Our first destination in Europe was the beautiful city of Bordeaux. We didn’t choose it for its wine associations, although given our previous destinations of New Zealand and Australia, one could be forgiven for thinking we are on a global wine tour. Instead we picked it for its beauty, with a restored historic centre of pretty cobblestone streets, ornate buildings and medieval churches. The historic part of the city is UNESCO world heritage listed, and on our arrival, our walk from the train station to our apartment took us through this area. It had been months since we had walked with full backpacks, but the gorgeous streets and squares took our minds off our aching shoulders as we walked.
[Porte de la Grosse Cloche]
[Pont de Pierre]
[Typical Bordeaux street in the Old Town]
[Eglise St-Louis des Chartrons]
We had an apartment for the month of November, right in the historic center. We booked for 1 month because we wanted to have a base for a while, we knew Bordeaux had a lot to offer, and because at this time of year, renting for 4 weeks is the same price as renting for 2 or 3. We were both sick with a cold for the first 10 days, so we eased ourselves into sightseeing. But the days passed quickly as we toured the city, seeing 1 or 2 new areas each day, revisiting our favourite places, and joining the rest of the bordelais exercising along the banks of the river Garonne. A highlight for us were the bakeries – these had been a big draw for us when we were deciding what country to visit, and they didn’t disappoint. We had as many as 10 bakeries within a few minutes walk of our apartment, all offering different breads and their own take on standard pastries like croissants. It was a pleasure each morning to stroll to one of the bakeries to get breakfast and gradually discover our favourites. We also loved the farmers market, where most mornings we bought our vegetables and cheese from the huge selection of fresh local produce. And the wine 🙂 A budget of 4 euros allows a choice from amongst 75% of the supermarket stock (over 100 bottles).
[We just couldn’t resist these!]
Overall we found groceries were cheap, and 2 euros for our morning coffee and croissant at a cafe was very affordable. And staff greet everyone walking through the door with a jolly ‘bonjour’. However, the service doesn’t extend much beyond that. At first i thought it was just me and my lousy french, but even Daniel’s french didn’t cut it. Staff serve you when they feel like it, and everyone seems to calmly accept it. Bad service isn’t confined to the hospitality sector; at the supermarket or other stores there is no sense of urgency or opening of new checkout desks if a long queue forms. We also experienced it on our visit to the bank where we tried to open an account. Given the economic downturn we expected the bank would welcome the opening of a new deposit account, but we were in for a surprise. When the receptionist finally acknowledged our entrance, her first reaction was to dissuade us as she explained issues they had with their systems. Surprising, coming as it was from the receptionist! We persisted and she reluctantly made an appointment for us to meet with a bank official several days later. On the appointed day, he was half an hour late (and offered no apology or explanation) and tried to discourage us with the enormous amount of paperwork we would need to complete. In the end we gave up when he explained their basic account had a fee of 10 euro per month. In comparison, in both Australia and New Zealand, we had our no-fee account open, and bank cards in our pocket 1 hour after we first set foot in the bank.
[“Sanna” from Jaume Plensa near the Opera National]
[Cours de l’Intendance]
[The Jardin Public]
[Marche des Capucins]
[Marche des Capucins]
Although poor service is clearly preferable to no service. And there was no service when staff were on strike, as they were one day we trudged in the rain to the library. No forewarning, just a day off to strike. The evening news regularly reported various strikes around the country and overall we found quite a pessimistic atmosphere, with people worried about taxes, immigrants, rising cost of living etc. Not having been in Europe much in the past few years i guess we missed these impacts of the financial crisis, and it was quite a shock coming from the more upbeat Asia, Aus / NZ. A big surprise on our first few days in Bordeaux were the large number of homeless people and beggars on the streets. Countless times we saw the French giving to those begging, and whatever people’s own circumstances, we witnessed a lot of kindness and compassion towards those less well off. Several bakeries run what they call ‘pain suspendu’ whereby a customer can choose to buy an extra baguette for someone in need. The bakery records on a blackboard how many suspended breads they have available and anyone in need can enter the bakery and request a free baguette. Such an easy way of giving something useful to those who need it. Love it!
[Fontaine des Girondins on a sunny day at La Place des Quinconces]
We watched the news every evening followed by several TV programmes as i tried a blitz attack to learning french. Two or three hours of listening to french on the radio or TV was exhausting, and i have a whole new respect for anyone who masters a second language. Daniel too was exhausted as he hadn’t a minute’s peace from me demanding immediate translation of a word from the TV, or requesting he quickly make a sentence with a new word i had just learned. Imagine several of the following in rapid fire: “What does Amener (to bring) mean?! Give me a sentence to distinguish it from Apporter (to bring)” It didn’t matter where he went, my urgent requests followed him to the kitchen and were even shouted through the bathroom door!
[Some fancy chocolate – For us a dark chocolate bar at Eur1.50 does a good job!]
[Facade of the old Hotel St-Francois]
If you do make it to Bordeaux, here are our favourites:
Bakery: “La Fabrique”, Rue de Pas Saint Georges, where you can really taste the quality of their flour, or “A La Recherche de Pain Perdu” on Rue de la Cour des Aides, where we bought our ‘pain suspendu’.
Fruit n veg: Marche de Capucins, open every morning except Monday. Saturday is best.
Cafe: Chez Fred on Place du Palais. Not touristy, nice terrasse.
Square for a beer on a relaxed terrace: Place Saint Pierre
Churches: Cathedral Saint Andre and Eglise Saint Louis des Chartrons for impressive architecture
Walk: Along the Garonne river from Place de la Bourse to Pont Jacques Chaban Delmas
City area to explore: the old town, in particular between Cours Victor Hugo and the Opera National.
Must Eat: Canele pastries, caramelised crust, soft centre made with rum and vanilla and on sale in Bordeaux since the 17th century! We enjoyed ours on a bench in the beautiful Jardin Publique.
[Yes there is graffiti in Bordeaux!]