On a very typical Lille morning (rain, cold, more rain) on October 27, four female American language assistants boarded a TGV with a final destination of Bordeaux. After only three weeks at work (and a total of six in France for me), we already had our first paid vacation. Life in France can be very good.
As the little blue dot on my iPhone Google map application treaded southward past Gare Marne-la-Vallée/Chessy (a.k.a. the station for EuroDisney), there were only blue skies for us for the next seven days. But, as we learned, there's a price to pay for nice weather. Namely, you're trading in friendly people for friendly weather. You can't have both in France. Nowhere is perfect. While we arrived in Bordeaux twenty minutes late, the five-hour train ride fairly pleasant. High-speed train is really the most relaxing way to travel long distance on a budget (Although I've never been on a cruise ship, I've never been fond of boats.). But I did make the mistake of forgetting to bring enough snacks along for the ride, and in a moment of weakness somewhere near Tours, I made my way to the Bar Car and ended up paying € 2 for a bag of Lays classic potato chips. I still can't believe I did that.
After taking the very sleek and futuristic tram into the center of Bordeaux where our hotel was, we got in a bit of sightseeing before the day was out. We started out at the Place de la Bourse, which has a huge fountain spraying pink water and the nymphs above the fountains had pink sashes draped over themselves for breast cancer. After that, we walked on water. Literally. Bordeaux has a giant, flat reflecting pool that tourists and locals mingle barefoot over, splashing about in the daytime and then admiring the brilliant reflection of the Parliament buildings at night.
After checking out the local carnival, we met up with Liz's Bordelaise friend, Veronique, who did us the great favor and service of showing us around Bordeaux each evening. But as we were all exhausted by the end of the first day, we passed Rue Sainte-Catherine (the longest pedestrian street in Europe), had a round of drinks and called it a day. Not without trying to find a local grocery store first though. However, we were five minutes too late when we got to the closest market to the hotel, which was actually open pretty late for France (9 PM). After deciding to walk another block, we passed a Chinese food restaurant, which prompted us to all swear to eating there for dinner the following evening as we all had gone into Asian-food withdrawal. A few doors later, Amy screamed at an appropriate American-volume level, "It's a liquor store!" There we were able to gather necessary supplies, namely wine and cookies. After we got back to the hotel and realizing being four girls in the "penthouse" (fourth floor) of the hotel and the week of Halloween, it was the perfect time for slumber party-style sharing of ghost stories. While I told my usual Unit 3 Computing Center "I saw a Ninja-looking ghost" story again (which is so true), Amy definitely won with her retelling of La Llarona, which might not have been the most pleasant imagery before going to bed.
The four of us woke up fairly bright and early (for a vacation) refreshed and ready for a full day in Bordeaux. Most of that day consisted of drinking wine and eating macarons. After visiting a very sketchy flea market in the morning (looking more like a garage sale without any garages), and lunch on the steps of the Grand Théâtre à la Gossip Girl (I should have worn my sparkly headband), we first visited the Maison du Vin...then the Musée du Vin! The Bordelais have much to be proud of (please don't take that as sarcasm, I do mean it.) Bordeaux is a very beautiful, clean city. It's a mini-version of Paris, just less hustle and bustle. On our way to the Musée, we discovered we all like antiquing. Rachel walked out with a very pretty pair of gold earrings, I left with an old-fashioned (or maybe just old) poster of 19-century French fashion and a deck of cards, and I think Amy left with a bag. (I can't remember if Liz got anything at that particular antique shop.)
After touring the Musée and a few tastings of wine, I left with a few bottles that I can't discuss as they're surprises for people who might read this. But we stopped by the macaron shop again on the way home, where I got five macarons (blackberry, rose, pistachio, vanilla and raspberry) and two kouignettes (raspberry and apple). Then we had Chinese food for dinner, which wasn't too bad actually, and then drinks at Le Petit Bois (the little forest). Decorated with trees inside and wallpaper reminiscent of Versailles, it looked like an Anthropologie catalog. Thus, I liked it.
We set out for Saint-Émilion on our final full day in Bordeaux. Saint-Émilion is a tiny town in Bordeaux's eastern wine country. When we hopped off the train in the early afternoon, we were welcomed to very surprising warm weather (so much that I had to find a bathroom/corner to take my leggings off it was so warm) and absolutely no one at the train station. There wasn't even a town in sight. The station itself was closed an there weren't many signs pointing towards any civilization. And I thought Montreuil is petite. But after a bit of dilly-dallying around some fields near the station, Liz stopped inside a vineyard office and asked where the town (and tourism office) was. We were pointed up hill (of course). After about 10 minutes of walking and just around the bend, there was the town. Extremely cute (and extremely touristy), we definitely made a good choice in picking Saint-Émilion to visit. At this point in the day, we really only had time for one winery, a trip to the Catacombs and possibly the Disneyland-looking train ride around the area. After finding the tourism office at the very, very top of the hill, we were pointed back down in the other direction to Château Le Chatelet.
When we arrived at Le Chatelet, we had to knock on the door a bit since it didn't seem like anyone was there. But then the manager came out to greet us and asked if we wanted a dégustation (tasting), to which we all promptly replied, "YES." Patrick, the manager, was extremely friendly, telling us all about his Grand Cru bottles, of which we tried the 2003, 2005 and 2006, and then the warm, smooth, fruit-filled 2007 Le Chatelet. While the last bottle was my favorite, it was € 60. So we all ended up taking a bottle of our second favorite for € 35 per bottle: the 2005. While the three San Franciscans of the group briefly flirted with the idea of shipping bottles back to SF collectively to save costs, we realized we still couldn't afford it (the shipping minimum was € 150 for 12 bottles...then the prices of the bottles). Perhaps we can go back in the spring. But, nonetheless, as there was no one else there besides of the four of us and the very hospitable Patrick, it was a lovely nice private tasting session. We even got a peek at the cellar, which as far as the winery goes, is five generations old. But the cellar itself is probably over 1,000 years old.
After grabbing our bottles and bidding farewell to Patrick, we headed back to the top of Saint-Émilion. However, as it was late afternoon, we had been walking all day and not really eaten much. Thus, the tastings quickly added up and we were stumbling but smiling all the way back up. We missed the only English-language tour of the Catacombs 4 PM that we bought tickets for by six minutes, but as we were all in an extra-good mood, we just said, "Oh, we can just take the tour in French! No problem!" By the time the French tour rolled around (4:30 PM), I was starting to become sleepy and I probably wouldn't have gotten much out of a tour in English. But with the tour in French, I was pretty much sleep-walking. After an hour and a half, we realized we didn't have time for the Disneyish wine country train, thus, after stopping for some yummy mushroom Quiche and hot chocolate, we headed back down to the train station.
There wasn't anyone else besides us, a few young French people, and a group of young Asian tourists. By this point, the wine had worn off and we were just ready to eat as soon as we got back to Bordeaux after the 40-minute TER (local) train ride. I don't know if it was because we were tired or it was close to Halloween, but even though we weren't standing that close to the tracks, when a train in the opposite direction headed towards the station at full speed (maybe 60 MPH), it literally looked like it was going to jump off the tracks. Thus, when it whizzed past us, we all screamed and jumped back towards the station wall. I even ran with my hands covering my face. We all clung close to the wall laughing so hard that the French people started laughing at us too, but I assert they were laughing with us. Whatever. Our train eventually came, and Rachel read us another passage from my our new must-read, Are You There Vodka, It's Me, Chelsea (by Chelsea Handler).
On the only morning with substantial fog and clouds we had outside of Lille, we went back to Gare Bordeaux-St.Jean for a seven-hour train ride to Marseille. They really need to install a TGV line in between those two cities. I'm a bit shocked there isn't already one. The Corail-TEOZ train was comfortable, but ran at about the same pace as Amtrak. Unacceptable. Passing many places I wouldn't mind stopping in the future (Toulouse, Montpellier, Carcassonne, almost near Perpignan...), the ride went almost without incident. But somewhere near Nîmes, a group of rowdy, greasy-looking guys started talking really loudly and asked if they could "buy" our table from us. Seating is assigned on TEOZ, and even though it was a joke, the manner in which it was delivered was so rude that it wasn't funny. If only we knew then what we had to expect when we arrived in Marseille...