Noémie and I have just moved to Bordeaux. We’ve decided to seize the opportunity of a lifetime. We’d planned to spend our holidays travelling around North America. We had to change our plans because of the current pandemic and travel restrictions so we decided to explore our new home. After all, we grew up in Picardy surrounded by wheat fields so the vine growing landscapes are just as much of a change of scene as Canada’s Great Lakes! Plus we decided that we’d tackle the vineyard from the south AND by bike. Entre-deux-Mers, Graves and Sauternais are less famous but maybe more authentic so that’s right up our street!
The bag’s packed: camera, phone, travel notebook, charcoal, flask, map and compass. We’re ready to go. Noémie asks: “We good? You don’t want to take the rest of the flat?”. Yeah, yeah, I know, I like to have everything covered. Plus I don’t know what I’ll need for this vineyard! And we’re off, crossing Pont de Pierre bridge first thing: the adventure begins. The light is soft and everything’s still quiet. I turn round and chuckle as I see Noémie’s breathless smile and the city’s 18th century buildings behind her. Saint-Michel’s belltower, the Palais de la Bourse, Quinconces… The right bank definitely has the best views of Bordeaux. We head south by the Garonne and go past fabulous wrought iron railings that give a glimpse of sprawling grounds and beautiful manors: “They were owned by merchants and date back to the 18th century!”, says a passerby who sees how curious we are about them.
We gradually reach Entre-deux-Mers, an area known as the “Bordeaux hinterland.” We ride by woodlands, rivers, vineyards… Today’s adventure takes us to Créon with its lanes and village square surrounded by stone arches. Noémie’s “starving to death”, no exaggeration, so I try to find us a good local meal: La Table restaurant serves market dishes on a heavenly peaceful terrace: what a treat! Our plan for the afternoon is on a par with our athletic motivation (we’re going to have to amputate Noémie’s right ankle any minute now) and the blazing May afternoon heat. So we seek shade and history at Sauve-Majeure Abbey. “Or what’s left of it”, as Noémie facetiously corrects me as we wander through the Benedictine abbey ruins built in 1079 by the Duke of Aquitaine. The top of the tower has unrivalled views of the region and sea of vines… We spend the afternoon here. I lie in the grass in the shade of the nave whilst Noémie sketches the abbey, its capitals… and makes the most of our time to do my portrait 🙂 It’s so lovely and quiet that the afternoon flies by and we head back, hand in hand on cloud nine!
The adventure continues in Sauveterre-de-Guyenne. We explore the town’s historical trail and learn that it was founded by Edward I of England himself in 1281! Well, maybe not “himself”… But what’s for sure is that Eleanor of Aquitaine married the future Henry II of England in 1152 and brought Aquitaine under British rule.
We (finally) visit a château in the afternoon. Château Malbat. Noémie loves fine wine and architecture so has lots of questions for Daniel the owner. “You’re the 5th generation in charge of the winery!” she cries as we listen to the family history. The family’s children are here too and join us on our tour. It all ends with a sunset get-together and a glass of wine with the kids running around us. We get back in the saddle to ride to Maison des Quatre Saisons, a farmhouse B&B. Stone, style, space and high standards: Delphine puts her all into giving us a night in paradise. “You absolutely have to visit La Réole! It’s a beautiful town, if you love history then you’ll adore it. Plus, tomorrow’s market day!” she tells us over a bottle of wine before she leaves us to settle down for the night.
Delphine was right, La Réole is simply incredible. The old town built in 977 on the Garonne’s banks is mind-blowing! The bike path takes us to the market and docks. I drink in the moment as Noémie is in her element: since having a break in the Périgord, she has this stereotypical image of French markets in the South West and their atmosphere. “I love it” she says with a big grin that melts my heart. We explore the town’s lanes lined with half-timbered houses and stop in front of the Town Hall (the oldest in France, donated by Richard the Lionheart himself*!).
We get back on our way along the Garonne in the middle of the afternoon. From the ridgeline formed by hillsides on the right bank, we have fabulous views of Graves and Sauternais which bask in the glorious glow of the setting sun. Noémie makes the most of it to sketch a few pictures. We realise we’re in a land of history and stories so we don’t want to miss a thing. I don’t know if I’m in the picture but she’s having the time of her life.
We’re spending 4 days winding through Cadillac, Cérons, Barsac and visiting lots of châteaux and landmarks.
We’re starting the châteaux tour today. This is when great history makes you feel small! We start at Château Malromé, a fabulous 16th century château famous for being the artist Toulouse-Lautrec’s family home. Our guide takes us into period rooms with sculpted woodwork: “Wow! Real drawings by Henri!”, says Noémie, lost in contemplation. It’s quite something. The artist’s work is everywhere, even above his bath: cool! We wander around the artist’s home and explore his artworks that hang here and there: a sight for sore eyes! Since the château is a family winery too, we join the lovely cellar master Charles to end our tour tasting the winery’s wonderful wine. Our trip continues along the Garonne: we’re in Saint-Croix-du-Mont and Loupiac, the land of “liquoreux”. Ah, dessert wine… I’m joking, I don’t actually know much about it. I just know that it’s often forgotten, the poor thing. That’s right, you biased Girondins tend to focus on red and white wine but not on what sets you apart!
We climb to the top of “Mont” Sainte-Croix because Noémie says she’s got a surprise for me. That’s right, she’s read about an unusual occurence here in Le Routard. The things she has me doing… In the end, it IS a big surprise because if you’d have told me I’d visit a cave of fossilised oysters, I’d have burst out laughing then my curiosity would have taken over. Don’t you think it’s bonkers though? Whilst I get my head around it, I find out that it happened a very long time ago when some of the continent was still beneath the ocean. I’ve barely had time to take it in before I turn around and Noémie is ALREADY sketching, with her mouth wide open, which is unusual enough for me to point out and tease her about. But I’m starving so I let her finish off whilst dropping hints (out of sight, out of mind) about feasting on a dozen oysters (from the present, obviously) and a glass of Sainte-Croix-du-Mont. We make the most of the sunny afternoon to visit Château Dauphiné-Rondillon in the Loupiac appellation. When we arrive we see children running through the vines as if they’re looking for treasure. Sandrine the owner tells us that they set up a scavenger hunt in the vines for kids a while back. “More and more families visit us, tourists and locals alike, looking for family outings so we decided to provide this kind of activity”. The couple explain the secrets behind making a good dessert wine during our tour. “The idea is to let the grape ripen for longer and dry out the berries so they have a higher sugar concentration, that’s why they’re picked later”.
Trip to Cadillac. We search in vain for a link with the car… well actually, nope! Antoine at Tourist Information recommends the best route for the rest of our journey and which châteaux to visit on the left bank. “First though, make sure you visit the town and Duke’s château. Plus it’s market day today”. “Is it as good as the one in La Réole? ” asks Noémie. “It’s hard to compare but you may see some chefs here”. So we follow our gut! Antoine tells us that the Maison des Vins de Cadillac runs a monthly cookery class with a chef in one of the region’s châteaux. “You pick up market produce with the chef then go to class at the château. It’s today, I can call and see if there’s space for you if you like?” We won’t say no!
We join the group in the market to pick up local produce with the chef. Then we head straight to the class at Château de Garbes. There’s a great atmosphere and we chat to a couple of Italians who are visiting the region like us. The château provides the wine and we try what everyone’s rustled up! “Your dish is better than mine” Noémie says, clearly jealous. “Of course it’s better, we’re having a magical holiday but come on”. She rolls her eyes and hides her smile in her glass.