The Loire, France's longest and least-tamed river, stretches from deep in the country's interior to the Atlantic coast, but most of the châteaus (including Château Sully, pictured) are clustered between Orléans and Angers southwest of Paris. This is where France's kings, queens, and nobility lived, loved, trysted, and schemed. Modern travelers can spend the night in fabulously refurbished châteaus, stroll through sumptuous gardens, explore fairy-tale villages and towns, and feast on some of the most exquisite cuisine on the planet. Unlike cosmopolitan Paris, the Loire Valley is quintessentially French. The "purest" French is spoken here, and the locals cling vigorously to their "art de vivre." Yet in spite of a reputation for conservatism and an 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 made history in 2004 by proclaiming itself the first "gay-friendly" city in France. Gay establishments are popping up everywhere, it seems, in the major cities of Orléans, Tours, and Nantes and the smaller royal towns like Blois and Amboise, which boasts no fewer than five gay-run hotels.
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.
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
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.
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!