Bordeaux: Land of Wine and Macarons

rachel-king-Saint-Emilion 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.

rachel-king-bordeaux-macaronsThe 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...

Festival Des Soupes

rachel-king-festival-des-soupes When I bought my Let's Go: France guide-book a few months back (and after I noticed its serious printing press error of 14-pages about Spain instead of France), I came across a list of annual festivals in my humble village of Montreuil-Sur-Mer. While most take place in the summer, I happily saw one at the end of October: Le Festival des Soupes et des Pains (The Soup and Bread Festival). The book described it as a lively event in the town citadel, with admission set at 5€...all-you-can-eat soup and bread. While I was really excited about this, I wasn't sure how much other people would actually care to come up for it.

Apparently, plenty. After I mentioned it to several other American assistants in Lille, nearly all of them were ecstatic about the idea. Initially, about seven or eight assistants said they'd come up for it, but being the first weekend of the Vacances de la Toussaint (my first of four paid two-week vacations while teaching over here), naturally some people's plans changed. But Rachel, Pat, Marc and Rory seemed determined on the prospect of an endless supply of soup.

I sent out a confirmation Facebook message a few days in advance to see who was still coming, as I became nervous about how many people I could actually fit in my tiny studio. On Friday evening, I received a very mysterious series of text messages from Marc, first asking for my address. I sent it back, also asking what time they planned to arrive on the train. He said that he and Rory wouldn't be taking the train, and I'd see them the next evening. While they had previously joked about biking from Lille to Montreuil, we all thought they were kidding. The two towns are 68 miles apart. But no, the pair seriously conducted their own mini Tour de France, eleven hours from Lille to my studio. More on their arrival later...

While the two of them were probably up and getting ready to leave down in Lille early Saturday morning, I received a text message from Paul around 7:30 AM. It wasn't really a problem as I was getting up at 8:00 AM anyway, as Nathalie was picking me up at 9:00 AM to drive me to the weekly morning marketplace in Le Touquet. But I've found that California and France are the perfect distance apart for receiving drunk dials and texts, at least on my end. As it was around 10:30 PM in San Francisco, the roosters were chiming "cocorico" (or, how the French hear "cock-a-doodle-do") on my end. After chatting for about 30 minutes (who knows how much that cost him...), I got up and ready for Le Touquet. It was absolutely dismal outside, finally pouring for about an hour straight while we were at the marché. I ended up getting a pair of ankle-high flat grey boots, which Nathalie negotiated in French down to 20 € for me. She also very sweetly bought me a handful of noisette (hazelnut) chocolates, which I ate for lunch.

Shortly after arriving back at my studio, I embarked on the first of several trips down the hill to the train station, first to collect Rachel, who was coming in with the two Lance Armstrongs' stuff. Then a few hours later, we headed back down to retrieve Pat, who was arriving from Paris after staying there for a night. While we were down at the station, this time at about 7:00 PM, we received calls from the biker boys that they had arrived in Montreuil and were waiting outside my apartment. After an 11-hour journey that involved popped tires and a Google Maps mistake that said there was a bridge over a river where there clearly wasn't (I said they should have tried to caulk the wagon, but whatever), there they were: exhausted, sweaty and throwing back some beers, which turned out to be 7 € each - only 2 € less than the train ride would have been from Lille. Oh well.

After cleaning up and stocking up on beverages and snacks at the Shopi (a mini-mart) downstairs, we headed back into the bistro downstairs where my Paraguayan friend, Jean, is a waiter. For the first time ever, I ordered a seafood dish as my main course: mussels and fries. Probably the only seafood I can stand, it was very good, but I realized I'm not ready for a full seafood meal yet. I shared my mussels with the rest of the table and concentrated on the fries. As the boys were tired, and the weather wasn't the best, we passed the rest of the evening in the studio playing cards and drinking French wine and beer.

When I awoke Sunday morning, aside from a headache, something that Julia said to me on Friday suddenly passed through my head: time change. I'm not sure when the time changes in the United States this year, but daylight savings time ended in France on Sunday morning, giving all of us an extra hour of much-needed sleep. My iPhone (with the Orange France Telecom carrier) changed the time for me, but my American Motorola didn't.

After much-needed coffee and orange juice, we headed out for the weekend's main event: The Soup Festival! There were over two dozen different kinds of soups, prepared by local farmers and chefs. Some of my favorites included spinach, pumpkin, Saint-Germain and, an oldie but a goodie, Lentil. Unfortunately, I missed out on the tomato garlic soup, and I wasn't too impressed with the garlic or onion soups. But all the bread was amazing. However, I wasn't quite prepared for how much of a mob scene it would be. People were pushing everywhere to get to the front, go to the bread station or over to the drinks tent, where sodas and du vin chaud (hot wine, which is divine and tastes like cider) were being sold. But it was so crowded that at one point, someone bumped into me and knocked the lens cap off of my camera. Rachel and I then spent the next five to ten minutes trying to find a tiny black, Canon lens cap on the ground covered in hay. It was useless, so I'll have to buy another one at some point.

We made two trips to the Soup Festival, as we could re-enter for free for our tickets. In the middle of the day, we toured the ramparts of the village, as the weather was much warmer and brighter than the day before (with the exception of a 30-minute downpour around noon). We also saw a re-enactment of the Battle of Agincourt going on near the Citadelle, being that October 25 was the anniversary of that fight. But I found it a bit odd considering the British won that battle, not the French. After the second round of soup, we grabbed our bags and we all headed back to the train station. I was going with them as I'm leaving for the south of France from Lille on Tuesday, and there was no point in staying in Montreuil another night. Plus, its nice to make the two-hour journey with others when I'm usually by myself. But on the way down the hill, the boys had to stop and grab some souvenirs: two Festival des Soupes signs, which prompted many stairs when we were walking through the Metro station at Gare Lille Flandres later on. It was also extra nice as it was a rare direct train to Lille, although the train itself was an older model, one that Rory said "should have been retired after World War I." A bit harsh...but true.

At the moment I'm at Rachel's apartment in Lille, but tomorrow morning, us two plus Liz and Amy will be speeding southward on the TGV to Bordeaux. Tout à l'heure!