After a few days traveling back in time in London and a wonderful family wedding week in Paris, my sister, niece and I figured we could use a little rest and relaxation. I had pleasant memories of visits to the Bordeaux countryside, and my sister had visions of painterly rural vistas.
We made plans to head into France’s glorious Sud-Ouest. A last-minute cancellation at an affordable, amenable Bordelaise farmhouse won out over dozens of pleasant-seeming listings on Airbnb.
And Bordeaux did not disappoint. The entire city of Bordeaux proper is a UNESCO Heritage Site. A few minutes of strolling along its quaint, earthtone streets, myriad fountains and picturesque cafes, and you can see why. Not long ago, the buildings and retaining walls were covered in automobile soot, and the area close to the train station was a lot like similar transit hubs around the world: shabby and rundown. But a recent cleanup effort has really paid off.
On this trip, the whole town – the whole countryside, actually – felt clean, open, inviting and happy to see us. And the feeling was mutual.
The Roam Report : Bordeaux
Travelers : Karen, Sister Paula, Paula’s 12-year-old daughter, Ariel. Additional guests Roger, Kathy and Patricia stayed with us in the farmhouse for a few days each.
Date : April 2014
Itinerary : Bordeaux (6 nights), train to Roissy/CDG Airport (1 night)
Budget : About $3,000 total for lodging for two adults and one tween, plus guests, at a rustic Bordeaux farmhouse, car rental and meals, mostly prepared in-house. Horse-riding at a nearby stable cost an extra $50.
The Good Stuff
- Miroir d’Eau In a city full of spectacular fountains, we couldn’t get my niece away from—or rather, out of—the Miroir d’Eau. If she had her druthers, we would have spent all week at this charming slab of a reflecting puddle between the dramatic Place de la Bourse and the banks of the Garonne River. During one attempt to get her feet dry enough to put on shoes and stroll through town, she convinced me to come in with her, as the pool-like fixture cycled through its fog, flood, droplet and dry settings. Then, I was the one who wouldn’t get out of the “pool.” On a warm day, locals treat it like a beach.
- Chateau Accommodations A lucky break came as we were narrowing down housing options. A France-based former boss and ongoing collaborator of mine alerted us to a late cancellation at the Chateau Bauduc Farmhouse in Creon, just to the southeast of Bordeaux city. She and her husband lived in this house when they first moved to France two decades ago, and I had fond memories of the place, too, which despite numerous upgrades in the intervening years—including the addition of a crystal-clear outdoor swimming pool—maintains its (ahem) rustic charm. As an extra-added bonus, the family that owns the chateau has (English-speaking!) children around my niece’s age. Ariel disappeared into their playroom for hours, and they came over to the farmhouse to swim for hours more. It was a good reminder that kids are really just kids, despite the miles and differences in dietary customs. (They were forbidden to snack between meals – tomato or not. Tres French!)
- The Treats We needn’t have worried that our treat days were behind us back in Paris. The chocolatiers of Bordeaux didn’t disappoint. There were plenty of small boutiques, but we liked Maison Georges Larnicol best. Here, you can buy all kinds of goodies by weight, 5 euros for 100 grams, or about $6 for 3.5 ounces of exactly what you want—be it chocolate or macarons.
- Chateau Mouton Rothschild Wine-journalist friends set up a private winery and gallery tour at this Pauillac institution. Turns out that wineries aren’t that much fun for kids. However, Ariel was quite impressed with the barrel room and had fun photobombing me on the property. More and more French wineries (though not Mouton Rothschild) are following the Napa Valley’s example of hosting public tastings. It’s a good idea to check in advance, and to make sure they have activities for children or onsite catering to keep youngsters from getting too hangry.
The Not So Good
- Book Trains in Advance Arriving at a French train station without a reservation is a very expensive proposition. The entire SNCF schedule is online, and there are several apps that make the whole reservation process pretty painless. Booking ahead is especially important during school holidays; we waited too long to decide on a departure time out of Paris and found ourselves with tickets but no seats to Bordeaux. I considered us lucky to bounce about on uncomfortable stools between the packed luggage racks. The tween, however, was miserable.
- Research Car Rental Issues Ahead of Time Train travel from Bordeaux to many European metropolises is a breeze. But the 20-minute trip to Creon? Not so much. So, we rented a car. Before you go, confirm your car coverage with your credit card company and make sure the credit card you’re using has the necessary chips and decals to work in European payment systems. We learned about the latter the hard way, when we tried to fill the tank for the car’s return. (I’m the type of person who would rather pay a little extra up front so I don’t have to worry about stopping for gas on my way to catch a plane or train; my sister is not.) Our American credit cards, which had served us so well in the acquisition of treats and souvenirs, wouldn’t work at the pumps. It’s also good to remember that in France, as in much of Europe, standard is standard; an automatic transmission will double even the cheapest daily car rental rate.
- A Word About French Anti-Semitism As secular Jews, we never felt directly threatened in France. But it’s worth mentioning that an undercurrent of casual European racism and silence about the role Jews played in French history still pervade the country—and the countryside. It’s what caused the hospitable proprietor of a Pomerol Lalonde chateau we visited to respond sheepishly to inquiries about the many-stickered steamer trunk decorating the lobby … that belonged to his relatives … who had to flee the country—quickly—in the 1940s. Because you-know-why.
And it’s what enables otherwise delightful children to unselfconsciously tell you that all Jews drive flashy cars because they’re so rich. (Tell that to my 13-year-old Mazda.) As the country moves forward from the Charlie Hebdo attacks, which took place nine months after we were in Paris and not far from where we stayed, my hope is that hearts and minds open enough to make all in France feel comfortable expressing their culture and individuality, without prejudice.
Good to Know
- The French Eat Lunch at Lunchtime In the French countryside, restaurants do not serve all day. They close after lunch—if they even serve lunch—and don’t open again until dinnertime. As a consequence, once you leave Paris and its all-day cafés, you will be merde out of luck if you feel like a meal out during an off-hour. We were given strict instructions regarding where to eat after our visit to Mouton Rothschild in Pauillac, but we passed up that place and kept driving to the larger town we remembered passing along the way in the hopes of having more options.
By the time we got there, lunch was over at the main restaurant, and the rest of the town, which had seemed so inviting and bountiful on our way to the winery, now had the Aquitaine version of tumbleweeds rolling down the main drag. Our stomachs rumbled and my niece whined until we broke our inadvertent fast hours later at a gas station café near the Bordeaux airport. (Of course, even a shitty roadside meal in France is 10 times better than an average meal in most of the United States.)
Good for Next Time
- Les Sources de Caudalie Spa We were so close, and yet somehow too far to make the pilgrimage to this world-renowned, wine-based spa and retreat. Perhaps next time, Ariel will be old enough to go for a “Vinosculpt Instant Lift” with us.
- Duolingo Months of clicking around on this app and site did not produce perfect French in my niece. Or it did, but she was too shy to use it. Which is OK, because my imperfect French got us the benefit of the doubt nearly everywhere we went, town and country.
- Ecologirl Throughout our European adventure, it was very difficult to get meatless meals for my sister and niece unless we cooked for ourselves. For instance, this was my last French meal. It’s a salad. (See the green bits poking out, and the cornichon?)
Had we only known then about the Ecologirl website and its listing—complete with mouthwatering photos, helpful maps, hours and price ranges—of organic, vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Bordeaux. (Thanks to Kathleen Buckley for the hot tip!)
- My Do-Nothing Day On one of our final days in the countryside, Paula and Ariel wanted to go back into Bordeaux city. I just wanted to relax. So, while they drove off in our rental car with their guidebook but no actual French speaker …
I relaxed at the farmhouse with Merde, Actually.
- Bordeaux’s Old Synagogue According to research unearthed by my aforementioned genius friend and colleague Kathy Buckley, Jews have been a consistent presence in Bordeaux city for centuries. But their numbers only became meaningful enough to attract legal punishment—almost always alleviated by the paying of extra taxes and fees—around the time of the Inquisition. (Of course, since Jews were never officially welcome, Bordelaise edicts referred to them as “the Portuguese.”) Long before the horrifying Charlie Hebdo terror attacks of January 2015, synagogues all over France (like this one) were already on heightened alert.
- Getting Away from Screens (Sometimes) Is she on her phone? (She has assumed the position: Hunched over, focused on something in her hand.) No! She’s petting Margaux, the chateau dog. No screens were on during this picture—except the photographer’s.
Of course, some screens are more (ahem) culturally relevant than others. Like when the farmhouse TV gave us a surprise Easter gift by picking up old episodes of Two Fat Ladies. Ariel had never seen anything like them—or their strange, buttery foods—before. She was mesmerized.
- Easter Oysters The procedure is as sacrosanct as ordering broth from the Seinfeld soup Nazi, only a lot more fun. You bring your own platter. You examine the oysters and wait patiently, tell the man or lady which kind you want and ask nicely to have them opened. You carry the platter back to the car like a Wimbledon trophy or championship belt, go back to the house, and enjoy the taste of the Atlantic. It’s 12 euros for a baker’s dozen, plus another euro to have all of them opened. Quel bon marchee! (Such a deal!)
- Aeroville The day before our flight back to San Francisco, we took the high-speed train directly from Bordeaux to Charles de Gaulle Airport, with the intention of heading back into Paris before spending the night at an inexpensive and convenient airport hotel. But when we realized that it was going to set us back close to $100 just for the train into town, let alone whatever we’d spend on dinner and souvenirs, we opted for Plan B: Aeroville, a brand-new mall and entertainment emporium. Good call. Moments after we walked in, a high-energy capoeira parade marched by, complete with gravity-defying dancers and an impressive drum line. Ariel signed up for a free sushi-making class, and we snatched up plenty of last-minute treats and souvenirs in a setting more typically French than the idealized (and overpriced) arrondissements.
- International Man of Mystery Sighting You never know who you’re going to run into in the airport security line.
Yes, that’s famous French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levi getting the third degree—just like the rest of us!—from an airport inspector going through his luggage.
Good Family Trip?
For the most part, yes. After the excitement of London and Paris, we welcomed the pace and quiet of the countryside. But I suspect that had there not been a house full of children for Ariel to hang with during our long Bordelaise afternoons—and horses to ride, as she did when I took off for a chateau tour and wine lunch with two of our adult houseguests—she might have been pretty bored. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, “getting away from it all” can still actually mean getting away. From it all.
by Karen Sulkis, September 2015
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