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Pleasures of Paris, Secrets of Le Mans (8833)

8833Advocate Travel2003-06-03

Pleasures of Paris, Secrets of Le Mans

The cobble-stone
streets of Le Mans

There's never enough time for a gay traveler to take in all the joys of the City of Lights. Even so, next trip make sure to schedule a side trip to historic and gay-friendly Le Mans

Lawrence Ferber

In Paris at least, if it rains on your parade, that's OK. If there's one city--possibly the only one--that looks as beautiful wet as dry, sunny as cloudy, light as dark, it's this one. Paris. Richly suffused with history and endless romance, this is one city you absolutely must visit before you die.

This is my fifth trip to the City of Lights, and standing on a rainy sidewalk, I'm anything but annoyed by the relentless droplets that have darkened my trousers and moistened my face. Between the glistening stone buildings, the lights from a church several hundred feet down, and shimmering reflections off the ground, I'm in gleeful awe. My friend Michael is equally transfixed, so we just stand and stare, taking it all in. A few days ago, along with a handful of other gay journalists, we encountered slightly dryer surroundings in Le Mans, home to the Grand Prix. There, clouds and mist bestowed a softness to the ancient walled-in city at its center. A gay scene awaited within Le Mans as well--but more on that later.

Touchdown in Paris. I've arrived via Air France (https://www.airfrance.com), a carrier I'm reasonably familiar with thanks to their connecting flights all over Europe (and great prices snagged online). Coach class is tight but not insufferable, thanks in part to the yummy French wines I imbibe. Whoever advises travelers not to drink alcoholic beverages on a long-distance plane ride is a nincompoop projecting addiction issues.

Orly is by far the more convenient airport when staying within Paris, but in this case I landed at Charles de Gaulle. Early-morning rush-hour traffic is fierce--it cost about $50 to taxi into the city. The budget-conscious--and more seasoned--may opt for the RER's B train, which costs only $7.50, the Roissybus (to Opera Garnier), or Air France shuttle (to Porte Maillot or Charles de Gaulle).


The Victoria Palace Hotel

Paris is separated by the Seine River into the Left Bank and Right Bank (left and right as facing downriver, in case you're wondering). Notre Dame sits smack-dab center on an ile. Entering the Left Bank, I check into the Victoria Palace hotel (https://www.victoriapalace.com). A landmark tucked away on a side street, the charming Victoria Palace served as the Parisian home to James Joyce. It's an early hour when I arrive, so I immediately dive into the hotel's awesome breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausages, baguettes, and of course, cheeses. This spread is unusual for France, by the way--continental breakfast is the norm. You must try the heavenly hot chocolate (chocolat chaud) before taking the old-style stairwell elevator to your homey room: You'll find a dish of candy awaiting within.

Now where to? Fnac, France's most popular electronics-CD-DVD-bookstore chain, is right around the corner. But it's not open yet, so I ring up Jason, an American friend living in Paris. Jason's great company...and a great help, considering the weakness of my French language skills. (One semester in college, what can I say? Not a lot.) Still, the French appreciate any genuine effort to speak and respect their tongue, and what I've learned/tried has gotten me far. Which brings me to France travel rule number 1: Never, ever start babbling English (especially with an obvious American accent) when approaching a French person. Barring students anxious to flex their English skills or bed you, you may well instantly piss somebody off. As a reward for showing utter disregard for their highly valued culture and flamboyantly exhibiting "ugly Americanism," they will dismiss you or just shake their heads coldly. And you'll deserve it.

The phrase "Parlez-vous Anglais?" (pronounced, more or less, as "PAR-lay-vooz ahn-GLAY," meaning "Do you speak English?") is the least you can offer. Another thing I've learned is: the more you struggle with (or are capable of) speaking French, the more likely and sooner a French citizen will magically begin speaking fluent English. An example: I was hunting for secondhand CDs in Marseilles; I knew the general area of the shops but was having trouble locating them. I finally found a small jazz store and decided to ask the clerk if he knew where the secondhand pop music shops were. "Parlez-vous Anglais?" I queried. "No," the fellow behind the register quickly replied, shaking his head, a couple of shoppers turning our way to listen. So I struggled. "S'il vous plait, je voudrais les disques de...uer...deux..."--how do I say "secondhand"?--"les disques de vente et achat..."

Twenty seconds of this and the clerk came forth with "What kinds of discs are you looking for?" I was soon on my way to secondhand-discs utopia. Merci, monsieur!

Regardless of effort, a situation in which an obvious lack of French tongue and Parisian familiarity will most likely damn you is taking a taxi. A New Yorker, I know a taxi scam when it's in effect, and it didn't take long to get that sinkin' feeling in Paris. Even seasoned Parisians are wary. The runaround is a taxi driver's specialty, and they'll often act your chum while dishing one up. So here's how to begin protecting yourself. Bring along a map and have an idea of where you're going and where you're currently located. That way if your taxi driver professes "ignorance" about where your desired destination is, you can whip out the map and illustrate a route from A to B clearly. Drop the name of a street that will take you there. Ultimately, let the driver know (or think) you're aware of every foot they're about to drive. Otherwise you will further risk a pricey scenic trip. I got ripped off painfully one evening: A trip to my hotel from a club that should have been a mile turned into four miles--gosh, Paris sure is purdy at night...but so is my money. The next night, thanks to an honest taxi driver, I learned just how ridiculously I'd been gouged. Again, beware taxi scams!

Happily, transportation throughout Paris doesn't usually require a taxi: the Metro (subway) system is extensive, quick, and if you're familiar with any big city's subway system, easy to navigate. That said, the Metro closes at 1a.m. and night buses can be hard to figure out or take a long time, so you'll probably be stuck taking taxis at some point.

One of the first areas a queer traveler should know is Le Marais, the gay district, and the street Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie. Says Jason, "When God nukes Paris for being a modern-day Sodom, Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie will be ground zero." That's all I needed to be told. Loads of bars, shops, restaurants, and clubs are packed along Sainte-Croix and the Le Marais. Most popular with tourists and Americans cafe is Open Cafe (Cafe Cox runs a close second). I wasn't impressed with Open's watery hot chocolate, but the crowd was gay as hell. Pretty boys smoking, mind-numbing circuit tunes, and the occasional senior citizen with a (blaringly obvious) for-rent Arab youth. Oh, on the topic of Arab youth, notes Jason: "Arab guys, 'Beurs,' are a major, major fetish here."

You can pick up e.mail magazine at Open Cafe--it features a nightly calendar of queer events--and many club fliers. The national gay publication, Tetu, also features a handy countrywide pullout listings section of all things gay. For the record, I don't think Parisian gays work, considering the hours they party: Club crowds don't form until around 2 a.m.


A chic parisian queen at Le Scorp

Nightlife options are plentiful. The first Parisian club I ever visited, circa 1992, was Le Scorpion (https://www.scorp-club.com). It's still around, albeit under a shortened moniker: Le Scorp. A different type of music is highlighted each night at Le Scorp, from modern disco to French pop classics. Tonight the theme is '70s funky disco, and the rather young crowd--gosh, am I the only person over 23 here?--eats it up. A frisky Asian boy (let's call him FAB) keeps approaching me and waving his booty around, making eye contact, and then slithering away, turning back to glare with a bizarre flirt before returning again, slithering, returning, etc. Turned out FAB is something of a club fixture and knew about half the crowd. In the biblical sense, possibly.


Cute French boys at Queen Club

Located on the Champs-Elysees, a few doors from a Virgin Megastore, is Queen Club (https://www.queen.fr), one of the largest gay venues in Paris. Like Le Scorp, each night means a different theme and sometimes performances. I visited Queen two nights in a row, and both evenings were packed with cute French boys and men come 2 a.m. (including FAB, who made out with at least five different guys, rubbing his rear against them like a demented bumblebee gathering pollen). Although it would be unfashionable, you should arrive by midnight to beat the lines and possibly finicky door personnel. Drinks are pricey at Queen, so when Jason and I noticed they were selling whole bottles of liquor, we investigated. Yowza! A bottle of vodka cost about $200! But it turns out you're not merely buying a bottle. As long as your bottle lasts, you're admitted free into the club and will gain entry to a VIP area. In fact, Le Scorp also had a plan to this tune, and I'm sure other clubs did as well.

At the clubs and bars I picked up on a certain Parisian etiquette. In American clubs gently handling people by the shoulders, sides, and waist as you make your way past is a norm, at least in New York and Los Angeles. In Paris, that's a no-no. You merely nudge and maneuver, and 90% of the time the crowd will magically make way. They're like cats. If you put your hand on someone's shoulder while making way, expect surprise: at best a welcoming smile and pucker; at worst an angry, repulsed scowl.

How friendly are French gays? Especially the ones encountered in clubs? Well, depends on how you look! Paris is a big city, which means fashions, trends, and look play a big part in how much you're accepted. A hairstyle that I dub the "Gullet" (like "gay mullet") was all the rage during my visit. It's sort of like a mullet exposed to serious G force, which is to say, longish in back, styled with gel so it spikes backwards, hanging heavy in midair. It made me think of a porcupine or possum's hindquarters. Another current gay trend is bringing one's dog to the bar, especially smaller breeds, so guys can approach and hit on you via the pup ("oh, eet ees so cyoo-ut") or vice versa.

Jason is tall, blue-eyed, and brings to mind a frat boy: The French appear to like this. The caboose of a little love train reached over and turned him into their dining car. Later in the evening another guy pulled Jason into a corner and attempted to initiate oral sex. Jason prefers bedroom encounters (and conversation beforehand), so he refused. That didn't stop the French hottie, though, and the excitable guy grabbed Jason's arm and soon stained the sleeve of his navy-blue button-down shirt. Ooh la la! Or, should I say in local dialect, "le le le," which means "no, no, no" (and is pronounced like "lur lur lur"). Between Excitable Guy and FAB and a few others, it was clear that, standards notwithstanding, club love can be found in Paris.

Many clubs offer a free drink ("conso") with admission, which helps offset the typically pricey entry fees (and inhibitions). That includes Le Depot (https://www.ledepot.com). A two-level establishment, Le Depot's ground level entails a dance floor that mysteriously remains empty most of the time. Downstairs, however, is packed with horny French men cruising dark rooms, mazes, booths, and a smaller, much sweatier dance floor. Besides a place to get off, Le Depot has garnered a reputation as a pickpocket haven, so leave all IDs and important stuff at your hotel. Hide cash in your shoe.

I didn't have to worry about pilferage at two of the hippest venues in Paris. Wagg, at 62 rue Mazarine, was jammed with a mixed crowd (male, female, bi, gay, straight) dancing to hot house and techno tunes in an underground cavern-cum-club. And at Le Cabaret, usually an Indo-African restaurant, a special, uber-crowded Sunday gay tea dance is thrown. It shamed even Chelsea's finest parties and venues: You've never seen such a tightly packed, massive throng of shirtless, sweaty men.

So what about the ladies? There are plenty of mixed spots, and even some generally male-only establishments (including Le Depot) host women's nights on a weekly or monthly basis. I visited a pair of women's bars, which on certain nights don't allow men. Pulp (https://www.pulp.xroot.com) was a laid-back bar with a clutch of cute French dykes sitting in back. Saturday night is "Girls Club" for girls only, while Wednesdays through Sundays are theme nights: rock, R&B, and other genres. Les Scandaleuses on Rue des Ecouffes is the Le Depot of lesbian establishments: a mixed crowd populated the upper bar, while a women-only darkroom awaited downstairs! Cuddling, schmuddling.

I enjoyed a few meals within the gay Marais hive. The first was at Le 3, a warm and cozy gay-owned establishment. Culinary note: Animal rights activists may blanche, but the foie gras (a pate made from an overfed goose's or duck's liver) prevalent on so many Parisian menus can become an addictive appetizer. I grew accustomed to it fast, and now I'm jonesing.

Brushing the Marais is Centre Georges Pompidou. Striking and famous for its inside-out appearance, it houses the National Museum of Modern Art (it's amongst the three largest modern-art collections in the world), shops, free library, and rotating events. Climbing the Centre's outdoor escalators, you can savor a view of the Eiffel Tower; reserve a couple of hours to gawk at the permanent works. However, the most cutting-edge contempo gallery I visited this trip was Palais de Tokyo (https://www.palaisdetokyo.com). Multimedia installations from young, upcoming artists take up a massive building that's open till late evening. My favorite piece was Nekropolis, a weird, existentialist video game in which you walk around a plaza, locate a secret room, and die a gory death. Because there's no escaping death.

There are many attractions first-time Paris visitors shouldn't miss: Notre Dame cathedral, Eiffel Tower, the Catacombs, and the Louvre. I never skip a trip to Boulevard Saint-Michel in the Latin Quarter. The Sorbonne is here, and so are a ton of bookstores, CD shops, and movie theaters (both mainstream and art house--Paris is a cinema lover's paradise). This time, however, I took a couple of detours from my usual stomping grounds.

A confession: I'm a devout Mylene Farmer fan. A major French pop star who's a magnet for the gays a la Madonna, Mylene can pack Paris's massive Bercy concert venue (if you have a "PAL" VCR or DVD player, consider ordering the ridiculously gay concert video from Amazon's French site). Should you catch a show at Bercy or do business in the area, it may be worth a stop at a nearby shopping center. At its Album Comics shop I bought a pricey Tin Tin shirt (Tin Tin is a famous Belgian cartoon character). Incidentally, comics are a popular form of literature in France: Comic geeks incapable of reading French may fume about all the books that haven't been (and may never be) translated into English. I dined at the Chai 33 restaurant (https://www.chai33.com), enjoying a truly delicious pasta course and chocolate desert.

Speaking of dining, a good chunk of my time was spent doing exactly that. Is any city and country so synonymous with gastronomy? Popular street foods entail baguette sandwiches and crepes, the latter of which can serve as meal (with, say, cheese and ham) or dessert (whipped cream and nutella). All of the restaurants I spent time eating, drinking, and chatting in for hours and hours each day and night were brilliant and delicious. (I returned home about five pounds heavier--no joke!) We had a dinner at contemporary brasserie L'Arbuci (https://www.arbuci.com; their shellfish is top-notch) and at hip North African style Comptoir Paris Marrakech (right near Les Halles, it's definitely worth a visit). We had lunch (fresh ravioli) at the very gay B4 cafe on Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie by Rue des Archives, and dinner at Atelier Renault (https://atelier-renault.com) on Champs-Elysees, which is interestingly situated within and above a car showroom.

On the subject of cars:. Known internationally for hosting the Grand Prix, a 24-hour racing marathon, provincial Le Mans is located approximately an hour from Paris by train. Although drag racing may not leap to mind as a particularly gay draw (drag, yes; racing depends on the heels), the town itself aggressively embraces queers. A gay-friendly charter was introduced by the city council in October 2002; as a result stickers extending a rainbow flag and smile grace almost every business's door. So pro-gay is Le Mans that the mayor himself, Jean-Claude Boulard, joined my gay journalist group for dinner, bestowing us with lovely watercolor paintings (depicting race cars and cobblestone alleys, both local icons). I asked Boulard if he had a personal connection to the gay community, and in fact he did: his former professor, who also happens to be a highly respected author.

In 1070, Le Mans became the first township of the kingdom of France. The old style still reigns within the old town (Vieux Mans), which is surrounded by Gallo-Roman walls. Old town's jewel is surely Saint-Julien Cathedral. A stunning example of Roman and Gothic art, its stained glass windows date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. After a quick peek inside, our group was ascended to the roof and within the Cathedral's upper guts. The ancient staircase up was cramped, swirling, and seemingly endless. Up, up, up in tight little circles, I began to lose my breath. If I was claustrophobic, I'd have gone bonkers within moments. Fortunately, I'm not, although I am acrophobic, which became an issue (comedic to those who watched me) when we reached the first roof level.

Overlooking Le Mans, we slowly crept along a narrow ledge that was moist with rain and gooey pigeon crap. (Let's not discuss how my sleeves looked by the time I got down.) Still, the view was beautiful. Up another level, we found a few pigeons that had selected the cathedral's exterior as a perfect spot to shuffle off their mortal coils. A nonchalant fellow picked up the deceased critters and tossed them over the side for a final, er, flight to mother earth. Au revoir, les pigeons! On the way back down we took a detour deep inside the belfry, where we marveled at ancient pulleys and devices used to construct this building between the 11th and 15th centuries.

Outside the cathedral an elaborate nativity was being prepared for the evening's Christmas production (an annual tradition). Also, right outside, we were shown the famous "menhir" stone: In the popular French comic/movie series Asterix and Obelix,this slender, ancient boulder was carried around on Obelix's back.

Strolling through the cobblestone-lined old town, we spotted those numerous gay-friendly stickers, including one on the door of our first restaurant, Le Flambadou. A charming, rustic establishment, they serve up hearty, traditional French cuisine. Pictures of shepherds on stilts--an old-time tradition due to moist and muddy grounds--bedeck the walls. I partake of flavorful duck confit with thin, buttery potatoes. Forget calorie- and cholesterol-counting in France, OK?

Less rustic yet equally traditional French fare was offered that evening at L'Amphitryon, the restaurant within our hotel, Hotel Concorde (https://www.concordelemans.com). The appetizer struck me as peculiar: fried minnows with a mayonnaise-based dip. The featured main course was scallops, but I preferred a steak; it arrived in a light peppercorn sauce. Incidentally, a steak cooked more thoroughly than rare is unusual, even a sacrilege, to French chefs: "Well done" seems to equal a deep red-rare steak encased within a microscopic layer of browning. Be prepared to piss off the chef if you desire otherwise! If brave to the other extreme, you can request your steak "bleu," which means, literally, blue. "A bleu steak is slightly warmer than the fridge," Jason notes.

Nightlife in Le Mans is surprisingly vibrant (and easily within walking distance from Hotel Concorde), although gay-specific establishments are in short supply. As a first stop, try Couleur Cafe for a beverage or snack. It boasts a neat cocktail menu of shooters and flavored beers (a syrup shot is added). Located near the town hall (Hotel De Ville), La Limite is basically the only game in town for dancing, and on weekends it's jammed. Like Paris, however, the queers come out late, so don't expect much of a crowd before 1a.m.

Come morning, bleary-eyed, I stopped for a quick look-see and delicious cheese crepe at the Jacobins market, which is open three days a week. All sorts of food, from ducks to cheeses, and clothing. I noticed that they leave the poultry's heads on, still plumed, here. During the day it's well worth a trip to the famed racetrack and adjacent Musee de l'Automobile--tons of exhibits and race cars are on display, including one painted by Keith Haring.


The view from the Hyatt Regency Paris-Madeleine


After Le Mans it was back to Paris for a final couple of evenings. We checked into the Hyatt Regency Paris-Madeleine (https://www.paris.madeleine.hyatt.com), a gorgeously modern and sexy hotel located about 15 minutes by foot from the Champs-Elysees and the Queen. I can't rave enough about the Hyatt: its design, impeccable service, adorable staff, and in-room comforts. My spacious room was beige-toned, chamois, an ivory duvet on the bed; fruit candies and a bottle of wine waiting on the desk. Breakfast is enjoyed in the glass-ceilinged La Chinoiserie lounge. Speaking of lounge, the hotel produced a mellow compilation CD, Suite 706, and you can even buy special-themed travel packages like the CD Suite 706, which includes a limo airport pickup, an evening at a jazz club or nightclub, the presidential suite (706, natch, which has a gorgeous view of the Eiffel Tower), and the CD itself. Overall, the hotel's room prices range from 465 to 2,100 Euros per night, with many packages and promotions available.

I quickly discovered that the Hyatt Regency's location (and the nearby Madeleine Metro stop) is fantastic for foodies: The famous chocolate/pastry shops Laduree and Fauchon (which is actually a huge Harrods-esque gourmet market) are just down the street. A mustard fan, I made sure to ransack the Maille shop: A catalog of varieties of my favorite brand of French dijon mustard, Maille's, is available here, including blue cheese, walnut, and green peppercorn. They wrap everything up nicely, so Maille goodies could also serve as rich and tangy gifts.

Unfortunately, there's really no method of packing up all that Paris--and Le Mans--have to offer both singles and couples. My words and descriptions here only go so far. And I've only skirted Paris's many neighborhoods, attractions, and cultural intricacies. I'll be off again, pen in tow (and possibly a boyfriend) to skirt a whole lot more.

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