A Travellerspoint blog

April 2015

Saint-Émilion and on to Spain

The middle of winter is definitely not the greatest time to go visit the vineyards but I really thought that I should get out of Bordeaux to where the grapes are grown because Bordeaux itself, while it has warehouses, negociants and wine shops, showed few signs of wine production. I picked Saint-Émilion, because it was easy to get to on the train, and probably was one of the better places I could have gone. It has been inhabited forever, has had grapes growing here since the Romans planted them in the 2nd century AD and is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and, when I was there, almost completely deserted.

The train station is a bit out of town, which suited me fine, as I could walk past some vineyards, and get a glimpse of Saint-Emilion on its pedestal. There are many chateaux around here, but everything I could see was locked up, maybe just for Christmas or maybe for winter generally.

I really didn't think the town would be as quiet as it was - I often try to minimise the number of people in my photos, but here I didn't even need to try, there was just no-one about as I entered.

I was getting a bit anxious, as the plan was for lunch, but when I got to the town "square" (it wasn't really square, but that is its function) I found a cafe, which actually had about three tables occupied. One of the dominant features of Saint-Emilion is its monolithic church, so called because it is partly built into the rock. Apparently there was a real chance that the bell tower was going to topple over - digging out beneath the church probably meant its foundations were not the greatest - and so late last century a lot of strengthening work was done. Unfortunately, the place was locked up when I was there - it is no doubt an interesting place to explore.

I really enjoyed the sense of age that this town evoked - I don't recall any building at all being in any sense modern, and several of the buildings were ruins or well on the way, including a fairly large warehouse right beside the church.

There were some very nice places, however - the town hall and a posh looking small hotel, the Hostellerie de Plaisance, were probably my two favorite buildings. Apart from its wine and its church, Saint-Émilion has another string to its bow: macarons have been a bit of a fad for the last few years, but in Saint-Émilion, they've been a thing since 1620, when a local religious community started making them. The shop I visited is still using the recipe first developed by that community: unlike those I've seen in my travels, there are no garish colours or weird tastes, just a single type in which coconut is the main flavour.


And so my time in France was done: time to head south. I had this idea that the train would take me around the north coast of Spain, and so instead of catching a direct train, I did it in hops so I could see everything in daylight. My first leg took me to a town on the Spanish border, Irun, and I did get to see a bit of the French coast. There wasn't much to Irun - I found a couple of really old fashioned cafes I liked, and was quite excited to find a bar that was promising me 8 lamb-chops for dinner: there were 8, but they were sliced as thinly as cheese, which really is not optimal. I stayed in a pension near the station, notable only for being above a bar which was exclusively patronised by rather elderly gentlemen who seemed to have a lot of time on their hands. The next hop was to a town in Galicia called Vigo - but I never saw the coast because the line cuts through the interior. I probably should have done some research about the train, and indeed about the hostel I stayed in in Vigo: it was a beautiful hostel, brand new, so no problems there - but when I was only making a quick stop between trains, I really shouldn't have picked a place two miles uphill from the station. I had to pause half way in a bar, and had my first experience of proper tapas - my two euro yielded enough food to just about qualify as dinner.

Posted by NZBarry 15:24 Archived in France Comments (0)

Bordeaux - la deuxième partie

One of the things I really liked about Bordeaux was the coherence in building styles - sure, there are a few modern buildings, like the courthouse and the glass block that is the public library, but most of the central city is built in a similar neo-classical style, of the same materials and at the same time. In the poshest part (where I took no photos for some reason) it is gleaming white. Around where I was, they tended more to the grey: apparently many of the buildings had turned almost black but the whole place was given a good cleaning a few years back.
large_270_IMG_0555.jpglarge_270_IMG_0585.jpglarge_270_IMG_0586.jpgSaint-Pierre Square

Saint-Pierre Square

I had one of the best meals in St Pierre Square, in a very traditional bistro, pretty standard entrecôte steak frites but cooked beautifully, very friendly service, casual atmos - even though I was only in Bordeaux for a few nights and was never short of somewhere to eat or drink, I was tempted to go back for seconds.
Musée d´Aquitaine

Musée d´Aquitaine

It wasn't until I visited the Musée d´Aquitaine that I learned about why Bordeaux has such a consistent style: its all down to Louis XV, who sent two successive Intendants (Royally appointed civil servants, kind of like a Governor to carry out the Royal will in the provinces) to re-arrange the town planning in Bordeaux early in the 18th century. They pretty much tore the CBD down and started afresh, constructing around 6,000 buildings, most of which are still standing. The spot it occupies has had inhabitants for something like 600,000 years - the museum did a good job of presenting its recent history: there might have been older artifacts, but the oldest I noticed was this 25,000 year old Venus of Laussel, which was found carved into the walls of a nearby cave. Unfortunately, I didn't record what the next two are (I think they're quite old), and then there are echoes of the bronze age.
Venus of Laussel

Venus of Laussel

Moving forward a bit, into the Roman era, I noticed statues of Jupiter and Diana
Jupiter 1st century

Jupiter 1st century



Montesquieu (or, more properly, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu) is perhaps Bordeaux's most famous inhabitant, known to some as the originator of the theory of separation of powers. The Americans, Brits and other Europeans loved him, but in France, the church saw to it that his most prominent work - The Spirit of the Laws - was banned. His funereal monument is in the museum
I have to say - I blame Montesquieu for the biggest dud of my entire trip. Since the local University bears his name, and with Bordeaux being a UNESCO world heritage city and the joy I took in what I'd seen, I thought the University must be something special (it was founded in 1441) so took a long tram trip out to the edge of town to see it. I think the buildings were probably built in the 1970's, and they obviously lacked a design budget - my only recollection is of ugly rectangles lined along the tram tracks.

One of the things that made me a little uncomfortable about the architecture in Bordeaux was what drove its prosperity in the 18th century - it had a triangular trade - sending slaves from Africa to the West Indies, bringing sugar and coffee from there back to Bordeaux, and then sending arms and wines back to Africa. Repeat. The museum had a pretty extensive account of this trade. Another thing I liked in the museum was a 19th century shop set up - it was one of the last things I saw.
Outside again, I found myself on Intendant Street - quite a few boutique shops selling things like fountain pens and chocolates, and stretching on for quite a distance. At its head is the magnificent Grand Théâtre, built in the 1770's, and the less magnificent Sanna, by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, a cast-iron 7 metre high female head - apparently it operates on an intuitive level, but mine wasn't up to it, so took solace nearby.
Cours de l'Intendance

Cours de l'Intendance

large_IMG_0650.jpgGrand Theatre

Grand Theatre


There were a few things I spotted from before the 18th century rebuild - some of the old wall has been left intact and a couple of the 13th century gates. The Cathedral is from the 14th century, with its bell tower sitting on the ground beside it, to protect the Cathedral from the vibration of its bells (is that normal? I don't recall seeing this sort of thing before).
large_IMG_0565.jpgGrosse Cloche, Porte Saint-Éloy

Grosse Cloche, Porte Saint-Éloy

La Porte de Bourgogne

La Porte de Bourgogne

Bordeaux Cathedral

Bordeaux Cathedral

Pey-Berland Tower

Pey-Berland Tower

Funnily enough, pilgrims would go through the Porte Saint-Éloy to Santiago de Compostela, which is in my own future, although there won't be much walking involved. The bell itself has huge cultural significance for Bordeaux - it was rung to signal the start of harvests and people were so attached to it that the King could punish them just by taking away their bell. My French reading isn't so good, but if I understand correctly, following a peasant revolt in 1548, it was taken away for 13 years.

There were a few more modern things which caught my eye. I got caught up in the middle of some sort of photo shoot - I hope it wasn't a modelling session, as whatever was being modelled wasn't obvious. Then there were a couple of signs I liked - I think when I go back through Bordeaux on my way home, I'll pay a visit to the cafe signified by the second one.

Posted by NZBarry 15:55 Archived in France Comments (0)

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