As the dog days of summer march steadily toward the fall I decided to get away for a relaxing summer vacation. The only issue was where I should go. I decided to check out the hottest new gay destination in southern Europe, so I packed my bags and headed to the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France.
The South of France has long enjoyed an unparalleled reputation with jet setters seeking relaxation in a rustic Mediterranean locale with good food and wine. However, as I learned in my trip throughout the region there are more than charming villages and pastoral landscapes awaiting Atlanta’s luxury-seeking travelers.
Begin your trek toward vacation bliss by catching an Air France flight to Montpellier connecting in Paris from the stunning new international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson. If you want to enjoy a little time in Paris be sure to leave yourself at least six or seven hours between flights. Montpellier is nestled between Marseilles and Perpignan on the southern coast of France just six miles from the Mediterranean Sea. Landing in Montpellier is a true delight as the tiny French airport and Mediterranean Sea air quickly remind you that you have arrived in a truly unique destination.
It is here, as you wait for your wonderfully stereotypical French cabbie, that you’re faced with your first major vacation decision! Do you head south to the beach or north into the old city? When I was younger I would’ve headed toward the beach right away. On this trip I elected to head into the historical district of Montpellier to settle into my hotel and plan my evening in the South of France’s hottest gay district.
Driving toward town it is easy to see how Montpellier started as a collection of rural hamlets between the Gallo-Roman cities of Nîmes and Narbonne and developed slowly through the ages. The outskirts of the city look modern and rather demure; however, as you snake your way through the curvy French roads the architecture begins to play out the colorful history of both the city and European design. Your journey to the heart of the ancient city ends at the Place de la Comédie named after the stunning theater located at the end of the public square. Surrounding the Place de la Comédie are scores of bistros, bars, luxury hotels and great French shopping.
If you want to blend in with the crowd quickly take a seat in the square outside the first cafe that catches your eye and order a diabolo menthe. This regional concoction is wickedly popular with the locals and tastes just like mint toothpaste. The diablo menthe is non-alcoholic and surprisingly refreshing on a hot, humid day in Montpellier. After soaking in the French cafe culture follow the gorgeous Mediterranean guys to the center of gay nightlife. Montpellier’s gay district is called Place du Marché aux Fleurs and is just a short walk from the Place de la Comédie. Grab a seat at the best-known gay bar in Montpellier the Café de la Mer (5, Place Marché aux Fleurs) and practice your French with some of the guys that call Montpellier home. When you’re ready to dance or watch a fierce French drag show, catch a taxi to the best club in southern France—La Villa Rouge (Route de Palavas). La Villa Rouge is a spectacle of a dance club as only the French could provide—expect French pop mixed with American hits and scores of fun, flirty Frenchmen.
After a night of dancing in Montpellier, get a good’s night sleep and head out on a day trip for your first day of wine tasting! The vineyards in the Languedoc-Roussillon region date back to the fifth century B.C. when the Greeks planted grape vines along the southern coast. The region has long been known as one of the largest wine producing regions in the world. However, this can mean that some vineyards place greater emphasis on quantity rather than quality. When selecting vineyards to visit do your research and find winemakers that are known for quality.
A short drive from Montpellier is Chateau Mourgues du Gres (Route de St Gilles RD 38) in Beaucaire owned by the Collard family. The French husband and wife are highly devoted to their craft and they create an excellent variety of world class wines. The vineyard is irrigated by the Rhone River and is also organic. The breathtaking chateau and vineyard are the epitome of what I think of when I picture french winemaking. Offering a respite from the heat of the vineyards are the thick stone walls of the chateau where the vineyard owners offer a relaxing and charming environment for tasting.
My favorite white from Chateau Mourgues du Gres is Les Galets Dorés, which means “the golden pebble,” named after the pebbles that line the vineyards. This playful white has a strong citrus aroma with light orchid notes. The wine has a smooth texture and has a beautiful yellow color that really does match the brilliant yellow of the pebbles in the vineyard. (These yellow stones prevent the soil from getting too hot during the day, which would damage the deep roots of the grape vine, and also provide heat during the cool nights.) Les Galets Dorés has an incredibly light and airy mouth feel and the cirtus aromas translate into the taste of sweet lemon. If you detect the delicate taste of rose it is because the vineyard plants beautiful rose bushes at the end of each row of grapes. Many winemakers believe that the rose plants help balance out the taste of the wine.
When I think of being in a European vineyard it is hard not to think about Lucille Ball crushing grapes with her feet in the “I Love Lucy” episode “Lucy’s Italian Movie.” I’ve always wanted to see wine being made using the ancient techniques, and luckily next door to Chateau Mourgues du Gres is the Gallo-Roman Mas des Tourelles (911 Chemin du Mas de la Tour), which makes wine just like the Romans made it over two thousand years ago. The vineyard collects the grapes and places them in a wooden structure that sits precariously below a giant wooden beam that weighs 2,500 kilos. Volunteers help lower the heavy wooden beam onto the grapes and juice is crudely extracted. After this first press the material is dumped into stone vats below where the same volunteers then crush the grapes with their toes just like Ms. Ball did on the silver screen.
Several glasses of wine later you’ll be ready for a change of pace. Head to the Canal du Midi for a relaxing cruise through the 91 locks that connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. The canal was built to help boaters in the 17th century get from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean at least one month faster by avoiding the trip around Spain. Sailing down the historical canal is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable trips I’ve ever taken. The greenery surrounding the gentle canal spills over into postcard perfect French villages as you quietly sail into the next lock.
If you’ve never sailed through a lock you’ll be in for a real treat. As you sail into the lock your boat is stopped by a large gate that is acting like a dam keeping the water level artificially high or low. When you’re fully in the lock another gate closes behind your boat and the lock begins to either raise or lower your boat to the height of the next leg of the canal. We were traveling toward lower altitudes so the water began to rush out of the closed lock and our boat slowly went down with the fleeing waters. When the water inside leveled out at the same depth as the canal on the other side of the lock the gate opened wide and we were able to continue our trek.
Continue your peaceful journey down the canal until you see a towering castle and walled city standing majestically on a hill. Dock your vessel and catch a cab into the walled city of Carcassonne and soak in the 2,500 years of history the city has to offer. Carcassonne may look familiar if you’ve seen “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” as many parts of the movie were filmed in the famous ancient city.
Carcassonne was first settled around 3,500 BC; however, fortification of the hill which led to the fortress we see today was started by the Romans in 100 B.C. The city became a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization world heritage site in 1997, which will ensure that this example of ancient architecture will survive for future generations of tourists.
When in wine country it would be a shame not to end your trip with a fantastic wine learning experience, so I suggest enrolling in a wine class at the Domaine des Cabotines in Collias. Domaine des Cabotines is owned by a lesbian couple who pursue wine as a hobby of passion. The women are a veterinarian and nurse during the day and winemakers in the evening. The wine school caters to everyone offering classes for experts and beginners alike. The staff of Domaine des Cabotines constantly searches the vineyards of the South of France for the best examples of each variety of grape. Their effort pays off as the subtle nuances of wine tasting are highlighted through their expert choices. After an afternoon hobnobbing about wine you’ll undoubtedly have a new passion and be able to spot great wines no matter where you are in the world.
When you’re ready to book your next vacation to the hottest new gay destination in Europe check out the incredible offerings of the South of France. Whether you want the warm seas of the Mediterranean, great gay nightlife or the simplicity of good food and drink in wine country the Languedoc-Roussillon region is a destination of luxury and relaxation.