Pink and Blue Summer in the South of France
Nice and la Côte d’Azur: Ever since F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald landed in the south of France during the Roaring Twenties, the Côte d’Azur has been imbued with romantic visions of a glamorous life along the shores of the Mediterranean.
Fitzgerald lived in Nice, at the Beau Rivage, and his novel "Tender is the Night" chronicles the extravagant lives of wealthy Americans, profligate heiresses, and Hollywood stars who drink and party with careless abandon. All of which sounds just like another summer on Fire Island - and the truth is, Nice has, in the past decade, become one of the most popular gay resorts in Europe.
The fifth largest city in France (with half the population under forty), Nice is the second most visited place in France (after Paris) with more than 4 million tourists annually making a beeline for the nearly five-mile long beach. As the car drove us in from the airport, along the Promenade des Anglais (so named for the 18th-century British aristocracy who wintered in Nice), it was nearly impossible not to gape at the cerulean water, a sea so azure that it looked like a film shot in Technicolor.
All along the Promenade, dotted with chic beach clubs evocatively named Opéra, Lido, Neptune, Florida, Miami Beach, and Bambou, a parade of young blonds, male and female, preen and pose, replicating the behavior of their predecessors who, for decades, have come to the south of France to escape the doldrums of North European weather. Not for nothing does the city carry the nickname "Nissa la Bella," which is Niçard dialect for "This town’s got booty."
With at least fifteen gay bars, three gay beaches, two major LGBT festivals, and as many rainbow flags as wave in le Marais in Paris, Nice has become the de facto gay resort of France. Each morning, in hotel breakfast rooms along the Promenade, the rhythms of European vacation rituals are replayed like "Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday," with each couple making their entrance: an American mother and daughter in matching sundresses and sunglasses, a loudly laughing group of German boys, two large women stuffing croissants into their handbags for their afternoon sit along the beach.
At the Lido Beach Club, sitting along the pebbly shore surrounded by comely youth, it’s hard not to recall the scene from Thomas Mann’s "Death in Venice" when Aschenbach first glimpses Tadzio at the beach. The cabanas, the chaises, the cerulean blue water, the fluffy white towels - it’s a Côte d’Azur fantasy waiting to happen.
One of the world’s oldest settlements, Nice traces its roots to a site at the foot of Mont-Boron, more than 400,000 years old. To get a sense of Nice’s antiquity, head to Cimiez, above the Regina (the Belle Époque residence where Queen Victoria rested her heels), to see the ruins of an independent Roman city, Cemenelum, with its own thermal baths and arenas. Even then, Nice was attracting Italians who came for the temperate Mediterranean climate - and the light.
Henri Matisse, perhaps the artist most closely associated with Nice, famously arrived in 1917 in search of inspiration and clear air - and remained, often residing at the Regina, until his death in 1954. Housed in a renovated 17th-century Genoese villa amidst a centuries-old olive grove, the Musee Matisse is filled with Matisse’s testaments to the beauty of Nice and its fabled light.
At the end of the Cours Saleya, parallel to the rue des Ponchettes, is the ocher-colored house where Matisse first stayed - and where the weather was so uncooperative and inclement for nearly two weeks that Matisse resolved to return to Paris. On the morning of his departure, however, he threw open his Persian shutters to one of those magnificent Mediterranean mornings - the mesmerizing blue of the sea, the sun reflecting on the Sardinian red buildings - and his fate, and the future of art, was sealed.
Nice at night shimmers like an inspired and iridescent chimera, a vision from Fitzgerald’s imagination where indolent beauties mingle with oligarchs and artists. The city that you recall from the works of Fitzgerald and Chekhov, Cocteau and Berlioz, is still in evidence: in the pebbles underfoot along the beach and in the twinkling strand of lights dotting the surrounding mountains like a strand of jewels.
A seaside Shangri-La glittering in the evening mist, the city of Nice dazzles like a classic beauty, never more beautiful than in the twilight of her life.
Toulouse, la Ville Rose:
Nicknamed "the Pink City," Toulouse might sound as if it’s a gay mecca - but the moniker refers primarily to the pink bricks of which nearly every building is built. Unlike Paris with its cold and dark stone facades, Toulouse radiates a kind of blush - and particularly in summer.
Located deep in the heart of southern France, halfway between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, Toulouse is the fourth-largest city in France. Currently the home of Airbus Industries, as well as one of the oldest universities in the world, founded in 1229, Toulouse’s golden age occurred during the Renaissance, thanks to woad, a plant used in dyeing.
For more than 100 years, the pastel blue dye derived from the "isatis tinctoria" plant was in such demand that merchants established trade routes leading to and from Toulouse, thereby insuring that the city was at the center of the worldwide burgeoning pastel business. The resultant wealth flowing into Toulouse was substantial enough to build a large number of private mansions, some of which remain in private hands, while others are now the homes of public museums.
Toulouse was also home to a flourishing violet trade in the early 19th century, with more than 600 violet growers sending more half a million violet bouquets to Paris (and around the world) each year.
Pink bricks, baby blue pastel - and violets. Make of it what you will, but it seems to us as if there’s a great deal about Toulouse and its history that makes it ripe for discovery by the LGBT community.
Unlike its European neighbors Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands, France has yet to legalize same-sex marriage - in spite of a recent poll that found that nearly 60% of French respondents are in favor of LGBT marriage.
Until then, until that day arrives, same-sex couples can form civil unions (which, admittedly, don’t allow for custody or inheritance rights) - and frolic happily on the Côte d’Azur and in "la Ville Rose."
(Feature story continues on next pages: What to See, Where to Stay, Where to Eat, Getting There...)