Fall in love with magnificently restored renaissance châteaux; with a beautiful countryside of rivers, farms vineyards and forests; with postcard-perfect towns; with comfortable inns and luxurious manor houses, and great food and wine. For a gay couple, there may be few more romantic places to spend a week than the beautiful and historic Loire Valley.
It’s a great getaway too for a group of friends, and an emerging and vibrant (if small) gay scene offers the possibility of meeting the locals. For the single traveler, an organized tour is a great way to see the region. Some of the best tours are by bicycle, as there is an extensive network of dedicated bike paths following the Loire River, and the gentle terrain makes for easy cycling. Alyson Adventures offers all-inclusive cycle trips in the Loire with a focus on singles, relaxed itineraries, extremely knowledgeable guides and a van to pick you up if you get tired of biking!
Certainly the main attractions of the Loire are romance and history. The renaissance châteaux built by Charles VIII, Francois I, Catherine de Medici and other royals during the hundred years that the French court relocated from Paris give the Loire its distinctive storybook charm. The region is light on industry and heavy on forests, vineyards, farms and placid, shallow rivers. A few larger, still-quaint cities provide amenities like shopping and nightlife.
Must-see sights are really too numerous to mention: the Chateaux of Chaumont-sur-Loire,Chenonceaux, Chambord and Azay-le-Rideau; charming villages; historic cities such asAmboise, Chinon and Orléans; the bustling and ancient university town of Tours; the gardens of Villandry and the Parc Floral de la Source; plus small wineries and the unique and unusual troglodyte (limestone cave) houses. And the Loire region is home to a growing gay population.
Conveniently for both residents and visitors, it’s a mere hour’s train ride from central Paris. Its closest cities, Tours and Orléans, are attracting increasing numbers of openly gay residents, and with them bars, saunas, restaurants and discos.
Sleep like a king (no, literally!)
The châteaux of the Loire are not just for visiting. Many have opened their doors to paying guests, offering luxurious private bedrooms and grand and romantic salons and gardens. Though no chateau or hotel in the Loire is exclusively gay, a number are gay owned. The Château des Ormeaux (112-150 euros), a 10-minute drive from Amboise, offers secluded luxury in a 19th-century villa recently restored and run by three fun-spirited gay men. Rooms in the main house are roomy and deluxe, while one room occupies a (well-outfitted) traditional troglodyte cave dwelling. Communal dinners are offered several nights a week, adding to the homey atmosphere.
In central Amboise, you could hardly ask for a more luxurious setting than the Manoir Les Minimes (95-170 euros). Enjoy an aperitif in the grand public rooms with the owners, a charming gay couple, and their friendly dog Olga, then retire to your lavishly appointed bedroom and bath with views of Amboise and the Loire. Many such chateau accommodations can be found through Bienvenue au Château (www.bienvenueauchateau.com) — an association of owner-occupied châteaux with the charm of a private home and the amenities of a good hotel.
If you prefer something simpler, the Loire is peppered with charming, inexpensive inns. In the center of Orléans, the gay-friendly Hotel d’Abeille (64 rue Alsace Lorraine ; +33 2/3853-5487; 47-69 euros) has spacious rooms, quirky charm, a super-friendly staff, very reasonable rates — and even free WiFi Internet. Always a good bet is the Logis de France (www.logis-de-france.fr) association-inns, which range from simple to quite elegant. Most have excellent restaurants, and all offer great value. And even in the most out-of-the-way places, a same-sex couple sharing a bed should not raise an eyebrow.
Food and wine: oh la la!
The Loire is a region of excellent wines — perhaps not as well known as Burgundy or Bordeaux, but also not nearly as expensive. In fact, wine may be one of the last great values in France, given the depressed state of the dollar. Try the Vouvray Petillant, the local take on champagne. Coteau du Layon is like a bargain sauternes, and is perfect with foie gras. Touraine and Sancerre are crisp, excellent whites, and reds range from light and refreshing Touraine to full-bodied vintage Chinons. Visit local wineries, or simply enjoy them at meals. Terrific restaurants abound in the region, with prices half what you’d pay in Paris.
Le Pavillon Des Lys in Amboise, for example, is one of the best in the region. Charming Chef-owner Sébastien Bégouin (you may start to feel that everyone in the picturesque town of Amboise is gay) serves an amazing eight-course gourmet extravaganza (at the bargain price of 38 euros) to a handful of tables in a beautiful manor house in the heart of Amboise. For food lovers, this is not to be missed.
Le 4 Saisons (351 rue de la Reine Blanche +33 2/3866-1430), a Logis de France in Olivet just outside Orléans, serves delicious regional specialties in a romantic setting on the tiny river Loiret. Great little traditional restaurants abound, and there are also newer, more urban restaurants, like the hip Next Door (as in next door to and run by Philippe Bardau’s haute Les antiquaries; 6 rue au lin; +33 2/3862-4000) in Orléans and the tasty wine bar L’Hédoniste (16 rue Lavoisier +33 2/4705-2040) in Tours, which attract a trendy gay/straight crowd.
Meet des locales
Gay venues are multiplying throughout the region as homosexuality becomes more visible and accepted. Orléans and student-filled Tours have small but friendly gay scenes — though most all establishments are mixed, attracting gay men, lesbians and stylish heterosexuals. They tend to be small as well, so it’s no surprise that the most popular bars in both Tours (La P’tite Chose 32 rue de la Grosse Tour +33 2 4776-0009) and Orléans (Le P’tit Café 255 rue de Bourgogne +31 2/3862-5886) have the abbreviation for petite in their names.
“Trendy” bars, like Orléans’ Bel Air, (44 rue du Poirier +33 2/3877-080) featuring elaborate cocktails and modern, “urban” design are also popular with local gays. Discos, such as the venerable Le Gi (13 rue Lavoisier +33 2/4766-2996) in the heart of Tours, are strictly late-night weekend-only affairs. As they are small (by urban standards) and attract an almost exclusively local crowd, the atmosphere can be quite friendly. Male-only hard-core cruising options are limited to a handful of local saunas, such as the newly opened and very popular Savon (rue des Grand Champs at rue d’Illier +33 2/3868-1198) in the center of Orléans (saunas tend to be popular quite early, always call ahead for closing times) and the two-year-old cruising/darkroom bar Le Stud (84 rue Colbert +33 2/4766-6570) in Tours, which is named and modeled after the San Francisco Stud in its leather bar incarnation of 20 years ago.
The best way to get to the Loire is by train, with fast, frequent service to Orléans and Tours from central Paris. There is even a high-speed TGV train direct from Charles de Gaulle airport to Tours. You can arrange a rental car pickup at the train stations from any of the usual agencies. Driving is fairly effortless; the country roads are picturesque, well maintained and well marked — though a good road map is essential.
France has for years now devoted itself to becoming one of the most gay friendly travel destinations — not only Paris, with its gay neighborhoods, gay mayor and diverse and teeming gay cafés, clubs and discos — but also smaller cities, towns and the countryside have become very gay-friendly.
The French government tourist office offers a wealth of information — both gay-specific (www.franceguide.com/us/gay) and more general regional information (us.franceguide.com and westernfrancetouristboard.com). More gay information is available on the Web (www.gayvox.com and www.leguidegay.com) or the national gay magazine Têtu (available at any French news stand) and free regional gay publications distributed in local clubs.
by Clay Doyle
for gay.com Travel http://www.gay.com/travel/article.html?sernum=9480
and PlanetOut.com http://www.planetout.com/travel/article.html?sernum=9480