A Travellerspoint blog

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)

Bourdeaux - la première partie

sunny 8 °C

The plan was breakfast in Brussels, lunch in Paris and dinner in Bourdeaux. Unfortunately, it didn't work so well: I had to get up so early to catch the train, I didn't feel like eating. I did have a nice break of about four hours between trains in Paris, and enjoyed a very traditional French lunch of andouillette (a sausage with a very coarse, basically lumpy grain), mash and a large glass of bourdeaux (in anticipation of my destination) in a typical cafe opposite the Gare du Nord.
Changing stations was easy enough, just a quick trip on the subway and an interminable walk though tunnels and up and down stairs, to catch the TGV south. I remember when these things came in - they were quite the marvel, I think that only the Japanese bullet train would beat them. I remember being on one in the late 1980's and thinking it was as fast as an aeroplane, and kind of had the sealed in feeling of one. Now, many other countries have caught up, so they should perhaps rebrand as le train de la vitesse assez moyen (or TVAM - sounds alright). My particular train was going nowhere fast - we had a halt, then there were some announcements, nothing in English and finally a conductor came through but he couldn,t or wouldn't speak English. Luckily the woman beside me translated: the train ahead had hit a car: three hour delay. It took most of that time just to get a beer from the cafe onboard. So I had no dinner, unless some chocolate out of the vending machine at my hotel counts. The mention of a French hotel probably conjures up images - cobbled streets, quaint cafes, boulangeries, maybe even some music. Hah! I stayed my first night in the Formule 1, which was on the wrong side of the river: a few wine warehouses were the closest to the cafe scene I saw, and they weren't glamourous.
The price had tempted me to stay there for the week, but thankfully I found a cool place on Airbnb in an apartment above the Place du Parlement - a Square created in 1760 which has never actually housed a Parliament, but gained its name some time after the Revolution to honour the Bourdeaux Parliament which sat from 1462 - 1790.
My lodgings were in the one building which was not cleaned when the city recently polished up the majority of the buildings. At night, when there'd been a bit of rain, the Square was very atmospheric.
It was a brilliant place to stay - the people (a mother and daughter) were nice, there was a great cafe on the ground floor called Karl where I went every morning for breakfast before going up to spend the morning working. The coffee they made was a bit crazy - definitely not a Wellington cappucino.
Every side of the square featured restaurants, and I spent half an hour one day watching a couple of blokes removing the furniture from one of the houses. It was a third floor house, and everything came out the window and down a portable funicular. I had my first dinner just down in the next square - a brilliant entrecote washed down with some of the local product. Bourdeaux is, of course, a bit of a foodies paradise, and I ate enormously well every night - fusion Asian one night, great Indian another and more local foods like the magret de canard (they make lots of foie gras around here, so ducks are plentiful).
The Garonne River was about two blocks away, and my place was in behind the customshouse (now a museum) and bourse.
large_IMG_0576.jpgLe Musée national des douanes

Le Musée national des douanes



This is one of the little connecting streets, and the kind of bus they run through these narrow streets
I bet that no-one who hasn't been here knows what the next couple of photos are (but the game is given away in the third, if you squint):
That is the High Court - the wee pods are courthouses! Makes our Supreme Court look very normal. I wish I had gone in and taken a good look around, but the security at the entrance kind of put me off.

Being in Bourdeaux, I thought that apart from drinking the stuff, I should explore the history as well and went to the Musée du Vin et du Négoce - a wine museum set up in the cellars of a wine merchant. I have to say - it was lame, just a few static displays, although it did include some tastings and a bit of a talk about the local wine production and marketing systems. This was done one-to-one as I tasted the wine, which was nice, but I wish the person doing the talk actually knew something - she was a student from an island off the coast of Africa, in Bourdeaux for a few weeks and with a rehearsed speech.
Entrance to Musée du Vin et du Négoce de Bordeaux

Entrance to Musée du Vin et du Négoce de Bordeaux

large_IMG_0684.jpgNegotiant's records

Negotiant's records

Cooper's tools

Cooper's tools

Cooper's art

Cooper's art

One of the things that amused me about Bourdeaux (and I imagine they are elsewhere in France) was the variety of vending machines - not quite up there with Japan, but still it is unusual enough to have machines which vend inkjet cartridges and e-smoking apparatus.

Posted by NZBarry 15:51 Archived in France Comments (0)

Brussels is boring. Yeah, right!

sunny 8 °C

Looking at my tickets from Berlin to Brussels, there was one small scary element: I had a train to Amsterdam, then a bit of a wait for a train to Rotterdam and then 2 minutes until the train to Brussels. I'd already been on a train that was 12 minutes late, so convinced myself I'd not be seeing Brussels that night. Luckily that part of the journey was on an open ticket, so I was able to leave Amsterdam much earlier than expected, have a beer and shitty microwaved pasta for lunch in Rotterdam and carry on. I was a bit bemused by the local trains in Holland - absolutely full in second class, and first class, half a carriage (of a two carriage train), absolutely empty. Sorry, I tell a lie. I stuck my bags in there, so they traveled first class in splendid isolation.

I was in Brussels in the late '80's on a weekend bus trip from London. I remember walking for miles but I'm pretty sure of two things: I never saw then what I saw this time, and I didn't find the area I walked through last time. Odd, really, since this time round I was right in the very centre of the city - missed it completely somehow before - and I had a great time. I never once went looking for a library, or even left the central couple of blocks except to walk out to the railway station to pick up a ticket. On the way out there, I found a hotel I should really have stayed at.

Nah, not really. I was very happy at the one I chose, because it was right in the centre, up a small alley so away from the hubbub. I went for all of the cliches of a visit to Brussels: frites, chocolate, waffles, beer, carbonnade à la flamande, and moules mariniere. They weren't hard to find - I think I'd seen them multiple times before I was a block from the train station. I was a bit disappointed to see that most of the waffles were pre-cooked and re-heated but eventually found the real deal.
I ate the mountain of moules moules mariniere without thinking to take a photo, sorry. Same with the various beers. As for the frites, I didn't really get the queue at Fritland - funnily enough it doesn't even rate in a study by the Telegraph of the best fritkots in Brussels, or the one in the New York Times. I did entertain the idea of trying them, but the queue put me off, and I found a great place right next door to my hotel, no queue, no wait. Next day I did even better, I was plonked in a bar testing the beer, and they fried up some frites in the basement for me. The bar maid in that bar amused me: at one point she dressed as if she was heading off on an arctic expedition: gloves, big hat, furry coat. She was only outside for a minute, setting candles on the four outside tables.

It is probably a good thing I was only there for a weekend, as every meal I had, they included frites. I felt sorry for the fritkot in the last photo - it was just around the corner from Fritland and decidedly lonely.
Of course, there are other food sources in Brussels - like cake, sausages, champagne, coffee, rotisserie goatsheads
In another bar, I watched a wee drama unfold. I'd noticed this woman standing on the opposite street corner, and I don't know why, thought she was waiting for business. After a while, however, it became evident she was waiting for someone - every ten minutes or so she'd ring someone, I am pretty sure it was the same person, as she was clearly wanting to know how long the person was going to be, then she'd be reassured and put her phone away. I dawdled over my drink as long as I could to see if this wee drama was resolved, but it was getting late and I needed to eat so I just don't know - I hope there was a happy ending.

It didn't seem to matter what time I ventured out, the streets were abuzz with people, and entertainment during the day
I had a wander through the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a covered shopping arcade built in the 1840's in place of what was a sordid area. It has posh shops, a chocolate cafe, a tavern and so on but there was one display in particular which caught my eye.

I think, for me, the most impressive sight was Grand-Place = the original market place which houses the Town Hall, the Brussels museum and various gilded Guild buildings.
It was impressive during the day but at night - wow! I don't know if it happens year round or it was a Christmas thing (huh - now I do know, it happens between late November and early January), but there was a magnificent sound and light show - predominantly classical music played very loudly (I heard it clearly from my hotel) and thousands of coloured LEDS to light up the buildings. Quite a lot of photos, but I couldn't decide which ones to cut.

Posted by NZBarry 17:07 Archived in Belgium Comments (0)


overcast 1 °C

My last five nights in Berlin, I moved out to the East of Mitte, to another really good hostel, East Seven. It was really sociable, and had a happy hour on beer (these two things couldn't possibly be connected), so I'd come in at about 10:00 and settle in with a delicious black lager. One evening I got talking to a mother and daughter- they were probably ten years either side of my age, from the south west of Germany. I'm not exactly sure what I did to provoke it, but when they went off to bed, the mother said she'd never met anyone like me (in a good way, I'm sure!). Another evening, I was most entertained by a young fellow, from somewhere in the North of England, who worked in an office for (I think) a local authority, and he hated his job so much he'd rather die than go back to it, but he was devastatingly funny about why he hated his job - a combination of Microsoft Word and the inanity he had to deal with from others. One big regret was that I wasn't staying just a bit longer - the hostel would provide food and accommodation for people willing to cook dinner for other residents - a Canadian girl was quite keen to do it, and somehow she picked on me to sort out her menu. Quite randomly, a bloke reckoned I look like Karl Marx- now that I've seen some pictures, it might take a little work but I've not far to go.
I'd start each morning with a coffee and pain au raisin at the Impala cafe, just down the street - the decor was sort of concrete 1970's industrial lunchroom, the chairs were a bit like the metal legged chairs from my school, but the coffee was good and the staff were fun: I made the mistake of asking for my pain au raisin in German - I don't speak German, but stumbled through a reading on the label. It was a mistake because every morning after that, they wouldn't give me one unless I asked for it in German. Then I'd walk through a different way to the library, such as past all the very impressive museums on Museum Island, or the shopping streets, or quieter residential streets which would have cool looking bars and cafes and second hand shops crammed full of stuff which I'd wish I had time to indulge myself in.
It was even worse on the way home, when they were open. Each morning, I'd wander off to do some work - I tried the American library (it was funded by the Americans to help Germany get back on its feet after the war) first, because it is huge, but turned out to only occupy the ground floor and have no wifi. I also paid 12 Euro for the privilege of using the State Library, which was very quiet and very white and futuristic but I couldn't get their wifi to work. Then I learned about Humboldt University , which was founded in the early 19th century - given its location and age, I thought the library would be quite special, and it was, but not in the way I expected. It is a monolithic concrete building which opened in 2009. The interior is really well designed, I thought. Each floor is made of three parts - the third running along each wall has books and a staircase, and the central third is a quiet study space, but it is tiered, a bit like the seating in a stadium. The photo will explain it much better than I can.
I think I would enjoy an extended break in Berlin, I felt quite at home here - the only bad experience I had was in a Japanese restaurant near the Humboldt, where they had a very strange interpretation of the dish I asked for but, even worse, neither of the staff I dealt with said a word to me. The most excellent coffee shop next door, Pure Origins, made up for the lack of service.

A few years ago, I read DBC Pierre's wonderful satire on the excesses of modern life, Lights Out in Wonderland. About half of it is set in the former Tempelhof airport where, according to the Guardian review

the novel blossoms into a sort of insane, rococo wedding planner for a tumultuous and orgiastic banquet in the bowels of Nazi-built Tempelhof airport – all organised by Gabriel and Laxalt; they will cater for bankers whose Lear jets taxi to the very gates of Tempelhof and into a double bluff.

It made me curiously nostalgic for an airport I'd never seen and would never be able to fly into, so when I learned that you can take tours through the airport, I jumped at the chance. There has been an airport on the site since the 1920's, before then it was a public park, and the runway area has been returned to being a public park. The building of the main terminal did not start until 1934, as a symbol of the might and glory of Hitler's "world capital", Germania. That being the case, it had to be pretty special, and although it was never completely finished, there was a kind of stark grandeur to the place. It was an odd experience being in a deserted airport, and a building which is among the 20 biggest in the world, but I'm so glad I did it. The tour started underneath the airport, where the baggage goes in and up escalators to passengers in the main concourse, then, despite the cold and threatening rain, we spent a fair amount of time outside, on the apron. One of the great things about Tempelhof is that the planes just rolled up to the back door, where it was covered, so passengers had no distance to walk - no need for an airbridge. This approach was one of the reasons the place closed - modern aircraft don't fit.
The aeroplane in the picture was one used in the early days of the Berlin airlift - the Russians had blockaded Berlin in an effort to gain exclusive control, but under an earlier agreement had left open three 20-mile wide air corridors providing access to the city which not even they would go back on. The estimate was that 3500 tonnes of supplies were needed. Every day. The DC3 could carry 3.5 tonnes, the C-54 had a payload of 10 tonnes, and eventually took over as the only aircraft used. Conditions were problematic - for one runway, the planes had to fly between two apartment buildings and for the the other, fly over an apartment building and then drop sharply. The Russians did not play nicely. And yet the airlift was a success - on one day, as a special effort, they flew in 12,941 tonnes of supplies, mainly coal. In fifteen months, there were 277, 569 flights and 2.3 million tonnes supplied - shared between Tempelhof and Gatow. Our tour was enlivened by having a man on it who flew about 380 of these missions - I'm pretty sure he said it is first time back, aged 92.

Time to go inside, to the main concourse. The original grand vision had required this to be very high, but the need to get it operational meant that a false floor was built by the Americans cutting the height in half, and the pillars had to be marble and just so- almost more palace than functional airport.
The upper half has never been put to use and was never finished off. The top floor was to be a vast open air restaurant, from which the people could watch various spectacles. Again, this was not finished - the Americans adapted it to their use by building a bowling alley (subsequently removed) and basketball court. I can't remember who did it, but the picture represents the variety of life at Tempelhof during the airlift.
I do remember who did the next pictures - during the war, before Tempelhof was liberated by the Russians, part of the basement housed workers, essentially prisoners, who were required to work at the airport, and this is how they kept their spirits up.
The Russians were there for just a couple of months, but they did a thorough job of removing anything they wanted. Down in a another part of the basement, there was a bunker for filing important documents and, more significantly archival films. It was locked up pretty securely, so the Russians thought they'd found a treasure trove so, determined to gain entry, used explosives. Guess what happens when films are exposed to explosions? A mighty fire raged through the bunker and everything was lost.

The day was wet and a bit foggy and it was near the evening, so my photos of the outside are a bit dim:

Posted by NZBarry 16:02 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

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