We had a wonderful time in Bordeaux, visiting our friend Marc Le Grand and his family. Marc lives a little way out of Bordeaux and his house is set in a beautiful garden full of large trees. Although she works full time, Marc’s wife Jo had gone to incredible trouble to prepare a traditional French meal and is a wonderful cook. We had fois gras first, then roast lamb with potatoes dauphine, followed by a green salad accompanied by four different cheeses. Then we had a dessert called a ‘Norwegian Omlette’. It was a delicious strawberry ice cream cake, surrounded by soft merengue that was flambed and then decorated with fruits and macarons. We bailed out after this and declined café and accompaniments! As Marc is in the wine industry the wines were as terrific as you would expect; champagnes, followed by a wonderful shiraz. Michael contributed an 80-year-old cognac he purchased in Jarnac, which was very well received.
The conversation was interesting, with great discussion comparing political situations (they have the election happening) and working conditions. We were fascinated to understand the French voting system and the reasons for it. They vote twice. The first time the candidates are unlimited, but on the second vote you only get to choose between the two parties who came out on top in the previous vote. Brilliant! This stops the ‘protest vote’ from being too influential and is also designed to prevent parliaments from being unable to govern because they are held to ransom by Independents. Having said all that, you can be in France and barely know an election is pending!
Marc and Michael finished talking bullshit about 1:30am so it was just as well that we had parked our motor home in Marc’s yard, so Michael didn’t have to drive.
The next day we headed off to explore Bordeaux. We were shocked by how big and busy the town is! We stayed at a great campground Marc recommended on the outskirts of Bordeaux and caught a bus and tram into the city each day. Grubie was allowed to travel with us and soon proved to be a great public transport user, even when they were really crowded. Mostly she sat between Michael’s feet, although once the bus got less crowded she did jump up next to Sue for a photo opportunity!
Bordeaux has a wonderful wine museum housed in a really cutting-edge building on the banks of the Charante. The museum is very technically advanced and interactive. It showcases the wines and techniques of 17 wine regions around the world and Michael particularly like the section devoted to educating ‘noses’ and ‘palates’.
Sue went to the Contemporary Art Museum, as opposed to a ‘modern art’ museum. Most of the artworks were more like installation art. It was housed in an old tea warehouse, which was as fascinating as the art exhibits.
In ‘downtown’ Bordeaux there is a very long ‘esplanade’ all along the edge of the river that is lined with shops and restaurants. The locals use it to jog, skateboard etc. and its very popular, but we liked the ‘old town’ the best. The old Dukes of Bordeaux were early patrons of the arts and it shows in the beautiful architecture and monuments throughout the town. Many of the streets are ‘pedestrian only’ and there was still barely room to move!
On Saturday morning we visited the Les Halles du Capuchin, one of Bordeaux’s busiest markets. It was stunning! As well as the best fresh produce we had seen in terms of variety and freshness, it had a fantastic array of prepared foods. One stall had hundreds of bruschetta’s –slices of baguette with every conceivable topping. One that was very appealing was the pancetta and quail egg ‘bacon and eggs’ look alike. There were stalls with pates, terrines and rillettes and others with every sort of cake and sweet.
In France you don’t need to be a great cook, you just need to shop well!
Ile de Re
Fat hairy donkeys, windmills, millions of bicycles and bicycle paths, French families on school holidays, oysters, mussels and sunshine – what’s not to like about the Ile de Re? The buildings are cream coloured with painted shutters –quite Mediterranean! We stayed 8 days over the Easter break, concerned that everything would be either booked out or closed over the holidays as it is a school holiday break for much of France. It was an inspired decision. Ile de Re is gorgeous and we were blessed with beautiful spring weather – sunshine in the afternoons, a bit cool in the mornings.
We stayed in a five star camping ground in Bois Plage en Re. It was huge and very family oriented, with a kids club etc. It was interesting because there were very few extended families –unlike holidays we had spent in Italy. Mostly it was just mum, dad and the kids. And it was quiet, no noise after 8pm.
There was a surf school and kite sailing, paddle boarding etc so most people were probably exhausted by sundown.
Grubie had to wait until evening to go on the beach, but she loved it!
Every town in this region seems to claim that it is the oyster and mussel capital of France! We don’t know, but oysters are definitely a locally produced specialty, along with mussels (moules) and very fresh fish. As well as indulging when we ate at restaurants for lunch, we stopped at an oyster farm and bought freshly shucked oysters for ‘aperitifs’ one day – yummy!
We spent a little time exploring the island, going to Ars en Re further north and also to St Martin. We have booked a somewhat different campsite in Ars en Re for three weeks in late July, one without a kids club but within a km’s walk of lots of restaurants, including one that is Michelin starred. St Martin has many UNESCO heritage sites because of its ramparts, moats etc. It’s incredibly beautiful and historic and we look forward to exploring in more depth in summer.
When we left the Ile de Re we headed to Nantes, just to add to our whistle-stop overview of Atlantic coastal France. Nantes used to be a huge port, especially for slave ships. However, now it’s a quirky little university town, with 50% of its population under 40 years old. Being so immature, we fit right in! It is quite hilly and has trams. It reminded us of a cross between Sydney and San Francisco.
A leading attraction is the Les Machines on the Ile de Nantes, with its huge ‘technical elephant’. The size of a house, it walks, blows water, bellows and even blinks, yet it’s made of wood, iron and leather. It’s a bit like a giant early robot.
Grubie again travelled on the tram and was very settled. The rules in Nantes are that little dogs who can be carried are allowed, so Michael picked her up to get on, although that probably stretched the rules as they mean carried in your bag (handbag dogs).
The cathedral in Nantes was damaged by fire in 1972 and part has been rebuilt, so it’s a fascinating mix of old and new, with many modern stained glass windows alongside old biblical renditions. The tomb of King Francois 2nd is there, from 1480s and the marble slab floor is original.
The shopping in Nantes was great, lots of little boutiques as well as the usual high-end stores and department stores. Michael and I both bought shoes. We discovered near our campground a great little bar, themed on a Berlin industrial-style beer bar.
Nantes has a beautiful canal with boats tied up that are offices and homes and a Japanese garden where the azaleas were in full flower and stunning! Another interesting monument in Nantes was the Memorial of the Abolition of Slavery which is along the old docks. 12.5 million people were taken from Africa and relocated mostly to America and the Caribbean between the 15th and 19th C. That’s almost the population of Australia!
On leaving Nantes we went to Saint Nazaire, just for one night to check out our summer booking. Just as well –we didn’t like it at all. A nice beach but the town is a busy port and was heavily polluted and we didn’t like the campsite. So we headed south to Ile d’Oleron. Much better! Quite different from Ile de Re and we found a quiet, quaint little campsite right on the beach near the fishing village of La Continiere. Grubie loved the beach and is even allowed on it during the day. We booked here instead of St Nazaire.
We took a quick trip back to Jarnac to meet up with Thomas Hardy who is our sponsor and ‘host’ for all administrative purposes in France. He has been instrumental in us being able to buy, insure and register our camping car as well as being able to have an extended visa. Thomas is a terrific host and soon had us in the markets, showing us the best value brands of wine, cheese and meats. He told us how much we should expect to pay for usual items. After what has felt like months of walking around the outside of Thomas’s lock-keepers cottage we finally got to see the beautiful inside. We had a few great meals under the willows and with some of his friends in France.
We love Katy, our GPS voice, but sometimes she’s just a little bit precious. She especially hates any road works or detours – she refuses to accommodate them or ‘recalculate the route’! Recently she was so determined she kept turning us back to the closed road no matter what. In the end we just drove through the road blocks and ignored the abuse of the workers.
Katy was also a little cute when she directed us from Jarnac to the Medoc near Bordeaux. The drive was scheduled to take 2 hours 30 minutes, except for the cute little direction in the town of Blaye: “now take the ferry”!! This region is extremely tidal and the next ferry was 6 hours later! But it did give us a chance to explore the citadel of Blaye. Simply stunning! It has been a fortification since Roman times and had all the stuff of the medieval era –including moats, dungeons etc. Our imaginations were working over-time!
This was our first time driving the camping car on to a ferry but it all went very well and was a great opportunity to see the top of the camping car. Now we know where we need to clean! When we say tidal, think in the extreme. The 20M tides move at a huge rate and low tide sees all the boats sitting on a bed of silt/sludge. No water at all.
We chose to stay in the Medoc at St Laurent because it is fairly central. In this wine region you need to contact each winery or ‘Chateau’ directly and make an appointment for a tour/tasting. We first went to Chateau Pichon Baron, one of the Grand Crus in Pauillac (a second Grand Crus). The Chateau was a stunning building, with a reflection pool in front. The wines were spectacular! And at spectacular prices too. We bought an 09 ‘second wine’, meaning not the chateau premium but their next quality down. In our camping car we don’t have the cellar conditions for aging a premium wine.
The following day we went to Chateau du Terte in the southern Margeaux area of the Medoc (a fifth Grand Crus) . Also a beautiful winery and the vat rooms and barrel halls were fascinating. They had oak, stainless steel and concrete vats and were also trying some different barrels. A more progressive winery but still within the Grand Crus traditions and rulings.
Our final winery was in the northern Margaux, Chateau Haut Breton Larigaudiere, a Crus Bourgeois. This is the next level down again and made for drinking fairly soon rather than cellaring.
We have learnt lots about appellations and terroirs and are amazed at the detailed care they put into each grape. They have people in the vineyards all the time – pruning, training and even counting the number of diseased leaves per foot! The cost per hectare of land in the Medoc is over 1 million euros, without any machinery or buildings! No wonder they plant their rows so close together and look after every grape!
The start of May sees us heading back to Paris again to complete some work on the motor home and explore the Loire Valley. Stay tuned!