June 27, 2023
If you prefer drama over romance (like me), this is your disclaimer. You know, a little violence and mayhem is more interesting than flowery romance novels where the worst occurrence is the heroine breaking a fingernail.
This Bordeaux post may not be for you. Because the trip was actually perfect. Simply, stunningly, sickeningly perfect. Although it was France, so there’s always going to be some pain-in-the-ass factor.
If there’s one travel experience not to miss, it’s experiencing the small villages of Europe. The simple beauty of watching townspeople clean the street in front of their home or shop, talk to each other from their open windows, walk to the bakery (boulangerie, bäckerei, panetteria), or simply and seemingly endlessly enjoy a coffee outside in the street or town square. The big cities are great to see, but the magic of Europe lies in the small villages.
Even better is bicycling from one small village to another, stopping to buy fruit or a coffee, grabbing a glass of wine and a sandwich before heading to the next town.
That’s what Bordeaux was for us.
In France, this is either smooth and easy or the biggest pain. There is no in between. This time, we booked both a refundable TGV ticket from CDG to Bordeaux St. Jean and an Air France ticket from CDG – BOD. Why both? Because it’s France. There is always someone on strike or protesting. We were lucky that both were an option, so we opted for a quick 1-hour flight to BOD after landing at CDG (and stopping at PAUL for ham and cheese baguettes and Ladurée for macaroons of course).
We wanted to explore the actual thriving, rapidly growing town of Bordeaux, so we opted to stay overlooking the city for a few days before heading to one of the most charming little towns in France, if not the world: Saint-Émilion.
Was to literally wake up every day with a great cup of coffee, followed by a typical French breakfast (for those who haven’t had it, it’s the best/freshest baguettes and croissants with meats and cheeses, fresh yogurt and spectacular fruit…followed by creamy French scrambled eggs if you chose). Following breakfast, stroll through the village to watch the town come to life, and maybe another coffee just to enjoy the moment.
Around mid-morning, we jump on our bikes. Some days, we just got lost in the countryside amongst the châteaus and vineyards. Others, we bicycled short distances between beautiful little villages and bicycled to a winery for a short visit and tasting. That lasted every day until early afternoon when we found a spot for an outdoor lunch and wine, followed by a shower and short nap reading in the beautiful outside weather. Then happy hour aperitifs, dinner at a bistro or on occasion a Michelin-starred restaurant and a digestif on our terrace watching the sunset over the vineyards. Wake up the next day and hit repeat.
I told you. Disgusting. Like, I want to throw up in my mouth, sugary sweet perfection. You know what? It didn’t suck.
- Putting our luggage in the car and cycling the 45 kilometers from Bouliac to Saint-Émilion, stopping for coffee and snacks and meeting the locals out on roads and bike trails everywhere.
- Seeing the hilltop belltower of Saint-Émilion for 10 kilometers in the distance as we crossed the Dordogne River by bike.
- Wandering around Saint-Émilion, touring the caves under much of the city (used by many wineries these days) and visiting the Monolithic Church, which is actually underground beneath Hotel Pavie.
- Watching the sunset every night over the vineyards from the hotel(s) terrace.
- Exploring the city of Bordeaux with its cathedrals, water mirror and energetic streets.
- Having a gin and tonic on the Hotel Pavie terrace overlooking the Saint-Émilion rooftops. After all the wine, it may have been the best gin and tonic in the world.
A few footnotes:
Bordeaux wine is a thing. Every wine drinker probably knows that on some level, but when you’re there, it’s intense. There are not enough teeth whitening products to combat the perma-purple teeth complements of ample amounts of Bordeaux wine. And there is such a thing as too much red wine. I thought that was just a myth until eight days in Bordeaux.
If you’re near either the towns of Bordeaux or Saint-Émilion, there are some great restaurants in both:
- Sitting outside on the street at La Tupina
- For a first night, Le Café du Port is a perfect spot on the river near the Pont de Pierre bridge for a quintessential meal and to watch the sunset.
- La Brasserie Bordelaise or Café Français if you want traditional southwest French food from a true institution.
- La Pointe for great seafood.
- And, just outside of Bordeaux in Bouliac, our hotel Le Saint James has a Michelin-starred restaurant that is a great experience for lunch on their outdoor terrace.
- In the tiny town of Bouliac, there is also le Café de l’Espérance (run by Le Saint James) and a pizza place La Terrasse when you really need a break from French food.
- L’Envers du Décor is a classic French bistro, operated by Hotel Pavie (which also has La Table de Pavie with 2 Michelin stars if that’s your thing).
- Le Tertre was our personal favorite, on the finer-dining side.
- And the best three bistros right in town are Lard & Bouchon, Chai Pascal, and Le Comptoir de Passage.
- And yes, there’s a pizza place in Saint-Émilion with a great outdoor terrace, Pizzeria du Vieux Lavoir (identifying pizza places is a critical part of European travel).
When in France, a few days in Paris is the right thing to do. We’ve been to Paris a lot (maybe 15 times) and I describe Paris much like one would describe a beautiful, yet vain significant other. They’re great to look at, but unusually high maintenance. And just when you’re done with them, they do something so charming that you’re drawn back in. That’s Paris. A beautiful and very dysfunctional relationship.
In France, Paris in particular, someone is always on strike or protesting. Planes, trains, garbage workers, taxi drivers, pissed off 50 somethings who want to retire soon, fill-in-the-blank. Roads are closed arbitrarily, shops and restaurants are open every other Tuesday through Friday, unless they decide not to. This matters because if you’re planning to travel through the country, you will need multiple options and an open mind. (Once, from Provence, we ended up driving a car powered by two tired squirrels back to Paris when both the planes and trains weren’t running).
For this trip, the TGV from Bordeaux St. Jean takes you right to Montparnasse station on the left bank. Montparnasse is usually a convenient location to get a cab or a car to your hotel. But, since the trip thus far was so perfect, we were bound to experience a little payback.
- Arrive at Montparnasse with a text from our driver: “I’m not there and not sure if I can get there. Can you find a taxi?”
- We walk outside and take half a lap around the station. Not one taxi.
- Text the driver saying, “no cabs, so we’ll start walking away from the station” if he can get to us.
- The first two blocks are spent looking for cabs and exchanging frustrated texts. They were again protesting the retirement age and multiple streets were completely closed.
- Next block: put hotel in google maps to head in that direction and find a cab along the way. (The hotel was a little less than 5 kilometers).
- Next two blocks: no cabs, no driver.
- Next block: decide to walk and enjoy. Yet another reason to pack lightly and only have carry-on luggage.
- Next two blocks: Why not stop for wine? Found a great little brasserie with a sidewalk café and ordered non-Bordeaux wine and a croque.
- Resume walk after a little edge-softening wine. Next two blocks, came across the Seine and first views of the very much under construction Notre Dame. Enjoyed the views, the river and the energy of Paris.
- Cross over into the right bank, headed for arguably the best neighborhood in Paris, Le Marais.
- Start seeing familiar restaurants and shops of the Marais. Dodged walkers and bikers, excited to be back.
- Arrive at Place des Vosges and our favorite hotel in our favorite location, Le Pavilion de la Reine. Received a room upgrade because of the car inconvenience (even though not remotely their fault).
We enjoyed two blissful nights filled with long walks, hanging out in Place des Vosges, shopping in the Marais and finding the perfect combo of casual and quality neighborhood restaurants; Au Bourguignon de Marais, Capitaine and a Michelin-star restaurant for an incredible lunch, Granite.
In summary, we didn’t break up with Paris this time. Paris reeled us back into the relationship yet again.
Although, I think we’ll not push our luck with France for a year or two. It was all too…good. I didn’t even break a fingernail.
I think we’ll let that sit for a while before we attempt to enter the country again. Au revoir, à bientôt.