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March/April 2005 | Parisian Pleasures

March/April 2005 | Parisian Pleasures

Brush up on the ongoing evolution of the Marais, Gay Paree's queerest hood, before jumping headlong into the city's sexy subterranean club scene

At night the streets of the Marais seem like a movie set. The narrow avenues and 17th-century buildings could easily be mistaken for the work of a master Hollywood set designer created on some vast soundstage. Streetlamps cast the lanes in a rich golden glow and paint the walls of the centuries-old grand mansions in patterns of shadow and light.

People pass by singly and in bands, traveling from caf? to cabaret like extras in an updated version of Baz Luhrmann's popular staging of La Boh?me. But today's cabarets are bars like Le Raidd, where the patrons stand shoulder to shoulder drinking, smoking, and chatting over deafening house music while a perfectly built man showers nude in an elevated plexiglass cubicle.

In places like Le Raidd, the neighborhood recalls less the varied gay history of Paris than it does New York City's Chelsea district and West Hollywood, Calif. But like other essentially American concepts, the idea of the gay ghetto has not been entirely well received in France.

Gay political radicals reject the separatist nature of the ghetto, while mainstream critics claim that elevating the community over society threatens the very foundations of the republic itself. One cheeky radio commentator has even called the Marais "a game preserve," comparing it to Jurassic Park, a place where "one keeps the monsters together."

Regardless of the criticism, the Marais, which encompasses most of the third and fourth arrondissements, is the recognized center of gay Paris. There you find the greatest concentration of gay-specific shops, restaurants, and bars. This is a relatively recent development in the centuries-long history of the neighborhood, which in part explains some of the hullabaloo.

In French, marais means "marsh," but the marshes are long gone; they were drained during the Middle Ages by the Knights Templar--the powerful monastic military order formed during the First Crusade--in their quest for agricultural land.

As the centuries passed, the farmland was swallowed up by the growing city, and the Marais became the preferred address for Paris's privileged class. They built their h?tels particuliers, the grand mansions, for which the district is still famous today. These were eventually converted into workshops for local craft industries after the affluent residents sought out more chic addresses or followed the royal court to Versailles in the late 17th century.

Most recently, after years of disuse and decay, many of these mansions have been restored and now house museums--like the Picasso Museum, a beacon for art lovers gay and straight alike, and the Carnavalet Museum, a one-stop survey of French art from prehistory through the 20th century--and upscale shops, bars, and restaurants, all thanks to a 1965 law declaring the Marais a protected historic district.

This 1965 legislation also provided opportunities for gay businessmen like Joel Leroux and Maurice McGrath. In the late '70s and early '80s these men were among those who took advantage of the low rents and real estate prices and opened the first gay caf?s in the district. Unlike gay bars of the past, these establishments operated during the daytime as well as at night and were open onto the street.

Leroux and McGrath consciously set out to create a gay quarter based on the model of New York City's Greenwich Village (Leroux's first bar was even named Le Village) and the Castro in San Francisco, and their caf?s reflected the openness of the gay residents in those cities; they represented a new kind of gay culture. Before then gay bars were virtually hidden and were open only late at night. This experiment in bringing gay Paris into the light of day succeeded, and in the intervening years gay businesses have continued to flourish in the quarter. Not only that, their actions also catalyzed the waves of gentrification that have renovated the once-dilapidated quarter.

Today, during the daytime, the countless boutiques, museums, caf?s, bars, and restaurants draw crowds along the central streets, transforming the narrow sidewalks into slow-moving lines as people leisurely stroll from storefront to storefront hunting for all manner of necessities and luxuries.

An afternoon in the Marais is not complete without a stop in one of the two gay specialty bookshops in the neighborhood--Les Mots a la Bouche, the grand dame of Parisian gay bookstores, and Le Blue Book, the new kid on the block.

The French value their literary heritage, and they take their bookstores very seriously. Unsurprisingly, the depth of selection at both shops is superb. Alongside new editions of the works of gay literary pioneers like Gide and Genet are books by France's new generation of gay novelists, art and photography monographs, literature in translation, and works of serious scholarship. You'll also find more carnal pleasures like the popular "Dieux du Stade" calendar, which features professional French rugby players in the buff.

But gay Paris is more than the Marais--something that every lover of queer literature knows. East of the Marais, at the end of the Rue du Chemin Vert in the 20th arrondissement, lies P?re Lachaise, the famous cemetery in which three gay literary luminaries and one divine opera diva are buried. Marcel Proust rests under a plain slab of marble in his family's plot; Maria Callas is remembered with a bronze plaque over a wall niche just to the south of Proust; a little farther on Oscar Wilde occupies a modernist tomb dotted with the lipstick kisses left by thousands of visitors through the years; and finally the celebrated lesbian thinker Gertrude Stein rests in an austere plot near the southeast corner.

But not everyone wants to spend his holiday in a cemetery. Paris's gay club scene has undergone a recent rebirth after falling into a deep funk in the late '90s. Gay nightlife aficionados Fabrice De Simone and his lover, Jean-Pierre, returned to Paris to take part in this recent resurgence of gay club culture after living abroad in San Francisco for several years. The two men are excited by the reinvigorated scene and now produce, an interactive Web site that tracks gay clubbing hot spots.

They suggested I start off with dinner in the Marais. Quelle surprise! Le Reconfort (57 rue du Poitou) is a North African-themed dream of a restaurant, simultaneously cozy and exotic. The food is superb, the atmosphere narcotic. Each tiny detail merges with all the rest, like dots in a pointillist painting, to create a spellbinding evening. B4 (6/8 Square Ste-Croix de le Bretonnerie) is sleek and modern, but the food is not particularly memorable. However, the highly watchable crowd and the picture windows looking out onto one of the busiest corners in the Marais provide limitless entertainment.

Around the corner from B4 is Le Cox (15 rue des Archives). The crowd channels a sexy San Francisco vibe without sacrificing the a la fran?aise. Le Cox is famed for its Friday and Saturday night happy hour, which has the crowds spilling over onto the streets, and for changing its decor every season. When the disco calls, most gay tourists still think of the Queen on the Champs Elys?es in the eighth arrondissement. Though this old standby still draws a crowd, she lacks the feverish, decadent energy of her youth. (If the club were located in New York City, the term "bridge and tunnel" would be tossed about frequently when describing the patrons.)

Not to be missed, however, is Plaisir, the Sunday tea dance at La Sc?ne Bastille (2 bis rue des Taillandiers) in the 11th--a smaller gay neighborhood abutting the Marais where the Paris's gay and lesbian center, CGL-Paris, makes its home. Paris's hottest men are there. This is a club for people who hate clubs and people who love clubs. The music is fresh and exciting, the crowd is happy and humpy, and if you're not a dancer, you'll be entertained all night long by the people watching. La Sc?ne is fresh and buzzy like young love or a perfect summer day.

If old school is more your thing and you're looking for a disco off the beaten path, check out L'insolite (33 rue des Petits Champs) in Les Halles (in the first and second arrondissements). You won't find many tourists there because finding this place is an adventure in itself. Once you locate the street address you'll pass through an archway and veer to the left where an unassuming doorway opens onto a staircase descending to the basement club. It's all very undercover and hush-hush: a disco on the down low, if you will. You almost expect the doorman to ask you for the secret password.

Once inside L'insolite, perhaps you'll get a taste of what gay life in Paris was like before the Marais, when clubs were more secretive than the French resistance during World War II. L'insolite is not particularly fashionable, and it surely hasn't been hip since Mitterrand first took office, but it's a lot of crowded, attitude-free fun, and definitely not for those who can't appreciate slumming.

Much of the credit for Gay Paree's renaissance goes to gay mayor Bertrand Delano?. Elected in 2001, Delano? has brought a sense of fun to the city (importing sand to the banks of the Seine every summer to create the Paris Beach, for example). His openness and popularity have emboldened the city's gay community. And he's hired young gay men in key government positions--like Laurent Queige, the mayor's office tourism assistant--who have acted as Paris's gay ambassadors to the world.

People like Queige, club scenesters like Fabrice De Simone, and a new generation of promoters and entrepreneurs have helped make Paris's gay scene hip again. Just in time for spring!

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at if you have any new information.
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