Saturday, June 21, 2014

Relaxing in Bordeaux

Saturday June 14th, we meet Lisa and Rich at their apartment and say goodbye as they are headed off for their week in Amsterdam before returning home to Toronto. We had a great week with them.

After seeing them off at the bus stop, we head off for a long walk taking in the ruins of the Palais Gallien, an amphitheatre which dates back to the first century. It is the only remaining monument from that era. It is only a couple of blocks from our apartment and was on our list of things to see and Rich and Lisa had reminded us about it as they had visited it. Really off the grid and I wouldn't think most tourists would see it.

Then continue on to the Basilica Saint-Seurin, a fifth century church. Many of the pilgrims travelling to a Saint James of Compostella would stop here and is a Unesco World Heritage site as it is part of the pilgrim route. There is a crypt, but not open when we arrived.

Then continue onto the Musee d'Aquitaine which houses a collection of objects and documents from the history of Bordeaux and Aquitane from it's prehistoric beginnings to present day. One facet that we found interesting/disturbing was that Bordeaux was a centre of slave trading. Also a strong history of trans Atlantic commerce and the Caribbean, South and North America. Nice walk home and quiet evening.

Sunday mornings we always go to the market at Le Quay de Chartrons. Once again bought some wonderful fresh foods for a picnic lunch later on today and some great main dishes for dinners this week. Stopped for coffee at one of our favourite local caf├ęs, no tourists here....except for us that is....and the waiter tries to encourage us to come back tonight (Sunday) for the first French Football game being played tonight as part of the World Cup. With the time difference, some of the games are much later in the evenings.

Decide to walk about 20 minutes to Le Parc Bordelais, the largest green space in Bordeaux and take along our books and a picnic lunch. Beautiful place to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon. Father's Day today and a Robin receives a text from Rich from Amsterdam and when we got home a FaceTime call from Christine and our wonderful granddaughters, Caitriona and Lauren.....special!

On Monday we decided to go to the Cotes de Bourg and Premieres Cotes de Blaye for another wine tasting tour. This was only a half day tour and a much larger group than the first tour. This area is about one hour north of Bordeaux with beautiful countryside which is quite undulating. It has been nicknamed "the little Gironde Switzerland". Once again I will say that the guide was very informative about the appellations we were about to visit. These two areas follow the estuary of the Dordogne and Gironde rivers and due to these vast expanses of water the temperature here is much more temperate and receives less rainfall than the whole of the Bordeaux region. Many historic villages along the way and three fortifications which were built in the 17th century to protect the City of Bordeaux. These are listed as Unesco World Heritage sites. The first winery we visited was Chateau Bertinerie which has been owned by the same family for some 300 years. The most interesting thing about this winery is the "lyre" system they use to grow their vines. Basically a "v" type system that allows more sun and wind into the vines which is said to make for a better quality of wine. The second winery Chateau Haut-Giraud is run by a brother and sister and has been in their family for over 300 years. This chateau produces wine without residual chemical traces. The wine treatment products they use are biodegradable.

Must mention that there were fishing huts all along the river and apparently in years gone by, large sturgeon were caught in abundance to the point of overfishing and are now protected. Our guide told us that in the 1700's (not sure if that is the right era), the aristocracy could no longer get caviar from Russia. They found out that the fishermen/farmers of the Blaye/Bourg area would feed the caveat to the chickens. Needless to say that didn't take place after the wealthy French found out about it! Here in Bordeaux, we see caviar on some menus. Our guide told us that they now farm Sturgeon in the area for the caviar.

Another interesting fact is the partial spelling of village names in this area. Numerous village names end in "ac" such as Teuillac, Tauriac, Samonac, Gauriac, Plassac, etc. we were told that the "ac" means "the home of" and this dates back to Roman times. Do you think this question would ever come up in a pub night quiz?

We wish we could have spent some time in Blaye to visit the town and the fortifications. We are looking into getting there by local bus later this week. Sometimes we think it would be nice to have access to a vehicle for this sort of touring, but it's very expensive to rent a car here in Bordeaux.

A beautiful late afternoon as we are walking home and we decide to stop for a "Lillet" aperitif before dinner. Another beautiful day in Bordeaux. Temperatures not quite as hot as last week, so more enjoyable, for me that is!

We do have quiet days during our travels where we do the everyday things one must attend do. Stop at the local butcher and poissonerie to pick up meat/fish for the next couple of nights, have a picnic lunch in the parc just to spend some time outdoors, do laundry, stop for tea/cappuccino and of course watch the World Cup games...that would be Robin. Pictures below taken in Le Jardin Public, which is just across the street from our apartment and a great place to spend some quiet time.

Wednesday arrives and we decide to take the tram/bus to Blaye to see "La Citadelle" which took about 1 1/2 hours. Upon arriving the local weekly market was taking place. First time on this trip that we come across this type of rural market. I always find these interesting with the variety of items they sell......the usual fruit, veggies, meat, cheese....but then you have clothes for young and old, nightgowns, underwear, shoes, colourful market bags, knives (Robin just looked this time!), hats, belts, hardware, etc. Always fun to look at, but not sure I would buy any of the clothes. Then off to see the fortress.

This fortress along with two other forts in the area make up the "Vauban Major sites" which are listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. Vauban (17th century) was a Marshal of France and the foremost military engineer of his age, famed for his skill in both designing fortifications and breaking through them. He also advised Louis XIV on how to consolidate France's borders, to make them more defensible. An additional 300 sites were upgraded under his supervision and he oversaw the building of 37 fortresses. I read that his heart lies in Les Invalides in Paris, at the order of the Royalty of the day.

As Blaye is situated on the estuary of the Dordogne and Gironde rivers which span over 3 kms. cannons could not shoot this far, so Vauban found it necessary to build Fort Pate on an island in the estuary and Fort Medoc on the left side of the bank in addition to upgrading the Citadelle. These actions were taken to protect the City of Bordeaux.

The Citadelle covers 17 hectares and is quite impressive and in very good condition. We visited the ramparts, outside of the officer's quarters and took a tour of the underground caverns and tunnels which allowed the soldiers to move from one part of the fort to the other, fully protected. Some of the buildings have been converted to small artisan shops, restaurants and even a small hotel.

We stopped for lunch at one of the small outdoor restaurants and we took a table next to a family. As we sat down, the couple acknowledged us by saying "Bonjour Monsieur/Dame" as did the young girl, who turned out to be their granddaughter. This would never happen in North America. Just picture walking into a restaurant and someone at the table next to you saying " Good afternoon". We would look at them as if they were from a different planet....too bad because I think it is so civilized and polite. We ended up conversing with this French couple and their 11 year old granddaughter throughout our lunch, very delightful. Although they did not speak English, as they spoke slowly and clearly, Robin could understand most of what they said. I felt pretty good as they complemented me on my French....even the granddaughter! They also joined us on the tour, funny enough just the five of us on the tour. This type of happenstance is what makes a day...lovely family.

The French rail workers have been on strike for the last eights days and continuing. No set pattern to where and when they close the lines, certainly doesn't help with travel plans. These random work stoppages are due to the fact that the government, mainly Hollande, is talking about privatizing the rail system. Robin's brother Terry and his wife Billie, are due to arrive in Bordeaux on Sunday by train from Barcelona, so we are certainly hoping their plans are not disrupted.
One thing that is very noticeable in France is the fact that workers eat out for their noon time meal. Most restaurants offer a "Prix fixe" menu which is usually made up of an appetizer/salad, a main course and a desert. Our friend Ken, in Nice, had told us that employers provided food vouchers to their employees. When we were out for lunch today, in a non-tourist area, I noticed a couple of the people using vouchers. So remembering what Ken had said, I simply had to investigate this. Well folks, the French workers certainly have it good. By law, an employer must either provide a subsided cafeteria or food vouchers. Now, the food vouchers are for around €5 a day, but still, depending on what you order that could be one or two free meals a week. The companies do receive some kind of tax break, but not sure what that is.
So, this of course led me down the path to holiday time. Years ago Robin and I, my brother Rick and his wife Sheri hiked the Milford Track in New Zealand. The segway to the holiday story, is that a young French couple were in our group of hikers. This young couple told us that they received some seven weeks of vacation time....yikes. Upon looking into this (sorry folks, just curious by nature, can't help myself), I found out that an employee can be entitled up to 9 1/2 weeks paid vacation leave. On top of that their are an additional 10 National holidays. We wonder why this country has money problems and no wonder workers are always going on strike if an employer would even consider cutting back on any of their benefits. Did I mention many French outraged at talk of extending the retirement age. O.K. enough, I do not want to start into retirement benefits....I will probably just make myself crazy!

Last couple of days in Bordeaux, June 19th and 20th, temperature hit in the low 30's again. Really hot to do anything too active, but both days we have gone for long walks along the left bank and all around the right bank and back again, probably a total of at least 10-12kms. both days. Our apartment is not air conditioned, but we have a large fan that works very well. The evenings cool down somewhat and we have not had a problem sleeping. These high temperatures are due to stick around till next Tuesday. Looking at the long range forecast, it is supposed to cool down somewhat for the week of our cycling trip, which is great.

Today while in the Chartrons area (same area as our apartment) we came across the Wine Museum. This was on our list of places to visit, so we decided to stop. The Chartrons area of Bordeaux was the ancient quarter of the wine making and shipping as it is on the port. This self guided tour was interesting as it gave us the history of wine making in the Bordeaux area. It is located in one of the old warehouses which also incorporates wine caves, nice and cool for such a warm day.....couldn't have planned this better. I have written about different aspects of the wine making in this area in previous blog postings, but one additional fact we learned today was in regard to aging the wine. In the 19th century one of the Chateau owners starts something called "the return from India". His idea was to put new barrels of wine on a ship destined for trading in the Far East. It is said that the wine aged quicker with the rolling of the seas and the hot weather. It is said that the wine was ready to drink upon its' return from India. Not sure how well this worked considering that they now keep the oak barrels in cool cellars to age. Also looking at some of the equipment they used, not far off what one uses when bottling their own wine. We used to make our own wine, from kits that is, finally gave it up as was time consuming and in all honesty one can now buy good wine at reasonable prices.

Read in the local paper today that lawyers in this area have been on strike for the past week and earlier strikes amongst this sector earlier in the month across France. Now believe it or not, this is one strike I agree with, in a way. The reason for the strike is that the Government had cut funding to legal aid and lawyers, known as Avocats here, are the ones that represent those who cannot afford legal representation. Once again the poor are being affected. I think that "going on strike" is certainly something common place in this country and is accepted as a "means to an end". Not sure it will work in this case, considering the financial woes of the country.

Friday evening and we head off to a local pub to watch the French vs. Switzerland game in the World Cup. Nice to be surrounded by people when watching these type of sporting events. In all honesty not too many people in the pub watching the game. It was filled with couples and families having dinner. Some of the young boys were the ones cheering the loudest. When we left after the game around 11 p.m. the local square, which is surrounded by restaurants, was jammed packed with people having their meals (yes at 11 p,.m., this is France). A lovely evening out.

Off to "Le Lac" this first day of summer and our expected high today is 32. Looking forward to Billie/Terry's arrival on Sunday and Suzanne/Colin on Tuesday (Roblin's siblings).


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