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Pursuing Wines and Waterfronts in Southwest FranceSeptember 12, 2013 By: John Stone
|Bordeaux city walls // All photos by Maureen Stone|
A relaxing train ride across the rolling, lush green farmlands of the Dordogne region brings the French rail traveler to Bordeaux, the heart of France’s Aquitaine Region and its renowned wine country. With the help of the Bordeaux tourist information office, located just off the railroad station plaza, we solved a problem of arriving during a heavily-booked harbor festival called “Bateaux Fete” in the city’s Garonne River port. Since accommodations were unavailable in most hotels, we were fortunate to find La Villa Chambre d’Hote and its host Sylvain. The property is located on the Cours de la Somme in an unattractive high-density residential neighborhood several blocks from the city’s UNESCO World Heritage 18th-century center. Once the blue gates of La Villa opened, however, its unappealing curbside locale was forgotten. We entered upon the petite hotel’s peaceful and welcoming garden-style mini-campus.
The accommodations in one of the four stylish bedrooms were extremely comfortable while the full hot breakfasts over lively travel conversations were a treat, and the helpful assistance of host Sylvain and his encyclopedic knowledge of Bordeaux was a bonus. Engaging fellow guests here included a young Australian couple taking a six-month sabbatical to travel around the world, and a retired couple from Quebec rediscovering their French heritage in Bordeaux. Guests who take the short cab ride from Bordeaux’ St. Jean train station to seek out La Villa will find a bargain in the nightly rate of 95 Euros (US $125) per room, but advance reservations are normally needed to avoid disappointment.
|Opera House Cafe in Bordeaux|
Our visit to Bordeaux’ Bateaux Fete included a sighting of the Regent Seven Seas Voyager cruise ship, which called at the port with dozens of smaller vessels, and our tour of a Mexican naval tall ship hosted by crew members in dress uniforms. We also enjoyed a performance at the gilded Bordeaux Opera house, where Mozart’s Magic Flute was performed in a modern dress version set in an Alpine ski resort complete with backdrop videos of snowy Swiss mountain peaks. The singing, however, was magnificent as was the opulent Opera Café where we enjoyed pre-performance refreshments.
Our days in Bordeaux’ historic city center included wine and tapas at the Confecito Bar off the Place St. Pierre, a casual three-course sidewalk café dinner at La Terrasse St. Pierre in the same square, and a fun evening of drinks and conversation with young local professionals in the British pub-styled sports bar named Charles Dickens opposite the harbor on the Garonne riverfront. Also recommended is a visit to the Bordeaux Museum of Contemporary Art, which has extremely unique sculptural and video installations and was a recommended favorite of several local young people. The Museum, located in a former cargo storage warehouse that has been artistically transformed near the riverfront, has a beautiful rooftop garden restaurant ideal for lunch on a sunny afternoon.
|Wine tasting room of Clos des Menuts in St. Emilion|
Day Trip to St. Emilion
A day trip is available from Bordeaux by an SNCF train ride of about 25 miles to the famed wine village of St. Emilion, the capital of red wine production in the region and yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. The central village is about two miles from the train station, so arranging a taxi is necessary for those arriving without a car. It is worth considering guided village and winery tours that can be booked in advance or in Bordeaux. The ability to climb to the steep upper village of St. Emilion will be rewarded with panoramic views of the gorgeous vineyards stretching over the hillsides from the village center.
The wide touristic popularity of St. Emilion does stimulate prices to be higher in its restaurants than elsewhere in the region. Admissions of about US$10 were charged to visit the historic cathedral and cloisters unlike similar sites in other regional cities that did not charge admissions. Nominal charges were asked for most wine tastings, though some free tastings were available. Our favorite was in the Clos des Menuts, a center village wine cave where Joseph, a university student majoring in wine viniculture, gave us some excellent pours with helpful background information. We bought some inexpensive, yet delicious Bordeaux wines in one of several St. Emilion wine shops, where tastings were also available.
|Pilgrims waiting to visit grotto in Lourdes|
Pilgrims in Lourdes
A three-hour SNCF speed train south from Bordeaux brought us to Lourdes, the pilgrimage destination in the Hautes-Pyrenees region. Here is where the local girl and future saint Bernadette Soubirous is said to have seen numerous apparitions of Mary, Our Lady of Lourdes, in 1858. A natural spring flows from the Lourdes grotto near the Gave de Pau River, and Catholics believe more than 60 miraculous cures have occurred as a result of the healing powers of its waters. Stone plaques offering thanks to Mary for cures received and prayers answered appear on the walls of the vestibules leading into the three-level shrine above the grotto. The shrine has an impressive gold-crowned basilica at the top where the front steps provide a breathtaking panoramic view of the river valley below and the mountains above.
The river’s waters were raging from heavy spring rains, and several hundred pilgrims were congregated at the grotto to say prayers, gather spring water from spigots into bottles, and light candles despite heavy, steady downpours during the day of our visit. The show of faith was a testament to the 5 million people who visit the site annually, including many infirm visitors in wheelchairs pushed by their caregivers. Unfortunately it must be said that the village of Lourdes, especially its lower-level district leading to the shrine, has a carnival atmosphere complete with crowds of souvenir hawkers more appropriate to Coney Island than a destination of religious worship. We took advice from a fellow train passenger and booked an apartment hotel in the upper city, namely the Residence Foch. It was an unmemorable property, but a bargain at 50 euros with views of the mountains and proximity to a good nearby outdoor market removed from the congestion of the lower town.
A better choice for a memorable guest experience in Lourdes is the historic, five-star Grand Hotel de la Grotte, an 83-room luxury property located near the top of the main street leading down to the grotto. We met general manager Louis Francois Guinguene, the fourth-generation owner, and were impressed by the hotel’s ambiance of a grand French estate. Founded in 1870, the hotel was owned and run by Guinguene’s great-grandfather starting from around 1900. Louis Francoise’s charming daughter Amy, who is an assistant manager in the hotel, will one day become its fifth-generation owner. This property is the right choice for travelers seeking guest comfort, including a fine gourmet restaurant, in Lourdes after braving the crowds of pilgrims visiting the Marian shrines.
As with this traveler on the journey to southwest France many Americans may bring little advance knowledge of the attractions of Toulouse, the Midi-Pyrenees, the Bordeaux wine country, or the Haute Pyrenees before actually visiting them. We could not see everything, and missed the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux and elsewhere, the historic walled city of Carcassonne, the towns of Bergerac, Castres or Montauban, or the scenery from the rivers due to the unusual floodwaters that closed boat traffic. But the beauty of a good destination is the great need it communicates for your return visit. We can report that, despite the appeals of other parts of France, its southwestern corner is highly affordable and not be missed by the serious traveler whose time and budget permits.