Entrance to the Clos des Menuts wine cave in St. Emilion
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 Tourism Office, 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 on the Cours de la Somme, several blocks from the city’s UNESCO World Heritage 18th-century center. Once the blue gates of La Villa opened, its unappealing curbside locale was forgotten. We entered into the petite hotel’s peaceful and welcoming garden-style mini-campus.
The accommodation in one of the four stylish bedrooms was 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. Guests who take the short cab ride from Bordeaux’s St. Jean train station to seek out La Villa will find a bargain in the nightly rate of 95 euros ($125) per room, but advance reservations are normally needed to avoid disappointment.
Our visit to Bordeaux’s 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 of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the gilded Bordeaux opera house. The singing was magnificent, as was the opulent Opera Café where we enjoyed pre-performance refreshments.
Bordeaux city walls
Our days in Bordeaux’s 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 Saint 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 CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain or the Bordeaux Museum of Contemporary Art, which has one-of-a-kind sculptural and video installations and was a recommended favorite of several local young people. Housed in a former cargo warehouse near the river, the museum has been artistically transformed and has a beautiful rooftop garden restaurant that beckons for lunch on a sunny afternoon.
Day Trip to Saint-Emilion
A day trip is available from Bordeaux by an SNCF train ride of about 25 miles to the famed wine village of Saint-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 climb to the steep upper village of Saint-Emilion will be rewarded with panoramic views of the gorgeous vineyards stretching over the hillsides.
The wide touristic popularity of Saint-Emilion does stimulate prices to be higher in its restaurants than elsewhere in the region. Admissions of about $10 were charged to visit the historic cathedral and cloisters, unlike similar sites in other regional cities that did not charge anything. Nominal fees were asked for most wine tastings, though some free tastings were available. Our favorite was at 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 Saint-Emilion wine shops, where tastings were also available.
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 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 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 steady downpours during the day of our visit.
We took advice from a fellow train passenger and booked an apartment hotel in the upper city, namely the Residence Foch. It was an unremarkable 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 near the top of the main street leading down to the grotto. We met General Manager Louis Francois Guinguene and were impressed by the hotel’s grand estate ambiance. Founded in 1870, the hotel was owned and run by Guinguene’s great-grandfather starting from around 1900. Louis Francoise’s charming daughter Amy, an assistant manager in the hotel, will one day become its fifth-generation owner. This property is a good choice for travelers seeking comfort, including a fine gourmet restaurant, after braving the crowds of pilgrims. It is closed for the winter but will reopen on April 10.