Thursday, May 17th – Day 13, Pugnac, Bordeaux, Bourg, Blaye
My day once again started with a run through the vineyards, this time running down every single side road I could find, before returning, hot and sweaty, to the house. A brisk shower and breakfast, and we were off in the general direction of Bordeaux again, hunting down another park and ride car park, this one at the very end of the A tram line, in the oddly named Carbon-Blanc, which was the one we’d been looking for on Tuesday but had failed to find. The car park was full of flowers, and there was plenty of shade available.
An empty tram was waiting when we got our of the car so we were very quickly in the city centre, with less than half an hour to go before the departure of the tourist train we were booked on. We boarded the train in good time once we’d actually found it anyway, its normal stop being disrupted by the preparations going on in and around the Allees de Tourny for Les Epicuriales, a celebration of food and drink with apparently 20 pop-up restaurants, 70,000 meals and 350,000 visitors. It was just a shame we’d be back in the UK by the time it kicked off.
We enjoyed the 45 minute trip round the old town area of Bordeaux, though I have to say it was very rattly in places, in part due to all the works going on, and it resulted in a very rough ride. However it also gave us more information about the town, and complemented the bus tour nicely, while helping R get an overall picture of the place. I’m still not sure all the stories on the commentary are true, but at least the one that says the locals refer to one of the statues on the riverside as the bunch of asparagus was amusing (though I can find no verification for the claim).
We decanted ourselves from the train and by then it was really time for lunch, though we took a short walk first. I love the fact that Bordeaux is well-equipped with blue signs on historic buildings, giving snippets of information about the street name, or the origins of the structure, or just anything useful a tourist might want to know.
There are also lots of building selling all sorts of things that are not your average chain stores that now blight so many city centres. We found interesting, odd and positively alarming lights…
Shortly after that we blundered across a lovely arcade, and as I’m a sucker for these pieces of late 19th century townscapes, we had to have a good look at it. Later we’d take a gander at the other end of it. It seemed to have been part-renovated, which just added to its charm.
There were some odd shop names out there, mind you.
And some quite peculiar business combinations, some which had me wondering just what they were thinking.
Oh, and there is lots of graffiti-style street art all over the place. I especially liked this one.
What had started as quite a grey morning was now developing nicely and the sun was out, the air was warm and the terrace of the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel was looking very welcoming, sited as it is opposite the Grand Theatre, creating a square of harmonious if grandiose proportions.
I’m still disappointed that there were no rooms available when I was looking to book, but we could at least have lunch. And so we found ourselves sitting in the sun at Le Bordeaux Gordon Ramsay where we managed a very good lunch, once we’d managed to persuade someone to actually take an order from us that is. Once we’d snagged a waitress we were able to obtain a glass of Champagne each.
And interesting selection of almonds came with the drinks. Rosemary, paprika and turmeric seemed to be the flavours used. They were alarmingly addictive, that I do know.
After a great deal of consideration, R and I both decided we’d go for the Rossini burger, with sautéed foie gras, Comté cheese, and a red wine onion marmalade. It also came with excellent thick hand cut fries, possibly thrice fried. They didn’t quite beat the Launceston Place ones, but damn they were good. There was also a glossy, dense jus to pour over the burger. It was good, cooked rare, and the bun was pretty good too. This was a burger worth eating.
Lynne had what was supposed to be a starter, of foie gras and toast. It was huge and came with extra toast, as if any were needed. Apparently it too was very good.
We resolutely turned down dessert, and ordered coffees, which came with some very sweet, crunchy, biscuity things that we just about managed to finish.
Between the food and the people watching, we’d whiled away quite a lot of time. All sorts of things seemed to be going on, including several groups of small children being herded about by teachers, one group of them in hard hats and hi viz. We never saw where they went, but go they did. There was also a strange vehicle that came through that looked like it mighht have been some sort of solar powered car, but there was no explanation anywhere that I could find. Bordeaux was turning out to be that sort of town.
After lunch we headed back into the old town, stopping off to admire – and be puzzled by – Sanna, by the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, one of two feminine figures on display in Bordeaux, of a planned seven. It’s an odd piece, in that it’s not quite as three-dimensional as it appears to be from some angles.
Walking along from the square in front of the InterContinental, we found the other end of the arcade and could get up close to some of the detail. It is I have since discovered, la Galerie Bordelaise, opened in 1834 by four wealthy South American wine merchants who had fled the Mexican War of Independence.
Bordeaux was continuing to surprise and delight us, with further odd discoveries such as this very “Game of Thrones” face in the wall, for which we could find no explanation whatsoever.
I was really enjoying just ambling and finding that in addition to the wine merchant’s homes of the 18th and 19th centuries, there were also art deco and modern buildings that just fitted in perfectly.
However we needed to stop ambling. We actually had a plan for the rest of the day, which was to look at the three historic churches, starting with the cathedral of Saint-André de Bordeaux, the seat of the Archbishop of Bordeaux, and location of the first, ill-fated marriage in 1137 of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Louis VII, one of history’s more spectacular mismatches. Aged 15 at the time, the marriage was finally annulled 15 years later, on the grounds that she had failed to produce a son. She promptly married Henry, Duke of Normandy (eventually King Henry II of England), despite him being 11 years younger than she was, and proceeded to produce five sons, three of whom became kings, and three daughters, thus proving that the “problem” was not with her. It wasn’t the easiest of relationships either, but then Eleanor clearly knew her own mind and wasn’t going to be subservient to any man.
The building dates from around 1096, but there’s not a great deal left of that structure, with most of the current building dating from the 14th-15th centuries. Both it and the basilica of Saint Michel are UNESCO World Heritage listed as part of the heritage of the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela, along with the church of Saint Seurin, which we didn’t manage to get to.
I was slightly disappointed that there didn’t seem to be much information available in the cathedral, though there was a fantastic photo exhibition, by Nicolas Duffaure. The work centred around the chemin de Santiago and the churches of Bordeaux, and made superb use of light and form; I haven’t taken photos but you really should check his portfolio out. A slow walk round the building revealed some fabulous stained glass, some medieval wall paintings, and some unexpected decorative flourishes!
Outside we walked from there to Saint Pierre, passing by some of Bordeaux’s oldest buildings on the way.
Again there didn’t seem to be much information available, though it clearly has medieval origins.
It’s relatively restrained, with some interesting details and being quite small, it didn’t occupy us for as long as we might have expected.
Outside there is a strange little alleyway that is apparently also very old, but it had started to rain so we didn’t investigate that closely.
We thought we might go and catch the tram to the final church, Saint Michel, but were stopped in our tracks when it started really pelting down. A cafe awning provided a refuge while we waited for it to stop.
Once it stopped it felt as if the whole population of the town was after getting onto the trams, so we abandoned that idea and picked our way through the side streets looking for the church. It’s rather odd in that its tower is separate from the main building of the church, and while we saw a lot of that in Finland, there it was because everything was built from wood and it meant if the tower caught fire, you’d at least still have the church or vice versa. There’s no way this can be the reason here.
The current building was created between the 14th and 17th centuries and is described by the Tourist Information office not inaccurately as flamboyant Gothic. The site has, however, had a church on it since the mid 8th century, and was destroyed by the Normans at the end of the 9th century. The district prospered as can be seen in the seventeen side chapels that festoon the building, this one in particular.
The church is another one of the three that are included in the UNESCO world heritage list as part of the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, and there is a rather splendid figure of a pilgrim complete with scallop shell tucked away in a corner. There are again some very fine windows too, many of them surprisingly modern, until you realise that the original windows were destroyed in WWII, which fortunately mostly did not damage Bordeaux that badly.
We decided we’d done enough for the day at this point, and so we caught the tram back to the park and ride, and headed back to Pugnac. Once there we cleaned up, and set off to see if dinner could be found in Bourg.
As it turned out, although Bourg was rather an attractive little riverside town, it had nothing much to offer unless we wanted crepes for dinner.
The other option somehow didn’t appeal either so we eventually found ourselves back in Blaye at the citadelle, esonced outside on the terrace of the Hotel de la Citadelle de Blaye and hoping that the weather would hold so we could enjoy the developing sunset along with our dinner.
The service this time was much faster, at least when it came to the important things like getting an aperitif and some tapenade to much on while we studied the menu and the wine list.
With regard to the wine, we stuck with local producers, which is the only sensible thing to do when in somewhere like Bordeaux! Our first choice was a Chateau Bertinerie 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, which, as promised, went brilliantly with the marinated salmon with aromatic herbs and beetroot sorbet.
It also somewhat unexpectedly matched the foie gras poached in local red wine and with dried fruit crumbs well. The foie gras was creamy and smooth, with a slightly tannic edge from the wine, and the fruit set it off well, giving balance to what could have been a somewhat overpowering dish otherwise.
By the time we’d finished out starters, the sun had dropped further.
The trouble with that was that the temperature had also dropped with it, and so we asked to move inside, taking one of the tables by the massive floor to ceiling windows that also overlook the river. We finished our white wine whilst still marvelling at the glory of the view, and watching a pair of magpies defending their nest. A ginger and white cat had appeared and was walking nonchalantly along the battlements of the fort when there was a tremendous racket, the two birds appeared behind the errant feline, and started to flap and screech at him. He kept walking and they kept up the barrage until the cat was gone. We assumed that they had a nest close by, and were much impressed by their display of defensive hostility.
Anyway, we now started on the red wine, a brand new venture (well, new as in new for a wine that needs a couple of years at least before it even gets to the bottle), a wine produced from a micro-vineyard in the heart of the citadel.
The vineyard has been in place since 2008, but was largely neglected until it was taken over by the local union of winemakers in 2015. 15 acres planted entirely with merlot grapes, and raised bio-dynamically saw its first vintage in 2015 in the shape of 737 bottles (and 50 magnums) of le Clos de l’Echauguette Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux red wine. Apparently there is a plan to include the vineyard in guided tours of the citadel, along with tastings of the wine. We tasted bottle number 44 and found it to be very good indeed, smooth, with a depth of fruit that was unexpected given its relative youth. It came in its own individual box too.
It was certainly ideal with the mains. We shared a rack of lamb with a tea crust that contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the tender, rare meat, smooth and creamy mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables (peas and carrots).
The other main we ate was roast duck with seaweed mustard and an iodised jus, that provided a fishy, salty punch to a rich, rare piece of duck breast. Again, the vegetables were simple seasonal peas and carrots.
We couldn’t manage dessert after all we’d eaten so we sat and enjoyed the rest of the bottle and the remainder of the sunlight after another good day.
The sun vanished below the horizon and we paid up and walked back to the car, ready to go back for a final night at Pugnac.