This morning, we park our bikes in Libourne and soak up the sunshine to explore the town, visit its pretty Bastide and do a bit of shopping. We’re feeling overambitious and decide to push ourselves with a cruise on the Dordogne. Two glorious hours exploring the river and its ecosystem all with a glass of wine and some Saint-Emilion macarons. What else? When it’s time to get off the boat, I threaten to tie myself to the non-existent mast so I don’t have to get back onto dry land or onto my bike. I was very happy in a deckchair on the boat, why ruin it?
As a compromise (and it works in their favour too), my friends review our day’s schedule: how can you resist a leisurely stroll on the town’s docks? We have (another) well-earned break on Dagueys Lake, a haven of shimmering peace just outside town. Max and Olive have a stone skimming contest. Pauline dives into her book whilst Mag tells me about her partner and kids before bombarding me with questions about the baby. It’s time to get back on the road: we cross the Dordogne and head south to Château du Petit Puch. We turn a corner and are blown away by the stunning property. The château, some of which dates back to the 14th century, has been beautifully restored and has lovely grounds. Whilst we wait for our host, an intrigued Pauline wanders around the wrought iron sculptures peppering the estate before setting her sights on the one near the pond and shooting it from every angle.
We’re met by Bruno the owner, who tells us that they’re by an Italian artist based in Gironde called Gino Ruggeri. “I stumbled upon his work a few years go. I went past his studio one weekend. I saw one of his sculptures through the grate and bam, it was love at first sight! I couldn’t stop thinking about it and two days later I went over to order one. We’ve become firm friends: his work has always been here and has become the château’s signature.”
Our journey (my friends have call it a “voyage”) continues east of the Bordeaux vineyard. We spend the morning at the highly recommended Château Lestrille! Estelle greets us with her team: “the vineyard is the heart and soul here. We want to make wine that’s all about the fruit and enjoyment. Tending the vines is essential, it’s where everything starts. We’ve been independent winemakers since 1901 and, alongside our colleagues, we’re very much involved in the vine’s development and taking care of the environment. Growing vines is hard work but common sense often wins out.” During the wine tasting, we find out the château has opened a wine bar in central Bordeaux to reach out to its customers in the city: “It’s a château in the city so let’s call a spade a spade: Un Château en Ville!” Maxime jots down the address and adds it to our never-ending to-do list. On our way through Branne, we have lunch at an eatery with an “industrial vintage” interior. The waiter smiles as he sees me: “Goodness, I can tell from your back that you’ve had a good cycling holiday! ” he says with amused compassion.
“Yes, I’ll have the full menu: starter, main, massage and dessert plus the wine menu please.”
“I’m your man when it comes to wine, not so much for massages but I can give a good place to go. It’s a winery-turned-villa with a whole host of wellness activities in the vineyard,” he tells us and gives us the address.
Mag grabs it like a rugby ball and Maxime looks at us, resigned to the schedule being changed yet again. The place works its magic on the girls who settle into their velvet seats. Pascal and Mathieu give us a warm welcome at Domaine Jean Got and introduce us to their home, a former water mill and its activities. Pauline, Mag and me go for a reinvigorating Californian massage whilst Oliver and Maxime soak up the pool. Once body and mind have been restored, it’s time to get to our destination for the evening: Château Bonhoste.
Mag turns to Maxime when we see our rooms:
“How on earth do you find these places? It’s amazing!
“I have my sources,” he says smugly with a wink.
Before us stand two huge barrels (the wooden ones made to make wine) that have been turned into rooms with everything you could wish for and vineyard views (of course) to boot! Sylvaine and Yannick explain where they got the idea to reconvert the barrels during our wine tasting:
“We’re the 5th generation running the winery. We wanted to do something different and were looking for a unique kind of accommodation on the winery. We were talking to our cooper when we got the idea to build some bespoke ones and turn them into rooms so visitors could completely soak up the world of wine. We ran with the project and they’re very cosy, you’ll see!
That night, as Olive bangs on the barrels like he’s performing a Phil Collins drum solo (you know the one), we sleep soundly after a barrel of laughs.
Rauzan, a bit of culture on the trip. We use our time to visit the famous Rauzan fortress: a real castle with a keep, crenellations and drawbridge from the Middle Ages. There you have it, a château built for war not wine! The guide explains its strategic importance during the Hundred Years’ War: “Depending on alliances and how the war was going, the château was owned by English families then French ones and we can see it in the countless relics here.
Pauline listens closely and, as usual, sees the ruins through her camera lens: “Seriously, this will go down a storm on Instagram,” she says cheerily as she skims through her snaps. The château tour includes a tour of the Célestine Caves.
“Two rooms, two vibes,” Olivier says to me. It’s one of our catchphrases.
We’re kitted out like cavers with boots, helmets and headlamps to dive into a sprawling underground river. Our guide tells us about all the geological features sculpted by water.
“Like most of these kinds of places, the cave was found by chance in the late 19th century under a room in a house: over time the river had carved out this underground cavity and the water had seeped in to sculpt all these limestone masterpieces surrounding you. Art by nature!
Well, this is one day that’s full of surprises… After delving to the centre of the Earth, Maxime has another surprise in store. In the air this time. Making us happy is one thing but what he’s really pleased about is sort of sticking to his schedule (a schedule we never approved). We climb on board a hot-air balloon to get a bird’s eye view of the Bordeaux vineyard. Our pilot/guide/winemaker/aviation enthusiast François has been taking to the skies for over 20 years.
“Now’s the time to get dizzy,” Olive cheekily says to a terrified Pauline, he’s never one to miss a trick.
“I’m flying through the air,” sings an equally unsure Mag, thrown off by the height.
Pauline doesn’t move an inch and pretends she’s enjoying herself even though we all know she’s in dire straits. In the meantime, François describes the geology, how water sculpted the landscape and the advantages of each place for the vine and wine. The exciting day ends on a high with a tour of Château Franc La Fleur. Christian the owner is a real character. He’s a real nature and plant lover who goes in for biodynamic vine growing, but that’s not all. He’s created his own permaculture to take care of his plants.
“Most chemical or synthetic treatments use molecules that can be found in nature. We’ve always worked like that. I now grow plants and make herbal teas and treatments that I use on the vine.”
He grows goji berries and hops as well as vines.
“Are the hops for therapeutical reasons too? ” asks Mag with a smile.
“Certainly, we make great “herbal teas” with them, I’ll show you,” he says with a wink.
“Earth, air, water…. I didn’t realise you were so wise Maxime,” says Pauline as she balances on a board to get into the canoe and almost falls out!
“It’s my elemental side: I’m actually looking for the 5th one if you want to give me a hand,” Maxime replies mischievously.
What a ride! It’s a great way to drink in the local flora and fauna as well as the riverside villages and vineyards. It’s a peaceful outing until we wage war on the water and all end up in the river, in one way or another! We get going again, gliding by an ocean of vines in the magical peace of the Bordeaux countryside, on our way to Sainte-Foy-la-Grande. And we cycle. A lot!
“Hang on, are we still in Gironde?” asks Pauline.
“I think we’ve just passed Puy Mary actually…” says Olivier, pretending to find the north.
Mag turns back to me and smiles: “That was a great holiday too.”
When we reach Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, we take time out to visit the pretty checkerboard bastide village founded in 1255 and so typical of South Western France. We can’t miss a trip to the Maison des Vins: there’s actually a tasting planned with winemakers producing one of Gironde’s oldest designations. I look at Olivier and say: “I think this is going to be my favourite designation.” “We believe you”, Olivier guffaws. We spend the night at Château Hostens-Picant where the family of the same name put us up in their amazing charterhouse B&B. We take a trip down memory lane during our evening by the pool: yup, the holiday is coming to an end…
Before we head home, we take a “quick detour” (so Maxime says, I don’t think there’s anything quick about it) to visit his beloved Château Jarron! The building’s not much to look at but the wine is amazing! We join Caroline and Philippe in the cellar to learn their secret: winemaking in earthenware urns.
“Hence the name of the winery (“jarre” meaning urn),” Pauline says, proud as punch at her guess. Alright, she was the only one of us to study Latin at school so we’ll give her that.
“Actually no, we came up with the name before we started using amphoras,” says Philippe.
Pauline’s smile drops as she looks at us with disappointment in her eyes. Olive and Mag hold their tongues and grin at her. The couple explain that a small amount of their wine is aged in terracotta urns made by a potter in Lot-et-Garonne.
“They’re small and all have their own shape which produces different wine every time. The advantage of terracotta is that it provides the ultimate aeration for the wine without flavouring it like a wooden barrel does. It produces different wine with more of a fruity flavour and smooth finish.”
We head back to base and Jean-Michel’s villa for one last night to squeeze out every last drop of our time together! We sit down by the pool, look back over our holiday, sort through photos and have a good laugh: Olive pushes Mag into the water, who pulls in Pauline, who takes Maxime down, with me at the end of the line, happy to dive in with them. As we dry off, Pauline takes a retro photo of us whilst Mag reports on it like a serious journalist with a fake microphone. As payback, the mattresses are brought downstairs to the lounge so we can all spend the last night together.
We say our bittersweet goodbyes and give each other a heartfelt yet playful hug.
“Hang on, we’re not going to go our separate ways without you answering a question that’s been on my mind for days”, I say with my best impression of a detective.
I look at the suprised yet amused faces around me and say:
“Someone didn’t sleep alone on Wednesday night, I saw feet hanging out of the bed and there were more than two!” Silence… Then a burst of laughter.
“Ah”, Olivier answers with a cheeky grin, “I’ll own up: Max fell asleep in my room and we had a great time without you like the good old days!”
Max has already (obviously) gone off to stamp his ticket and we prepare to say our goodbyes. Everything would have been cleared up if I’d not spotted Pauline and Olivier give each other an intense knowing look at the very last minute. It was like time had stood still… They’re saved by the tannoy announcing the train’s departure, everyone says goodbye and some final friendly farewells. We can’t hear each other over the noise but we know what’s in our hearts. On the way to my platform, I try to spot any signs of my friends getting closer but I can’t see them anymore. I scan the station and spot Mag, about to board the train and staring at me: she shakes her head and gives me a look to say I’m incorrigible, turns around and disappears into her carriage, laughing out loud.
So, do you think I’m on the money?