The river Garonne determined our time in Bordeaux. Notoriously hard to cross we decided to do a few days on the left bank first and then ferry over to the right bank. Unlike the states where you’ve got a bridge every few miles across any and all obstruction the French prefer the romance of adventure, which means either a ferry or driving down to the city of Bordeaux to cross.
We didn’t stay in Bordeaux itself instead attempting the winery experience by staying in a tiny village named Cussac-fort-Medoc. It was a paltry ten minute drive from the heart of the left bank wine country in Margaux.
The Chateau’s or Domaine’s are stunning, unlike Burgundy that have mostly centralized caves you visit for tastings, Bordeaux goes big. Castles litter the landscape with massive walls guarding precious vines slicing down roads and over hills, and great iron gates barring long spacious drives.
We have never had a problem visiting wineries in France. You do a little research, find out where you want to visit and if they require an appointment, no problem. Bordeaux left bank was very different. Unless you are in the wine business they don’t want your patronage. Their wineries aren’t for selling, though their massive gilded structures beg for visitors, they are for marketing purposes only. We learned from a few smaller, family run wineries, that the higher on the pecking order (and more bottle production) the more it is about crafting the prestige of Bordeaux. The way they classify their wines is dizzying and I won’t even attempt to give a full explanation and just say there is a pyramid of prestige. The higher the placement for a winery on the pyramid results in a more expensive and elevated status. With this placement comes responsibility for the overarching region. Taste and quality of the product is only 50% of the equation, the rest is trappings. Castles or Chateaus of a certain magnificence are expected, tasting rooms (for those in the business), stone caves and a marketing strategy meant to lure luxury buyers and distributors is the rest. And if your winery happens to be at the apex of the pyramid the quality of your wine is only 30% of the qualification. This resulted in my nose pressed up against a number of guilt gates with my camera zoomed as far as it would go. What an ugly American I am. Luckily, there was no one around to witness.
The tastings we did achieve were from smaller producers, who are 100% about quality of product, which is better for us anyway. Though they lacked the romance of a mini castle their wine was magnificent. We even managed to find a cave that shipped to the US, and the rate was much cheaper than checking another bag of luggage.
Being denied access to the wine kingdom we decided to spend one day at the beach. Temperatures were skyrocketing, a sultry 108 degrees Fahrenheit, brutal by anyone’s standards but particularly when denied air conditioning. Soulac-sur-Mer is a small beach town sporting a massive sand dune and oceans hovering around 65 degrees. Delicious. Even though it was the middle of the week it was busy. We weren’t the only ones sweltering and the water gave much needed relief.
The next day we headed into the city of Bordeaux. Nestled along the Garonne, it felt like the love child of Paris and Brussels. It had an international feel but city center Paris vibe. It was walkable and bikes were very popular, which usually means we are white knuckle driving, but there was no danger to PA, the streets were just wide enough, and the bumper stayed firmly attached.
Along the river is the Place de la Bourse or Palace Royale and across the street is the Miroir d’Eau with a unique water display. A long stretch of granite it houses a shallow pool only an inch deep, but the result is a massive reflection of the Palace just across the street. Every few minutes they turn on misters that spray up from the stone, providing a fun activity for the old and young. Piles of shoes lined the lip and people milled over its surface, marveling.
Deeper in the heart of the city you will find the Grosse Cloche. This bell/clock tower is tucked between buildings on a narrow street and sports amazing architecture from the 15th century. Originally it was used to alert residents of fire or to inaugurate the beginning of the grape picking season. Today the bells only toll a couple times a year one of which is the anniversary of the liberation of Bordeaux in 1944. I’m told the low frequency of the bells tend to make all the windows vibrate in the neighborhood.
We are now off to visit the right bank and will be tucked into a tidy cottage on a vineyard just outside the city of Bourg. How romantic is that?