Monday 19th September 2011, Urrugne, Pays Basque
Over the past few days we have been having a delightful time with various friends as we have made our way south through France. This morning we left the last of them behind in Bordeaux. From now on we are pretty much on our own until we meet up with Karen and Doug in Morocco. We're not completely alone this evening however as we are back on a campsite we've used four times in the past, run by a delightful Basque in a beret. He checks us into his computer and exclaims with delight that he doesn't need to input all our details again and reminds me that the swimming pool is still open.
Last Wednesday saw us driving across the empty countryside of Lot-et-Garonne to discover the rural hideaway of our friend Jessica from Exeter. Realising we'd be passing nearby while she was still in residence she suggested we may care to see her French home and the surrounding village. Is the Pope Catholic?! For some years we've heard of restoration progress as walls, floors, windows and roof have been restored or repaired and at last we were to see what she has achieved with the assistance of craftsmen and artisans from the village.
The surrounding area produces primarily vines, though cereals, sunflowers and colza are also grown. Cotes de Duras, Entre deux Mers and Vieille Eglise are all successful wines from the region readily found in England. From the garden the view is across acres of vines heavy with dark grapes ready to be gathered and the roads are slippery with the juice as the grape harvesting machines and tractors return from the vineyards.
To find the village we first needed to pass through the little old town of Duras, set on a high promontory. Its white, stone-walled château, can be seen from Jessica's village several kilometres away. The two narrow streets of the town centre offered us shade from the heat as we made our way to the central square. Here were a couple of cafes, their sunny terraces filled with English residents and visitors. Most of the cars parked beneath whatever shade could be found were also English. We've taken over this part of France in a very big way!
A few kilometres further on we found the village we were looking for. It dozed in the sunshine , just a few houses of warm, crumbling stone with hibiscus flowers and roses against the walls and an old church with an open belfry and rosy pink roof tiles. In such a village the address means nothing. Streets are not named nor houses numbered. Abandoning Modestine near the mairie we set off in search of Jessica. She saw us passing by and welcomed us into the cool, stone floored kitchen with its long wooden table.
The house is everything one imagines of a dream home in rural France. It has space, character, charm, cool dark bedrooms, cosy nooks and an open fireplace. Outside stands a shady covered terrace overlooking a garden filled with roses, fig, apple and apricot trees, and a stone well now used only for keeping the flowers watered. Ancient timber columns support the heavy pink tiles over the terrace where wood for winter fires is piled in a cobwebby corner.
By the time we'd explored the house and garden, enjoyed lunch and coffee in the shade while looking out across the fields and the vines, it was just cool enough to drive into nearby Monségur. Here Jessica gave us a tour of the mediaeval ramparts and the narrow, ancient side streets of the little town.
Supper in the garden as bats skimmed through the dusk and the sun set in a scarlet glow across the fields was pure magic. We sipped the local wine and chatted by candlelight until nearly midnight before climbing the wooden stairs to our huge whitewashed, dark- beamed bedroom above what had once been a barn or cattle shed. We were not disturbed by the resident stone marten Jessica assures us lives in the rafters above the ceiling.
Too soon this idyllic interlude came to an end and we left Jessica to enjoy her final few days before returning to her other life in Exeter. Thank you so much for your warm welcome Jessica. As you see, we really enjoyed our visit.
At her recommendation we stopped at La Réole on the banks of the Garonne. It is yet another charming, stone-walled mediaeval town crowded with narrow cobbled streets of old houses. It has a stone lavoir, an abandoned water mill and an outstanding ancient Benedictine abbey complete with cloisters and gardens now used as council offices. The original town hall with massive arcades below the council chambers was built for Richard the Lionheart and is supposedly the oldest in France.
We pottered on to Saint- Macaire, set on a ridge above the Garonne. Without Jessica's recommendation we could so easily have passed it by, unaware of its charms. Inside its ramparts the narrow paved streets wind between ancient stone buildings with decorated façades. Around the open market square the houses are built above low arcades, their walls and arches supporting hollyhocks, hibiscus flowers and climbing roses. They would have originally provided shelter for the market stalls. At the heart of the town stands the Romanesque stone church with its mediaeval wall paintings, massive 13th century door and ruined cloisters. Below, near the river, are the fortified remains of a defensive castle and tunnels running beneath the church, formed from quarrying out the stone for the town's construction.
Having an appointment in Bordeaux next morning we made our way to the friendly campsite on the city outskirts at Gradigny we'd used on a previous visit in March 2010. We found it fully booked with nowhere to squeeze us in! The nearest one was 30 kilometres back the way we'd just come! The day had been hot and sticky. All we wanted was a shower and a safe night's sleep. It was not to be. We found a deserted car park nearby and settled for the night.
Next morning we used the dregs of our hot water to spick and span ourselves up as best we could, found a bar for hot coffee to wake us up properly and presented ourselves at the home of our friends Yves and Catherine in the very heart of Bordeaux.
The last three days have been spent with them. We've enjoyed every second of it and have been made to feel really welcome. Life can be unpredictable when travelling. One night we have tepid tea and a sandwich for supper, obliged to sleep by the roadside in an overheated campervan while the next we have a comfortable bedroom with an ensuite hot shower and a clean bed. We were also able to enjoy several delicious suppers with our friends as we sample a few of the wonderful wines Bordeaux can offer!
We wrote much about Bordeaux when we last stayed with our friends in 2010. It was icy cold then. This time it has been hot and mainly sunny. Once we'd tucked Modestine safely away in the garden behind the house, completely hidden from view from the surrounding busy streets, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch before walking the few blocks to Victory Square with its triumphal arch. The square is crossed by the gleaming new tramway for which the city has received high acclaim – much more of a success than the noisy tramway in Caen. The centre of Bordeaux is now closed to all traffic except trams and bicycles, with delivery vans and service vehicles allowed access at certain hours of the night only. Most residents have simply abandoned their cars and the streets are now very lively places, humming with shoppers, students and tourists. The buildings have all been restored and it is a truly stunning, magnificent city. It is now on the Unesco World Heritage list. The mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, is also France's Foreign Minister, a very powerful figure in French politics. He has achieved miracles in Bordeaux and one can only wonder at the level of local taxation! But then, given the importance of its wine industry, it must be an immensely rich city even today.
During the afternoon we explored the magnificent free Musée d'Aquitaine. Its galleries record the history of this huge area of France from the days of Cro-Magnon man right through the middle ages and the 300 years during which it was ruled by the English. It also traced the development of the city as one of France's major trading ports without fighting shy of the part played by Bordeaux in the slave trade. The wine industry too was naturally not neglected.
That evening our friends' daughter and her family arrived from Montauban for the night on their way to the coast for the weekend to stay near the massive Dune du Pila at Arcachon. There were ten of us around the supper table in the garden that evening including the grandchildren. Conversation and wine both flowed very freely.
Over the weekend many buildings were open to the public that are normally closed to visitors because of the European Heritage Days. Together with Yves and Catherine we took full advantage of the opportunity to visit the interior of several the city's major buildings. Amongst these were the magnificent Theatre and the Town Hall as well as several massive churches.
Built shortly before the Revolution the Grand Théâtre is more of a palace than a place of entertainment. The entrance hall is filled with gilt mirrors, fluted columns, a massive marble staircase, statues, balustrades, plaster medallions, and gilded capitals. From the mezzanine reception rooms of equal opulence lead off. Their windows offer views along the city's main arteries lined with magnificent 18th century stone buildings of enormous size. We were allowed to wander at will through dressing rooms and behind the scenes. There was a wonderful selection of costumes on display, as worn in some of the major productions. The workmanship was stunning, frequently hand stitched with thousands of tiny beads or exquisite embroidery. All this for a few nights on the stage! The auditorium was surprisingly small with a small central area of uncomfortable satin covered chairs and private boxes all around where the view of the stage would have been very limited. Everything was for show rather than functionality. The cost of putting on an opera or play must be prohibitive. There is an orchestra of 120, a chorus of 80 plus all the singers, actors, costume makers and administrators. Such entertainment, even today when there is massive funding and support for the Arts from France's central government, can only be for the very wealthy and the elite.
During Saturday afternoon we drove a few kilometres out of the city to explore the château of the 18th century writer and philosopher Montesquieu. This too was open as part of the Journées du Patrimoine with accompanying lectures and open air discussions on the way the teaching of his works in schools and colleges has changed over the centuries! Somehow I don't imagine anything similar pulling in the crowds in England but the French are a very cultured bunch and even the showers couldn't keep them away!
I am sadly ignorant about Montesquieu but I do know a nice château when I see one. This was lovely, set in its own moat filled with huge fishes. The surrounding park was used as a rare breeds sanctuary for French cattle. Wandering through the house accompanied by an enthusiastic guide was generally a very enjoyable experience though I mentally switched off from the French commentary. The library in particular was an impressive room though his collection of books had recently been given to the city of Bordeaux by the last of Montesquieu's descendants.
Sunday morning saw us exploring the Hotel de Ville. It's a big step up on Exeter's charming Guildhall having been originally built as an archbishop's palace, and a palace it has remained. We wandered the marble halls, each more elaborate than the previous one, filled with dressers, armoires, mirrors and paintings. We saw the room where marriages take place and entered the council chamber where we sat in the seats of the councillors.
As we left the Mairie we discovered somebody making oak barrels in front of the Cathedral. Bordeaux of course needs a constant supply of these and it was fascinating to watch the process.
We were fortunate too to have Yves with us to explain such things as why he was lighting a fire inside the barrel – it affects the flavour of the wine. Bless him, Yves generously gives of his time, without charge, to sit on a jury every year evaluating some 47 different appellations of Bordeaux wine! How altruistic! This is a very serious club and back home at lunch time we were joined by the president. Yves then gave us a lesson in how to assess the quality of a good Bordeaux wine. We needed several different bottles to practice on by which time it was 4.30 in the afternoon and we were all feeling rather mellow.
We took the tramway down to the quayside on the banks of the Garonne where the trading vessels used to moor up. Now the area is packed with smart shops, gardens and a long promenade where the Bordelais come in their thousands to stroll in the weekend sunshine. There are stalls selling crepes, waffles, ices and soft drinks, while skaters, skateboarders, cyclists and scooters weave between pedestrians and families with pushchairs and toddlers. Everywhere a happy atmosphere pervades.
Currently a huge, rising bridge, suspended from four columns is under construction just before the Garonne and the Dordogne converge to form the Gironde estuary. It is expected to be operational by 2012. Already it is highly impressive.
We walked back along the quay, marvelling at the massive 18th century buildings, including the Bourse, fronting the river. Ahead of us was the bridge Napoleon ordered to be constructed after his troops had been held up crossing the river. There are exactly as many arches as there are letters in "Napoleon Bonaparte".
A barge was making its way up-river loaded with the nose part of a European airbus to be assembled in Toulouse. The components come from various countries of Europe including the UK. The barge was now obliged to linger as it waited for the tide to reach its very lowest point in order to clear the arch of Napoleon's bridge as it gingerly crawled through the B of Bonaparte! It only just scraped through! An unusual lack of foresight on the part of the little corporal.
Meanwhile, just below the quay on the muddy exposed backs below the highwater mark a family of ragondins searched for food, washed themselves in the muddy river water, swam, and scratched. Seen at such close range they are not as cute as I've always thought. Indeed they are no more than huge ginger rats with long bald tails, yellow teeth and webbed feet which they use as much for scratching themselves as for swimming. The adults were at least two feet long excluding the tail.
Not all of Bordeaux is as impressive and lovely as the carefully maintained showpiece of its centre and the quay. We took a short-cut back home which lead through scruffy areas with fast-food rubbish in the gutters and dogs mess scattered as liberally as we've found in other French towns. Perhaps the mayor, M. Juppé should take a stroll further into his surrounding city sometime – though after his recent official visit with President Sarkozi to troubled Libya, anywhere in Bordeaux would be paradise!
Another highlight of our stay with Catherine and Yves included watching Yves latest documentary film of his visit to Mexico. He is a very talented cameraman and the results of his travels are presented in a very professional way that allows us to forget completely that we are watching something filmed and commentated by a friend. The next journey he and Catherine will be making is to Ethiopia. Having seen what he has achieved with Bhutan, Burma, Egypt and Mexico we are already looking forward to his next production.
So our time in Bordeaux has ended. Yesterday morning Yves presented us with several bottles of wine from his cellar which we have promised to appreciate carefully according to the lessons he gave us. It's obvious just how delightful our time has been to say nothing of the joy of being with friends once more. Merci infiniment pour un accueil si chalereux Yves et Catherine!
We took the autoroute across Les Landes. It must be the largest area of open space in France. It pretty enough with pink heather and pine forests but as it's flat and unvarying it can become monotonous to drive across for 100 kilometres or so. By mid afternoon we were in Biarritz where we parked in our usual place and walked back along the cliffs to discover what the town is like in warm weather. It has always been freezing cold when we've been here before. Indeed last time it was snowing. The waves crashing in from the sea foaming up on the clean sandy beaches are almost as impressive now as in the depths of winter. Visible through the sea haze are the peaks of the far end of the Pyrenees. Biarritz really is a most attractive and elegant place.
Normally when we are in Gascony we visit our friend Ralph in Salies de Béarne. There is a sense of regret that he no longer lives here. We can though always visit him back in England any time we wish. It's less exotic in Blackheath but the friendship is just as warm.
Related links from earlier "Maxted Travels with Modestine"
Bordeaux 13th and 16th February 2010
Biarritz and the towns of the Basque area, 2005
Biarritz and the Basque area of France and Spain, 2010