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July/August 2005 | Ooh La Loire!

July/August 2005 | Ooh La Loire!

Gay life is flourishing in France's fruitful Loire Valley, where countless grand chateaux lord over verdant forests and exquisitely manicured gardens

French king François I had a thing for Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci. In 1516 he invited the old artist and inventor to live at one of his chateaux in Amboise, the Clos Luce, in the heart of the Loire Valley. A secret underground passage linked the royal residence with Leonardo’s, and it is said that the young king would often use this tunnel to visit his old friend at his adopted home, where Leonardo died in 1519. Nearly 500 years later, the kings of France are long gone, but visiting queens and lesbians will find plenty to keep them occupied in this fascinating region, steeped in history, culture, and art.

The country’s longest river and one of the few remaining “wild” rivers in Europe, the Loire neatly bisects France into two, at least according to national weather reports, which often include the words “sunny south of the Loire.” Its periodic flooding makes for extremely fertile soil, earning the region one of its many monikers: “the garden of France.” Anjou pears come from here, as do tarte tatin, rillettes, mushrooms grown in caves, and wines like Vouvray, Sancerre, and Chinon. Locals have perfected gardening as an art form, demonstrated in the formal flower and vegetable gardens of Villandry chateau, the Parc Floral de la Source in Orleans, and the annual (and very gay) International Garden Festival at Chaumont, where this year’s theme is “gardens have memories.” Literature buffs will appreciate that this is the home of Rabelais, Ronsard, Balzac, and George Sand. And virtually everyone in France admits that the “Val de Loire” is where you’ll find the “purest” French spoken.

The tourist draw, however, is the many chateaux that dot the riverbanks and forests, testimony to the region’s rich and royal history. You’ll recognize the fairy-tale castles of Azay-le-Rideau and Chenonceau from the posters hanging in your high school French class, and the massive pile of Chambord--built as a hunting lodge--never fails to impress. It’s in these magnificent structures that France’s royals and nobles entertained, cavorted, trysted, and schemed. Joan of Arc, France’s drag king patron saint, was also active here. Her virginity was verified in Orleans, where you’ll now find a statue of her astride a horse in the center of town. Tours, another principal town (less than an hour from Paris by TGV), is more closely associated with Saint Martin; bits and pieces of him are preserved in the basilica just off the town’s bustling medieval square, Place de Plumereau. Plan at least three days to tour the chateaux region around Tours and Amboise, and a good week for a more in-depth visit. And if you’ve got more time, continue downstream to Angers--dominated by an impressive fortified chateau--and Nantes, one of France’s most happening cities and the gateway to Brittany.

Once famous for its conservatism and almost slavish adherence to tradition, the Loire has loosened up big-time over the past few years, following the lead of nearby Le Mans, which claimed last year to be the first official “gay-friendly” city in France. Gay establishments are popping up everywhere, it seems--from the major cities of Orleans, Tours, and Nantes to smaller towns like Amboise and Blois. The region even boasts several gay-run chateaux-hotels set in bucolic splendor--giving gay visitors the perfect opportunity to experience the delights of the famous French countryside in grand style. “Gay people here used to allgo up to Paris for a night on the town,” says Jacky Tricheux, owner of Orleans’s most happening gay bar, Le Petit Café, “but now there’s plenty to keep us busy right here.” Local business owner Olivier echoes Jacky’s sentiments: “Everyone got sick of the traffic jams on the way to Paris, and people have discovered how great it can be to meet other locals.” You can meet the locals too; all it takes is a “bonjour.”

ESSENTIALS

Accommodations

Amboise boasts no fewer than five gay-run lodging establishments and makes an excellent base. Right in the center of town, on the left bank of the Loire on the site of an ancient royal monastery, is the elegant Manoir les Minimes (34 Quai Charles Guinot; 011-33-247-304-040) run by Eric and Patrice, an outgoing gay couple who speak perfect English. A more romantic lodging option is the Chateau des Ormeaux (Route de Noizay, 37530 Nozelles; 011-33-247-232-651) located a few miles outside of town. It’s owned and managed by a trio of gay guys, who’ll give you a choice of a room with a turret boudoir (literally “pouting room” in French) or a stylish troglodyte apartment (cave dwellings carved out of the soft tufo limestone are a highlight of the region). Emmanuel Guenot, one of the owners, is happy to share with you his stories of transforming an abandoned castle into an upscale lodging establishment. “We’ve become not only hoteliers but also winegrowers, decorators, chefs, tile layers, and pool maintenance specialists,” he explains. In Orleans gay-run, tastefully remodeled Hotel de l’Abeille (64 Rue Alsace Lorraine; 011-33-238-626-584) offers lots of Old World atmosphere just steps from the train station in the center of town. If you have a car, the fabulously upmarket, gay-friendly Chateau de Reignac (19, Rue Louis de Barberin, 37310 Reignac-sur-Indre; 011-33-247-941-410) dates from the 15th century, and is well situated for exploring the region; it’s outside of Tours on the banks of the Indre River.

Restaurants

Fooding and conviviality” promises the sign above NEXTdoor (6 Rue au Lin; 011-33-238-624-000) in Orleans’s medieval district. Inside, you’ll find trendy decor, a largely gay clientele, and imaginative cuisine like goat cheese wrapped in smoked salmon, served on mache with olive oil drizzle. For more traditional fare try the cozy bistro setting at Chez Noe (195 Rue de Bourgogne; 011-33-238-534-409), or Brasserie du Martroi (12 Place du Martroi; 011-33-238-421-500) on the city’s central square. Try the monkfish in saffron sauce, followed by a tarte tatin. In Amboise sexy chef Sebastian Begouin cooks up an amazing eight-course feast at his newly opened Pavillon des Lys (9 Rue d’Orange; 011-33-247-300-101), which also boasts four vast and impeccably decorated rooms. Menu items range from "natural" foie gras with a fig compote to southern veggies wrapped in coconut leaves. The lesbian-run Café des Arts (32 Rue Victor Hugo; 011-33-247-572-504) on the main square is a homier option, for both food and lodging. In Tours sample regional favorites like rabbit with mustard sauce or sautéed veal kidneys at l’Hedoniste (16 Rue Lavoisier; 011-33-247-052-040), just steps from the cathedral--and several gay venues.

Nightlife

Tours has a thriving little gay scene scattered throughout the town’s fascinating historic center. Start at the cozy café-bar La P’tite Chose (32 Rue de la Grosse Tour; 011-33-247-760-009), which is especially animated during the monthly meetings of Tours’s Angels (011-33-699-272-684), a gay sports, culture, and leisure association that meets at 7 p.m. on the last Thursday of every month. Le Lionceau (55; 011-33-247-611-713) is an old, smoke-filled standby just down the street from the newer Queer (108 Rue du Commerce; 011-33-247-750-427). Tours also boasts a disco called Le GI (13 Rue Lavoisier; 011-33-247-662-996), right near the cruisiest part of the promenade along the Loire. The most popular nightclub in the region, however, is Boys’club (5 Mocquebaril, St. Laurent Nouan; 011-33-254-872-139), located along a country road near Beaugency. Both clubs feature drag shows and plenty of prancing pretty boys. (Keep in mind that French discos don’t really get going until 1 a.m. or so.) In Orleans stop by le P’tit Café (255 Rue de Bourgogne; 011-33-238-625-886), a friendly bar-café.
Attractions

Visiting the Chateaux usually tops the list here. Must-sees include Chenonceau (pack a picnic lunch to enjoy on the extensive grounds), Azay-le-Rideau (features an evocative sound-and-light show on summer evenings, as does the chateau in Blois), and Chambord in central Amboise. You’ll need to rent a car--or a bike--to get to Chambord; try LocaCycle (2 Bis, Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau; 011-33-247-570-028). Most chateaux are open during regular business hours, seven days a week, with entry fees under $10. In Amboise make sure to visit the Clos Luce and the whimsical 18th-century Chanteloup Pagoda, both set inside stunning parks. For a fun and fascinating dose of kitsch, the Mini-Chateaux Park (La Menaudiere, Route D31; 011-33-247-234-457) on the way to Chenonceau, is worth a stop as is wine-and-food tasting at Loire et Terroirs (1 Bis, Quai de Violettes in Amboise; 011-33-247-234-152), an excellent place to stock up on edible souvenirs. In Tours sample traditionally made bread at Au Vieux Four (7, Place des Petites Boucheries; 011-33-247-052-040), just behind the magnificent Cathedral Sainte Croix and the adjacent Fine Arts Museum (18, Place François Sicard; 011-33-247-056-873). Worn out from all the traveling? Spend an afternoon at Les Balneades Spa (275 Allee des 4 Vents, 45160 Ardon; 011-33-238-697-373) near Orleans, which offers up massages, water treatments, a gorgeous pool, a fully equipped gym, and a hammam/sauna with a teahouse. For more information on gay travel in France, consult the French Government Tourist Office’s gay travel site. Bon voyage!


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 update@outtraveler.com if you have any new information.
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