For all my wandering and for all its proximity to London, I haven’t yet explored France. I’ve been to Paris twice: once with an ex and we fought horribly the whole time and ended up going to EuroDisney just so that Space Mountain could give us a good reason to scream our lungs out and so that we could align in contempt of the queues instead of one another; and second for the French Open in 2016 where it poured the entire time and we saw about an hour of lacklustre sodden tennis and spent a fortune on Nespressos at Roland Garos.
So, Paris is fine. France is fine. Whatever.
This time it’s different.
We take the first Eurostar of the morning from London to Paris, cross Paris and taken a second train (with minutes to spare!) due south, towards the Bay of Biscay. The train screams across the country at a whopping 300 kilometres per hour and is even more civilised than the Eurostar. By lunchtime, we’re in Bordeaux. We emerge into the sunshine and regroup. It’s me, Lady Lovelylocks, Minx and her love Wally (collected in Paris), Panda and one more girl. So, five Aussie girls and one brave, brave Scottish man.
Bordeaux is immediately charming. The sun is shining. The cherry blossoms are blooming.
As it turns out, the station is actually in a relatively grim part of town so our half hour walk to the apartment is less scenic than we would have liked. The four flours up to the apartment equally unwelcome. However, the apartment itself is a dream and we tumble gratefully in. It’s on the top floor of a very central, very old-school apartment block and is white and airy and you can almost smell croissants. Our host is genial and ever so welcoming, even in his rudimentary English. We let him get through all of the tour and insutrcions before cracking out our own rudimentary French. He is immediately cheerfully indignant: You let me get through all of that in English? And you speak French after all? I laugh and fess up to mediocre French at best.
An hour later with grumbling tummies we set out in search of a French meal. Bordeaux old town is largely pedestrian and is as strikingly quaintly European as any tourist could wish for. Its sandstone facades glow in the spring sunshine and there are churches and cafes dotted appropriately along. We settle on the first restaurant that have space outside and order three courses each: chèvre chaud (goat’s cheese salad), bavette steaks, bread, strawberries, rosé. I do try French and it goes fine at first until my attempt to get ‘une biere’ get me just ‘une verre’ (a sad empty glass) and I give up for a while. Once we’re full of carbs and wine, we wander on and find the ‘miroir d’eau’, an art installation that is essentially a plaza covered in a half inch of water, designed to reflect the beautiful buildings against which it is nestled. Originally installed for looking and not touching, it’s now a favourite place to splash around on a hot day. We so indulge.
We end the afternoon session on the rooftop at Mama Shelter (a hot tip from Panda’s new boyfriend) where we take the most ridiculous corner table looking out over all of the city and drink yet more wine. I try again with the French and order the local rosé. The bartender kindly rebuffs me and says it will give us ‘sore heads’ so perhaps we ought to try the Provence rosé instead. That’s wine lesson number one for the weekend: Bordeaux does red wine only. There’s a lot of laughter on that rooftop and I lean back in my chair, grinning up at the sky and feeling very grateful. This group isn’t an established one: Wally and Minx have been going out about a year but he’s in Edinburgh and she in London so we don’t know him well. I’ve known Lady Lovelylocks forever, but some of the others haven’t. Panda hadn’t ever met Wally. And yet there’s a beautiful camaraderie. It makes me sweetly happy. As does the wine.
Finally, sleepy and sweaty and, yes, a bit tipsy and maybe a little sunburned we head home to get 6 adults cleaned up and ready for dinner and back out the door wishing 30 minutes. It’s no mean feat but it’s testament to how nicely the group worked together that we manage it (‘Body showers only!’ Panda cries. ‘What’s a non-body shower?’ someone else wonders) and are seated like total adults at a chic local restaurant, Petit Bec, on time. The food that soon arrives is everything you’d want in a French dinner. There’s pate and cheese galore, there’s a creative black pudding and gingerbread thing, prawns, white asparagus and lashings of red wine. We sleep well that night.
(Well, most of us do. I wake in the middle of the night and pad down to the bathroom, only to find one of the other girls — clearly sleepwalking — standing ominously over the sofa bed and a slumbering Panda. The red wine has a lovely effect on me and with little more than a soft ‘well, that’s odd’ to myself, I move on.)
On Sunday we do a wine tour with Rustin Vines. I can’t do it justice without writing a whole chapter on it. The key notes are as follow. Bordeaux city vanishes behind us to be replaced with dense knots of green wines and rustic chateaus of all shapes and sizes rising out of the morning haze (chateau being the term for a winery here). The sun burns up and burns off the haze, showing off the local sandstone. We learn about the Bordeaux appellations, in particular St-Emilion and its premiers grands crus classés. To the Australian wine lover — with a mind accustomed to classifying wine in stereotypically direct Australian way (it’s from McLaren Vale and it’s a Grenache? Great. It’s a McLaren Vale Grenache.) — the nomenclature and classifications are head spinning. There’s the left bank and the right bank. The appellations in each. The classifications inside those. We have the privilege of visiting Château Canon-la-Gaffelière, a chateaus classified as a St-Emilion premiers grands crus classés B (one of of just 18 wineries to be a premiers grands crus classés) and walk through the wine making process and the gorgeous cellar, dank but pleasantly redolent of oak and berries. We stop at a wine shop and taste. We learn that a good wine from the region will always bear its appellation and anything merely labelled ‘Bordeaux’ is a leftover and an embarrassment and not to be selected. Well, that’s us told! We eat baguettes in the sun on a knoll with the little village below us. We explore the village and buy maracons. We visit a smaller winery, Château Belloy, which, despite being just a few minutes down the road, is out of St-Emilion, through the tiny appellation of Pomerol and into a new appellation, Fronsac (this appellation stuff is truly kooky). We drink yet more wine, buy some more wine and then picnic in the garden. We’re home by 5 and the walk up the stairs to our flat with all of that cheese and wine in our bellies and lugging our new bottles of treasures is a slow, whiny one.
That night we explore Bordeaux a little more and spend a not-insignificant amount of time taking Boomerangs on the miroir d’eau. (Wally is patient but utterly bemused by this display of female vanity.) Then, some of us fall into the trap set by delicious Belgian beers at the local French pub, Cafe Brun. We ‘practise’ our ‘French’ on some willing locals and somehow are still out at 2.30am.
The next day breaks hotter than the last and its enough to say that we are not the most energetic bunch as we kill time before a 5pm train back to Paris. There is a lot of napping in the park, moving only as necessary to keep the shade on our little hungover faces.
And then it’s time to train home. We zip back to Paris, cross a steaming Paris on the Metro as the sun is going down (I take a horrible tumble on the cobblestones — but I do save my wine), do battle with the crowds at Gare du Nord and cram onto the Eurostar for a sleepy, peaceful trip home. None of us say yes to the complimentary wine that’s served. We’re Bordeaux wine snobs now.
Side note: I owe you an update from February on travels in Singapore and Australia. I have not forgotten. They’ll just have to be in flashback form.