several cultural centers and the largest shopping mall of Paris.

This Rive Droite further includes the medieval Paris, with the world famous art museum located in the former Royal Palace of the Louvre, the elegant shops to be found along the Champs-Elyses (in particular on nearby avenue Montaigne), the Arc de Triomphe and of course the beautiful historical Marais area.

A Dynamic City of Love: the Number 1 Tourist Destination

Paris combines culture, romance, history, dynamic life and an increasingly outward, tolerant looking younger generation. This "do-as-you-please" mentality has been a gradual change during the last decade. The election of the openly gay mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, has been one of the symptoms of this shift in mind-set. Diversity is Paris' main strength and can be witnessed by the recent wave of avant-garde galleries and boutiques. It is no longer just the Impressionists' paintings in the Musee Quai d'Orsay or the Mona Lisa in the Louvre Museum one comes to see. It is very much being part of the alternative quintessential European way of life.

Paris is western and capitalist for sure, but a different emphasis on quality of life is noticeable. In this way, Paris has probably the greatest number of good and affordable bistros and restaurants of any city. With its image as the most beautiful city in the world, Paris symbolizes Old World values in the context of a very modern city. Also its reach-ability by high-speed trains has helped the popularity of Paris. Less than three hours to the heart of London, one and a half hour to Brussels and only four to Amsterdam! High-speed trains link Paris with Marseille and many other sunny southern French cities.

Parisians can be very pleasant and charming if treated with a reasonable level of courtesy la francaise. It helps if you adopt the basics of the French savoir vivre. Always start, whether it is a Parisian taxi driver, sales person, waiter, with a greeting of "bonjour" or "bonsoir" before asking a question. If you respect this basic etiquette, Parisians become smiling and helpful and many will be happy to take the time to point you in the right direction. Try a word or two of French before speaking to anyone in English. It works wonders. How would people in the US or UK respond to a stranger accosting them in a foreign tongue?

Nowadays it is easy to challenge the stereotype of Parisians as snobbish and xenophobic. Most tourists I meet are struck by how friendly the French have become, and how well they now speak English, especially the younger ones. Today's taxi drivers even take city sponsored courses in how to treat tourists correctly!

In addition politicians of all persuasions contribute to the improvement of life in the French capital. Under the socialist-ecologist administration led by the gay mayor, the city has drastically reduced car traffic and parking spaces, making touring by foot a much less hazardous experience. This mayor became famous for starting the highly successful Paris Plage; for one month during height of the summer the auto route along the Seine is closed for traffic and turned into an artificial beach including sand, showers and palm trees. Bicycles are the upcoming means of transportation. Recently the conservative national government is cracking down on crime and initiating policies with emphasis on security and anti-prostitution regulations. Even the previously omnipresent dog droppings are disappearing since the police are now fining dog owners who fail to clean up after their pets.

In 2004, in number terms, the entire population of the UK visited the French capital. Even in the midst of the Iraq War controversy, the number of US travelers continued to increase, as do those of Chinese and Japanese tourists.

If you are looking for either heavy clubbing, musicals, or financial summits, London is the place for you in Europe. If you want to be overwhelmed by ancient historical beauty and don't care for gay nightlife, Rome may be the place to be. But Paris remains by far the most visited city in the world!

In French, C'est la vie rhymes with C'est Paris.

Resources

Slow Travel - Where to Stay in Paris: Thomas describes the neighborhoods of Paris.

www.citegay.fr: Gay guide to Paris


This article was also published on www.purpleroofs.com.

Paul, an American educated Parisian, runs Marais Flat, deluxe short-term apartment rentals in center of Paris. www.maraisflat.com

Map from Venere - our hotel booking affiliate. Used with permission.

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