Anywhere but Here.

It’s Nice to be Wanted

France has a long history of tolerance for alternative sexuality. It’s been a refuge for homosexuals from Oscar Wilde to James Baldwin to Gertrude Stein, and a live and let live attitude regarding love and sex seems to prevail. Recently though, France has been moving beyond tolerance to a genuinely enthusiastic embrace of gay residents and visitors. The mayor of Paris is openly gay. Recent legislation extends domestic partner (essentially marriage rights) benefits to same sex couples–and this approved under a conservative national government. Gay bars, bed and breakfasts, shops, restaurants, gay organizations, saunas and discos are proliferating–not only in Paris, but in smaller cities throughout France. The national and regional tourist offices, businesses, mainstream hotels and restaurants, and individual city governments are all enthusiastically welcoming gay travelers. It’s nice to be wanted!

Pride in Gay Paree

You’ll feel especially welcome during the last weekend in June, when Paris’ puts on it’s huge annual gay pride celebration. Watch the festive, chaotic and very long parade from any point along its considerable route from Place d’ Italie to Nation (Bastille is a convenient location) or join in and march with a favorite group–every one is welcome to participate as well as watch. Afterwards, the Marais becomes a huge street party for the remainder of the evening. Naturally there are disco parties and special events the whole weekend long. And while Paris Pride is the ultimate, cities throughout France now have gay parades and events–you could spend all of June celebrating gay pride, French style.

Even on a normal day, Paris is the center of gay life in France, with a huge gay community, bars and clubs of every description, trendy gay restaurants, stores selling trendy clothes and campy doodads, and an excellent gay bookstore (Les Mots a La Bouche). Begin your exploration of Gay Paris at the Open Cafe. It seems like every gay boy in Paris eventually strolls by these sidewalk table, and you can happily linger over a coffee, beer or cocktail. Pick up free copies of the several weekly gay agendas for detailed listings of the many other bars and events. The Marais, the lively and traditionally gay quarter of Paris is so popular now that gays have begun colonizing adjacent areas as well–Rue Oberkampf, Canal St. Martin, and the slightly seedy Second Arrondissement are all worth a look. Of course you will see gay people everywhere in Paris and you should feel at home wherever you go.

Racing to embrace gays

Many visitors–and many Parisians themselves–have the impression that that gay life in France begins and ends in Paris. Now a number of regions and cities throughout the country are taking various initiatives to prove that they are just as gay friendly as the capitol. Leading the pack in the this regard is Le Mans, a Loire Valley town best known for the exciting (but not at all gay)Circuit Des 24 Heures du Mans auto race. Yet the city also boasts an organization of gay friendly businesses—Charte d’accueil et de bienvenue Lesbian and Gay Friendly—which now includes most of the hospitality industry in Le Mans. For instance, the grand old belle époqueHotel Concorde, traditional and charmingly old-fashioned, proudly displays its gay friendly charter at the front door. Restaurants are also gay friendly; try traditional cuisine of the Loire atLe Grangeraie in the center of town, or venture out to the nearby nature reserve L’ Arche de la Nature, for a simple but delicious buffet on a farm.

For something more exciting, you can practice your own racing skills on a gas powered go-cart at the very butch Circuits “Alain Prost”. The hunky staff won’t care if you are gay or even if you send your cart crashing at high-speed through the track-side barricade! Auto racing is a theme running through the town, and for aficionados there is great collection of historic vehicles in theMusée de l’Automobile. Historic Le Mans—dating back to the 13th century–is really the highlight of the city however. Vieux Le Mans, the medieval core, boasts the largest concentration of half-timbered buildings in France. And not to be missed–not that you could–is the immense Cathedral St. Julien which spans the entire range of medieval church architecture from fortress-like Romanesque to flamboyant high gothic. The gay “scene” is small town, but in addition to the gay friendly bars and cafes, you will also find a gay disco (La Limite), cabaret (Palace Cafe) and sauna (Le Nil), should you find yourself craving company.

Life in a Student Town

In Montpellier, in what is thought of as the more conservative south, perhaps it is the presence of so many students that lends a gay friendly atmosphere. Of the city’s 240,000 residents, 60,000 are students, creating an overwhelmingly youthful vibe. Add to this the relentless sunshine, and the plentiful terrace cafes that surround every square and you have one of the best cities for people watching in France! The Cafe de la Mer is the gay cafe, with tables spilling out into a popular square, and ultra-cute waiters. Grab a table and a pernod and watch the boys (and girls) go by. The nearby Rue des Teissiers is a narrow passage lined with small gay and gay friendly cafes, their sidewalk tables creating a sort of nonstop block party. For late night partying, Le Heaven and Le New THT offer boys, drinks and small dance floors once you have buzzed your way in. For sun and swimming, the Mediterranean beaches are a short drive from town and the surrounding country side is dotted with ancient villages, Languedoc wineries and ruined Templar castles.

Back in the city, the best way to see the city’s rather hidden historic sites is with the excellent three hour guided tour offered by the Office du Tourisme Montpellier. You’ll get a look into the courtyards of private renaissance houses and the 12th century Jewish ritual bath–rediscovered after seven centuries! Montpelier is home as well to some really great food; for an incredible meal don’t miss La Compagnie des Comptoirs—or their (much less expensive) sister restaurant on the beach at nearby La Grande Motte. The latter is a tent which sits directly on the beach affording incredible views of the Mediterranean and the option of a post lunch swim; the entire restaurant is dismantled in the autumn, and re-erected each spring.

Relaxing in Provence

Provence is probably the most popular holiday region in France after Paris. It’s a perfect spot for sun, scenery, wine, and lazily whiling away the days at an outdoor restaurant or a hotel swimming pool. For a real treat, L’Hotel Les Ateliers de L’Image is the sort of hotel you actually hate to leave to go sightseeing. The rooms are simple, cool and comfortable; The public areas are fashion magazine chic; but it is the large, stunningly beautiful pool and the extensive grounds that make the hotel a destination in itself. Though located in the heart of little St. Remy, the pool overlooks the open countryside–perfect for cooling off midday, or for a midnight swim. As there are only 24 rooms, it feels very exclusive, and very private. The highlight of St. Remy are the excavations of the Roman city of Glanum. You can see the foundations of the ancient buildings and the Roman street grid, yet two thirds of this sizable city remains buried. There is a short walking trail to take you there. This entire region of course was an important part of the Roman empire, and reminders of this ancient heritage are everywhere. In Arles, the Roman arena is still used for bullfights and the local variant, bull racing. In bull racing, unarmed (and apparently reckless) young men compete with bulls–the bulls are never harmed, and they, not the boys, achieve fame and status! Again, for the best look at Arles’ many Roman ruins and Medieval buildings, the Arles Office de Tourisme offers excellent guided visits in English. TheMusée de L’Arles Antique features extensive ancient artifacts from the region. Fascinating and beautifully presented, this relatively new museum should not be missed. Avignon is home to the monumental Palais du Papes, the temporary residence of the popes during the 14th century. It’s an impressive example of religious fortress architecture. The town itself is charming, retaining its old city wall and filled with sunny squares and outdoor restaurants. And with six Michelin star restaurants, Avignon offers some pretty impressive Provençal cuisine. Avignon is also the center of gay life in the region. It’s handful of gay bars (Le Cid CafeLMCafe), clubs (Le EsclaveThe Cage) and sauna (H Club) draw gays from throughout the region. Mostly though, province is more about relaxing than a pulsing nightlife–and you may be surprised to find that there are huge number of gay and specifically gay friendly hotels, bed and breakfast properties, country houses and villas–many quite luxurious–scattered throughout the region. The organization Gay Provence is an excellent source for Provence accommodation, restaurants, and information; they are very eager to offer advice and assistance and maintain an comprehensive and informative website. Spring, early summer and Autumn are the best times to visit Provence–it is warm but not so crowded. If you want to see the world famous Avignon Arts Festival though, you will have to brave the July heat and crowds–and book everything well in advance.

A Quick Jaunt from Paris

Only an hour northwest of Paris, and easily accessible by train, the charming city of Rouen is perfectly located for a weekend trip from Paris. This medieval town, where Jeanne d’Arc was burned at the stake, has much to offer–historic architecture, an impressive cathedral, a good art museum, great Norman food, and pleasant inexpensive hotels. And Rouen also boasts a lively and friendly gay scene, including two very busy lesbian bars. Reserve a room at the the gay-owned La Vieux Carre, which also has a very pleasnt restaurant. It’s very reasonably priced, centrally located and oozing with half-timbered charm. Exploring this small city is effort free–you can easily visit all the main sites on foot. While the Cathedral Notre Dame–made even more famous by Monet’s paintings–is the most impressive building in town, other nearby monuments worth seeing are the flamboyantly Gothic Palais du Justice, The Eglise St.-Ouen, the Horloge medieval clock tower, and the streets of ancient half-timbered houses. A visit to the pleasant Musée des Beaux-Arts makes a restful change from the crowds at the Paris museums. Too much culture? Rouen offers an astonishing range of shopping for its size–from incredible chocolates and pastries to handmade luxury items, and branches of the famous Paris design houses such as Hermes. In the evening, gay life beckons. The XXL has a bar on the ground floor, a small disco below, and frequent theme parties–often a decidedly sexual theme. A casual, friendly atmosphere pervades, thanks to the efforts of gregarious owner Stephane. Just down the street, Blues offers a huge cocktail menu, and a laid-back lounge atmosphere. The lesbian scene is particularly lively (because of the link to gender bending heroine Jeanne d’ Arc?) with two busy bars. Le Miss Marple–named for the famous fictional detective–andL’Insolite are both filled with friendly and attractive women.

sidebar: A Luxury Weekend in Paris

The Marais is funky, fun, and tres gay, but perhaps you dream of that chic, ultra-luxurious, and very romantic Paris you’ve seen in so many movies. Could it get any more glamorous than a weekend at the Four Seasons George V Hotel? This historic property, with huge rooms, stunning decor, staff rushing to accommodate your every whim, and every amenity you can think of, is one of the world’s great hotels. See Robbie Williams check out as the Rolling Stones check in—the hotel routinely caters to celebrities and presidents—yet Director of Marketing Jean-Pierre Soutric is enthusiastic about welcoming and accommodating gay guests. The concierge can even direct you to the current gay hotspots. It couldn’t be more luxurious and romantic, but of course all this comes at quite a price (do inquire about the many discounts and packages on offer). Still, you’ll be the envy of your friends back home. The Hyatt Regency Paris Madeleine is smaller luxury hotel, with a cool, contemporary look, stylishly comfortable rooms, friendly staff, and a relaxed atmosphere. It will appeal to artistic types (it’s Pavarotti’s hotel of choice) and again, gay guests are enthusiastically welcomed. Now, put on your best Paris suit (or pick up a stylish yet reasonably priced new one from local menswear designer Melchior) and head out for a deluxe meal at one of Paris’ famed restaurants. Try the chic, contemporaryMaison Blanche, with its stunning city views or the George V’s own 3 star Le Cinq. However, whether you opt for luxury hotels or a pension in the Marais, Michelin star restaurants or cozy bistros, an evening stroll through Paris with a special friend is as romantic as any movie, and costs nothing at all.

The List: Stay/Eat/Play/Do

PARIS

Hotel Ambassador Concorde 16 Blvd Haussmann, +33 1/4483-4040 fax +33 01/4296-1984,www.hotelambassador-paris.com, 200-500 Euros)

Hotel Four Seasons George V 31 Avenue George V, +33 1/4952-7001 fax +33 01/4952-7011,www.fourseasons.com, 565-2250 euros,

Hotel Hyatt Regency Madeleine 24 Boulevard Malesherbes, + 33 1/5527-1207 fax 33 1/5527-1210, www.paris-hyatt.com, 355-600 euros

Paris Tourist Office and Convention Bureau 127 Avenue des Champs Elysees, 33 01/49.52.53.27 Fax +33 1/4952-5330 www.paris-touristoffice.com

Open Cafe 17 rue des Archives, +33 1/4887-8025

Melchior various locations around Paris

Maison Blanche 15 avenue Montaigne, 33/1 4723-5599 fax 33/1 4720-0956

LE MANS

Hotel Concorde 16 Avenue Général Leclerc. +33 2/4324-1230, fax +33 2/4324-8574,www.concordelemans.com, 88-140 euros

Le Grangeraie 23 place de l’éperon, +33 2/4323-9306, 14-20 euros

Le Mans Tourist Office Rue de l’Etoile, +33 2/4328-1722 Fax : +33 2/4328-1214, www.ville-lemans.fr

La Limite 7 rue Saint-Honoré, +33 2/ 4324-8554

Palace Cafe 101 avenue du Général-Leclerc, +33 2/4387-0936

Le Nil 36 rue de Fluerus, +33 2/4323-2681

MONTPELLIER

La Compagnie des Comptoirs La Grand Travers, La Grande Motte, +33 4/6756-4342 fax +33 4/6756-4342, www.lacompagnedescomptoirs.com, 20-25 euros

Languedoc Roussillon Regional Tourist Board 417 rue Samuel Morse Montpellier,+33 04/6722-81.00 Fax +33 04/6722-8027,www.tourisme-languedoc-roussillon.com

Cafe de la Mer 5 place du Marché-aux-Fluers, +33/4 6760-7965

Le Heaven 1 rue Delpech, +33/4 6760-4418

Le New THT 12 rue Saint-Firmin, +33/4 6766-1252

PROVENCE

L’Hotel Les Ateliers de L’Image 36 boulevard Victor Hugo Saint Rémy de Provence, +33 4/9092-5150 fax +33 4/9092-5150, email info@hotelphoto.com

Arles Office de Tourisme 43 Bd de Craponne, +33/4 9018-4124, www.ville-arles.fr

Provence Regional Touist Board www.crt-paca.fr

Le Cid Cafe 11 pace de l’Horloge, +33/4 9082-3038

LMCafe 40 rue des Lices, +33/4 9086-1967

Le Esclave 12 rue du Limas, +33/49085-1491

The Cage Gare Routière, +33/4 9027-0084

H Club 20 rue de Paul-Manivet, +33/4 9085-0039

ROUEN

La Vieux Carre 34 rue de la Ganterie, +33/2 3571-6770 fax +33 2/3571-1917, vieux-carre@mcom.frwww.vieux-carre.fr, 60 euros

Rouen Tourist Office

25 place de la Cathédrale, +32 2/3208-3242 fax +33/2 3208-3656,

www.rouentourisme.com

XXL 25 rue de la Savonnerie, 15:00-4:00, +33/2 3588-8400

Blues 15 rue Saint Etienne des Tonneliers, +33/2 3588-8400

Le Miss Marple 35 rue de la Tour de beurre, 18:00-2:00, +33/2 3588-4732

L’Insolite 58 rue d’Amiens, 19:00-2:00, +33/2 3588-8400

RESOURCES

Maison de la France (www.franceguide.com) The French tourist offices are an invaluable resources. Before you go, make use of the website to explore options and request information. Upon arrival, local offices can provide information, maps, assistance and often excellent walking tours.

Gay Provence (www.gay-provence.org) Providing booking for gay friendly accommodation throughout Provence as well as information on bars, clubs and restaurants.

By Clay Doyle {Published in a slightly different form in Out & About, June 2004}


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