Sarah looks up to the sky with a smile.
“Nothing”, she answers, with a smile playing on her lips. “I knew you’d say that, I know you too well! Every year you spend some of your holiday together, I don’t see why you’re making an exception this year. Especially this year!”
For once, Sarah’s right. Since we met whilst studying in Bordeaux, Mag, Olivier, Max, Pauline and me have got together somewhere in France every year. It’s our tradition. And we agreed we’d go back to Bordeaux every 10 years. And now, it’s been 10 years. Then again, this year has been a bit different.
“Yes, but you’re pregnant and I don’t want to leave you alone.”
“I’m not on my own, I’ve got my friends, silly! Don’t worry, when we’re together it’s all about chilling out, spa sessions and lazing in the sun (translation: without me). Go on, call Mag otherwise I will,” she says as she tucks into her salad and grins with approval.
I send a group message after dinner and Mag instantly replies:
“So predictable 😉 Go on, pack your bags, we’re going back to where it all began this year!”
I arrive at Saint-Jean station at 3pm. I’ve come from Biarritz so I’m the first in. I park my bike, put down my bag and settle down at our café. The neighbourhood’s changed, the building work is finished but it still has the same vibe. Mag soon joins me. We’ve barely had time for a hug before we start chatting away like we only saw each other yesterday. Mag is my favourite, we know each other inside out. Pauline and Olivier arrive on the “4:05pm” from Paris. With a knowing look and a smile, Olive says:
“Obviously! Two peas in a pod these two!”
“It’s lucky the bar manager’s changed or else I’d have thought we had an exam tomorrow!” laughs Pauline.
Max arrives in the late afternoon with his surfer style and people carrier with a bike rack and child seats. Child seats? What on earth for? They’re what’s missing from this holiday and their parents won’t miss them.
“What a team! You still look good! Right, just to warn you, I’m in charge of the trip so ladies and gentlemen, I command you to get straight over the villa by 6pm. It’s of the utmost important. Otherwise it throws our whole pre-drinks session off and that cannot happen.”
7pm, here we are, as giddy as kids in front of the Château la Renommée gates a few miles from Saint-émilion.Jean-Michel the owner greets us with his straw hat on his head.
“Bonjour! Welcome my friends. I’ll leave you to settle into the two cottages and we’ll get together in half an hour for a tour of the winery and wine tasting, is that OK?” Of course it’s OK!
After settling in, we join Jean-Michel and his hat in the courtyard surrounded by some segways.
“A trip to the vines is the best way to get to know the château so let’s hop on for a quick tour of the property. It’ll be great!?”
We all look at Pauline, she’s always been a bit nervous about this kind of thing.
Yes… she says to him, “But I do get dizzy.”
Jean-Michel bursts out laughing and hands us our helmets. Let’s go. The tour of the winery is lovely. We go from one vine to the next, in the late afternoon summer sun, we spot the Saint-émilion belltower in the distance. Jean-Michel tells us about vine growing, grape varieties and soil before it’s time for our tasting. We sit around a huge table in a stylish modern room and sample 4 of the winery’s wines as he tells us about his background.
“I worked in finance and always had a love for Bordeaux wine. I took the plunge 10 years ago, took over this château and founded a vine-growing group. It’s basically like a business with shares, you can own part of the château by investing and you receive dividends in the form of wine every year! It’s a collective adventure that means the likes of you and me can buy a fantastic vineyard. How about you, what’s your plan?”
Maxime unrolls the map, or rather the holiday scroll, on the table with our carefully-timed schedule (which we’ll obviously never stick to) detailing our adventure: a few days in Saint-émilion then a bike tour of Pomerol, Fronsac, Libourne, Castillon and Sainte-Foy-la-Grande. “What mouth-watering names!” says our host and he shares some tip tips off the beaten track. And most importantly, Olive underlines “the joy of being back together, no matter where the wind takes us”: what he fails to mention is the slanging matches we’ve had over the years and how you don’t ever want to get lost with him or else all hell breaks lose. The magic of friendship.
For our first full day, we head to Saint-émilion. Backpacks ready and watches synced up: Maxime inspects our kit as if we’re in the army, it never gets old. As usual, Olivier’s bag is already packed and tidy! Pauline’s ready too and has her camera gear on hand to capture the break. As for Mag, she’s nowhere near ready and running around like a headless chicken shouting “OK, OK, I’ll be ready in 2 minutes!!!” Nothing’s changed. I go over to Max who’s disappointed to see not everyone’s ready and that “some people, and it’s always the same ones” are running over time.
“So dad-to-be, what do you think of the place?” he asks.
“As amazing as you!” I say putting my arm around his neck.
“Oh no, it can’t be that amazing, don’t exaggerate. How about Sarah and the little one, everything going well? Nervous?”
“Yeah she’s great, she sends her love! And I’m… well I’m bricking it.”
“Makes sense, we’re all really worried for the little lady!” says Mag as she jumps on top of us. “Actually,” she says with a cheeky but serious smile, “I didn’t want to say anything but I’m waiting for you, when are we going?”
Before Max tries to strangle her, I get everyone moving. We reach Saint-émilion late morning. The village is still just as incredible. We can see the entire old town, from the square to the foot of the belltower: the terraces in front of the monolithic church below, the rooftops, the vines in the distance. We all spend a few minutes drinking in the breath-taking UNESCO World Heritage landscape. We start our tour with the awe-inspiring 12th century collegiate church and its beautiful cloister. Pauline and Mag take in the apocalypse painting, a mammoth 38 x 5m piece by François Peltier, whilst we put the world to rights. Then we head to the monolithic church, the real heart of town.
“I’ve always thought this place was bonkers, it blows my mind every time,” Maxime tells me as our guide details its origin.
The church was carved whole into the rock, 38m by 12m high, in tribute to Saint émilion, the famous Brittany monk who settled here as a hermit.
“Shhhhh,” whisper-yells Pauline (new verb: a hybrid between grumbling and losing patience in silence), “this is good for my book guys, so be cool.”
“If you carry on like that we’re going to do a sponsored silence,” winks Mag.
Over 15,000m3 of rock was extracted to build this 12th century grotto/church. It’s a feat of architecture with its belltower peaking at over 53m. On the way out Mag says, “Come on, let’s have lunch in the Cordeliers cloister. Apparently it’s been restored and I’m starving.” We can’t argue with that so we follow her in and are blown away by what we see inside! The former church was just a ruin when we were young and beautiful, but it’s been given a future-forward restoration and turned into a site devoted to the famous sparkling wine that’s made in the stone galleries. Sparkling wine in Saint-émilion is already quite something but in such a beautiful place packed with history, it’s quite simply unique.
“Mass here must be cool,” says Mag as she wanders the corridors.
We sit down in the shade of the former cloister for an al fresco lunch of plancha-grilled dishes washed down by sparkling crémant. And the gang gets back into its old habits, laughing and chatting far too loudly for the tables next to us. We spend the afternoon at Château Coutet. “It’s amazing, you’ll see,” says Maxime smiling like the Cheshire Cat who always knows more than they’re letting on. We meet Stefano, our guide for the afternoon, outside town with what looks like golf buggies for the French army!
“Hi kids,” he says. “Well… big kids,” he cheekily adds. “Ready for an adventure? “
“Are we invading the left bank on golf buggies, captain?” Pauline asks.
I see Mag stifle a laugh.
With a mix of amusement and surprise, Stefano explains his eco-excursion concept: he recently started his own business with quirky outings on board all-terrain electric vehicles. “Obviously, all followed by a lovely wine tasting session at Château Coutet!” he says.
We double up in the buggies and head to the vines, to the sound of our guide’s sing-song Italian accent. He’s right, this really feels like an adventure. Pauline is like a fish out of water and starts off by reversing whilst Max and Olive throw themselves into a hectic race worthy of the F1… at 10mph.
“Those two will always be 15,” says Mag with a hint of fatalism, and sits her chin on my shoulder to drink in the view.
Once we get back to the villa, we end the the day by the pool and barbecue with a good old-fashioned bombing contest and all try to push each other back in as soon as we get out of the pool. Real children: it does us good!
Today we’re cycling and venturing deeper to really soak up this incredible region.
“Be warned, appearances can be deceiving and it’s pretty hilly once we leave the plain,” warns Maxime. “Warm up,” he says, looking at me.
“I’ll be fine,” I tell him. Nobody buys it.
“Me too!” chimes in Mag, flexing her little biceps.
The trip starts with the Grands Crus loop. The best of Saint-Emilion unfurls before us: Cheval Blanc, Pressac, Soutard, Figeac, la Gaffelière, Faugère, Fombrauge… These incredible wineries reign over their vineyards and capture Bordeaux and Saint-émilion wine in all their glory. Things start getting tough on the way up to Puisseguin. Actually… as soon as the slope starts to get steep… I’m left behind by the group.
“Don’t worry, it’s a loop, we’ll pick you up on the way back… in 10 days,” laughs Olivier.
“Funny, I’m sure you told the exact same joke in the exact same place ten years ago,” I come back with.
“No, that was the next hill, don’t worry, it’ll come back to you soon,” he says as he speeds off.
Mag laughs and drops back to ride with me. It gives us the chance to catch up (you know what I mean). “Did you see I slowed down for you,” she adds, braking heavily. We reach Château Haut-Fayan. Gérard and Nathalie, the owners, give us a warm welcome and tour of the winery. Gérard tells us they’re seventh generation winemakers. When it comes to vine growing, he’s the expert. His enthusiasm is infectious!
“We’ve always campaigned for eco-friendly farming but we’ve turned a corner now: all the Saint-émilion designations have made having a certified environmental policy part of their specifications. In the next few years you’ll never go wrong choosing a Saint-émilion wine, it’s got to be eco-friendly!”
Nathalie asks about our schedule. “We’ve not really decided where we’re going this afternoon,”
Pauline replies. “That’s not true,” says Maxime, looking upset.
“You should power on through to the Calon mills, it’s very peaceful and we can pack you a picnic for tonight if you like.”
So we head for Montagne in the afternoon and go up to the famous mills. How can you not fall for this unique setting. 3 stone mills dating back to the 16th century and standing on a hilltop make you feel like you’re in England. We put down our bikes to spend the rest of the afternoon lolling on the grass and enjoying our time together whilst Pauline snaps us in all kinds of poses: pulling faces, unwanted selfies, blurry pics… they’re anything but artistic. Night falls, the picnic appears. Everything’s local, even the wine. What a feast! The only thing to subdue the teenage party atmosphere is watching the sun set over the vines which leaves us all speechless.
Today the adventure really begins! Our bags are packed and fastened onto our bikes. We were told to only take what we needed and leave the rest with our host to pick up on the way back. But nobody’s ratting out Mag who’s clearly gone overboard: thinking back to school trips, she’d pretend to listen carefully to instructions even back then. It’s uncanny. Now we’re hitting the roads on the Garonne’s right bank. We ride through the chocolate box village of Pomerol with its traditional Aquitaine yellow stone architecture. The names on the road signs bring to mind the very best wine.
“Street parties here must be something else…” Olivier says dreamily.
We step into Château La Dominique and explore the wine cellar designed by the architect Jean Nouvel. It’s love at first sight for Mag and Pauline. Mag turns comedy model for Pauline’s lens. The design is certainly worth the detour. The bright red wine cellar melts into the landscape and ties the 18th century manor into the former farm buildings. The past and present naturally come together.
“See, that’s artistic genius,” says Pauline from behind the lens, “it’s seeing something, before anyone else, that feels right, is the perfect combination and looks like it’s always been there.”
“Real genius,” retorts Maxime, “would be to have added a rooftop restaurant!”
“That’s true, it would have been the perfect combination, it would have felt right,” I say, mimicking Pauline’s mysticism.
“You guys are SO daft,” she says, deliberately taking awfulclose-ups of us in revenge.
We have a laidback lunch by a red pebble pool designed by the architect, with 360° views of the vines and surrounding villages.
Our next stop takes us to Château Beauregard. One of our “favourites” when we were students, not so long ago. The 18th century charterhouse is simply stunning: jaw-dropping conical concrete vats form a U-shape in the room. Their shape and colour make it feel like a magical place. It’s time to hit the road to Fronsac and our next villa. We ride along the Dordogne, taking us through Libourne and its beautifully regenerated docks. We reach our villa at Château de la Vieille Chapelle in the early evening. The owners Frédéric and Fabienne are there when we arrive. They show us to our rooms in a 12th century chapel’s outbuildings. It’s quite a place, especially the mezzanine lounge with French doors looking out onto the vines and Dordogne.
“We grow organic and biodynamic vines,” they tell us. “We wouldn’t have had it any other way. We had a very old vine plot surveyed a few years ago. We discovered there were 11 heirloom grape varieties, nobody really remembered them. We decided to identify them and replant them. It will take years and it’s outside the designation’s specifications but keeping this identity alive is important to us. It takes us back to our roots!”
We all smile at each other: it’s a bit like us!
Today we’re staying with the Fronsac designation. My favourite!
“You say that about every designation,” laughs Olivier.
– “Is love a bad thing?” I say with fake astonishment.
– “Not at all, you can love as many as you like… as long as you share.”
Mag, who’s missed half the conversation, raises an eyebrow.
“We’re talking about wine,” specifies Olive.
We ride towards Saint-Germain-de-la-Rivière and prepare to join a guided tour of the hillock which our hosts recommended. “It’s not much to look at but you’ll honestly learn more than you would with a guidebook!”
And we do actually learn everything there is to know about Fronsadais on our tour. We explore the ruins of an early settlement with monolith washhouses and a hermitage carved into the rock from the Gallo-Roman period. Our guide tells us that it’s always been a highly strategic location. “The Fronsac hillock is a natural peak making it ideal for settlements. Just look at the fantastic 360° views! That way you can see danger coming towards you: the first fortifications date back to Charlemagne’s time. And when the French and English were fighting the Hundred Years’ War here, much blood was spilled over this strategic point!”
We head to lunch at Face à l’eau, an open-air eatery by the water (as the name suggests) serving dishes whose ingredients come from local fishermen and farmers. We tuck into raw fish with mind-blowing vegetables: to die for! Then it’s back to the villa for a well-earned nap. We make our way to an incredible place in the late afternoon. The oldest parts of Château de La Rivière date back to the 16th century but its various restorations make it look like an awe-inspiring Neo-Renaissance castle. The château’s wine cellars are in the old stone underground galleries. Pauline is completely won over and can’t stop snapping the grounds whilst Mag is in a world of her own, wandering around the gardens then giving us a shock with one heck of a cartwheel. “Hey, did you see that?!” We nod encouragingly as we stifle laughter. The atmosphere is electric: the château hosts the annual Confluent d’Arts Festival with a heady blend of exhibitions, live music and food & drink classes. It’s buzzing with life. Mag, Pauline and Maxime spend most of the night dancing away to pop rock songs by a local band who were spotted at a talent show. They even have a break dancing competition to rock music. They even have a break dancing competition to rock music.
The next day I get up early for a run, but my sweater’s in the room next door so I decide to sneak in: I open the door and four feet sticking out from under the covers make me step back with a silent “oh” of surprise… Someone didn’t spend the night alone… but who?
……………………………..To be continued !
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