Posted on 11/13/03
France has this slick little deal worked out where the bus companies
cannot ferry people between cities that are within France. If you want to
go from one French city to another, you have to take the much more expensive
train. I’m willing to bet that key figures in the bus industry are getting
a whooping, Porsche driving kick-back for that arrangement. The only advantage
that this transportation scheme brings to us travelers is that trains on the
TGV network are ridiculously fast and make few stops, which comes in handy
when you are traversing the largest country in Europe. There isn’t a
train journey that you can take within France, not even a full-on, north-south
crossing of the entire country, that will keep you cooped up on the train
for more than six to seven hours. The same trip on a Spanish train would take
about three times longer (and cost less than half the price).
So, no over-night, economy voyages for me in France. Woo hoo!
Oh yeah, and do’h!
The trip from Toulouse to Bordeaux took less than two hours.
I arrived early enough to lazily saunter to the tourism office (one block
from the train station) and then the youth hostel (four blocks from the tourist
office) and still have half the day at my disposal for taking naps, eating
pastries and ripping Andorra la Vella during the final, irritation fueled,
“It’s go time!” edit of that essay.
The Bordeaux hostel, while being refreshingly dirt cheap, was
set up and run in the now all too familiar institution-like Hosteling International
manner. The décor was very Ryker’s Island Maximum Security Wing,
with rules too numerous to commit to memory, so they were presented to you
on a sheet of paper at check-in. The worst part was their stinginess with
the lights. The rooms were lit by one dim bulb and the hallways, staircases
and bathrooms were all on 60 second motion sensors. This resulted in several
bathroom visits being conducted in pitch black dark if I dawdled for more
than a minute at the urinal (or whatever).
Once I got through the business of updating my web site, I set
out to discover Bordeaux. After walking for several miles, I unraveled the
one and only secret to seeing the best of Bordeaux. Come back in two years.
The city of Bordeaux is in the throes of a massive face lift. I sensed that
something was amiss right off the bat while I was reading the welcome booklet
I picked up in the tourism office. There were several references as to how
the city “will be a beautiful place” and how Bordeaux
“is going to be one of France’s most attractive tourist
sights.” The unease that these comments caused melted away with my siesta,
but in retrospect they were glaring warning signs. Anything of note in the
city was either dismantled or covered in scaffolding. The riverfront was an
obstacle course of torn up sidewalk and construction barriers. The Place de
la Victoire, their main square, was a hole in the ground. And the entire perimeter
of the city center was shredded for the installation of their new tram system.
In an unintentional, but successful effort to tease us short-changed visitors
further, the city was covered with signs boasting the city’s improvement
scheme hailed as the “Grand Project in Action.” Right, the project
was indeed the only action to be found in the city. I cursed my predictably
bad timing as I trudged back to the hostel through a dicey, decidedly anti-American
neighborhood full of cranky, unemployed Arab immigrants standing around in
groups on the street, doing nothing and seemingly just barely restraining
themselves from lynching my unwelcome ass.
With the discouraging dearth of photographical tourist attractions
in Bordeaux, I resolved to concentrate on the wine making industry. Even someone
with only a basic knowledge of wine production knows that Bordeaux is a King
Kong wine making region with over 5,000 chateaus in production. Chateaux tours
leave the tourism office seven days a week. As much as I hate to be associated
with organized tours, these bus trips were the only way to get my ass out
to these vineyards and receive a gracious tour instead of just showing up
unannounced and being chased off the grounds with a pitchfork by the security
obsessed staff. I gritted my teeth and bought a costly pass for the Monday
tour with about 25 middle aged, Rube Tourists.
The first stop was the Chateau Bertinerie in the Premieres Cotes
de Blaye area. This vineyard is one of the largest in the region with 60 hectares
of neatly planted vines (Metric System Lesson of the Day - Being an American,
I had no idea what the hell a “hectare” was. I asked around and
it turns out to be a no-brainer, intuitive 10,000 square meters. Nothing like
the ridiculous “acre” [4,840 square yards, how lame and unnecessarily
complicated is that?] Let’s face it, the metric system kicks ass.).
The Chateau produces about 400,000 bottles of red and white wine a year. We
were led like cattle through the sparkling new facilities by one of the co-owners
who explained the entire wine making process from the vine planting, the back-breaking
hand picking, the squashing, filtering out the skins and crap, fermenting
and finally the bottling. It was all very interesting, but I am not ashamed
to say that I was there for one reason and one reason only: The tasting. Like
my tour at the Graham’s Port plant, the tasting was accompanied by a
price list, though since we had all shelled out 26 Euros for the tour, there
was no hard sell this time. They just dutifully poured the glasses and laid
out the price lists for us to peruse at our leisure and inclination. The problem
was that I really liked this wine. And to make matters worse, it was dirt
cheap. The white, which was particularly fruity and tingly was only 6 Euros
(almost $7) a bottle. This same bottle would have easily cost me upwards of
$20 in the States. I wanted to buy a case. Of course, I was already traveling
heavier than any reasonable backpacker (sorry, suitcase wheeler) should and
the last thing I needed to add to my encumbrance was a very fragile case of
glass bottles. I compromised and bought two bottles, promising myself that
I would drink one before leaving Bordeaux. Like chugging a whole bottle of
knee-knocking wine in 24 hours would be some kind of unpleasant burden.
We staggered back onto the bus and headed for the Branda vineyards.
This place was a little more picturesque, with their main offices and tour
gallery housed in a 13th century military fortress. We were taken on a tour
of their beautiful garden that provided stunning views of their vineyards
with the sun shining on the fields and menacing storm clouds rolling past
in the background. Branda didn’t herd us past huge, aging barrels the
size of a small house or dizzying piles of wine bottles which are surefire
turn-ons for me. Instead they had this well designed and reasonably cool tour
of the senses where we were lead through displays and instructed to touch,
smell, listen to and eventually, oh baby, taste all of the components
that go into the wine making process. Again, I wanted a crate of the white.
The red was quite possibly the oakiest thing I have ever put in my mouth.
It was like drinking bark. I took two sips (just to be sure) and then dumped
the rest of it. It took all the self control that I had, but I managed to
wrench myself away from the property without buying anything in the Branda
gift shop. This was especially painful as the tasty white was only 5 Euros
a bottle! Arrrrggggg!!!!!!!!!! What was I thinking?? I could have handled
the extra weight for that price! Hell, I could have rented a truck or something!
I spent the bus ride home sulking and cradling my two bottle
of Chateau Bertinerie white, mentally planning my dinner menu for the evening,
that would prominently feature an ice cold bottle of my purchase.
After getting the Bordeaux wine tour out of the way, there was
nothing stopping me from moving onto Europe’s cultural ground zero,
Go to Paris