EUROPE 2018- PART 3
Updated: May 31, 2022
EUROPE TRIP | March 28th-May 12th 2018
Mayday in London \ London to Paris \ Paris, France \ Arriving Bordeaux, France \ Bordeaux, France, Day 2 \ Cycling Bordeaux Wine Country, Day 1 \ Cycling Bordeaux Wine Country, Day 2 \ Cycling Bordeaux Wine Country, Day 3 \ Cycling Bordeaux Wine Country, Day 4 \ Cycling Bordeaux Wine Country, Day 5 \ Last Day in France
May 1, 2018
Looking for coffee, I’m at the breakfast room as soon as it opens, 7 am. At the cold food bar a fellow with a bowl of corn flakes is pouring hot tea over them. “We’re not on Lopez any more”, I mumble to myself while taking a mug of coffee off to a quiet corner. Before long, the ladies come to join me. After breakfast Barbara takes us for a walk around Tavistock Square on a bright sunny morning and we all do the good-bye hugs. She is leaving on a jet plane back to The You-Blighted-Snakes. For two weeks she has been our travel companion, driver, drinking buddy, and leader of our leapfrog tour in Cornwall. We’ll miss her. For our own part, we only have one full day left here before we head across the channel to the land of labor unrest. We don’t have a plan so we’ll have to wing it as we go along.
The first idea is to do a re-set of clothing and luggage. CK wisely builds in time for this type of thing. So we gather up all our rags for a trip to the laundromat. We also put together a box of things we don’t need any more to send back home. This should lighten the load slightly and make the bags easier to zip up. While the clothes are spinning around CK takes the box to the mail and I slip next door to a coffee shop to edit photos. 30 minutes later I notice a used book shop and that diverts my attention until the clothes are dry. We’re packed up and out of there, mischief managed.
Back at the room we sort things out while deciding to check out our train station, St. Pancras, ahead of tomorrow’s departure. Good thing we do because the check-in for the Eurostar isn’t immediately obvious. We also learn that there is a long queue for their security frisking. We must check out somewhat earlier than we thought. Across the street is King’s Cross Station. We don’t have to go there but do so we can check out Platform 9 3/4 for the Hogwarts School train. It’s a silly tourist lure, cleverly done, and there’s a queue for it as if it were a Disneyland roller coaster. We make a quick snap and move on.
In search of a quick lunch bite we discover a cool spot between Kings Cross and the hotel. A modern pub calling itself The Resting Hare. They put a brief history on the wall explaining its M.O. In the 19th century a small village sprung up here in what was then the edge of farmland. City dwellers discovered it and used it as a brief escape from the smoke and noise of London. The poet Yeats lived here for a while and remarked on how tame the local rabbits were and how they could be seen snoozing on the walkways oblivious to the humans. By the 1930s the rabbits disappeared before the onslaught of the advancing metropolis. Therefore, The Resting Hare has a motif of laid back serenity in the middle of urban chaos. Nice.
We haven’t spent any time in the British Museum yet this year and now seems like an excellent moment. Priorities are the clocks, Early European items, Egyptian mummies and artifacts, and also the King’s Library which is a kind of junk room full of all manner of curiosities and statuary. I’m sure I’ve described the vastness of this place before but words will always be insufficient. Its permanent collection counts over 13 million objects. The square footage of the building is 990,000 square feet or 22.7 acres and that does not include storage space. A titanic monument to dedicated looting.
We pretty much blow the afternoon away in the museum so the next idea is to walk back to Covent Garden zone and find a likely spot for an evening meal. First we stop at a pub for a pint and a moment of reflection on our UK trip before we head for France. Onward to the Old Market where buskers are working the crowds. Some of them are tedious, others wildly talented. The tedious one is the Houdini-style escape artist who doesn’t. He is good at cajoling the crowd for cash, however. The wildly talented is a string quintet, 3 fiddles, a cello, and a viola. They can play the lights out of anything and do the can-can too.
I have my eye on a French restaurant, Clos Maggiore, so we go there to have a look. It looks ok but the menu brags about main courses that calculate out to $50-65 US, service charge not included. Nope. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel that flush and if inflation someday makes that the new standard, I’ll have to give up restaurants altogether. Instead we walk three doors north to The Palm Court, a place we discovered last year. It is nice and 1/3 the price of Clos Maggiore. I have the bouillabaisse. I’ve never had bouillabaisse before. It is very bland. If I were in charge this dish would get kicked up several notches. CK has the onion soup. We approve!
And that’s it for today. We’re very boring and sleepy. We’re expecting tomorrow to be dull as well but one never knows. Actually when being transported in some kind of motorized conveyance one hopes for a dull and boring day. An exciting one is likely to be disastrous.
Stay tuned. Paris is next.
May 2, 2018
Our last morning in London is focuses on functionality. We need to get packed up after a practical refueling in the hotel’s breakfast room. We have a 15 minute luggage-pull to reach St Pancras station and we’re anxious to get started. The only immediate complication is some adverse atmospheric conditions. It has been raining and the streets are wet but there’s no downpour. I decide that my hat and scarf will be ok. CK is fully armed with overcoat and umbrella. By the time we squinch into the station my shirt is only slightly anointed by rain. All will be completely dry in 10 minutes. A quick run into the Marks & Spencers for a plastic sandwich because one must be prepared for the next meal at all times! Now the queue for Eurostar passport check and security scan. We manage to pass all the inspections. Looks like we’re going to Paris.
The train loads on time and even starts on time. About 20 minutes later the train stops at a station and sits there for reasons only known to the railroad people. By the time we move again, an announcement croaks over the PA apologizing for the delay in five languages and that now there will be a late arrival in Paris. No worries, par for the course. But we are becoming aware of the people camped in the seats directly in front of us. It is a mother, three children (1 y.o. and 2 y.o. twins), and their grandmother. The two year olds are up to no good. They are getting squirmier and more petulant by the minute. Soon their peevishness erupts into full rebellion and the two women engage in a wrestling match with the two raging children. In no time the 1 y.o. joins the fun and it becomes a 5 way battle of wills. We were originally scheduled to be on the train for a little over 2 hours but this has expanded to 3 with the added bonus of multiple toddler meltdowns up and down the aisle sometimes spilling over into the next car. I’m making full use of my Bose headphones with the noise cancelling gizmo, Rolling Stones cranked up to 9. But we can’t moan too loudly. Our luck has been pretty good considering the number of trains we’ve been on. We were bound to run into something like this, eventually.
At last we arrive at Gare du Nord, Paris. We have a bit of scouting to do. Our prime directive is to find out if there’s a train we can catch from Paris to Bordeaux on Friday. This is a serious question because the rail strike puts this plan in considerable jeopardy. If we can get a train the ride is two hours. If we can’t catch a train, bus is the only way. Bad news: it’s an 8 hour trip. We join the queue for the regional train service. A 10 minute wait, then a nice agent very efficiently confirms that we can have a train on Friday! Nice. With our Bordeaux tix in hand we head off to figure out the Paris Metro. There’s another queue for that ticket seller. We think we can use the ticket machines but our questions require a human, so we wait. Mischief managed, Metro tix in hand, we’re off to find our hotel.
On the subway, off the subway, and onto a lift that dumps us on the street. Woot! We’re in Paris! There’s the Pont De Neuf, The Seine, The Notre Dame Cathedral. No time to rubberneck. We still have to drag our bags to the hotel. Google Maps to the rescue and Bob’s our Uncle. It’s a bit of a wander down some narrow streets but we find it. We’re checked in and our room is NOT at the top of the stairs! Joy! But there’s still no heat in the bathroom.
We actually know some folks here in Paris, old friends of CK’s, Howard and Dianne. We have a dinner date with them at 7. The restaurant is, of course, Le Christine on Rue Christine. Seriously. But we have a bit of time to burn so we walk down to the big Notre Dame cathedral. No charge to enter so we go inside and walk around with a couple of thousand other tourists. This gigantic thing got its start in 1163 when some powerful potentates wanted a big place for their fancy, gilded, smokey rituals. 855 years later they’ve still got scaffolding up.
This isn’t our first cathedral so we aren’t as astounded as we probably should be. The first thing we notice is how dark it is. This is the darkest church of this size we’ve seen so far despite the enormous windows. The windows are designed like many of these things are, with stained glass images depicting biblical stories. We’ve been told that this was how the great unwashed got their information about how to be a Christian, sort of like a medieval comic book. But these windows are so high and far away that whatever the stained glass design represents can’t be clearly seen, much less interpreted as a story.
I’m frequently puzzled by these religious installations and here’s another one to add to the list. I also notice that they are set up to serve pilgrims. A few priests are installed in thick plexiglass box offices set up in some side niches. Doors are open and they are ready for customers. We don’t see any. After walking around Notre Dame we wander back to the room for a wash up before dinner.
We meet Howard and Dianne at the restaurant. We’ve only been in Paris three or four hours, limited to a small area around our hotel but already we’ve seen 100+ bars and restaurants. You can get anything you want, it seems. Howard gives us some surprising inside dope. Fish is expensive in Paris but not as expensive as chicken. He can’t give us a reason for this and we can’t think of one either. Lamb is expensive too. Beef and pork seem to be the most reasonable meat option but sometimes the beef is so gristly it can’t be eaten. Nevertheless we all order Cod, except for Christine. She has salmon. Actually, Paris is not cheap on any front. Next door to the Le Christine is a hotel. This hotel is on a side street wide enough for only one car. There are no outward indications that this is a hotel except for a small info sheet next to a very inconspicuous sign. The info sheet reveals that the cheapest room here is €430 or $516 per night. The top class room is $1560. Ha!! What rogues and peasant slaves we are!
Our food is very fresh and done in the modern French style, I think. I have to guess because I really don’t know. Howard says the best restaurants have a short menu that changes constantly based on the market items that are freshly available. The worst restaurants have long menus full of items that don’t change. This indicates that their food is not market fresh. A bottle of Bordeaux drains away as we pass the evening in good conversation. After dinner, Howard and Dianne give us a short walking tour of the neighborhood. We may meet them again tomorrow for more insight regarding this city.
May 3, 2018
We are using the Hotel Dauphine St Germaine as our base of operations. It is small but functional in most ways. Customer service is excellent. Some things are still a mystery. I previously reported that the bathroom had no heat. That isn’t exactly so. The heat comes on at 8 am and stays on until sometime in the evening. Of course, this means that when we’re ready to clean up in the morning, the bathroom is stone cold. And when we check in, the nice gentleman at the front desk announces proudly that our room will be nice and quiet since it opens onto the courtyard. We like the sound of this. The ‘courtyard’ is a light well in the center of the building about 20 feet square. In the breakfast room there is only one hot item: if one wishes, one may boil an egg in their custom hot water bath. Fascinating.
The original plan, to have a full day in Paris before going to Bordeaux, is a good one for slowing us down a little. Beyond that there is no plan, no list of things we must see or museums we must patrol. We just want to go for a walk in the general direction of some famous sights. We’ve already been to Notre Dame so we begin our stroll in the direction of the Louvre and onward toward the Arc de Triomphe.
The Louvre isn’t far from our hotel, just across the river and east a few blocks. We have no intention of going in there even if it seems obligatory to do so. The enormity of it would make Stephen Hawking squirm. 3.875 MILLION square feet of museum space or 89 acres. British museum is 807,000 square feet. We could get lost in there and never return. Continuing west we pass through the Jardin des Tuileries and then to Place de Concorde. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and others were guillotined here. Now there is the gigantic Obelisk of Luxor and a Ferris Wheel. I understand that the Ferris Wheel will soon be removed, considered to be a disgraceful eyesore.
Beyond this, we walk up the Champs Elysees. Howard suggested, over dinner last night, that we might do that one time and perhaps never again. He is correct. This is a much noisier place than I imagined and not one of the more charming streets in Paris. We arrive at the Arc. It commemorates one of Napoleon’s victories, The Battle of Austerlitz. We see people wandering on its summit but decide that we have more territory to cover. Beside’s we’re getting peckish. We find a cafe a couple blocks away that serves us a cheesy pizza topped with a handful of Arugula, known throughout Europe these days as Rocket.
Lunch bolted, we decide that the Eiffel Tower is just across the river, so we must do the pilgrimage. On our way to the river we pass the Iranian and Korean Embassies. We are on the Rue D’Iena which we discover later was the scene Diana Spencer’s car crash. We cross the river and are nearly beneath the Tower but meet a construction project that blocks the way. We are diverted a few blocks east before we can turn west again and back to the Tower. But again, as we approach it, a metal fence blocks the way. I’m beginning to get a bad feeling about this. A few more steps around toward east and it becomes clear that they have fenced in all approaches to the Tower in the name of ‘security’. It is actually a pay-wall and a profoundly ugly one too with a slow moving queue to pass through it. I had imagined walking down the Champs de Mars and strolling in the plaza beneath the Tower, ohh la la and all. Not. I’m disappointed. They probably did this years ago. I just had no idea. Boo. Bad form, Paris!
Continuing down the Champs de Mars, a rather open greenspace, we arrive at the Ecole Militaire. Again we have no idea of going in and we’re not even sure it is possible. As we arrive there seems to be some noise and commotion. As it happens we’ve come to the rallying point for several labor marches in support of the rail workers. They are just beginning the march as we arrive. Gun powder bombs are set off in a very controlled way to send a signal to the separate marchers in various parts of town that they should start marching toward the rally point. This is the third demonstration we’ve seen on this trip. One in Cologne very similar to this one, a transport worker strike, and an Anti-Brexit group in London. There must be something in the water.
We continue on foot past the Hotel des Invalides, once a hospital eons ago but now a military museum featuring the Tomb of Napoleon. It is heavily guarded by armed soldiers. Anyone going in is frisked thoroughly. We weren’t planning to see it anyway. Fooey. From there we make our way through winding Left Bank streets to our hotel for a bit of rest before meeting Howard and Dianne again for dinner. But first we have to figure out how to get to the train station, Gare Montparnasse, tomorrow morning. CK has the brilliant idea of asking the helpful lady at the hotel desk. She tells us not to do the thing we were planning to do, the Metro. She says that the Metro station is a kilometer away from the train station, a terrible idea. “Take the 96 bus from the Odeon Metro stop.”, she says. “Merci.”, we blurt and immediately set off to find out where it is. We don’t want to be searching for it in the morning in half panic mode. Success. A bit of map consultation and traffic dodge and we’ve got it.
Tonight Howard and Dianne are guiding us to a crepe restaurant specializing the Brittany version this dish. Mine is duck and mushroom in a buckwheat crepe. It is excellent. We have some nice wine and another good evening of conversation. Afterward, another walk but this time through the Palais du Luxembourg, a large garden complex not far away. This is where they take giant chestnut trees and cut them into box shapes. Wow.
After a perfect-weather day in Paris we’re worn out and thank Howard and Dianne for their lovely company. Time to write up the day and get some sleep. Our train is early tomorrow and we have to hustle away south.
May 4, 2018
Folks seem to be enjoying the daily play by play of our progress so here we go again. This time we wake from a dodgy night’s sleep in Paris (no we don’t know why) with a plan to hop a train to Bordeaux. We feel that we’re lucky to get one since there is a rolling strike across the whole nation that affects not only trains but Air France as well. We grab a bus to the Monteparnasse station on recommendation of the desk person because, as she says, the metro stop puts us on the street a kilometer away from where we’d need to be. Inside dope is always so very useful.
French trains seem easier to find and board than German trains but that could merely be because we’ve gathered more experience. We find the right train, slide right on, there’s a rack for our luggage, plop in the seat. A few moments later the car fills up. The whole train is packed probably because half the other trains have been cancelled. We’re in the very back of car 18. Soon all the seats around us are taken by 9 young 20-something Frenchmen. They are all wearing red kerchiefs around the neck and green novelty hats that say “Special Police” on a little badge above the brim. One fellow wears the same type of hat except his is pink. They are drinking heavily, it looks like rum and coke. Our bubble of ignorance prevents us from understanding any of the French chatter. They aren’t rude or obnoxious. They are having a good time and it looks like they are planning to do it for a while. CK and I think they are futbol fanatics traveling to Bordeaux to take in a match. Nope. Turns out that the guy in the pink hat is going to be married soon. This business is a stag party. They plan to tie one on for 3 days. We wish them well and that nobody gets hurt. As we wave goodbye at the station CK and I are wondering why these guys are leaving Paris to go to Bordeaux to carry on.
Our spot is Hotel des Quatre Soeurs, a tiny outfit near the center of old town Bordeaux. This is a terrific location as we soon find out. The main downtown shopping, bar, and restaurant district is literally right outside our door. Several plazas are available nearby as well as a pedestrian only zone. The whole of Rue St. Catherine is automobile free for 8 blocks at least. And I swear there is a bar or restaurant or specialty food shop every 20 feet. You can get anything you want…again. Indian, Greek, Italian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and certainly French. One place sets its tables up across the street against the side of a church opposite the restaurant. The waiters run back and forth across the street. It’s a little too early to dine but it is Friday so we feel that reservations are probably wise. We make a date at Osteria Da Luigi, an Italian joint with a very limited menu at 7:30.
With some time to explore we walk through town looking around at everything like the tourists we are. There’s a museum full of all things Bordeaux so we pay the €6 and walk through. They do a good job. There’s a chronological layout of artifacts and events dating back to the stone age right up to the 21st century. The Romans probably left the most rubble but the Cro-Magnons were the most mysterious. Anyhow, people have been living here for a very long time.
Museum lasts until my eyes glaze over and then we slide over to the 15th century bell tower. We line up to climb its 233 steps for an elevated view of the city. This also costs €6 @. We wait in line probably 30 minutes. That’s a long wait for me. Crabbiness overtakes me, ya know. Nevertheless, we get up to the viewing level just fine. From there the cathedral is spreading out under us and I know that CK is going to go straight in there after we descend. I spy a likely cafe directly across from the cathedral. “I’ll be there when you’re done with the church,” says I.
CK is in the church, Tim is in the cafe ordering a beer and editing photos. All is going according to plan, then the pint arrives with price tag that brings to mind the eye-watering prices they charge at a big league baseball game: €8.40 or $10.08. This is a nice cafe but it isn’t that nice. I think one pint here will be enough. There has to be more reasonable brew in this town. I aim to find it. No. Wait. I don’t have time to do that. We have to leave tomorrow about noon. Fooey.
It’s time to go to the reservation. A quick wash up in the hotel and we’re off. We’re a little early so there’s time to wander the streets and get our bearings. Here’s where we discover that this part of town is party central. Dozens and dozens of very interesting looking bars and restaurants are beginning to fill up. The other thing we notice is that the customers seem younger than in Paris. Our meal at Da Luigi is market fresh. CK has lasagne and I have ravioli with scampi and clams. The manager has found a radio station somehow that plays all Dean Martin music all the time. As we arrive at the bottom of our bottle of Frescobaldi ’16 we’re singing along.
We turn out onto the street with an idea to walk off a bit of our wine. In doing so we become increasingly aware that Bordeaux is a happening place. Every bar and restaurant is busy with a pretty young crowd. One pub-like joint we visited was a wall-to-wall hangout. And the quiet places were busy too, like the gourmet restaurant with a menu card that announced two choices: a 5 course meal or a 7 course meal. No prices listed. I wanted to ask. But what I’m trying to say is, we think this is a more lively town than Paris, at least by the strength of what we’ve seen so far. Certainly the restaurants seem more interesting. Now we know why that stag party migrated here.
We have until noon tomorrow to check things out. Then its onward to the wine country.
May 5, 2018
Sometimes waking up in a new place gives me pause to wonder where I am, exactly. I have to think about it a little this morning, not immediately recognizing the room I’m in. With that thought, I need to remind myself that I’m not familiar with the legs under the bed, to be very careful not to smash my toes into them. Bordeaux, France turns out to be the answer to where we are, but not for long. Our overall scheme is to meet a bus at 2 pm that will carry us away to another nearby town where we’ll get connected with our river boat, the one we’ll be on for the next 6 days. We have all morning to stroll around Bordeaux. CK has a short list of things to explore.
First up is Monument aux Girondins, a column flanked by complex equestrian fountains. It’s quite a piece of work. Constructed between 1894 and 1902 to memorialize the victims of the French Revolution. It is kept in good repair. We arrive just as a dancer is posing for her photographer with the monument as a prop.
CK is using a paper map to navigate so I’m keeping Google in my pocket. She wants to find a certain church that has its origins in the 12th century. An elderly lady spots CK with her head down into the map and begins to chatter at me in French. I use my go-to phrase, “Désolé, je ne parle pas Francais.” “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French.” She segues directly to English and asks if we’d like directions. CK points the church out on the map and voila, she, Isabel, points the way. Next, we get into quite a history of her career, how she spent years in Los Angeles, how she loves living in Bordeaux, etc. A very charming lady. Now we can easily find the old Holy stone pile. Charlemagne and Eleanor of Aquitaine had some business here, as we find out. Eleanor famously married a Duke who eventually became Henry II of England, her third cousin. It was an extremely complex business that made a mess in France because all the powerful people in this part of the world were French, even the ones in England. Something called the Hundred Years War grew out of it all. Never mind. This church dates from the time of Eleanor and she probably knew the place pretty well. There are some musty old ghosts here.
Our wanderings take us back toward the pedestrian part of town, the charming part with all the shops and bistros. We can’t resist a bite of quiche and an eclair. Another person strolls up to me and starts chattering in French. Don’t I look enough like a tourist? I don’t think I look French at all. Perhaps I should dangle a prop camera around my neck to make it obvious. Anyhow, my go-to phrase comes to the rescue again.
Now, around the corner CK spots some police lurking in a square inside their paddy wagon. She senses something is up and sees it down the boulevard. Another demonstration. A march is coming our way with more banners and chants. Again, it is the rail worker’s strike in action. CK correctly observes, as well, that the street trams are not running. This is a potential problem because we need to hop one to get us back to our meeting point at 2 pm.
With a few hitches and bumps in the process we make it to our meeting point on time but along the way we learn the meaning of ‘perturbation’ in French. It means ‘delay’. Things are not on time but all the important things are done and the destinations achieved. We’re operating on French Time. I have a feeling we’ll need to get used to that. Our bus delivers us to a boat on the Dordogne River at the town of Libourne 45 minutes late. There are 145 or so on this boat-bike tour and some of them arrive two hours late. People are here from Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and that’s all I know so far. We’ll find out more as we go, I’m sure. Our day gets a bit more tedious as they install us into our rooms and make us sit through some announcements by the ship’s officers. They feed us an unremarkable meal but it hits the spot. There’s a bike fitting too. All stuff that needs to get done.
After dinner, CK and I light out toward the town on foot. It’s only 1/2 mile or so to Libourne city center and I’m curious what a smaller town around here looks like. It turns out to be a little spooky. It is Saturday night and we half expected it to be rockin’ a little. Nope. It is like a ghost town in there. We walk past the first town square: crickets. The second square a few blocks further up is Place Francois Mitterand. There we run into three bistros, one that is showing signs of life. I order Lagavulin single malt. CK is very nice and sits with me as I enjoy it. We’ve had a long day, mostly in transition. Tomorrow we’ll get a chance to run further afield, away from town into the smaller burgs.
May 6, 2018
We spend the night on a river boat in the middle of the Dordogne here in the Bordeaux region of France. Our room is not at the top of the stairs like we were in the Hotel Quatre Soeurs and almost every other B&B and hotel we’ve slept in. However, it is a boat so the cabin is tiny and I’m like a loose cannon ball on the gun deck in a gale. I’m banging into everything whenever I turn around. I haven’t smashed the pee-waddin out of my brain pan yet but that’s only due to focused vigilance. Somehow CK manages to gracefully negotiate all of it. I’ll never learn.
Breakfast on this tub is looking like the best meal they offer here. They don’t have any hot dishes. It’s ok because I don’t really need that and I’ve never seen a hot dish yet in a French breakfast spread. But these guys have everything else including multiple cheeses, three kinds of cold cuts, and an exhaustive selection of fruit and juices. Nice. Weather report: morning is a bit misty and cool but by afternoon we’ll get close to 80F. I break out the shorts and polo shirt for the first time. CK is in a fit of indecision because of the morning mist. I suggest layers.
The bikes they give us are like tanks. I think mine weighs 45 lbs and a lot more when I put the pannier on. CK opts for the electric motor assist version. She is way smarter than me and proves it again. We also have a GPS device that is specifically programmed to show us our route as we go. We get checked out on all this stuff and off we go to have adventures.
Of course we’ve never set foot in this part of the world before. We’re pedaling through town, dodging cars, and wondering if this goes on for much longer. We roll up to our first vineyard shoehorned in between some unattractive concrete block homes. This cannot be it. Keep pedaling. At last we get beyond the influence of the town and the vistas begin to open onto vast tracts of grapevines. We’re heading toward St. Emilion, a village in the middle of a zone that produces world-class wine. It is a very wealthy little village and for quaint-points 9.5 out of 10. It is totally surrounded by vineyards and wineries. Legend has it that a monk by the name of Emilion was returning from Santiago, Spain in the 8th century and happened to pass through the area. He liked it so much that he stayed and some of his brothers followed him here. The rest is history and quite a lot of it including walls, soldiers, Dukes, and a bushel of medieval politics we don’t need to know about. But through it all they managed to make damn-good wine.
The scenery is crazy good. We have to tell ourselves to keep pedaling. We could stop every 100 yards and take photos. Sometimes we do. There are literally dozens of wineries in this area but most of them are closed to visitors. And this is not just because it is off season and a Sunday (as we ride into the village the church bells are summoning the faithful to services) but because they are tired of them. Things are a bit snobby around here in that regard. They can sell their wine for hundreds, even thousands per bottle. Why do they need to give tastings to some stinky tourists? Still, just being here is like walking around in a painting. Seriously.
After St Emilion we roll through more wine country, vineyards and wineries with their chateaus and barns as picturesque as we could ever imagine. Some of them are overcooked style-wise to the point of looking like some medieval town or fortification. There’s some showing away going on and ostentatious display of wealth. Yes, we’ve just been passed by a Mazerati and two Lamborghinis. Farmers!
We stop, eat our sandwich, and wash it down with a beer in a little burg called Montagne. From there it isn’t far back to the boat where we give our tushes a rest. The boat crew serves us dinner at 6:30. Tonight, course #1 is Beef Carpaccio with salad and course #2 is black cod swimming in a kind of ragout. Better than last night.
During dinner the boat moves to a new mooring at the town of Bourg. Yes, I know. Resistance is futile. It is actually pronounced “Boooor”. We are two nights here. As soon as it ties up to the float, CK and I are out to explore the town on foot. The old town’s main item of interest is an ancient gate that looks like it may be a relic of the 11th century. But the remarkable discovery is Restaurant Le Plaisance. We don’t go there for the food, although it’s probably good. Our interest is in the 55 different wines they have available for tasting. We pick out a Chateau Pinchon-Longueville and a Margaux from Kirwan Estates. Ridiculous. Just a few dainty sips from these cost $24 US. But that bottle of ’04 Margaux sells for €1,020 ($1,200) and the others for similar. This is the only way in Hell I’m ever going to taste wine of this class. My opinion: no wine is worth that much. But I’m here to say that what I tasted was sensational. Tough to beat it.
We have another route through wine country tomorrow but this time with plans to properly plunder a couple of wineries. One of them needs a reservation. We’ll see how this plays out.
May 7, 2018
This morning I’m up early. We arrived here at Bourg last night and now starting the day here. I pull myself together while CK sleeps, grab a sweater, and I’m out. I must stop at the coffee machine because the kitchen isn’t functioning well enough yet to produce actual coffee. I punch the cappuchino button. The machine squirts a jet of milk which immediately knocks over my paper cup. Add another small defeat to the list. Reload. With cellphone in hand I reach the morning air on the upper deck before sun-up. This is becoming the time I spend editing photos from the previous day and I look forward to it. After 15 minutes or so something odd develops. The church bells are ringing on a steady beat and continue for 5 minutes of so. I’m having to guess why this is. At this moment the sun is creeping up over the horizon. My hypothesis is that the bell announces the sunrise. I shall test this idea tomorrow.
Meanwhile, another ride is planned to Blaye and back. Only 24 miles and three hilly spots with terrain steep enough to make me breathe hard. And we’re seeing more vineyards and wineries. The French term for vineyard is vignoble. The other repetitious words we have deciphered from the signs are ‘dégustation’ and ‘vente’: tasting and sales. Yesterday we didn’t visit a winery. We plan to correct that deficiency today.
Our cycling takes us out of Bourg, up a hill, and into some vineyards around the village of Bayon-sur-Gironde. This place has a 12th century church and CK must go inside. It smells a lot like the 12th century in there, like the air hasn’t changed in 800 years. CK doesn’t even stay long. Our route takes us immediately down to the edge of the Dordogne where we pass a succession of riverside homes in hamlets with names like Les Trois Moulins, Roque Pigeon, Roque Pisseau, Vitascate, Marmisson, and Roque de Thau. We have a lot of opportunity to study the river as we progress. On two occasions we notice the upper parts of shipwrecks. This is a wide, shallow river and very murky. If anyone would like to examine this color in the comfort of their own home, do this: percolate some water through once-used coffee grounds for 15 minutes. Take half a cup of this substance and mix it with an equal amount of skim milk. Voila. This will be the color of the Dordogne. The water isn’t very inviting but our hosts on the boat insist that people swim in it. Oy…
It isn’t long before the route takes us up, away from the riverside and up toward more vineyards. We have an appointment at a winery for a tour with 7 or 8 of our ship-mates. We’re a little bit late because of some hinky navigation that took a few extra minutes to sort out. We arrive before they give up on us, we don’t miss anything. Our winery is Le Château Monconseil-Gazin. Monconseil-Gazin is a term they use to describe the farming zone dominated by this winery. We learn that the Moncounseil means ‘my advice’ which is an evolved mutation of the original term for the place. Back in the 8th century Charlemagne was fighting Saracens in this area and captured several. A war council was held to decide what to do with them.
Whatever they decided probably wasn’t nice because after the meeting that neighborhood was labeled ‘mauvais conseil’ or ‘bad advice’. In medieval times the name changed to a more agreeable term. We can guess why even though those folks had no idea of marketing strategies. Our guide proceeds to give us more information about viniculture than we’ll ever remember. She talks for a long time until at last she invites us to go into the cellars to visit the barrels. We are grateful for this. We were getting warm out there in the sun and the cool, dry air inside this cellar feels wonderful. Our guide loves her subject and talks a blue streak about how wine is made. I’m wondering if she’s giving away any secrets. She talks too long and we all get antsy to move on to the tasting phase. We finally get there but we realize that this is going to take more than an hour. It goes longer than that as just about everyone in the group orders a bottle or two to take away. It is pretty good stuff. We grab one too.
More cycling on our heavy bikes takes us to the town of Blaye which features a big cannon fort from the early 19th century. It is a re-purposed ruin now and hosts a small hamlet of businesses inside its walls. We stop there to eat our sandwich. This is the turnaround point for the ride and on the way back to the boat we return on much of the same route. Not as much vineyard on this trip. Instead we see more homes, some of them very charming.
Back on the boat I resume my impromptu French lessons with the bartender Sebastien. He’s a friendly guy, speaks 4 languages, and late last night he brought me a nice, dry cognac on the house. I learn, “je voudrais une bière.”, “I would like a beer.” I seem to win cultural points for making the attempt.
Our meal tonight is Beef Bourguignon. It is good food but I wish it had more flavor. I wonder if French food is always so bland or if it is a feature of this cook and the challenge of feeding 50 people the same dish.
After dinner, CK and I take another stroll through Bourg in the twilight. It’s like a ghost town. We feel a little self conscious to be one of the few people on the street. We notice cats. Several of them. They sit on the ledges of windows three stories up, prowling staircases, lurking in trees, stopping in their tracks to stare us down. This is the town of cats. I wouldn’t be surprised if some were feral. Rats may be an endangered species here.
Tomorrow we’re off on another biking tour of wine country. The wrinkle is that it will be a national holiday and pretty much everything will be closed except for a couple wineries and a coffee shop near the ship. No worries, we’ll be carrying our own goodies.
May 8, 2018
Another day of cycling through French wine country is on the agenda. And the weather is dry. We don’t start with sun but the air temp is ideal. While we nibble at breakfast the boat launches away from the dock at Bourg and moves to LaMarque across the river from Blaye. We’re off and pedaling by 10 am or so. It’s a 25 mile loop across pretty flat terrain. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some challenges.
This part of the Bordeaux region is one of the Meccas of French wine. We’ll be passing through vineyards belonging to the some of the world’s best winemakers, most notably Margaux. It is a national holiday too, so just about everything is closed. Not that this would make any difference to the Chateaus. They are shut to tourists, generally speaking, but there are a few exceptions. We are aiming at one of those: Chateau Maucaillou. Along the way we take time to admire the views, make wrong turns, look at road maps, travel in circles, fiddle with GPS gizmos, and take photos. We pass through more hamlets like Le Bois du Porge, Arcins, Tayac, Soussans, and Margaux. We had half an idea to stop at a wine shop in Margaux and plunder something but we couldn’t find the shop, somehow. That’s ok. We’ll have another chance tomorrow.
We somehow arrive at the Chateau Maucaillou. They are a small winery, only 100K bottles per year. They have a nice shop and museum. Unlike other Chateaus around here they are welcoming tourists in a big way. For 8 Euro each we get a tour of the facilities and a general explanation of their methods. Much of what we hear is a repeat from the tour we had yesterday at Monconseil Gazin but not everything. Here we learn why they train their vines so close to the ground: so the grapes can gather heat from the earth after sunset. In this particular area the ground is a combination of clay, chalk, and gravel. They make sure a layer of gravel lies beneath the grapes to reflect more sunlight back toward the grapes. This kind of astounds me when I learn that the summer temperatures here are often brutal: 35-40C (95-104F). Those grapes are tough and gluttons for punishment. I also see no irrigation but that could simply be because I don’t see it.
We get a sip of an 8 year old red. It is quite spicy. I like it. I also haven’t tasted anything I don’t like around here, so I’m not all that discerning. We don’t buy anything. That said, a bottle of their 2010 top grade sells for 25 Euro. Not bad, considering. We’re probably stupid not to plunder it because this same bottle would be $100+ in the States. We also learn that in the Bordeaux wine world the 2009 and 2015 seasons are considered exceptional. So, for those of you playing along at home, look for those years on Bordeaux wines when out shopping. Avoid the 2007 vintage, we are told.
We pedal on, stopping under some leafy trees in the middle of a vineyard. We eat our sandwiches, lovingly made by CK, and congratulate ourselves for doing this. Back on the boat, all is in preparation to feed us a meal while sailing on the the next dock. This time we’re going back to the big city of Bordeaux. I’m becoming a big fan of this town. We were in Paris a few days ago so I have another French city to compare it to. I must say that Bordeaux gives Paris a serious challenge for liveability. We have a 20-something French madamoiselle on board and she confirms it. She says that Bordeaux is THE hip address in France right now. It is becoming as costly to live here as Paris. If someone told me I had to live in either Paris or Bordeaux, I’d choose the latter.
Our boat ties up as close to the center of town as it possibly can, prime location. CK and I take an evening stroll through town window shopping and staring in amazement at all the bistros and bars that infest this place. There’s one joint serving only variations of ceviche. Another is an English style bar with my favorite Scottish beer on tap. You can get anything you want here. We’ll be here tomorrow night as well after a day of walking the city, not cycling.
May 9, 2018
The boat is docked in Bordeaux all day and that means we get to patrol this town some more. They offer us a bike route but we decline. We’d rather do this on foot. A bike in town is clumsy, particularly on the narrow streets with an intersection every few meters. And in the pedestrian-only areas it is scarcely an advantage. We’d be dodging people so much we’d end up pushing the bike instead of riding. Better to walk. Our butts need a rest too.
We have nice weather again. We’ve been stupid-lucky that way. In fact, the air temp is just about perfect for walking. We see a spot about a mile down the waterfront and set a small goal in that direction. This is also in the direction of an area suggested to us by our bartender, Sebastien. It is a small part of Bordeaux known as Les Chartrons. We have to use Google to find it. Lots of young folk live there, apparently. It has a pleasant ambiance along the Rue Notre Dame with its furniture and antique shops. It ambles up to the doorstep of a big church built in Faux Gothic style in the 1880’s. CK must go inside. I step in briefly to snap a pic of the roof structure. Outside it is still a perfectly sunny day and she finds me there.
It doesn’t seem possible but we waste the entire morning wandering the streets of Bordeaux and lunchtime overtakes us. We decide that dining on the ship is just not going to happen today. We’re in a city dedicated to French cuisine and we’re damfools not to plunder it. So, we make our way to a hospitality school which features a restaurant, Les Tables Vatel. Named for Francois Vatel, a master hotelier of the 17th century who served up food and party action to several princes of the age. In April 1671 he was in charge of a huge banquet for 2,000 people in honor of Louis XIV. According to a letter by Madame de Sevigne, Vatel was so distraught about the lateness of the seafood delivery and about
other mishaps that he committed suicide by running himself through with his sword. His body was discovered when someone came to tell him of the arrival of the fish. Here is a tale woven with both tragedy and comedy, tied with a pretty bow on top. Seems that Francois was wrapped a bit too tight. But here, he is still reverently regarded 347 years later. I sincerely hope the school doesn’t expect that level of dedication from their students. Ahem… Our lunch is very nice and very French. CK has a fish filet over wild rice. I have a trio of fish croquets swimming in a saffron-paprika sauce. Wow. Crazy good and very reasonably priced for this town.
After conquering lunch our next urban quest is to score some wine. We think we have enough room in our luggage to pack two bottles, one to be a gift and the other to hoard away for 4 years until it matures properly. We’ll have to open it on our 72nd birthdays. It was scary to write that. We find a likely place and make our purchase. We really don’t know what’s what, only that ’09 and ’15 were good recent harvests and that we like wines from this region.
Back to the boat where we dump our loot in the cabin and take a short siesta. Strength must be gathered for the evening prowl. Recovering from brief unconsciousness we realize it is tea-time but tea is not the idea. We happen to know of a Brit-style bar where Innis & Gunn is served from the tap, The Charles Dickens. This is going to be our tea-time. Beer consumed, we adopt the quest of finding the last remnant of a Roman Coliseum still standing here. Armed with a city map and Google we tip-toe toward the area weaving through narrow, empty streets feeling fairly conspicuous and a bit warm from our pints. And oops, we run right into it. This thing is difficult to describe so I will refer you to the photos. Several arches remain and what looks like a main gate rises several stories above ground, completely surrounded by apartment dwellings. At night it might be totally spooky if it isn’t lit up.
Our bartender, Sebastien, suggests that we go to Chez Les Ploucs for our dining. It turns out to be right in the beating heart of the restaurant zone. Very cozy joint with deco like a country barn. Their dishes appear to be like French peasant cooking in every way. I have a cassoulet with beans and duck. CK has onion soup and a stew-like dish with chicken. As we dine a guitar player strolls through. Our bubble of ignorance insures that we don’t understand a word he’s singing until he does Lennon’s “Imagine”. The place is packed with French people. I think we’re the only tourists. We kill off a bottle of wine between us and drop some Euro in the musician’s hat. A fine evening.
Boat sails as soon as we get back. Apparently they were waiting for us even though we returned well before their deadline. We pass under an 18th century bridge on our way to the next anchorage. Tomorrow back on the bike and away from the big city.
May 10, 2018
Our riverboat moved away from that prime dock space in Bordeaux last night almost the instant after we stepped on board at about 10 pm. It moved to another dock upstream on the Garonne near a village called Loupiac. This is where we start the day. Not sure if anyone is looking at this country through Google Maps but just in case I’ll make mention of certain place names to help. Again, breakfast on the boat: way more food than I could possibly eat. I usually grab some coffee and a croissant, sneak out of the dining room, and up to the top deck to edit photos and listen to the birds. CK builds sandwiches which the tour people make very easy by arranging all the fixings including some outstanding baguette.
This morning CK is a little tardy having had a luscious sleep-in. Our pedaling doesn’t start until everyone else is gone ahead. The bicycle guides warn that the first few kilometers of this stage are steep. They are correct, of course. Once again here comes a reminder that my senior citizen condition has left my faded youth buried under an considerable weight of years; I’m getting old. CK and her E-bike are sailing along no sweat while I struggle to slog my normal bike up a slope that I could have laughed at 40 years ago. Arrgh. Tomorrow I think I shall surrender to the electric motor assist version.
We pass through St-Croix-du-Mont, emphasis on Mont as in Mount as in Mountain. It isn’t that high. I just think it is. Several excellent views to be had up there and clearly they are proud of their vineyards. The village is very cute and old. The lung busting climb is almost worth it. Next we come to Verdelais. It has some charm as well as a church. These churches are beginning to blur into one giant religious rock with a bell on top. Anyhow, we learn that this is where the artist Toulouse Latrec is buried, having died in 1901 at the age of 36 from complications due to alcoholism and syphilis. So, I should never complain about being an old fart, right?
Down the road we skirt the edge of the larger town of Toulenne. After getting beyond its automobile-poisoned noise we emerge into more vineyard farmland. We see more chateaus too but they aren’t generally as grandiose as those we saw in the St Emilion and Margaux areas. This is the land of Sauternes, a wine that attracts a certain kind of aficionado. There must be a number of people who like the syrupy taste of Sauterne but I don’t know any of them. These wines aren’t as popular nor are they as prestigious, so the chateaus are smaller. Sometimes they aren’t chateaus at all but merely a big farmhouse with an oversized barn to house the barrels. The country is gorgeous, however, and the weather turns nice after briefly soaking us with a light shower. Biking along gives us a blow-dry effect. Lunch is our baguette sammies sitting in bright sunlight, on a log with vineyards all around.
Between us and the completion of our biking loop is a lot of vineyard and two towns, Ciron and Cadillac. We breeze through Ciron with just casual glances at its charms, then straight over the bridge to Cadillac. We expect more to discover there than just the bleeping church which CK must inspect. She does that while I study maps. There are some medieval gates to look at so off we go to get pics. There is less to Cadillac than we think there should be. That fancy car is its namesake so why does this place look partially abandoned? Probably just late to the party. This place had its heyday eons ago and the ruined city walls tell the tale. From here we roll through the hamlet of Loupiac and back to the boat for a pint.
It is a picturesque day with plenty of pleasant riding through expansive fields of grapevines. Again, CK and I congratulate ourselves for being lucky enough to have the chance to do this and for happening to sign on with this outfit. They know what they are doing.
Tomorrow is the last stage through the region Entre Deux Mers. This is another Bordeaux wine district but it has the most forest of any of them. Only the white wines here are given the Entre Deux Mers appellation. The reds from here are sold as Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur. There are 250 wine makers in this region so don’t even think about trying all of them.
May 11, 2018
We’re on the Garonne River today. The boat is tied up at the town of Castets-en-Dorthe. Our bike tour today is through a bit of the region they call Entre Deux Mers, between two seas, so named since this area of land lies between the Dordogne river to the north and the Garonne river to the south. There are more trees and annual crops here than in the other wine regions. This is the land of Sauterne, a white wine with a syrupy sweet character. I’m not a fan. But there are also some reds that are quite good but not so famous, therefore cheaper to obtain.
With that in mind we set forth on our pedal with no plan to make a winery tour stop. The way these wine tours seem to go, there’s a bit of pressure at the end to buy something particularly after we’ve taken a sip of their wine. We can’t do that since the luggage is already full. We have two bottles and that is our max just from the standpoint of packing space.
We fantasize about making a special wine-plundering trip back here with a wad of cash to spend on 1 case from each region. Somebody does this, I suppose, but it isn’t us.
Our loop is for 50 KM starting along the river but soon rising up to the hills for cruising through various villages and hamlets. La Reole is a large-ish village right on the river. It has some charming streets around the church. CK inspects it thoroughly. I shoot a pic of its roof. From there it is a climb out of town up toward wider views. I’m being lazy, having obtained an E-bike for this last stage. This gizmo boosts me up the hills in a way that tickles my memory; I used to be able to do this with just my legs. How the mighty have fallen!
The scenery is spectacular…. again. We’re getting used to this. The weather is dead perfect. Bright warm sun, cool air, perfect temps of about 70F. We might make a little sweat pumping up the hill but a steady breeze of cool air dries us out in no time. We pass through Les Esseintes and Labarthe before we take a pause in Morizes for a map check and, of course, an inspection of the church. Thankfully it is closed. Back on the bikes for our halfway point, Sainte-Foy-La-Longue. This tiny hamlet has a commanding view from its hilltop perch. We break out our sammies here and enjoy a shady tree next to the old church which happily rings its automated bells for us in celebration of the noon hour.
The terrain is a roller coaster, up a hill, then down, then up again. We roll through Sainte-Andre-Du-Bois which looks for all money like one of those towns that the Tour de France peloton squeezes through at 60KM per hour. From here there’s a big descent, time to get rewarded for all that climbing. I get all involved in day dreaming, taking in the views, utterly forgetting that a tourist attraction is coming up: Toulouse Latrec’s home is right along this road. I coast right past the turnoff with my head in a cloud. At the bottom of the hill the route turns to the left. I wait there for CK who doesn’t cruise with as much speed. And I wait. And wait. CK doesn’t arrive. Just as I begin to ride back up the hill she comes into view. “I tried to shout at you to stop”, she scolds, “but you kept going. You missed Latrec’s home.” Arrgh. And I’m too lazy to slog back up the hill. Ah well. C’est la vie. We stood next to his bones the other day. That will have to do.
There’s more downhill cruising through Pian-Sur-Garonne and onward to the riverfront and a village called Saint-Macaire. This place is older with some buildings having a start in the 10th century. A lot of 12th and 14th century structures are still in use here as well as old wall sections and gates from the 15th century and earlier. People have been living here for a long time. We stop for a glass of rosé and a strawberry crepe from a little cafe that specializes in that. Dominque, a 70+ y.o. polyglot who speaks English with a Scots accent and a French lilt greets us from his seat under an umbrella and helps us with our order. He’s a friendly guy. He used to work for cruise ships in Miami.
From Saint-Macaire there’s not much left of our bicycle tour through Bordeaux Wine Country. Just a couple more towns, Saint-Pierre-d’Aurillac and Saint-Martin-de-Sescas before we come to the bridge at Castets and back to the boat. A few of these kilometers are quite stunning.
All things like this must end and this is the finish of our bike tour. The guys on the boat remind us that there is plenty of space on the boat for a repeat booking. CK rolls it over in her head, openly musing how much it could cost us to buy an open-ended return flight for next time. But wait, there’s more! Tonight is the farewell dinner, The Captain’s Dinner, followed by a disco dance party in the lounge. The meal is fine. The entree is duck breast with a potato dish, dauphinoise, a kind of fancy scalloped potato layered with cream sauce. Very nice. But I must advise all the US readers of a thing called Landaise Salad in case you ever see it on a French menu and flirt with an idea to order it. It is a little bit of lettuce with dressing flanked by a few strips of thin sliced duck on the plate’s edge. Adorning the lettuce is about two dozen hard cooked chicken gizzards. This is our first course tonight. As I consider this offering I realize that so far in Paris and Bordeaux I have yet to see Coq Au Vin on any menu. These gizzards, 24 per plate x 50 plates, represent a lot of chickens so where did the good bits go? We’re washing everything down with a local claret which I’m liking very much. A claret is a blend between rosé and red, served cold like a white wine. I don’t recall seeing this among the wine selections at home. I’ll need to pay closer attention.
In the lounge the disco music is cranking up. They are playing tunes 45 and 50 years old which is undoubtedly what they think we graybeards like to dance to. People are sitting, drinking wine and chatting while Miss Alva, a tireless 3 year old toddler, commandeers the dance floor showing off her skills. We cannot compete with that until we get a far more serious buzz on, one that gives us permission to behave in an undignified manner. Eventually we invade the dance floor. Sebastien, the bartender, busts a few moves as well.
When we began this bike tour thing we really had no preconceived notions of what it would be like. Now, at the finish, we can give it a full thumbs up with colors. We’ve met some very nice folks on board and got to know them a bit over the past week. People from New Zealand, Australia, England, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Catalonia, and Silicon Valley, CA. The crew has been marvelous, both expert and helpful. We’ve seen countryside and townscape across a fair section of the Bordeaux wine region and have a much better understanding of what goes on here and how.
May 12, 2018
They kick us off the boat this morning returning to Bordeaux City to spend a night before catching Air France (hoping there’s no strike) to Paris where we connect to our Iceland Air Flight to Seattle. It is pouring rain, a fact that adds to our sense of silly good fortune for having perfect weather all last week. This afternoon we go on foot to stalk some different corners of Bordeaux uncovering some gems that we didn’t find last time. Among them, Rue St. James and Basilique Saint-Michel with its square Place Meynard. Many butchers, fresh fruit and veg grocers in this area as well as another vast, head-spinning collection of bars and bistros. Such a vibrant town. I like it better than Paris.
Thanks for following along with this 45 day odyssey through Europe. It has been a terrific trip far exceeding expectations. I hope I’ve been able to share a little of it here.