A Travellerspoint blog

An Epicurean Odyssey: La Rioja and Vitoria-Gasteiz


The autonomous region of La Rioja and the wine growing area of La Rioja overlap, but are far from the same thing. The wine grapes are grown predominantly in the valleys on both sides of the Ebro, with the largest subregions being Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja on the southern bank. There is also a small wine region on the northern bank of the Ebro known as Rioja Alavesa which is actually part of the Basque Country, and we headed there first on our only full day in the area. We enjoy wine but not enough to devote a full day to touring wineries, especially with the three little ones in tow. What brought us to Rioja Alavesa was the medieval walled town of Laguardia, which seemed like it might be the most interesting city in the region.

Just outside of Laguardia we stopped to admire Bodegas Ysios. This winery is more famous for its beautiful design and setting than it is for its product. The architect was Santiago Calatrava, who we were familiar with from the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias in Valencia. The building has a surreal and striking appearance, with an undulating roof composed of enormous aluminum beams that create a pixelated appearance when viewed from the front.

Despite not having made an appointment to tour the winery, our curiosity got the better of us and we pressed on the buzzer at the front door. We could see people walking around the upper level through the huge glass panels but no one came to the door. I couldn't blame them. People undoubtedly show up off the road and ring that buzzer all day. We were content to walk behind the winery where we saw expansive vineyards with a backdrop of the rocky outcroppings of the Sierra Cantabria. There were innumerable bunches of unripe tempranillo grapes on the vines and we couldn't resist picking a few of the sour green spheres to pop between our teeth..

Back on the main road we took the turn-off to Laguardia and ascended to the hilltop citadel. From the mirador outside the walls we could see the winery we had just left as well as expansive views of the Rioja Alavesa.

We were delighted with Laguardia from the moment we passed through the walls. Perhaps because it was siesta time, the narrow pedestrian streets were quiet and peaceful without seeming abandoned. The buildings that lined the streets on either side were relatively tall, contributing to the sense of navigating a maze of canyons as we wandered through the town. Bright sunlight overhead and the omnipresence of greenery and brightly-colored laundry in the wrought-iron balconies created a cheerful atmosphere.

We took a break for lunch just outside the walls at Restaurante Amelibia Jatetxea, whose entryway was a shrine to Rioja wine. Then it was time to reward the kids with ice cream for having been upbeat and cooperative all morning.

At the northern end of the tiny town are some open squares and the imposing Torre Abacial and the Church of Santa María de los Reyes. We concluded that Laguardia was the most beautiful small town we had seen thus far on the trip, thanks in no small part to the lack of heavy tourist traffic.

We had now passed through most of the day in La Rioja and the closest we had come to a wine tasting was banging on the door of Ysios. We reviewed our options and decided our best option was the Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture outside of Briones, in Rioja Alta. Like Bodegas Ysios, this facility was surrounded by vineyards with a spectacular view of a medieval city on a hill.

Our experience inside was a good reminder of why we avoid museums when we travel. The kids tore around and made a god-awful amount of noise, and no amount of cajoling or threats made any difference in the way they behaved. Fortunately there were only three or four other visitors to disturb. I wasn't able to pay much attention to the exhibits, but the coolest part for the kids was a game where they got to squash projections of grapes on the floor by jumping on them. There was also the largest collection of corkscrews in the world, some of which had a phallic motif.

Vivanco is a winery as well as a museum so we finally had our opportunity to taste Rioja wines after we finished touring the exhibits. One unique aspect of the Vivanco winery is that they make wines from rare Rioja varietals. For most casual wine drinkers, the Rioja region is synonymous with Tempranillo grapes and it's true that Tempranillo makes up by far the highest percentage or even 100% of most Rioja wines. However, there are four other grapes permitted in Rioja wines: Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo, and Maturana Tinta. Garnacha was already familiar to us because it's the major constituent of Aragonese wines and also popular in France and Australia (as Grenache). I'd never heard of the others, so it was interesting to try wines which were purely derived from each of these grapes. And the verdict was ... they all tasted just about the same to us. We enjoy wine but we don't pretend to be connoisseurs, and I've never tasted a note of anything except grapes and alcohol in a glass of wine. How people detect cedar, coffee, plums and God knows what else in wine is something I'll never understand. Mei Ling and I certainly know what wines we like, and fortunately we usually agree, but it doesn't match up very well with the accepted hierarchies. The best thing about visiting wine regions is creating memories we can reopen any time we uncork a bottle from that area in the future.

We hadn't seen much of the Rioja valley geographically but we returned to Logroño that evening thoroughly satisfied with our experience. That evening we returned to Tapas Alley which was an even more riotous celebration of food than it had been the previous night. Then we took a last stroll around the center of this vibrant, engaging city eventually ending up at the warmly illuminated Cathedral of Santa María de la Redonda, looking even more beautiful in the dark of night than it had been in the sunlight.


Thanks to the heavy concentration of interesting cities in this part of Spain, we didn't have to drive far to get to our next destination. In fact, there was plenty of time to stop off at Vitoria-Gasteiz on the way to Bilbao. Despite being the capital of the Basque Country, Vitoria isn't even a blip on the international tourism radar that is dominated by San Sebastian and Bilbao. We love the change of pace that comes with visiting cities which aren't all about racing around to different attractions that are mobbed with tourists. We explored the more modern part of the city center first and found it pleasant and fairly typical of a Spanish mid-sized city.

Vitoria-Gasteiz starts to get more interesting as one ascends the steep hill that contains the medieval Casco Viejo. At the peak one is rewarded with the impressive Cathedral of Santa María de Vitoria, which was undergoing restoration at the time of our visit. Below the apex of the hill are a series of concentric oval levels with surprisingly wide and smoothly-paved roads. The levels are connected by staircases and escalators, giving the old town a very pleasing and symmetric geometrical structure. Navigating to our chosen tapas restaurant proved more complicated than we expected as we got the level wrong twice before we finally found it.

Lunch at La Malquerida was quite good, complemented by the alfresco setting in a small courtyard in the shadow of the Iglesia de San Miguel. I found myself in the unusual position of having to help a French backpacker who didn't speak any Spanish order his tapas, interpreting directly between two foreign languages I have far from a solid command of. In the area around La Malquerida the murals were vivid and electrifying, probably the best we'd seen on our journey.

We finished our descent from the Casco Viejo in Plaza de la Virgen Blanca, an atmospheric square dominated by a war monument and surrounded by beautiful buildings. The area was being set up for the annual city festival which would take place that weekend, but we would be long gone by then. It was time to move on to our next destination, the acclaimed and historic city of Bilbao.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:51 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Pamplona and Logroño

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The north of Spain has most of the smaller autonomous regions and over the next few days we were going to pass through all of them. We would have missed Navarre entirely if we hadn't decided to stop over in Pamplona, the only city in the region of any significant size. Navarre is closely related in culture and politics to the Basque Country on their western border. In fact, Pamplona is probably the most typically Basque city in Spain. The city is famous primarily for the annual Fiesta de San Fermín, popularly known as the Running of the Bulls. I had actually visited the city seventeen years previously for exactly that purpose, although my memories were limited to the run itself and a haze of partying in the streets. When we arrived on a sleepy Tuesday morning there was little that I recognized. Our first stop was the covered market Mercado de Santo Domingo, which was pleasant enough but contained little to distinguish it from any of the others we had seen.

Not far from the market is picturesque, cobblestoned Plaza Consistorial which is surrounded on three sides by colorful and dignified townhouses. On the northwestern side is the majestic Pamplona City Hall, which blends Neoclassical and Baroque styles.

Plaza Consistorial proved to be Pamplona's high point. We walked as far as the Monumento al Encierro, an enormous bronze sculpture that was installed in 1997 to celebrate the Running of the Bulls. On the way we passed Plaza del Castillo, a huge open square that was largely devoid of interesting sights or foot traffic.

It was way too early for a real lunch. We stopped by a couple of appealing tapas bars but ultimately decided we weren't in the mood for pintxos. We spent a little more time wandering around the narrow pedestrian streets of the town center and then got back on the road to the region of La Rioja.

We probably would have skipped Logroño and La Rioja if we didn't have a modest interest in wine, honed by prior travel through areas such as Puglia, Napa, and Côtes du Rhône. That would have been a tragedy. The next two days were among the most enjoyable that we spent in Spain. I wasn't familiar with Logroño before creating the itinerary for this trip but it seemed like the logical choice as a base to explore the region. Aside from having the largest daily market in La Rioja the city is reputed to have possibly the best tapas in Spain.

We'd missed the early lunch window between Pamplona and Logroño so our first priority was to find a table during peak hours, not a trivial task. Most of the recommended restaurants were on a single short street in the center of the old town, Calle del Laurel, which we referred to afterwards as Tapas Alley. As I expected it was difficult to find a place that could take the five of us but all we had to do was keep marching down the street asking in every doorway and eventually we were wedged in. Lunch was satisfying and included savory caracoles as well as our first taste of percebes (goose barnacles) since we'd visited Portugal four years previously. Naturally we washed everything down with sturdy Rioja wine.

Our Airbnb was a modern, air-conditioned apartment just a five minute walk from the old town. We got settled and then headed right back to begin our city exploration. The architectural highlight of Logroño is the Baroque Co-cathedral of Santa María de La Redonda. It's an impressive building with imposing twin belltowers and an open courtyard that attracts local soccer players.

In the northern part of the old town is the oldest church in Logroño, Parroquia de Santiago Real. It is a traditional stop on the Camina del Santiago and in the courtyard the flagstones are painted with pictures relevant to the pilgrimage. It appeared to be some kind of a game and Cleo was infuriated with me for not being able to figure out the rules.

Just north of here was the Ebro, the same river we'd encountered two weeks previously in Zaragoza. As in Zaragoza the river was brown and unappealing, and seemed to be largely ignored. The most interesting feature here is the 19th century stone bridge which leads to roads north out of town.

As in Valencia and Aragon, street art is a thing in Logroño. Expect to see something whimsical or disturbing around every corner.

Directly south of the old town is a small but pretty park. In the center is the Monument to General Espartero surrounded by a fountain and greenery.

Dinner was very late and consisted of a migration from east to west in the old town, stopping at various hole in the wall bars for tapas which we consumed on wine cask tables in the alleys. A large variety of wines by the glass was always available.

The daily market in Logroño was pretty sleepy on Wednesday morning which was a little disappointing, but it was nice to be able to walk around and take pictures without feeling like we were getting in the way.

The few restaurants on the upper level of the market hadn't opened yet, but fortunately there was an excellent tapas place open directly across the street. They had an amazing pincho consisting of gulas rolled in zucchini atop a slice of jamon. I used to think when I ate gulas that I was eating baby eels until one day I looked closely at a tin of the stuff in a Spanish market. It turns out that gulas are actually fake baby eels made from processed pollock, essentially the same stuff that goes into the surimi used to make sushi. Real angulas are very hard to find and enormously expensive when you do. In all likelihood I've never eaten the real thing but I'm not sure it matters, since by all accounts the flavor of either angulas or gulas is entirely imparted by the garlic and oil they are cooked with. If you want to know for sure whether you're having angulas or gulas, the easiest way to differentiate is whether or not there are tiny eyes at one end. But in reality, if you have to ask then you're eating gulas.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:59 Archived in Spain Tagged travel tapas logrono blog pamplona tony la_rioja friedman navarre Comments (2)

An Epicurean Odyssey: San Sebastian

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San Sebastian is the Spanish name for the city the Basques call Donostia. I generally call places that are well-known internationally by their international/English names (Rome, Munich, Prague etc.) and less familiar places by their local names. Although San Sebastian is neither the largest city nor the capital of the Basque region, it is probably the most popular for tourism. The city has become famous worldwide for its crescentic beach bookended by imposing coastal mountains as well as for gastronomy. The city hosts several Michelin-starred restaurants including Arzak which is recognized as one of the best in the world.

We arrived in San Sebastian on a high note. We'd had a great start to the day in Biarritz and we'd only had to drive a short distance to arrive at our home for the next two days. We had an Airbnb in the Gros neighborhood, a residential area across the Urumea River from the touristic part of town. We didn't have air conditioning but the atmosphere wasn't heavy with the windows open. The kitchen was so small that two people couldn't fit in it and any serious food preparation was clearly out of the question. It was just mid-afternoon so we decided to walk to the beach strip of La Concha. On our side of the river there was little to see except for a pretty Gothic church and some impressively ornate townhouses.

We crossed the Urumea on the Puente de Santa Catalina, the second bridge from the mouth of the river. To the north we could see the Puente Del Kursaal and the mass of Monte Urgull, and to the south was the elaborate Puente Maria Cristina and the downtown Amara neighborhood.large_IMG_1188.JPGlarge_IMG_1191.JPG

Up to this point San Sebastian had seemed much like any other mid-sized Spanish city. However, once we'd crossed through Centro to reach the eastern end of the La Concha beach crescent it was clear we were in no ordinary city. Despite the fact that it was late afternoon and overcast, the entire beach was jam-packed with a seething mass of humanity that seemed to overflow into the water. It was probably the most crowded, riotous beach I've ever seen in my life.

We hadn't come prepared to swim so we resisted the kids' entreaties to go down to the sand. Instead we walked the entire length of the elevated La Concha boardwalk, enjoying the views of the Bahía de La Concha. The twin outcroppings of Monte Urgull and Monte Igueldo formed the jaws of the bay, with the uninhabited island of Santa Clara hovering between them like a morsel of food about to get chomped. Across the boulevard from the beach were the top apartment buildings and hotels in San Sebastian.

At the western end of La Concha a vertiginous staircase led directly down into the surf. Stairs also led up from here to a hill on whose apex was perched the Miramar Palace, a former summer home of the Queen of Spain.

Behind the palace was a gently sloping lawn with trees loaded with purple crab apples. Ian and Cleo picked a few with my assistance and they proved to be virtually inedible.

We returned the way we came to forage for dinner. After a fruitless search for an atmospheric restaurant in Centro, we walked northward onto the peninsula that contains Monte Urgull. Here we encountered San Sebastian's elaborate City Hall, which was an enormous casino until gambling was outlawed in 1924. This impressive example of Belle Époque architecture marks the beginning of the Parte Vieja, or old town.

Once we were in the old town, it was clear that this was where the throngs of tourists were expected to eat. The pedestrian alleys were filled with bars and small restaurants serving the local specialty of pintxos. Pintxos are typically small tapas-like snacks on top of a piece of toasted bread, often with a wooden skewer affixing the two together. The skewer is what gives the pintxo its name. Mei Ling and I can eat these but we don't consider them dinner, mainly because we don't eat a lot of bread and because the toppings tend to be very salty. Trying to find a sit-down meal was virtually impossible due to the crowds and we were turned away from numerous restaurants. On our last attempt we were shown to a basement dining room where we had a meal that was pretty decent with no pintxos whatsoever. Sorry, but sometimes the local specialty isn't for us.

After dessert at an ice cream shop, we wandered around the old town and the seaside bar area for a while. Very little was amenable to photography with the limited equipment we had, with the exception of the brightly illuminated city hall.

There are two covered markets in San Sebastian, Mercado de San Martín in Centro and Mercado de la Bretxa in Parte Vieja, so we thought we had it made. Unfortunately, both were suffering significantly from the Mondays especially Mercado de San Martín. We puttered around dutifully for a while but the energy clearly wasn't there and we moved on.

We hadn't taken the kids to the beach once on this trip and we'd already seen most of the interesting part of San Sebastian, so we headed down to La Concha. It was still crowded although not as ridiculous as it had been on Sunday. The kids had fun although when they went in the water I was terrified of losing sight of them amid all the kids moving around in the surf. Just before we left a huge wave rolled over our towels, leaving them saturated with sand and seawater. It took close to half an hour to get them de-sanded and wrung out using the beach showers.

There's a funicular to the top of Monte Igueldo and an amusement park, which made it the easy choice of the two mountains to ascend. The amusement park is open every day during the summer, and otherwise only on weekends and holidays. The rides and games were pretty basic but my kids are young enough that it doesn't take much to entertain them. The most unique feature was a water flume that coursed around the edge of the mountain providing great views over the bay.

We didn't have much inclination to return to Parte Vieja for dinner so we decided to drive a few miles east to the small suburb of Pasaia, which has a reputation for fresh seafood. Pasaia is best known to travelers for the scenic coastal walk from central San Sebastian, which is a part of the Camino del Santiago. We did find a decent restaurant although the al fresco location along a busy street left much to be desired. The town rises steeply up another coastal mountain behind the port. After dinner we took the city elevator up a couple of levels but it was already too dark to see much in terms of views, and there was no old town to speak of. If I had to do it over again I probably would have made a slightly longer trip in the other direction to the peninsular fishing town of Getaria.

The next morning the markets were closed for a regional holiday and there was nothing else to do but get back on the road. We had two entirely new regions of Spain to visit before nightfall.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:17 Archived in Spain Tagged travel san_sebastian blog donostia monte_urgull pasajes pasaia la_concha monte_igueldo miramar_palace Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Coastal Aquitaine

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We didn't waste any time leaving Bordeaux because the market in Cap Ferret had the reputation for being one of the best in the region. What we hadn't counted on was the horrendous traffic on the D106 on Saturday morning. It seemed like everyone in Bordeaux was headed for the coast for the weekend, and once we reached the peninsula the highway turned into a parking lot. It took more than an hour to traverse the last twenty kilometers.

The market had a large outdoor area devoted to clothing and crafts with just one small building to house the meat and produce. The area was crowded with domestic and English tourists and didn't have a very authentic feel, although some of the artwork was fun and original. There wasn't anywhere to sit and eat inside the market so we found lunch at a seafood restaurant in town.

Despite being directly across the mouth of Arcachon Bay from our next destination, we had to drive for another hour and a half around the bay to reach our next destination due to the lack of a car ferry. I knew the long drive to Dune du Pilat would be worth the trouble since I could still remember visiting the gigantic dune from my own early childhood. I'd been looking forward to surprising the kids with the enormous mountain of sand for the whole trip and I wasn't disappointed. As soon as we reached the end of the short trail through the woods and they looked up at the dune, their jaws dropped. It takes a lot to impress my kids but the Dune du Pilat definitely did the trick. Once we'd clambered to the top the views around us were breathtaking. Inland was a forest canopy that extended to the horizon, and from the other side we could see across the bay all the way to Cap Ferret where we'd spent the morning. It was a great reminder that the natural world has as much to offer the intrepid traveler as the urbanized one.

We'd already seen a lot but the day's excitement was far from over. While the kids slept and shed sand in the back seat of the car, we drove south towards French Basque country where we were planning to experience the last day of the annual Fêtes de Bayonne. Although this five day event is the largest annual festival in France, it's barely known internationally. I only learned of it myself when doing my customary search for local events along our planned itinerary. Even though I reserved our accommodations months in advance, I was only able to find an Airbnb in the neighboring town of Boucau. We were lucky to get that as it was one of just two Airbnb's left in a ten kilometer radius around Bayonne.

The house in Boucau turned out to be a great spot with plenty of outdoor space and a damson plum tree whose branches were bowing with fruit. We gave the kids about an hour to stretch their legs in the yard and play with the swings and then girded ourselves for a long night of partying.

We didn't know what to expect from the Fête but I've had enough experience with massive outdoor festivals to know that we weren't likely to be ushered into a prime parking spot ten yards from the entrance. On the other hand, we were nowhere near within walking distance and public transportation seemed highly unlikely. Ride share might get us there and then be impossible to find once it was time to go home. That meant we had to get as close as we could by car and hope there would be somewhere to park that wouldn't require an interminable trek by foot.

Pretty soon after leaving Boucau we started to see young people in the traditional white outfits with red scarves inspired by the more famous Fiesta de San San Fermín in Pamplona. At one point a crowd of kids about twelve to fourteen years old blocked the road. One came to the window and, after ascertaining our nationality, requested two Euros in halting English for the privilege of passing. In another context that might have annoyed me but the kids weren't old enough to be threatening so I just handed over the coin and was allowed to pass through. There was quite a lot of traffic once we got to the bridge over the Adour River and I briefly considered parking inside the roundabout but decided to press on. Both banks of the river were crowded with tents and once we got to the Bayonne side parked cars were lined up on each side of the road as well as in the middle. We drove around a little and eventually found a spot a little off the road that didn't seem any more illegal than where hundreds of other cars were parked.

We had about a ten minute walk to the town center where the first thing we found was a carnival with typical rides and fast food. Of course, there's no way to get kids through a carnival without allowing them to do some rides so we let them have a few runs on the giant slide. We didn't feel like eating the junk food so we managed to get them past the rest of the rides with the promise that we would come back after dinner.

Downtown Bayonne's main drag, Rue Thiers, was crowded with outdoor restaurants. Despite the crowds we found an open table and were served briskly enough. The food was ordinary but the important thing was that we were fueled for the evening ahead.

As we were finishing dinner the sun descended rapidly and revelers in white began to fill the streets. In the square in front of the Old Castle of Bayonne a band was playing and circles were starting to form for a traditional dance. Much as I would have liked to stay on the edges of the festivities, Cleo kept pulling me with her into the circles and I stumbled as best as I could through the dance. Despite us not being dressed for the occasion, the locals were very welcoming and forgiving of my inability to keep up with the steps.

We drifted from the square back through the narrow streets of the old town to the edge of the river, where thousands of celebrants were congregated. This was the River Nive, a tributary of the Adour which splits the old town and is traversed by several brightly lighted bridges.

At this point the crowds, while good-natured, were becoming thick and inebriated enough that we realized it was no longer a great idea to wander around with the kids. We got them back to the carnival as promised and let them all play for a while on the bungee trampoline before heading back to the car and the quiet of Boucau.

In the morning the kids were clamoring to go back to the carnival. I briefly considered it but Mei Ling wanted to press on and ultimately I decided she was right. This gave us some time to kill before we had to be in San Sebastian and some quick research revealed that the covered market in Biarritz was open on Sunday. This was quite unusual in France and Spain, to the extent that I planned our itineraries to minimize the effect of Sundays on our market experiences. Interestingly enough, I'd looked into Biarritz before the trip and made a conscious decision to skip it. I got the impression it was a rather bland resort town that had seen its best days a century earlier. Nevertheless a market was a market and it was just fifteen minutes from Boucau.

Biarritz was a decent enough town with some attractive old buildings and plush mansions, but nothing that would have attracted us to the town outside of the market. At one point we were admonished for allowing the kids to ride some colorful plaster sheep outside a boutique. I couldn't imagine what else they were expecting when they put the sheep out there.

As soon as we entered the market I was thankful that Mei Ling had talked me out of going back to the Fête that morning. It wasn't the largest covered market we had been to during the trip but it was packed with vendors displaying the freshest produce and countless gourmet delicacies. The cheese counters were especially amazing, with several varieties I'd never seen before. Behind the main market was a smaller building devoted entirely to seafood.

The covered market was lined on both sides with crowded cafes and tapas restaurants. The circulation of people in and out of the restaurants and through the market infused the area with high energy. We selected a tapas place with a very appetizing seafood menu and had a delicious lunch.

Biarritz had put a fantastic exclamation point on the nine day French segment of our road trip, but it was time to return to Spain for our journey along the northern coast to Galicia. We returned to the car and set a course for San Sebastian.

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:12 Archived in France Comments (0)

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.

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 that signifies the steady growth of the Bordeaux wine industry. 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.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:44 Archived in France Tagged travel blog tony bordeaux friedman st._emilion saint_macaire pauillac medoc Comments (0)

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