After saying goodbye to Gabriel in Toulouse, I headed to Bordeaux to see my friend Jordan. I met Jordan at an event to encourage high school students to learn French at the U. We talked for a few minutes and I found out he was studying abroad at our business school. The second time I saw him was for a coffee date with our friend SueSue. He reintroduced himself. Despite failing to make an impression on him, when he left, he told me I was welcome in Bordeaux any time. Who am I to pass up such an invitation?
So far my trip had taken me on planes, trains, and now it was time for automobiles. I paid $9 and booked a trip through BlaBla Car covoiturage. Some might call this website car sharing. Drivers post trips online and passengers can sign up for legs of the trip or the entire voyage. Others might say it’s organized hitch hiking. I didn’t get kidnapped and it was dirt cheap, so it all worked out. It was also a great way to meet people.
My driver was a 22 year old HR student in Nantes. He and his girlfriend had spent the weekend in Aix en Provence and were making the trip back. Along the way, they had picked up another student going back to Nantes from Montpellier. Talking to them restored my faith in my language abilities. In a small group of people, without music or extraneous noise, we were actually able to have real conversations.
Once in Bordeaux, I met Jordan at the train station. I dropped off my bags at his place and he gave me a quick tour of the city on foot before meeting up with his girlfriend, Madeline, for dinner. Like Toulouse, Bordeaux is a historically bourgeois city. Its prime placement on the Garonne and near the Atlantic Ocean made it an important port city. Trade and wine have helped wealth pour into the city over the centuries. The white stone used buildings made me think back to Montpellier. Even the statue in one of the main squares (Place de la Bourse) features the same subject – The Three Graces – as the main square in Montpellier (Place de la Comedie).
Some of Bordeaux’s architecture is so beautiful, Paris stole it. The columns on the Grand Theatre are said to have inspired the facade of the Paris Opera.
For my first meal in Bordeaux, Jordan and Madeline took me out to a nice dinner. While Jordan will eat just about anything that has meat, lucky for me, his girlfriend is a foodie. She suggested the menu which started with a carpaccio de canard, a faux filet grille, and a moeleux au chocolat. To top it off, we got two glasses of a 2010 Chateau Reaut from Bordeaux – which means nothing to me, but Madeline assured me it was top.
After a good meal and good night’s rest, I made the trek to St. Emilion early the next morning. I had rented a bike online from a man named Norbert at O2 Cycles. After emailing him my plan and measurements, he proposed a 47cm Cube bike with an aluminum frame, carbon fork, Shimano shifters, 105 crank, and Easton wheels. I’m not a huge cyclist, so I sent the email to my brother; he approved. Norbert told me I would have to bring my own shoes and pedals. When I packed, I didn’t think what my eggbeater pedals would look like going through airport security. Since I wouldn’t be using them until the end of my trip, I stuffed them into my bike shoes at the bottom of my bag. Leaving Chicago, I was pulled aside in security and had to unpack my entire bag, retrieve the pedals, and show they aren’t weapons. To avoid this in each subsequent airport, I put them in the separate tray with my liquids and gels. However, even then, they were closely inspected and I was asked to explain what they were at every airport security check.
I met Norbert near Jordan’s apartment to get the bike. He helped me put on my pedals and we chatted. He had biked all over the western US and assured me French people are much more tolerant of cyclists on roads than my compatriots. He gave me a map, showed me my route to St. Emilion which ran along a former railroad line, then told me he would pick up the bike the next day at 7. Although he gave excellent directions and I had a map, the 55km route to St. Emilion turned into a 62km voyage.
The air was heavy as I left Bordeaux. Despite having to back track and check the map a couple times, I avoided the rain and made good time riding through the heart of France’s wine country.
St. Emilion is a city situated on a hill. I dismounted and walked up the cobblestone streets to the top. The foundation of the city stems from wine production. After stopping off at the Office of Tourism to get a map, I was told the best way to see the city is on foot. I locked up my bike and decided to take a tour. Walking in bike shoes on steep cobblestone streets is a little more difficult than I anticipated.
Shortly after beginning my walk around the city, it began to rain lightly at first, then pouring down. I ducked into the first open building I saw which was of course, a winery. A woman in her upper twenties greeted me and asked if I wanted a degustation. I told her, in French, I would love to, but I won’t be able to buy anything afterward. I biked here. She still invited me to take a walk around their cellar and told me the history of her family’s vineyard.
After 10 or so minutes in the cellar, the rain was still coming down hard so I lingered in the shop. Looking bored, the woman said, do you want a drink? you’re probably going to be the only person we see all day. She pulled out three bottles of wine – two red, one rose. One red and the rose were from St. Emilion. The second red was from Bordeaux. What’s the difference? I asked. They’re the same grapes, just different vineyards.
Pro-tip: Don’t do a wine tasting on an empty stomach after exercise. You’ll feel the alcohol very quickly.
After our degustation, the rain let up so I thanked the woman, then headed out find something to eat. Since it was only about 11:45, the restaurant I chose was basically empty except me and an older gentleman two tables away. I ordered food and skipped wine. The man across the restaurant heard my accent and asked where I was from. I told him I was from the States. He asked if I knew I was in wine country. I did. Then why, he asked, wasn’t I drinking wine? He told the waitress to bring over a carafe of a red wine I don’t remember. It turns out he was the owner of the restaurant. His brother ran a vineyard in the area. He told me it was always nice to hear Americans speaking French and joined me for lunch. Eating with strangers is so much better than eating alone.
After lunch, I continued my stroll around the city. Following the monsieur’s suggestion, I sought out the city’s specialty pastry: the macaron. I’m still not sure why every city seems to have their own confectionery. Bordeaux has the caramelized cannelés, Marseille has their orange Navettes, Montpellier has liquorice Grisettes just to name a few. St. Emilion has the best dessert by far.
On the way back to Bordeaux, I decided to take the scenic route.
The next day was the last day of my extended vacation. I spent it milling around the streets of Bordeaux, doing a little shopping on St. Catherine Street, and enjoying my last taste of French pastries.
Finally, it was time for my Bordeaux – London – Dublin – Toronto – Chicago – Waukesha trek home. This was a trip of firsts: first time in Africa, first night camping, first time travelling alone, first time biking 80 miles. It is fitting it ended with one last first: the first time I’ve had to spend a night in the airport.
After parting ways with Dana in Marrakech, we wondered where our travels would take us next. Traveling together can break friendships. Lucky for us we travel well together. We talked about Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, or somewhere in South America for our next travels. Realistically, that will be several years down the road and probably much shorter. I don’t know where my next travels will take me but I am certain I will travel. I can’t wait to continue to explore the world and its cultures. Au revoir for now.