Winter in Europe is a time of year often associated with powdery white snow, twinkling festive lights and Christmas. We were happy to exchange the unbearable heat of Joburg’s summer for Europe’s winter chill, even though the winter weather was causing havoc at the time of our planned trip. The relatively short flight time and only an hour’s time difference meant that we could hit the ground running without feeling too tired.
Parisians have a bad reputation and we’d been warned about their rudeness. This is one misconception that must be removed from the start. Personally, we found them to be no different to the residents of other large international cities. They are not overly friendly and not nearly as friendly as South Africans, but then again, they know their city is the centre of the world… We were always served with a smile and the Parisians are efficient, especially where the running of their museums and restaurants are concerned. English is not often spoken well, but if the hard economic times have done anything positive on that front, it has been to make people realise that if someone speaks English, he’s more than likely a tourist who’s spending money in their city.
France has always been a popular gay travel destination. Homosexuality was legalised more than 20 years ago and the age of consent is fifteen. Civil partnerships, called PAC, can be registered, but homosexuals are not allowed the same marriage rights as heterosexuals. Many heterosexual couples prefer formalising their unions by PAC, rather than getting married the traditional way. The annual Paris Gay Pride is one of the largest celebrations of its kind on the continent. Until recently most gay venues were to be found in the Marais district, but they have started blooming all over the city.
Getting around Paris is easy. The public transport system is efficient even though it can be quite crowded on busses and the metro, as the French refer to their underground rail system. Even for non French speaking tourists, making sense of the colour-coded metro system is dead simple. After a few days, you’ll be hopping on and off like a local, not sparing it much thought.
During our visit, it rained quite a bit and it was cold, but not uncomfortably so. Parisians take pride in dressing well and the black coat was this season’s look. What struck us as immediately apparent was how thin Parisians are. They walk a lot and we were soon to see the slimming effects of walking as opposed to hopping in the car to go to the shops, as we’ve become so used to doing at home. And speaking of shopping, food is expensive, but good quality clothing is quite reasonable and in some instances a lot cheaper than in SA. Take into consideration the end of season sales offering up to 70% discount, and it’s well worth it to go to Paris to buy your clothes once a year. The Celio shop offers excellent value for money and a stunning black coat (70% wool) cost only 89 euros.
Parisians have not adopted fast food. Praise Heaven! Food is meant to be enjoyed, often with friends and most definitely not gulped down on the hoof. We dined very well and enjoyed wonderful, affordable French wine, which is sometimes cheaper than beer. As we both dislike bottled water, it came as a blessing that locals drink their own water and the bottled stuff was quite limited in availability. Restaurants don’t flinch when asked for a carafe of tap water. But why drink water when even inexpensive wine is quite palatable?
One of the most picturesque areas of Paris is the Marais. Known for its beautiful churches and homes, the Marais also offers good shopping and dining opportunities. A stroll around the famous Place des Vosges is a must. The elegant square is bordered by sumptuous mansions housing art galleries, restaurants and a wonderful perfumery where you can have your own fragrances blended. Artists work under the covered walkway and their work, though touristy is of good quality. We bought a gorgeous little watercolour depicting one of the houses facing the square for only forty euros.
There are several gay bars and restaurants in the Marais and the best is to stroll around and pop in for a tipple or two. Most are concentrated in Rue du Temple and Rue du Roi-de Sicile, which is immediately north and north east of Hôtel de Ville (French for City Hall), which is also a major landmark and metro station. There are more gay venues near the St Paul metro stop, about a kilometre away to the east. Parisians take their non-smoking laws very seriously, so it’s fun to get a table at a bistro opposite a club and watch the smokers come out for a puff.
We also found a gay bookshop, but they only stocked French books. If its books you want, then Mona Lisait is the place to go. There are several branches across Paris, but we went wild in the Marais branch. The store is jam-packed with books of all descriptions and many were in English. Prices are a fraction of what you’d pay locally, and they have a fairly good gay section where we bought some books.
On our first night, we decided to stroll around the Eiffel Tower, which was breathtaking at night. It was pretty crowded and we didn’t go up to the viewing platforms. Instead, we opted to take a scenic cruise on the Seine. It was wonderful. Some of the bridges are truly breathtaking and have to be seen from the vantage point of a boat. You can also have dinner on board some of the boats, for a romantic, though touristy evening.
Strolling around the Galleries Lafayette was a treat. The twinkling Christmas lights on the sides of the buildings made for a beautiful display, but it was the shop windows that really grabbed attention. Vying for the consumer buck, often by attracting the kids, some windows featured automated puppet shows in settings containing dazzling products meant to entice adults. It was a visual feast.
Packing a bit of culture into your trip is certainly on the cards, and as most tourists do, the Louvre is top of the list. Beware, it’s a maze and you can get trampled by the masses. We soon learned that in Paris, a pram is as good as a battering ram – French parents think nothing of using their infants as a very good means of obtaining access to anything. If you are planning to see as many museums as possible, a Paris Museum Pass is just the ticket. You can gain easy access to most places and at worst, you’ll only have to stand in one cue to enter, as opposed to two – the other one being to buy the ticket. The Louvre has a handy side entrance in the Richelieu arch which is only for visitors who already have tickets, staff and friends of the Louvre. Most visitors head straight for the pyramid. Their mistake! So get a museum pass.
And if it’s the Mona Lisa you want to see, great. You’ll see her. From a distance. She’s behind a barrier and guards prevent anyone from coming too close. So, yes, you’ll see her. Waaay over there. Or a bit closer, if you want to brave the crush. Buy a book. It’s better. Not to knock the Louvre, there are some superb collections on display. The sculpture gallery was especially memorable as is the Da Vinci collection. Stroll from the Louvre through the Jardin des Tuileries to the Musée de l’Orangerie, where you’ll get to see Monet’s famous water lily paintings in two custom-built oval rooms. The museum also houses other fine paintings and holds regular exhibitions. On the opposite bank of the Seine is the Musee d’Orsay, which is considered better than the Louvre and also has a superb collection housed in what was once a railway station. A spectacular one at that. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs, housed in a wing of the Louvre is a must. Small, manageable and with a beautiful collection of jewellery and of vintage clothing, this would be a good one for a quick visit. The gift shop has some astonishing décor items, but at equally astonishing prices. We grabbed some lunch at the museum’s café, which was excellent.
Europeans have a strong museum culture and they support their museums from an early age. You’ll see many local families at museums and places of interest, especially on weekends. With all the locals and loads of foreigners all clamouring to get into museums and to places of interest such as the Eiffel Tower, it makes very good sense to get to museums half an hour before opening time to beat the cues.
Paris was a whirlwind of activity, so we looked forward to taking a bit of time out in Geneva. We arrived on the 31st of December, just in time to see in the New Year. Our home for the next few days was the elegant Grand Hotel Kempinski Geneva on the Quai du Mont-Blanc. Our suite, a stunning space complete with lounge, enormous bathroom and walk-in wardrobe, had a stunning view across Lake Geneva, past the famous waterspout all the way to Mont Blanc in the distance.
Switzerland, though not cheap, offers much to the gay traveller, from skiing in the Alps, to partying in the big cities or shopping till you drop. Even though Switzerland leads the world in many aspects, it lags behind a bit where gay lifestyle is concerned. Same-sex couples have been able to register since 2007, but they have been barred from adoption and medically-assisted means of reproduction. There is also no statutory protection from discrimination, but many gay men and lesbians lead open lives without encountering any problems.
To usher out the old year, we were treated to a spectacular show, Rain, by Cirque Éloize at the theatre beneath the hotel. It was a visual feast of acrobatics, reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil. The last part of the show was actually performed with rain falling on the stage and the acrobats performed a few heart-stopping moves in the large contained puddle on stage. Dinner followed at the Kempinski, and what a feast it was! The buffet was unbelievable and the service slick and gorgeous. The Kempinski’s own fireworks display started at midnight and we decided to watch from the comfort of our balcony. It seemed the whole city had turned out to watch as the sky was lit for ten minutes with a dazzling display of pyrotechnics set off from a barge on the lake.
The following day we took it easy and just strolled around the lake and into the old part of the city. It was quite cold, and a bit rainy, but it was great to see the city so quiet.
On the morning of the second, our host, Bruce Tallon of Kempinski Hotels had a surprise in store. We were whisked away to Le Mirador Resort & Spa, a sister property in the mountains. Bruce was the epitome of elegance in a floor-length fur coat. The sun peeked out periodically and every so often it would snow ever so lightly. The beautiful hotel is located on Mont-Pèlerin, amidst acres of Swiss meadows and picturesque villages. The panoramic vista of Lake Geneva, the Alps, the Rhône valley and the Swiss Riviera is one of the most exhilarating in the world. Le Mirador’s restaurant, Le Trianon, recently received a Michelin star rating, so we were in for a tremendous treat – chef Sylvain Trincat had prepared a special off the menu meal just for four of us. The young Sylvain, who is modest and self-effacing is a formidable talent and the meal we enjoyed will forever be etched on our minds and taste buds… one more tick on the Bucket List.
Le Mirador has a gorgeous spa with beautiful day spa rooms, a medical spa clinic and all the other facilities that make up a world-class hotel and spa. You can even be transferred to and from the hotel by helicopter or Rolls Royce.
That night it snowed and we woke to a sparkling winter wonderland. We couldn’t wait to get out into the snow and immediately dressed as warmly as possible and went out for a long walk. Most shops were still closed, but restaurants were open and we stopped off for the odd coffee or snack here and there.
Eating in Geneva is an experience and the Kempinski offers some of the best food at their in-house restaurants. We enjoyed fantastic meals at both Le Grill and Tse Yang, the over the top elegant Chinese restaurant. Le grill is the complete antithesis of Tse Yang, with its minimalist elegance and open kitchen. We also had to try a traditional Swiss restaurant and the concierge had suggested Café du Soleil, which was small, full and very atmospheric. There’s nothing like a cheese fondue and we’d made sure to take our cholesterol medication beforehand. We also had a wonderful meal at Brasserie Lipp which is also close to the hotel.
Geneva was a wonderfully slow-paced antidote to the hustle and bustle of Paris. Both cities have so much to offer, that one has to return. We didn’t make it to Versailles on this trip, but that’s one place we’ll definitely have to save for another time. And to shop… Just thinking of those less 70% sales makes one want to go back for more.
Our trip was made possible by Air France/KLM, Kempinski Hotels and Wilco van Eeden of Club Travel Honeydew.
Air France/KLM: 0861 340 340, www.airfrance.co.za
Kempinski Hotels: www.kempinski.com
Club Travel Honeydew: 011 288-7100, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.clubtravel.co.za/gay_trav_quote.asp