A place I reference frequently in my novels is a little neighborhood in Paris called Le Marais. These days Marais is quite similar in feel to the West Village in NYC, chock-full of bars, restaurants, hotels, high and low fashion boutiques, trendy shops, hip designers, old fashioned bread shops, jewelry, wine shops, fashionable art galleries and museums all crammed into one small area. Long the aristocratic district of Paris, it hosts many outstanding buildings of historic and architectural importance. But what of its history?

Marais started out focused on religion with the Order of the Temple building its fortified church in the northern part in 1240. Many other religious institutions were added nearby (such as convents and the church of Sainte-Catherine-du-Val-des-Écoliers) and the area became known as the Temple Quarter. During the mid-13th century, Charles I of Anjour, King of Naples and Sicily, and brother of King Louis IX of France built his new residence in Marais. King Charles V followed with a mansion in 1361 and from then till the 17th century, Marais became known as the Royal Square, the French nobility’s favorite place of residence. French nobles were fond of building their urban mansions there – such as the Hôtel de Sens, the Hôtel de Sully, the Hôtel de Beauvais, the Hôtel Carnavalet, the Hôtel de Guénégaud and the Hôtel de Soubise. During the late 18th century, whilst still being known as an aristocratic area, Marais was no longer a fashionable district for the nobility. Then came the Revolution.

After the revolution, much of the area was abandoned by the rich, and poor bohemian types moved in. At this point, Marais was so squalid that it was nearly destroyed by city officials in their attempt to modernize Paris. This was also the beginning of the time period when the area started attracting a large Jewish community, quickly becoming one of Paris’ main Jewish communities. Unfortunately, the people living here were targeted by the Nazis occupying France during WWII. Since the 90s, however, the street, rue des Rosiers, has made a comeback as a major centre for the Jewish community.

The Marais today is now one of Paris’ main localities for art galleries. It’s also known for the Chinese community it hosts. Marais has also become a center for LGBTQ+ culture, starting in the 80s. 40% of Paris’ LGBTQ+ businesses are located in Marais. Florence Tamagne, author of “Paris: ‘Resting on its Laurels’?”, wrote that Le Marais “is less a ‘village’ where one lives and works than an entrance to a pleasure area” and that this differentiates it from Anglo-American gay villages. Tamagne added that like U.S. gay villages, Le Marais has “an emphasis on ‘commercialism, gay pride and coming-out of the closet'”.

One of the best things about Marais though is that it truly is the Paris of old. Before Napoleon showed up, the Marais is what most of Paris looked like – a labyrinth of cobblestone alleys. The rest of Paris was razed by Napoleon and replaced with huge avenues and gigantic squares, but standing in the Marais, we are privy to the small and approachable Paris of the past. There’s a reason I love it so. Explore Le Marais in the photos and video below!