Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Superlative City

written 4th december

Bordeaux is a city of superlatives.  1810 hectares of the city centre is classified as being of "outstanding, universal value, making it the largest area UNESCO World Heritage site in the world.

Esplanade des Quinconces is the largest public square in Europe (mind you, I am reliably informed it is nothing compared with People's Square in Beijing), which is currently hosting, what I can only therefore presume to be, the largest outdoor, in-a-square, antiques and bric a brac (antiquites and brocante) market in Europe.

Its river, the Garonne, which is 500m wide at the Pont de Pierre (a stone bridge with 17 arches built  in 1860-something and the only bridge in Bordeaux across the river until 1965) flows, with the Dordogne, into the largest estuary in Europe (the Gironde).  It has the longest pedestrianised street in Europe and the longest wall of plants in Europe (less impressive than it sounds - I can only presume there aren't many other walls of plants...).  The wine region to which it gives its name is the world's largest fine wine region, in both area and volume produced, and is the best in the world (or so they would have you believe) and we had the best steak I have ever eaten in one of its restaurants.    Disappointingly though, the bell tower of its largest parish church (one of three churches in the city which were separately and previously listed by UNESCO) is only the second highest bell tower in France - could have tried harder!

After a slow morning waking up in our chosen service station home, we arrived and parked up a way out of the city centre - we realise that we have been somewhat spoilt by La Rochelle with its compact city centre and free campervan parking (or indeed free parking of any sort 5 mins walk from the centre!) and wandered in the sunshine in generally the direction of the centre of town, following our noses wherever took our fancy. 

Bordeaux came into existance in Roman times, 7AD or thereabouts, when it was named Burdigala and nicknamed "Little Rome" due to its size, importance on the Roman trade routes and general loveliness - the long, straight pedestrian street is one of the old roman roads.  It has metamorphosised several times since then, having been a walled mediaeval city - and part of England through the mariage of Alienor of Aquitaine to Henry Plantagenet (she had previously been married to Louis Xsomething in the catherdral in Bordeaux and I have seen nothing yet which explains why, if divorced or otherwise put aside from from the king of france, she was allowed to marry the heir to the throne in England, thus giving this prime region to the enemy - enlightenment anyone???) - before it was won back through war by the french and a massive fortress was built on the site of the impressive roman theatre (thus totally destroying it) by Vauban (he of lighthouse building fame from Ile de Re) in 16-something.

The present Grande Theatre opera house has been built with 12 Corinthian columns to represent the lost roman palace, with statues of the 3 goddesses and nine muses on top of them. 

In the 18th century, the town fathers pulled down all the original city walls - leaving or replacing the massive gates, like the Grosse Cloche - to allow expansion of the city and growth of the trade ports.

In 1940's, during the german occupation, a submarine base was built which could hide 19 subs as part of the attempt to defend the atlantic coast.  Only in 1965-67 were two new bridges built across the river to allow expansion on the east bank of the Garonne and the harbour has at some time been moved from its original position on the banks of the river in the heart of the town.  More recently, a massive regeneration plan over the last few years, partly inspired by the mayor Alain Juppe (once prime minister of france) has seen the architecture restored, the banks of the Garonne turned into a large pedestrian space and a shiny tram system put in place.  All in all, it is quite lovely.

We wandered through the clearly "ethnic" area - flea markets, halal supermarkets etc - and eventually found the Cathedral, which, like several other churches both in Bordeaux and elsewhere in the region seems to have its bell tower as a completely separate edifice set apart in the square.  It was, as they are, very big and impressive, and like the city, bits are very old and it has been added to and expanded in various styles over the centuries.  Wandering on, we eventually found ourselves clearly in the "posh bit" full of designer shops and then the tourist office where I did my usual trawl of brightly coloured shiny leaflets - I am like a magpie in this respect and I then nest in them for a few days in the passenger seat, a bit hamster like, until our eventual departure from the town or region in question causes me to reluctantly have a clear out in preparation for new tourist fodder.  The touist office confirmed that, no there was no where in the city for campervans to stay overnight and that there was only one campsite to the north of town, by the big lake.

Disappointed, we headed on out and spent a happy hour or so in the christmas market looking at tat and pretty things (and some really cool handbags which were basically made up on one long double sided zip which you kept zipping round and round unil it became a zip up bag - brillant!) and eating chips and mulled wine - lovely.  A couple more hours of wandering later found us back at the van where Will fettled until the sun went down and we set off to explore the otherside of the river and look at the pretty lights.

Deciding that the campsite reception would probably be closed, we stopped off in Auchan (Aldi to Carrefour's Tesco) to pick up some food for dinner(special fried rice with onion, bacon and sweetcorn - I know you like to know these things really!) and parked up in a service station (which inexplicably only seemed to have boys toilets - I just had to be very french about it!) on the ring road for the night. 

It wasn't the quietest night - although at least we could only hear not feel the traffic passing! - and we headed for the campsite early.  At €20 per night, it is the most expensive night we have had so far in either country - well when you're the only game in town you charge accordingly! - but it was very nice with very swish facilites and the lady was very friendly (and complimented my french) so I don't begrudge them the price, well not much.  Having been quite cold and cloudy by the end of the previous day, the sun was shining again so we spent a happy couple of hours having a shower (flannel washing is all very well and functional but a proper warm shower was much appreciated and there was even a hairdryer!!) and generally playing house (those who were fortunate enough to visit our house when we were in posession of such a thing, will be shocked and surprised to know that the van had got a bit untidy by this point (also as a result of Will's fettling which meant things couldn't go "away") and we had got to the point where you couldn't see the carpet for stuff on the floor - I know, most unlike us... ;) )

Clean and relatively straight (hair and van) we set off on our bikes in the direction indicated by the campsite owner as being an easy and pretty route into town.  Whilst there were lovely flat cycle paths, here were no signposts and the cycle routes inexplicably stopped without warning, only to reappear on the other side of a seemingly intraversible junction with no indication of how you were supposed to get there (last time this happened we ended up on a motorway, fortunately not this time!) and then at other times were blocked wth no warning, by roadworks, cars, lorries and at one point, an open manhole cover)

All in all, not quite the pleasant cycle we have anticipated but it wasn't far and after only one "detour", we eventually found the river bank which was much easier going!

First stop was the Esplanade des Quinconces and a mooch round the antiques market.  It is only a temporary market (I think) but it had very big shed/marquee structures with all manner of furniture and "things" laid out like rooms inside and out - excellent for a wander with a hot panini which is what we did.

Moving on, we found the Place de la Bourse, which is where the trading and customs office used to be for all the port trading activities, and further wandering took us through the old quarter of St Pierre and it's maze of little streets.  We also went back to the English bookshop we had spotted the previous day (the beefeater cardboard cutout as well as the soldier with a bearskin hat had given it away before we even saw that it was called Barney's!).  I had been hoping to find some interesting character running it - mental image of Bill Bailey in Blackbooks if I'm honest, if you haven't seen it, you should, its funny - but unfortunately that wasn't to be but they had a very interesting selection of stuff - Tony Hawkes buying a house in the pyrennese (sp?) next to brief history of time...  and for a wander through the now lighted streets to gaze at the festive window displays.

We had decided to treat ourselves to a meal out that night, partly because the campsite didn't allow BBQs and partly because the lonely planet recommended somewhere that sounded interesting - although as the other suggestion for Bordeaux was a restaurant they described as a casserole restaurant where you picked the ingredients for your casserole off a tick list, which turned out in fact to be a restaurant called Casserole which served tapas (which, to be fair, you did pick off a tick list menu...) we weren't quite sure what to actually expect from a restaurant called L'Entrecote (Steak).  Arriving at 7:10pm, just before the restaurant opened at 7:15pm we were surprised but somewhat encouraged to see a queue out the door and on to the street.  As it was raining by this time, we decided to leave it an hour and found a nice little coffee in a pavement cafe with big umbrellas. 

Taking a break in the rain as our cue to try again, we wandered back through the lit up streets passed all the christmas windows

and were pleased to see the queue was now only at the door until we discovered that inside the door was a corridor and set of stairs but being at least under cover by this point we decided to wait.  A few minutes later someone in the queue just ahead said that they were looking for groups of two to be seated - now, it seemed unlikely that we were the only couple in the whole queue ahead, but encouraged by them we headed on up the stairs and were let though the patiently waiting people surprisingly easily only to get the near the front to find someone who spoke english and who hadn't heard them calling for a table for two...  We were considering going back down (being fairly sure that we had passed other couples) but as he was in a party of three, he said he didn't mind us standing with him and sure enough, a few minutes later, they were once again looking for parties of two - brilliant!

The reason this restaurant had appealed was the lonely planet description of steak, cooked over a tealight in butter and shallot sauce and served with frites.  And this time they got it right - well almost.  The restaurant only serves steak and chips, with nut salad (a plate of lettuce and walnuts - does what it says on the tin!) to start.  So the only two questions you are asked when you sit down is what you want to drink (red, white or pink - all bordeaux obviously but no tedious faffing with winelists when actually we all know we're just going to choose the cheap house red...) and how you like your steak cooked.  Your nut salad and bread appears almost instantly to be shortly followed by your steak, half of which is served on your plate, in thin, perfectly cooked (ie very pink for us) slices accompanied by a massive pile of chips and the other half of which arrives shortly afterwards swimming in sauce on a serving dish heated from underneath by two tealights.

and it is simply the best steak I have ever eaten. 

They even come round halfway through and offer you more chips!  The only thing which slightly spoilt it to begin with was the thought of all those other people in the queue still waiting (where we should have been!) but the simplicity of the menu means the throughput is quite quick and from where we were sitting, it appeared that the queue had died down by the time we got our steak so we were able to give ourselves over to pure carnivourous pleasure.  Stuffed with steak and wine, there was no room for pudding so all that remained was to force down(!) the last of the wine before heading out slightly unsteadily into the night (where it turned out there was still a queue after all...)

Fortunately the cycle back was less fraught and like the yellow brick road, following the green tramline took us all the way to our emerald green camping city with nary a wicked witch or munchkin in sight - unfortunately due to space constrictions I had to leave my red shoes at home so no short cuts to campervan home for us... ;)

After a well deserved (well we got up early the day before!) lazy morning lie in and a spot of washing, we set off with practicalities in mind as, following our carpark battery failure, we have decided to treat Jules to a new one - the van gets more presents than I do these days... - and on removing it, it looks like it was last changed in the US before Jules was imported to the UK and so is at least 4 years old so about time really.  We bought the new battery in Norauto and Will changed it in the carpark whilst I bought lunch and then we found that giving them our old battery to dispose of got us a €5 gift voucher - brilliant!  No doubt we will need more car parts before we leave france...  We also have a funny noise coming from the starter now (I don't think it appreciated the distributor changing experience :( ) but we are leaving that for the moment whilst Will consults the interweb for ideas...  although, thanks to the nice man in Norauto, if it breaks when we are near bordeaux, we do at least know where there is an auto electician who should be able to refurb it.

On our way into town, and as we were now armed with the requisite reference number, we decided to try and find the Bordeaux elecronics shop which we knew to be not far away, in search of Will's stepper motor driver (back on plan A, not B or C now!).  On the corner of a heavy industrial estate, the place was less promising looking from the outside than the La Rochelle shop - looked like a grubby sex shop to be honest! - but once inside and in the queue Will found an actual stepper motor on the shelf so we now had a prop to use in our conversation.  It didn't start well as the man looked at us, then at the stepper motor, then at Will's reference number in confusion and then just as I was thinking how to explain what it was, he said, in english "are you sure you have the right reference number" and pulling out a little drawer " I only have these ones and they don't have the D like that, this one has fewer pins and this one has a diode which do you want?".  So, not only did he know what we wanted, he had it, knew where it was (without needing the reference number!), and he coud explain the difference between the ones he did have!!! and also indicate that perhaps Will meant LxxxD not LDxxx as he had written....  all in all, being all geared up for difficulty and overcoming adversity, it was so easy, it was a bit of a let down!

Deciding to leave Jules parked by the docks, after some bread and pate lunch, we headed off again on our bikes into town for a last wander round and a visit to the Bordeux Monumental tourist office which has a really interesting display on the the history of Bordeaux, the only criticism of which would be that only about half of it is translated into English and some of that is quotes from people or literature which only make sense if you have read the other bits which are in french.  I am ok at translating but it gets a bit painful for both of us after a while!  The only thing we didn't do was climb the cathedral tower but with the gathering gloom each time were were near it, the view probably wouldn't have been great and there will no doubt be other days and other towers...

Heading back to the van in the gathering dusk - that morning I had been sat in the sun in a t-shirt and by this time I was wearing three layers and shivering in the rain, I can only presume this changeable climate is good for vine growing... - we settled in to pork in cider casserole and some fettling - we are now back running the old throttle as the new one has an airleak from somewhere so Will needs to partially re-make it and poor Jules is massively over revving in quite a disturbing way. Apparently it was always doing this and I hadn't previously noticed but now I have been used to driving with the new quiet throttle (albeit in a slighty underpowered way) I really notice it.  Hopefully with the new throttle and the ability to control the idle with the stepper motor driver, Will migh be able to fiddle the power a bit but I would rather be slightly underpowered - everyone expects it from an old VW! - than quite so revvy.  You can hear the petrol budget burning up in the engine whilst we stil at traffic lights as we consume fuel whilst sitting still which would drive us at 30mph!

Fettling put to bed for the moment, we headed out of Bordeaux on the road to St Emilion to find somewhere to park up in a layby in wine country near Planete Bordeaux, a wine exhibition centre half way between the two, which promises an understanding of the history and art of winemaking and the appellations of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieure and some wine tasting and all for €5 each.

Can't wait!

1 comment:

  1. ... the best steak you have ever eaten? Well, that's put me in my place then...