I’m on the move again, this time in France where, judging by the lushness of the trees and flowers, spring sprang quite a while ago. I arrived early Friday morning after skipping over the “pond” (and over a night sleep) to land directly in Bordeaux.

(Practical note: if you want to fly to France from Canada or the US for a low fare with direct flights to several French cities, go to Montreal first and fly Air Transat.)

I am staying in an AirBnB room not far from the centre of town with a woman, her three daughters and a young cat. High hotel costs in France and the fact that the Euro is currently worth 50% more than the Canadian dollar sealed that deal. I’m paying $39 CAD a night for the room, including breakfast, access to the kitchen (where I can prepare my own meals) and the 12% AirBnB fee. My host Anne is very helpful and friendly and I’m willing to trade a bit of privacy for this kind of local contact.

Early explorations

After a nap, I went exploring the city Friday afternoon, and all day Saturday. The weather was gorgeous, and the transit easy to navigate. Since I’m staying a week I bought a 7-day transit pass for 11.30 Euros. (A single ticket is 1.40 Euro). Even with the currency conversion rate, this is pretty cheap for a major city. The trams (three lines) are modern and run on dedicated tracks and I can only wish that Toronto would pay attention!

So combining foot and transit power, I explored a good part of the old town that curves around the river Garonne. The river itself is muddy brown and not especially attractive but it is lined by a wide promenade shared by pedestrians, cyclists and rollerbladers. The newer part of town curves around the older part, giving the city the shape of a croissant. The older buildings are all built from limestone, which was quarried locally. Although the city is over 2000 years old, most of what survives dates from the 13th century onward. St-André Cathedral still has a section dating from 1096!

Of course Bordeaux is a wine region (mostly red) and I have wine with most meals. The grocery store sells bottles of local wine for as low as 1.75 Euros! I bought a bottle of Merlot-Cabernet for 5 Euros yesterday and it was quite good. The wines here tend to have high tannins (which I don’t like) so paying more for a bottle doesn’t necessarily mean that I would find the wine better. (More on wine in the St-Emilion section below.)

Check out the photos at the end of the article to see some of what I saw.

Like a local

My main reason for coming to Bordeaux was actually to visit Cécilia, a new friend I made in Yangon last December. We met on Sunday afternoon and for the rest of the day I immersed myself in the local life of her neighbourhood. Not only does she live in old Bordeaux, she also lives in a very cool loft-like apartment inside what used to be the inner wall of the city. (Bordeaux had double walls.) She gave me a tour of the alley “between the walls” right behind her place, which apparently tourists never see. 🙂

We had a late lunch/snack at a little seafood restaurant down a narrow street where we watched groups of tourists from a cruise ship passing through, as well as a raving homeless man (who was later walked off by the staff). All very entertaining.

We walked though narrow cobblestone alleys, and along the river a bit, and climbed into Porte Cailhau (a defensive gate from 1495 ) for views. Normally it costs 3.50 Euros, but, Cécilia being a local, we got in for free. We stopped by Cécilia’s favourite bar, Chez Fred, where I learned that in Bordeaux it is not total sacrilege to mix beer with grenadine and Perrier (creating a drink called “Monaco”). This bar is located on a beautiful little car-free plaza in sight of the Porte Cailhau. We ended up having a late dinner in a Moroccan restaurant. The sun only sets around 9:30 PM here, so the day just goes on and on! You think it’s 8:00 PM when it’s really 10 PM.

All day long we kept running into Cécilia’s friends and acquaintances and everyone had time for a few words. It’s true that it was Sunday, but nobody seemed rushed. I could feel completely comfortable in a place like this… if only people didn’t smoke so much!

St-Emilion

When you ask people in Bordeaux where to go for a day trip, they all suggest St-Emilion. If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because of the wine. However, St-Emilion is not only “one” wine. There are about a hundred wineries around the village and its seven “communes”. And it’s only 36 minutes by train from Bordeaux.

Beside the wine, there is also historical interest in St-Emilion. The town was born in the 8th century after Emilion, a monk and hermit, settled down in a cave here. The purpose of the wine was religious at first, but that quickly changed. 🙂

The train station is not in St-Emilion itself, but in the next commune, a good 15-20 minutes walk from town. It’s a beautiful walk though, and already you can see the vineyards that fill up most of the surrounding fields. I arrived in time for lunch and splurged on a 3-course “menu du jour” (16.50 Euros) at a little restaurant next to a very steep path covered with sharp, uneven cobblestones. This time the entertainment was provided by all the tourists in flip-flops trying to walk down without falling. Better than TV!

After my meal I dropped by the tourist office to figure out how to best occupy the few hours I had. I decided not to pay 13 Euros for a guided walk, but instead check out individual attractions myself, starting with… wineries! I had free samples in a couple of places and visited their caves, which are literally “caves”, some of them monolithic (carved into one block of stone), remnants of the old limestone quarries. Some signs advertised St-Emilion Grand Cru for 10 Euros. They were only a few years old though. These are wines than can be aged for 50 years, and I think the price goes up with age.

Then I walked a bit around town, stopping at a few sights such as Porte de la Cadène, an old entrance to the city through the (now mostly gone) walls, and the ruins of a Cloister used as a garden where you can sit and have a glass of Les Cordeliers sparkling wine (a bit of an oddity in this region). I climbed an old medieval tower (La Tour du Château Roy – nothing to do with me) for a 360-degree view over the roofs and vineyards. Finally I joined a tour from the tourist office (5 Euros) which was the only way to see the catacombs and the Monolitic Church (carved into the soft limestone over a period of only 50 years, rather than built). This church is the largest of its type in Europe.

I finally made my way back to the train station around 7:00 PM for the return trip.

Wine and Food

I know little about French wines, but I know just enough to realize that they are in a category of their own, in terms of variety, technique, history, etc. Wine has been produced here for over a thousand years. Contrast this with countries that have been producing it for less than 200 years (such as New Zealand). Still, that doesn’t mean that French wine is necessarily better. It all depends on personal tastes. As mentioned before, I don’t like strong tannins, so personally I’d pick an Argentinean Malbec over a St-Emilion any day!

Other food specialities of the region: magret de canard (duck), gésiers (gizzards), cannelé (a kind of overcooked flan that looks like a small cake), and delicious macarons. These are small soft almond cookies, nothing to do with the rainbow-coloured meringue-based confections.

Hopefully I’ll discover more foods and wines in the days to come.

More to come. I will be in Bordeaux until Friday morning when I board a train to Paris!

Tags: