Whiz through the world’s most famous wine region in a classic sports car, and you’ll discover that Bordeaux is a region with more to offer than just vineyards, says Jill Starley-Grainger
As soon as I opened the door, a group of Frenchmen sidled over murmuring “Ooh la la,” “Magnifique,” “Ah qu’elle est belle!” Rather than shoot them an icy glare, my usual response to unwanted male attention, I joined them in their admiration. After all, The Old Girl is an undeniable beauty.
Although we’d spent just a few hours together, her sultry lines, classy demeanor and seductive purr had already won me over. Forget your Ferraris, your Lamborghinis, your Maseratis. When The Old Girl is in town, younger, brasher models simply pale in comparison. Sure, she requires a bit more effort, but when you’re behind the wheel of a classic 1967 E-Type Jaguar, thoughts of power steering fade away.
I waved to Tim, who I’d dropped off a few minutes before at the market entrance in La Réole. He’d already managed to purchase five types of cheese, one from each fromager in the market, which takes place on Saturday mornings and overlooks the Garonne River. According to our tailor-made guidebook, the best bread was at the stall by the bridge. We made our way through the locals, who were stocking up on fruit, veg and saucisson, to find the baker. After purchasing a few more picnic essentials – strawberries, olives, pastries – we hopped back into The Old Girl and zoomed off for out first wine tasting of the day.
We’d arrived in Bordeaux on Thursday and spent the last couple of days wandering through the city’s 18th century old town, with its ornate facades and wrought-iron balconies, and visiting the extraordinary Garage Moderne (see below). Our seven-day trip with Gourmet Touring wasn’t due to start until Saturday, and John, the British owner of the company, had suggested we spend time soaking up the atmosphere in the city beforehand.
A few weeks before our trip, John had called up to have a chat. When we booked the vacation, we knew we’d be swanning around in a swanky convertible sports car, staying in fabulous chateaux and enjoying a meal at a gastronomic restaurant, but we weren’t aware of all the other extras we’d be getting, including a handmade guidebook and itinerary tailored specifically to our interests, plus the marriage-saving satellite navigation system (SatNav), cutting down on those ghastly map-reading arguments. If we’d booked the accommodation and car rental independently, those two alone would have cost the same or more than Gourmet Touring’s package, so all these extras, and the fantastic local knowledge, really were the icing on the cake.
Although most famous for its wine and food, we were also interested in all the other aspects of the region, such as the art, architecture, history, chateaux, seaside and countryside. Gourmet Touring created an itinerary to accommodate all of this, with a few vineyards included. Unlike Napa, vineyard visits must be booked in Bordeaux, ideally a few days in advance, but Gourmet Touring arranged all that for us.
Our first vineyard, beautiful Chateau Lamothe, revealed a deep, dark secret. Instead of a purpose-built cellar, the wine is stored in limestone caves, and the entrance shows evidence of a caveman dwelling. The other secret is the high quality of the vineyard’s Chateau Lamothe Cuvée Valentine Rouge, a bargain at €11 ($14), so we grabbed a bottle to take on our picnic.
After a glorious al fresco lunch by the river, we wound our way through the back roads of Entre-Deux-Mers, the area east of the city of Bordeaux bordered by the Dordogne and Garonne rivers (hence the name: “between two seas”). With The Old Girl’s top down, we had 360-degree views of the fields of sunflowers, vineyards and woodlands as we swept along the rolling country lanes.
Every few minutes, we would come across a romantic old watermill, a lonely ruined tower or a fortified medieval village. Whenever we drove through a village square, locals would smile admiringly at The Old Girl and give us a wave. With a long scarf keeping my hair in place and both of us in sunglasses, we felt like Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief.
After a full day zipping along country lanes and strolling through the back streets of villages, we checked into Chateau de Sanse, www.chateaudesanse.com). Renovated in 2000 from the ruins of an 18th century chateau, it has a modern, light and airy interior, with relaxed atmosphere and friendly staff. We ate dinner on the terrace, where we could see vineyards, a pond and rolling countryside all around us. After a long and leisurely meal, we ambled off to our two-floor suite for drinks à deux.
The next morning, we woke up to find the Jag had vanished in the night and been replaced by a Fiat Barchetta. Because The Old Girl is rather special, she’s a bit pricier to rent, so we’d booked her for one day only. Our less expensive, but still fabulous, new ride was called Claudia. John showed us how to use the SatNav and put her top down, then we were off.
The day was so beautiful and Claudia so agile that we decided to spend the morning soaking up the scenery along the country lanes. As we passed through the village of Castillon La Bataille, we noticed a few people by the river playing pétanque, which is a bit like horseshoes. We grabbed the pétanque balls and instructions provided in Claudia’s trunk and started a game ourselves.
Before long, a girl and boy, aged eight and nine, came over to show us how to it should be done. They spoke no English, and our French is hopelessly basic (“please”, “thank you”, “restroom”, “wine”), but we played quite happily for about an hour, with their grandfather shouting suggested improvements for them from his nearby bench. Unsurprisingly, they defeated us time and again.
Rise and shine
Feeling a little deflated, our spirits were raised by a flight in a hot air balloon. Drifting slowly over the undulating landscape, we sipped Champagne as elaborate chateaux, fortified villages, ancient bridges, pastures, rivers and vineyards rolled slowly beneath.
After coming down to earth with a gentle bump, we hopped back into the Barchetta and followed the SatNav instructions to St Emilion, a Unesco World Heritage site. Strolling through its picturesque streets, we couldn’t resist sampling the local speciality: melt-in-your-mouth almond macaroons with cream in the middle. That fortified us for the 45-minute tour of the amazing 11th century monolithic church carved into limestone and the creepy ancient catacombs, where parts of human skeletons could be seen at the bottom of shallow puddles.
We hurried back into the sunlight and up the hill to a cheerier prospect – dinner at the award-winning Hostellerie de Plaisance, www.hostellerie-plaisance.com). Gourmet Touring would be chauffering us home and paying the food bill, so we were able to let our hair down without worry. The staff produced a to-die-for six-course tasting menu for us. The finale, after the impressive chariot of cheese, was dessert – all five of them, including a strange sounding, but divine, rhubarb, strawberry and basil compote.
After breakfast the next day, as if by magic, Claudia was waiting for us in the car park, ready to ferry us across the Garonne River to visit some of the most famous wine chateaux in the world. Wandering through the grounds of Chateau d’Arsac) in the afternoon, we learned that some of the world’s finest art is hidden away in Bordeaux’s private chateaux. The modern sculptures and paintings set in the gardens, vineyards and wine cellars of Chateau d’Arsac varied from amusing to surreal, and we saw more first-class art on our wine tasting at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, whose labels have featured the original work of artists such as Picasso and Warhol.
The halls of Chateau du Tertre), our accommodation for the night, offered more artistic surprises, including an excellent carving of a herd of sheep. Stepping into our bedroom was like being transported to Louis XV’s secret love nest. Marie Antoinette would have been jealous of our enormous, elaborate bathroom, with several chairs scattered in the room in case the trip from one of the sinks to the massive roll-top bath was too tiresome. Only a handful of the chateau’s rooms are for paying guests, so we had the huge building over the cellars practically to ourselves.
On the beach
After all the wine and culture, the great outdoors were calling, so we put the Barchetta’s top down and followed SatNav’s instructions south to the Bay of Arcachon. Bypassing the quaint oyster-farming villages, we zoomed straight to glitzy Cap Ferret. High fliers hoping to keep a low profile on vacation moor their yachts here, and Claudia felt right at home amidst all the laid-back glam. On one side of Ferret is the bay, with its warm, calm water, friendly, narrow beaches and très chic eateries. On the other side is the Atlantic, with huge, sandy beaches and the high rollers loved by surfers.
We plopped our towels down on the bay side, watching yacht owners swim or row ashore for provisions, including a rather comical poodle, who couldn’t quite decide if he fancied a dip in the water or not. By evening, we were both ready to hit the hay early, and luckily we didn’t have far to go to our relaxing coastal hideaway. Just near Cap Ferret’s lighthouse is the easygoing Maison du Bassin, www.lamaisondubassin.com), the perfect place to crash after a hard day on the beach. When we arrived, The Old Girl was waiting in the car park. Much as we loved Claudia’s smooth handling and zippy moves, we didn’t want to leave Bordeaux without spending a bit more time with The Old Girl, and luckily, she wasn’t booked for our last day.
For our last day, The Old Girl took us around the bay to the bird reserve at Teich, www.parc-ornithologique-du-teich.com). On a short walk through the wetlands, we saw dozens of enormous white storks nesting on the tops of trees just above our heads and a plethora of egrets, buzzards, kites and grey geese flitting through the skies. Even Tim, who has little interest in wildlife, found it fascinating for the wide variety of birds it attracts.
For our last hurrah, we were heading to a very special spa, but first, we made a stop en route at Pessac on the outskirts of Bordeaux. As fans of Modernism, we wanted to visit Cité Frugès, the neighborhood designed by Modernist architect and furniture designer Le Corbusier. The simple square, white box houses he dreamed up were far too wacky for the 1920s French working folk they were intended for, but they’re being snapped up and renovated now by Bordeaux cognoscenti.
On arrival at Caudalie Vinotherapie spa, I hopped out of the car and left Tim to spend some quality time alone with The Old Girl, swishing round the countryside. After my wine-grape facial and soak in the Cabernet Barrel Bath, we met for a final feast at La Table du Lavoir, one of Caudalie’s two gourmet restaurants. John arrived after dinner to chauffer us to the airport, and we bade a fond farewell to The Old Girl and Bordeaux, sure we’d be meeting again soon.