The city of Bordeaux was not what I expected it to be. When I think of wine regions, I think of large plots of land linked together by narrow winding roads that are dotted with the occasional small town along the way. The outskirts of the city of Bordeaux were like this but the city of Bordeaux was not. It was huge and densely populated!
The Bordeaux metropole has a population of about 1.2 million people and is the sixth biggest city in France. It is so big that it has an IKEA. The city sprawls out in all directions and is severed by the Garonne River into western and eastern halves. With the exception of our day trip to Saint Emilion, we spent 100 percent of our time on the western side of the river.
La Garonne is considered one of the cleanest rivers in Europe. I was surprised to read this fun fact during our visit to the wine museum because the river water was brown.
According to the information provided at the La Cite du Vin (wine museum), the river is known as the “blonde river”. The river begins in Spanish Pyrenees and flows north to Bordeaux and then out to the Atlantic Ocean. The poop/blonde colored water is caused when sediment in freshwater mixes with saltwater during ocean tides.
On the western side of the river is the historic city centre which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The large stone buildings, narrow streets, and cobblestone give it the old world charm that I dig. The only thing that would make it better would be the elimination of cars.
Speaking of the elimination of cars, the longest pedestrian-only shopping street in Europe is in Bordeaux – Rue Saint Catherine. We accidentally found ourselves on this street for a brief period of time and I found the experience unpleasant. It was crammed with tourists aimlessly wandering, locals running their daily errands, and bicyclists weaving in-and-out of the crowd.
The upside to our accidental visit to Rue Saint Catherine is that we found a wonderful coffee shop at the north end of the street called Kuro Espresso Bar. You see, the coffee in France is terrible so when we found a proper coffee shop, we were happy.
The owner of Kuro requested that we first try his espresso before we added sugar. I was confused by this request but did not want to upset the Frenchman and his perfect English and I did as he requested. I took a sip and the flat white he had just made for me didn’t need sugar.
We got to chatting and he explained that there is an incredible cafe culture in France but there is no coffee culture. To make a long story short, French colonies once supplied France with duty-free coffee beans and those beans were of lower quality (and harsher taste) than the beans purchased and used in other nations (i.e. United States, United Kingdom). In an effort to make French coffee palatable, consumers needed to tone down the bitterness of the shit beans and the only way to do this was to dump loads of sugar into their drinks. Not much has changed since then with the exception of a few boutique coffee shops here-and-there (like Kuro which uses quality beans). The end.
Our two-and-a-half-day trip to Bordeaux was split between Bordeaux (the city) and Saint Emilion (a nearby wine region).
We arrived midday on a Thursday in late October in the pouring rain and wasted away the hours in a bar serving Spanish tapas and cocktails. It was miserable weather. The type of weather where it is freezing cold so you need to wear a hat and gloves but it was also pouring rain so wearing a hat and gloves would only lead to them being soaking wet.
France is a country with a culture that observes afternoon siestas where restaurants and bars close for a period of 3-4 hours usually starting at 2pm. It is hard to adjust to this type of rigid way of living for anyone who is not used to it. Peter and I always had to keep time in the back of our minds to ensure we didn’t miss the lunch period because if we did, we’d be out-of-luck until dinner and no one wants to be around a hangry Camie.
By the time we left the tapas bar, the weather had cleared and we were buzzing. Dinner on Thursday night was at Vins Urbains (reservations recommended). Our experience at Vins Urbains was excellent! Peter and I agree that one of the best bottles of wine we had in Bordeaux was at Vins Urbains and was recommended by the owner. We sipped wine, nibbled on charcuterie, and stumbled back to our hotel on the other side of Bordeaux a couple of hours later.
We kicked off Friday with coffee and pastries at Books and Coffee. This cafe is located a few steps from La Grosse Cloche, one of the oldest belfries in France. The bell was cast in 1775 and rings only a handful of times per year. It rings on the first Sunday of every month at noon and six additional times for major celebrations such as Remembrance Day.
I took four photos of La Grosse Cloche before giving up. The tower is very tall and difficult to capture with an iPhone without (a) being very far away and (b) getting hundreds of tourists in the photo.
Following coffee, we walked around the city and visited major attractions such as the Grand Theatre and the Basilica of Saint Michael.
The next thing we knew was that we were in the lunchtime danger zone as it was nearly 1pm and we were unsure where we were going to eat lunch. We stumbled upon an Italian restaurant that had opened only three days prior. All of the tables (4 in total) in the tiny space were occupied but the owners told us that they should have a table available in about an hour, so we waited.
During lunch at the restaurant with no name, we realized that we had too many hours on hands to fill by aimlessly walking around and that we needed to find something else to do.
Peter and I are not “museum people” but we are wine people so our decision to visit La Cite du Vin seemed appropriate. As a bonus, entry into the museum included a free glass of wine at their rooftop wine room overlooking one of the cleanest poop-colored rivers in Europe!
The museum is spread across multiple levels and contains a lot of information on the most popular wine-growing regions of the world.
My favorite part of the museum was the section where visitors can smell different foods, objects, etc. If you’ve ever watched a wine documentary, then you have seen people sniffing a glass of wine and rattling off a laundry list of scents that they smell in the wine. How can they so easily detect the scents?
We all know the smell of leather, old books, black cherries, and pepper but it takes a special skill to put a glass of wine to your nose and be able to pinpoint these items in the bouquet of the wine.
In the “smells” section, there were objects enclosed in glass cylinders. To smell the object, we placed our noses near the bronze horn and then squished the rubber balloon at the end of the horn’s pipe to “poof” the smell through the horn. Do this with caution because I learned the hard way that it is very unpleasant to blast the smell of old books directly into your nose.
On Friday night we dined at Le Petit Bec – another excellent experience. We were back at our hotel relatively early because Saturday was going to be a long day with our wine tour in Saint Emilion and Pomerol and it is not a good idea to have a hangover from wine on a wine tour day.
On our way back to our hotel, we walked by the Porte Cailhau which dates back to 1494! Speaking honestly, my photos from Bordeaux are not great and my nighttime photos are even worse but I’ll share anyway.
The white tents peaking through the arch of the Porte Cailhau are the Bordeaux marathon exhibition tents. The Bordeaux marathon start time was 9pm on Saturday night. This was a very strange start time and I have yet to figure out why the marathon is run at night.
We were at dinner on Saturday night and spectators were running past the restaurant and through the streets, trying to catch glimpses of their friends and family members running the race. I doubt any of those spectators completed a quarter marathon, however. It takes great skill to complete a quarter marathon on a closed marathon course!
I checked my email when we got back to our hotel and in my inbox was an email from SNCF, the French National Railway Company. Our return train from Bordeaux to Paris (along with 50+ percent of all other trains on Sunday) had been canceled due to a strike. This was the first of many train cancelations we would encounter in our travels to France in the last quarter of 2019.
We immediately tried to book another train from Bordeaux to Paris but there were only two trains on Sunday that would get us to Paris with enough time to transfer stations and make our Eurostar connection. Both trains were fully booked.
To make a long story short, we spent the next two hours researching how we would get back to London. There were two options.
- take an 8-9 hour bus ride to Paris that departed at 2am on Sunday and then have a massive layover in Paris
- fly to London
We chose to fly back to London but this decision brought with it other problems, mainly that we could not transport any wine back with us because we did not have a bag to pack the wine and check it with the airline.
The cost of our alternate travel back to London which included (1) two airport bus tickets (2) two one-way easyJet flights purchased less than 48 hours before departure (3) seat selection fees (4) one checked baggage fee and (5) two train tickets from Gatwick airport to central London amounted to £512 (~$675 USD). This total does not include the £80 (~$105 USD) in shipping fees we incurred by shipping our wine to London.
We were lucky that our credit card offered travel insurance and we were reimbursed in full for our alternate travel costs with almost no questions asked. It was like HSBC was well-versed in French train strikes and therefore didn’t bat an eye. I didn’t even have to provide receipts for our claim! The wine shipping fees were on us, however.
Typically, I would not advise buying travel insurance, however, given our SNCF experience in Bordeaux and a few months later in Strasbourg, I highly recommend that you buy travel insurance when visiting France by train.
Protip: Book your train tickets on trainline.com versus through SNCF’s official website, Oui.com. For our trip to Bordeaux, we booked through Oui.com and between the site being in French (Google translate will only get you so far) and the lack of being able to request a refund online, it is nearly impossible to get a refund directly from SNCF.
For our December holiday to Strasbourg, we booked through trainline.com and when our trains (yes, multiple!) were canceled, Trainline did all of the legwork to get our ticket costs refunded after I submitted our request for refund. Their refund process was hassle-free and super-fast with the refund hitting our credit card within 2 business days. The Trainline app even contains a France Train Strike Survival Guide!
Next on deck, day drinking in Saint Emilion.