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 for more than eight to nine 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 bus 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 on to the youth hostel (four blocks from the tourist office) and still have half the day at my disposal for taking naps and eating pastries.
Fountain in Bordeaux
The Bordeaux hostel, while being refreshingly dirt cheap, was set up and run in the now all too familiar institution-like Hosteling International affiliate manner. The dï¿½cor was very Ryker’s Island Maximum Security Wing, with rules too numerous to commit to memory, so they were presented to you on a letter sized sheet of paper at check-in. The worst part was their stinginess with the lights. The dorm rooms were lit by one, single dim bulb that made reading after dark impossible from any position in the room 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). The only departure from the HI standard of constant misery and inconvenience was that Bordeaux’s hostel was within easy walking distance of both the train station and the city center, rather than being located 30 minutes out of town on a slow, rarely serviced bus line.
The next morning 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.
As of October 2003, 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 crushingly 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 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 in the middle of the afternoon, doing nothing and seemingly just barely restraining themselves from lynching my unwelcome ass.
With the discouraging dearth of photo-worthy tourist attractions in Bordeaux, I resolved to concentrate on the wine making industry. Even someone like myself 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 May through October. 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. I gritted my teeth and bought a costly pass for the Monday tour with about 25 middle-aged, Rube Tourists.
Chateau Bertinerie Wine
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 1,000 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 in Porto, 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 casually 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 US$7) a bottle. This same bottle would have easily cost upwards of US$20 in the States, where, it should be noted, any $7 bottle of wine would undoubtedly send all but the most hardened winos running for the toilet. 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 happily back onto the bus and headed for the Branda vineyards. Branda 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 aging barrels the size of a Parisian apartment 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! Son-of-a-bitch!!!
I spent the bus ride home sulking and cradling my two bottles of Chateau Bertinerie white, mentally planning my dinner menu for the evening, that would prominently feature an ice cold bottle of my purchase.
As much as I loath being involved with any Rube Tour situations, I would have seriously considered staying a week in Bordeaux to take all seven winery tours and staying drunk almost continuously in order to keep up with my impulse buys, but 26 euros per tour was more than I could stomach, even in the face of a white wine, carefree drunk. If you have the funds and your life revolves around wine, go to Bordeaux right now. If you want to see a cool city, wait until at least fall of 2005 and then call ahead just to be sure.