07/26/2018 - 07/28/2018
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.