Four Days in Bordeaux

Early on Friday morning (June 21st) we said goodbye to our little apartment in Paris and started the trek to the train station. We had a 6:30 train to Bordeaux, not exactly our first choice, but the seats available to Eurail pass holders in the summer apparently fill up quickly. Lugging our bags to the same metro station entrance we’d used over the last few days, we found out that it apparently wasn’t open before 6am.

Going a couple more blocks we found another metro station, bought tickets, and trucked into the tunnels to find the right line. As already mentioned on Facebook, this is the moment where Steve is moving ahead, looking for signs, when he suddenly finds himself on the ground after slipping in a giant puddle of puke. When you’re running late for a train and fall in a pool of vomit, you can’t help but think that you must’ve done some horrible things in a past life to deserve this. …It could have been worse. Apart for a small bit around the shoe, nothing really going on any clothing, which the passengers on the train to Bordeaux should have been glad about.

We made it onto the train with about six minutes to spare. No worries.

In keeping with the trend established in Paris, it was wet and dreary out when we got to Bordeaux. We were staying in a young couple’s basement loft. It was a mile walk in a hovering mist, but we made it without getting lost, thanks to realizing that even though we don’t have a data plan for our phone here, we can still take pictures of maps at train stations or on the computer and use those to get around.

I couldn’t tell you if the place we stayed was at all typical of what you’d find near the city center, but it was gorgeous. They had the first floor and basement of a residential building, including a courtyard area (other people lived on upper floors). Well, here are a couple pictures.

Our room in the lower level.

Our room in the lower level.

No, we didn't pick the lock and take their wine.

No, we didn’t pick the lock and take their wine.

Living room

Living room

Kitchen

Kitchen

View of the staircase from the courtyard.

View of the staircase from the courtyard.

They had a pet cat and guinea pig. The cat was sick while we were there and actually pooped on the rug in our room at one point…  They put him in the garage after that. This was their guinea pig, Dedier.

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See how he loves Jenny? Well at some point he got out of his cage, chewed through part of the power cord to the couple’s printer, so when Steve went to turn it on, he got shocked and tripped the circuit breaker to the whole kitchen. And this happened when the owners were out of town for the weekend. And the circuit box was nowhere to be found in the house. So a few minutes of frantically moving plugs around to get the internet working (it was set up in the now powerless kitchen), we were able to contact the owners, find out where the circuit box was, and get power on again so we didn’t ruin all their food while they were away…

In typical fashion, we got into town and started wandering around. Julie, our host, was kind enough to give us a map and circle the main sights around town. We went out of the house and zig-zagged our way to Rue Saint Catherine, a pedestrian only street that is supposedly one of the longest shopping strips in Europe. Starting at a stone arch by the University of Bordeaux, it goes all the way to the square in front of the Grand Theater. On one end are some cheap shops where Jenny bought a 2 euro belt (that almost immediately started falling apart), and on the other end are higher end stores, capped off with a McDonalds. It was crowded with people out for an evening shopping trip.

Rue Sainte Catherine

Rue Sainte Catherine

We walked all the way down trying to figure out where we wanted to eat. Then we walked back the way we came. (We’re a decisive pair). Of all places to go, we settled on an Irish pub, partly because of all places, we figured we’d get in there and they might speak English. Sure enough, we encountered a genuine Irishman at the bar, and he helped get us a pair of much needed hamburgers and beers.

Just a couple Americans eating hamburgers at an Irish pub in Bordeaux.

Just a couple Americans eating hamburgers at an Irish pub in Bordeaux.

Fully nourished, we once again walked down the shopping street to the end at the Grand Theater. The grand theater is one of the oldest surviving wood frame opera houses in Europe. It would have been cool to catch a show there, but I’m sure we would have been severely underdressed. Conveniently, there is an office of tourism very close to the theater, which we went into to arrange a chateau tour for Saturday. Continuing a short distance, you run into the Esplanade des Quinconces, which basically seems like a football field sized gravel square capped with a couple of stone pillars at one end and a massive fountain and pillar at the other.

Grand Theatre

Grand Theatre

The sculptures at fountain were impressive (moreso because they were actually spouting water instead of being shut down like at Versaille). Jenny’s time in sculpture classes have given both of us a greater appreciation for the work that goes into making sculptures of this scale.

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All must worship the mighty rooster!

All must worship the mighty rooster!

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The weather changed from mist to solid rain, but we kept moving toward more of the circles that Julie had drawn on the map. A few minutes from the square, there is a large public park and gardens, bordered on one side by a museum of natural history. It was a pretty setting with a few kids roaming around, a guy playing songs on an acoustic guitar, and joggers doing laps.

Tree huggers

Tree huggers

Jardin Public

Jardin Public

From the park we headed toward the Gallien ruins, a small remaining bit of what was once a Roman amphitheater, abandoned in the 3rd century. With the rain coming down, we didn’t stay long. The ruins give you an idea of the age and history of the city. The homeless man with a trio of dogs wearing brightly colored raincoats give you an idea of its character.

Palais Gallien

Palais Gallien

We found a grocery store on the way back to the room. After almost a week in France, we were grocery store pros. We got our eggs, milk, orange juice, some meat, cheese, and bread for a sandwich. And wine, of course we got wine. After the grocery store we walked past a small square with restaurants and a band setting up a small stage.

Back at the house our other host, Alexis, got home from work and walked in to say hello. He told us that there was a big music festival going on in the city tonight and that there would be bands out all over the place. Definitely worth checking out. Unfortunately, this was the point at which Jenny really started feeling sick. A sore throat had turned nasty and she had sinus issues. Traveling, especially to major cities with tons of people around, means you’re exposed to all sorts of unfamiliar germs, and she obviously picked something up. She went downstairs to lay down, and the couple shouted down that they were leaving for the weekend. We were tasked with feeding the guinea pig for a couple of days.

Jenny went to sleep and I (Steve) waited for dusk before going to wander around the city after dark. The music festival that Alexis spoke about had started, and as promised, performers scattered around the city drew the people out in droves. Young people carrying wine and beer filled the streets. Every few blocks there was another musician set up. The styles were all over the map – a French rapper, a reggae band, a moody rock trio, an acoustic singer/songwriter. I walked down the same shopping street as before so see the grand theater in the evening. Then to the square with the fountain, then to the Place de la Bourse, which is set of buildings that you’ll probably see on any postcards from Bordeaux.

Place de la Bourse has a large pool set up in front of it in the evenings, appropriately called the “miroir.” It’s only a couple inches deep, and when still, reflects everything around it beautifully. After dark, the lights at Place de la Bourse go on and offer some amazing views from the other side of the miroir.  I stopped to take a few pictures and watch all the kids (I say kids – it seemed like every 17-25yr old in the city was out) hang out.

Place de la Bourse from across the miroir d'eau

Place de la Bourse from across the miroir d’eau

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On the way back to the room, I got to see some of the small streets and alleys at night, which I loved. So many small streets, unevenly lit, with stone on all sides, make for some great street scenes.

Bordeaux streets at night

Bordeaux streets at night

Saturday, June 22. We awoke with just enough time to grab a slice of brioche with Nutella before running out to catch our tour. “Vineyard tour” was one of the few things on our wish list for the trip, so we did it right. This was an all day guided tour to three different chateaux, lunch, wine tastings at each place, and finally a stop at the medieval town of Saint Emilion.

Neither of us are big on package tour deals, but we had good luck with this one. Instead of the maximum 25 people on the bus, we were 12, and all English speaking so there was no having to sit through everything in two languages. There was an indian couple, a pair of retirees on their “trip of a lifetime,” a very well traveled pair of Canadian men, a guy from the Bay area, one from Hong Kong, and a couple of students from China and Taiwan.

The weather finally gave us a break. Instead of gray and wet it was sunny and mild. After a short drive on the bus and some initial chatting from Bridgette, the old, French, tour guide, we arrived at the first Chateau, Le Lastille. One of the owners met us in the small shop in front before taking us to the room where they make the wine. It was a combination of old and new. Some of the wine is processed in concrete vats from the early 1900’s, updated with modern thermal controls. Other wine is processed in large steel tanks. If you’ve been to visit a microbrewery, the rooms look largely similar. Large tanks to hold liquid at a steady temperature while fermentation takes place.

Cement vat

Cement vat

He walked us through the vinification process – the art/science of deciding when to harvest the grapes, the machines used for harvesting, pressing out the juice, fermentation, malolactic fermentation, aging, bottling. After the tour, we got to sample a few of the wines. We’re not exactly wine snobs, but they seemed good.

At the second chateau we skipped most of the wine making details and got more bits about the business, how they sell it, distribution, labeling for all the different countries they sell to. We were fed a lunch of assorted French meats, salad, and wine of course, followed by cheeses and fruit for dessert.

Lunch table

Lunch table

Grapes grapes grapes

Grapes grapes grapes

Wine being aged in oak barrels.

Wine being aged in oak barrels.

15L bottle of wine?  Yes please.

15L bottle of wine? Yes please.

The third chateau was in the prettiest location of the three, overlooking a valley of grape vines.  Our male guide at this chateau started off by asking where everybody was from, and after hearing from the Californian, he said “Good wine in California” which got a nod from everybody. “No, only France make good wine.” This one was a jokester, but he knew his stuff and gave us a sample of a couple of his wines. One of the higher end wineries, these grapes were all hand harvested and the bottles were something like 50-60 euros (at the Chateau itself, would be marked up more in stores).

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After the last wine tasting, we went a short distance away to the medieval town of Saint Emilion. There we had enough time to roam around, relax with a coffee, get lost at least once in the twisting, hilly streets circling the massive church around which much of the town was arranged. A few spots had fantastic views over the rooftops and beyond into the surrounding vineyards. Just as the clouds and rain started rolling in again, we boarded the bus for the drive back into Bordeaux.

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After 10 straight days of traveling and seeing things, we rested on Sunday. Jenny still wasn’t feeling great, so we ventured out for lunch at a Japanese place that our host recommended, tried to get caught up on sleep and writing, and watched Jurassic Park in French. The next day was somewhat the same. We went out for a few hours to see one of the major old churches in town, got some ice cream, Jenny bought a belt. We got salads from the grocery store for dinner, and went to bed early so we could get up at 5am to start our trip to Seville the next day.

Note to gutter punks in New Orleans - you don't have nearly enough dogs.

Note to gutter punks in New Orleans – you don’t have nearly enough dogs.

Gargoyle...er... calf??

Gargoyle…er… calf??

Place du Palais

Place du Palais

The exit door for guests you don't like.

The exit door for guests you don’t like.

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Interior of St. Michel

Interior of St. Michel