A Travellerspoint blog

March 2019

An Epicurean Odyssey: Bordeaux


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Thanks to our prolonged visit to Chateau de Bridoire, we didn't roll into St. Émilion until mid-afternoon, too late for lunch at any of the more heralded restaurants in the center of town. The name had been such a mainstay on the wine bottles that populated my father's cellar that I expected a reasonably sized city. As it turned out, there wasn't much of a town outside the small medieval center. After being turned away from all the restaurants we tried in the side streets, we eventually found a tourist cafe in the central square in the shadow of the imposing limestone church. The best I can say about the food is that it was edible. We only had a few more minutes to explore St. Émilion's pretty cobblestoned streets, as our Airbnb host in Bordeaux had imposed an early evening deadline for our arrival.
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Our annoyance at having to rush our drive to Bordeaux was compounded when our host wasn't there to meet us. After a few minutes of futile doorbell-pressing and knocking I decided to call him, at which point he seemed surprised to hear we had arrived. After another fifteen minutes he drove up and as best as I could understand he had gotten the impression we would be arriving later. This was quite ironic as we would have loved to have arrived later and he had insisted that we absolutely had to be there by six. All of our prior communications had been through the Airbnb app and seemed crystal clear to me when I reviewed them, but perhaps something had been lost in translation. There turned out to be quite an extensive list of rules and precautions at the apartment as well, made all the more frustrating by the fact that French is not my strongest language and our host didn't seem to believe in pacing his speech. Eventually we managed to shoo him out and we turned our attention to making the best of the rest of the evening.

Our central location proved to be ideal for exploring Bordeaux. We were just a couple of minutes walk south of the Porte d'Aquitaine, one of the more recently constructed of the eight city gates of Bordeaux. The arch stands incongruously at the northern end of the expansive and bland Place des Victoires. Its only companions in the square are a pink marble obelisk that celebrates winemaking and a gigantic bronze tortoise whose significance was lost on me. The lack of traffic in the large, open square creates a false sense of security for those unfamiliar with the area. If one doesn't pay close attention to the tracks, one risks being turned into paté by one of the frequent tram cars that whisks silently through the cobblestones.
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Aside from imbuing Place des Victoires with character, the Porte d'Aquitaine is also the threshold of Bordeaux's main pedestrian thoroughfare Rue Sainte-Catherine. This gritty, throbbing commercial artery courses through the heart of Bordeaux for a dozen cafe and boutique-lined blocks before it terminates at Place de la Comédie.
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Place de la Comédie is the quintessential central square of a major French city. It is the home of the magnificent Bordeaux Opera House. the Grand Hôtel de Bordeaux, the obligatory colorful carousel, and a giant rust-colored statue of a human head. To the north we could see the tall column of the Monument aux Girondins in Place des Quinconces.
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A right turn down the stately Cours du Chapeau-Rouge brought us to Place de la Bourse at the western bank of the Garonne. Close to the river's edge is Le Miroir d'Eau, a water fountain the size of a soccer field that intermittently fills with water and drains dry. The fountain is famous for its reflecting surface, but between the gathering dusk and the ripples from all the splashing children there weren't many reflections to be seen. On the opposite side of the fountain from the river is an imposing semicircle of 18th century municipal buildings that are currently mainly used as a convention center.
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The kids were quite annoyed with us for not having had the foresight to bring their bathing suits, but we much preferred not having to deal with soaked kids with the sun dropping out of sight and dinner still ahead. We opted for the drier alternative of watching a funny and energetic breakdancing crew put on a show next to the fountain. One of the things I enjoy most about being in the center of large cities is the chance to watch street performances, and hip hop dancers are usually the best shows. This particular group did a great job of working humor into their routine and it felt good to drop a sizable bank note into the hat they passed around at the end of the show.
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We meandered through the center of the old town looking for a place to have dinner. The streets were surprisingly gritty with a large number of fast food and cheap ethnic restaurants. The pubs were already starting to draw crowds and it looked like downtown Bordeaux was a place for heavy drinking on most nights. The best place we could find to eat was a Japanese restaurant where the friendly owner chatted with us while we wolfed down an unexceptional meal. On the way back to the Airbnb, the tourists and shoppers were gone from Rue Sainte-Catherine. Instead there was an array of panhandlers, derelicts, and a few hoodlums gathering in the shadows. I herded my brood back through the darkening city with my head on a swivel.

I was surprised that in a city the size of Bordeaux I was only able to find one daily produce market. However, the Marché des Capucins seemed to be very well-regarded as a destination for Bordeaux's renowned chefs to purchase their fresh ingredients. We enjoyed a quiet walk through a pretty, residential neighborhood of Bordeaux on the way to the market.
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I'm not sure exactly what we found lacking at Marché des Capucins. Perhaps our expectations were just too high given the gastronomic reputation of Bordeaux. The physical plant of the market was uninspiring. It felt like shopping in a parking garage. There was certainly an attractive selection of the usual standards, but very little that wasn't familiar. Even little Pau had had a more tempting assortment of prepared foods.
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There were several small restaurants in the market and we eventually settled on Moroccan cuisine, which proved to be a pleasant change from the endless magrets we had been having in the Périgord.
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I had heard there might be another daily market in the square around the Basilique Saint-Michel but once we arrived is was clear that it was purely a flea market with no produce to be seen. The basilica was an impressive sight, standing alone on the eastern side of the square.
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We gave up on the idea of markets and walked around central Bordeaux for another couple of hours. The center was pleasantly busy and colorful with some dramatic medieval edifices like La Grosse Cloche.
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Once we'd made it back to Rue Sainte-Catherine we knew we had seen the bulk of what we would find interesting in the city of Bordeaux. It was still early afternoon so we spontaneously decided to take a drive into the Médoc wine country and look for new adventures.

Anyone who has done a fair amount of traveling starts to understand the enormous significance of rivers. Historically, rivers have performed a similar function in civiization to the circulatory system of an animal. They have transmitted nourishment and commerce from the coasts to the heartlands and back since long before roads usurped that role. When I think of many of the world's greatest cities, one of the first things that comes to mind is the river that sustains it. Southwestern France has two great rivers, the Dordogne and the Garonne, and Bordeaux is where these two legendary arteries come together and begin the process of emptying into the ocean. The Gironde estuary, which begins at the confluence of the rivers, is a gaping slash in France's Atlantic coast. Half river and half ocean, the estuary is responsible for the deposits of mineral-rich silt on the western bank which caused the Médoc to become the most acclaimed wine region in the world.

I half-expected to be welcomed into the Médoc by satyrs and nymphs playing panpipes at the roadside, but the drive was relatively flat and nondescript. Naturally there were countless wineries along the way but I didn't know enough about Bordeaux wine to recognize the individual producers. We decided to press ahead until we reached the names that anyone with a passing familiarity with wine would recognize, Lafite Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild. The Rothschild family has been producing wine in the Médoc since the mid 19th century, with a vigorous rivalry between the two branches of the family. We had flirted with the idea of scheduling a tour of a winery with a tasting before our trip, but eventually decided that our three little beasts were too much to inflict on such a distinguished place. We've had some of our better experiences just winging it anyway.

We eventually passed through the pretty coastal village of Pauillac and found the small road marked as the entrance to Château Lafite Rothschild. It was close to five in the afternoon and we were able to drive right into the vineyards without a single sign of human activity. We eventually pulled over among the vines and got out to examine the grapes. They were plump and shiny and just beginning to ripen. We sampled a few of the ones which had already tuned purple, which was as close as we were going to come to Lafite Rothschild wine that day. Down the road we encountered some rose-hued warehouses and floral gardens, but still no sign of people. It appeared they had already shut down for the day.
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Back in Pauillac we visited the Maison du Tourisme et du Vin, where there were more attendants than customers. Here we finally found our tasting, so we didn't have to depart the Médoc completely dry.
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Bordeaux isn't known for night markets, but fortunately our experience in the Périgord had motivated me to do some online investigation and I found one. Saint-Macaire is a village on the Garonne well to the southeast of Bordeaux. Between the drive and a surprising difficulty finding the old town once we arrived, it was almost two hours between Pauillac and the night market. Fortunately the experience proved to be well worth the effort to get there. A short walk through ancient limestone houses took us to an open courtyard filled with communal tables. The food selection was as good as at Montignac, the best of the night markets we had visited in the Périgord. The kids were full of pent up energy after the long drive and had a blast racing around the perimeter of the market and dancing to the live band.
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Everyomne was exhausted by the time we finally arrived back in Bordeaux. Despite having had only two days in the city, we felt like we'd gathered the essence of the city and the immediate surrounds. The next morning we wasted no time and got on the road immediately for Cap Ferret.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:44 Archived in France Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: The Dordogne part III (Sarlat)


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I had come across mentions of Sarlat-la-Canéda several times in my research on the Périgord, but somehow came away with the impression that it was just another of the many pretty little villages in the region. The Saturday weekly market was supposed to be one of the best, but we would be long gone from the Dordogne by then. I figured that a quick visit for an hour or so before the night market we'd chosen would be sufficient. In the end we didn't have a choice. Parking close to the old town was nearly impossible to find and I was eventually forced to use a space that was limited to thirty minutes.

The southern entrance to the old town is via Rue de la République, which is an attractive but fairly typical commercial street for a touristy French village. It wasn't until we ducked down one of the many little alleys into the eastern side of town that we were able to see what made Sarlat so notable among the small cities of the Périgord. We found ourselves in a series of small cobblestone squares that were enclosed by buildings made of the same weathered brown stone that was typical of the region. However, the buildings in Sarlat were substantially taller than in other villages and boasted more medieval features such as turrets and carved stone facades. This part of the town was hilly and wide paths ascended in several directions to the periphery of the town. The effect was imposing and austere, yet somehow warm and energetic at the same time. It was very easy to fall in love with Sarlat and I soon regretted having compromised on the amount of time we would be able to spend there.
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In the main square we encountered a street magician setting up for his performance, which proved to be quite professional and entertaining for the kids. They were pained to be extracted from the show before it ended but I didn't want to spoil the mood of the evening with a hefty parking fine right before the night market. The vitality of Sarlat seemed to emanate from the right combination of tourist development with the historic beauty of the town. It was clear that I'd made one of my rare itinerary mistakes by staying in Bergerac rather than Sarlat.
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The night market at Saint-Amand-de-Coly was just a couple of miles from Montignac. I'd chosen it because I'd never come across the town's name in all my research and I hoped to have the same good fortune as we had the previous night. The village was tiny and pretty, although it didn't have a river to make it as warm and charming as Montignac. The night market was also very local though, with a lot of kids for ours to play with, and we were very pleased with the atmosphere. At some stalls one could buy raw and marinated meat which could be grilled to order at a nearby pavilion.
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Wednesday morning was fairly easygoing as the major weekly market in the area was in our home base of Périgueux. It only took us a couple of minutes to climb up to the large square in front of the grand and ornate Saint-Front Cathedral. It was a very functional market with a lot of variety and much less of a touristic nature than Issigeac or Le Bugue. It was perfect for us because our focus was on assembling the ingredients for a delicious market brunch at home.
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Our prizes were plump St-Jacques scallops, magret stuffed with foie gras, freshly baked bread, and plenty of flawless fruits and vegetables. The scallops, magret, and red peppers ended up sauteed in their own juices. We complemented the meal with a bottle of excellent Bergerac wine our gracious host had left for us.
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Wednesday's itinerary

On the previous two days we had passed a water park on our way to our destinations near the Dordogne and hadn't given much thought to it. On our last full day in the Périgord, we didn't have quite the same appetite for the remaining villages and châteaux on my long list. We decided we'd give ourselves a break and give the kids a treat and spend the afternoon at Jacquou Parc. The kids loved the water park, although naturally they scattered in different directions meaning that the whereabouts of at least one of them was always unknown. Fortunately we averted disaster in the water and took them on a couple of the park's creaky and antiquated rides. By the time we had collected ourselves, it was already closing time for most of the sights in the area.
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We were delayed another half hour when one of the other departing patrons needed my help jump-starting her car. We decided to head to the former residence of Jospehine Baker, Chateau des Milandes, despite it being unlikely we would arrive before the closing time. On the way we passed through Saint-Cyprien where the streets were festooned with garlands in preparation for some sort of flower festival.
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We had hoped to be able to at least walk around the outside of the Chateau des Milandes if we arrived after closing. Alas, when we arrived at the château we found the gates shutting behind the last visitors and a tall fence surrounding the grounds. I was only able to manage one photo from outside the fence.
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We had chosen the Wednesday night market in Belvès because the town was well-known for its exceptional beauty. We arrived late and had some difficulty finding a place to sit. The food was fine but the patrons were almost all tourists and the atmosphere was nowhere near as congenial as the previous two nights. We missed the live music and dancing as well. We had seen posters advertising a circus in Le Bugue that night so we decided not to linger over dinner.
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The Cirque Ullman was tiny but had a magically antiquated atmosphere that made me feel like it could be any moment of the 20th century. Older kids might have been skeptical of the limited acts but ours were thoroughly entertained. Between the markets, the water park and the circus, Mei Ling and I felt like we'd given the kids as good a day as anyone could imagine.
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On our last morning in the Périgord we had one final treat for the kids. Chateau de Bridoire is a restored medieval castle which specialized in family entertainment. There are lots of activities on the grounds and several rooms inside the castle largely dedicated to games. There were so many options that we eventually had to practically drag the kids out so that we would be able to make it to St. Emilion in time for lunch.
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The Périgord had been a spectacular stop for everyone. We had been extremely busy over our five days and I still had enough towns and activities left on the list to fill up another five days. Part of the nature of road trips is that eventually we have to move on, even from the places we love the most. Easing the sting of our departure was the fact that we were headed towards one of our most keenly anticipated stops of the trip, the region of Bordeaux.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:35 Archived in France Comments (0)

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