Just like with my other posts, I’ll be sharing my past travels from les vacances d’hiver during my first year as an assistante. Considering that this year’s will be starting very soon, I thought that I would reflect on my vacation from before, as means of ushering in the new one once it arrives. With that said, c’est parti!
After a cold and hectic adventure hopping around the UK and Ireland over the vacances de Noël, I thought that I would head somewhere warmer and more pleasant for the February holidays, since most places in Europe would still be in winter mode. I’d been meaning to go to Bordeaux, considering that it’s famous for being the center of a reputable wine-growing region and of course, is known for producing what is known to be one of the best wines in France. I’d also heard that it was quite beautiful, so I thought that it would be a good, modest destination to visit first during my holidays.
I actually left a day early before les vacances started: after teaching my final class at the collège, I took two buses over to Rouen where I stayed the night at a friend’s flat before catching my BlaBlaCar ride the next morning at 9h00. It was an idle ride over, and what surprised me was the drastic change in weather and atmosphere as we headed down south of the country. Aside from the stretches of vineyards planted alongside the highway, the weather was brilliantly warm and sunny which compared with the drab farmland in Normandy was a much-needed change. Even before getting into Bordeaux proper, I was already impressed with the region itself!
We arrived at the Gare Saint-Jean (main train station) about six-and-a-half hours later, where I was dropped off. From there, I had some time to explore the city on my own before meeting up with my Couchsurfer at 17h00. That said, I walked along the wide, tiled streets of the city, taking in the grand, eighteenth-century architecture, which were palace-like with its ornate, golden exterior. In fact, Bordeaux was one of the first cities in France to have urbanized, and it was evident in the blend of historical and modern buildings all over the city center.
I made my way to the Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux and l’Église Sainte-Croix (Church of the Holy Cross). After having visited one too many cathedrals and churches in France, they didn’t really impress me in their architecture, but all the same, the bright-red door on the latter gave a nice, visual pop to the otherwise austere exterior.
Next to the cathedral was the Tour Pey Berland, which was constructed back in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and was used as a steeple to protect the cathedral from the bells’ vibrations.
Next, I headed towards the Garonne River, where it was sunny and people were out skateboarding and relaxing by the water. Passed by the Place de la Bourse and saw the Pont de Pierre (“Stone Bridge”). It was constructed during the reign of Napoleon, who had ordered it built. Fun fact: there is a total of seventeen arches on the bridge, which represents the number of letters in the French emperor’s name (Napoleon Bonaparte). I found the bridge to be especially striking against the afternoon sun.
I headed over to the historic center of the city, where I saw the Grand Théâtre, an eighteenth-century opera house with a neoclassical, Greek architectural design and the Monument aux Girondins, a column at la place des Quinconces which commemorates the lives lost during the Reign of Terror from the French Revolution. At that point, it was nearing 17h00, so I decided to take the tram over to my Couchsurfer’s place, which was actually located a bit outside of the city center at the University of Bordeaux, in the suburb of Talence.
Half-an-hour later, I arrived at the university campus and met my Couchsurfing host inside his dorm building and he took me up to his room. He was a student originally from Mexico who was currently studying wine-making at the university (how apropos!). Although it took some time to warm up to each other, he ended up being a nice guy who took me out both nights to see the city and otherwise “live it up” (he was also a party-type of guy, which I didn’t mind!).
On my first evening, we went out to the city center after I’d dropped my belongings off in his dorm room (small and cramped, mind you, but we made do with what was available). We took the tram over, and he took me over to a Turkish-Italian restaurant (unusual combination, I know) where I ordered tagine for dinner and we continued to talk and get to know each other. Afterwards, we wandered the city a bit, visiting the cathedral again before heading over to a bar at 21h30 where there was some kind of Couchsurfing meet-up for locals and travelers alike. Got myself a huge glass of beer (in Bordeaux, of all places!) and sat outside on the patio, chatting and mingling with others from all over (Germany, Korea, etc.). Talked about everything, even listening to a Frenchman’s story about his trip to North Korea a few years ago- fascinating stuff.
Things came abruptly to a close, however, at 23h00 when we saw and heard glass being smashed literally ten feet from where we were sitting, from the tenants above the bar! There were even a few Chinese girls standing really close to when the glass was smashed, which was absolutely crazy, but thankfully, no one got hurt. Not quite sure why that happened, but perhaps we were making too much ruckus (c’mon, it’s a bar!) or the tenants upstairs were having a party and just getting smashed…just like the glass they had broken.
Any case, my host and I decided to leave right after that, heading back to his dorm. We returned a bit past midnight where he did his best to give me blankets, pillows, and sheets to sleep on next to his bed. Not the most ideal situation, but it was either that or we had to share his twin-sized bed (which wasn’t going to happen. Even though he’s gay, it wouldn’t have been comfortable anyway). Granted, my hips and shoulders were sore the next day, but it was fine.
The next day, we headed out to the center to check out the farmer’s market, where my host also bought his groceries. I saw that one stand was selling some canelés, a Bordelais pastry that was a kind of cinnamon rice pudding shaped in a mini Bundt cake. Also got some merveilles, a type of beignet, and ended up trying the two pastries out later that day. Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of the former, since it was quite mushy and pasty-tasting, but the latter was not bad, being similar to a sugary donut.
My host and I decided to split and do our own thing after the farmer’s market: he went back to his flat to run errands while I continued on seeing what Bordeaux had to offer; we’d also agreed to meet up again at 15h00, so until then, I had some more exploring to do.
I visited the musée d’Aquitaine (Aquitaine museum) which housed thousands, if not millions, of years of history from the region in which Bordeaux is situated. Interestingly, Aquitaine region had been a huge hub during the prehistoric times, for stone tools, pottery, and even skeleton remains have been unearthed. Although I don’t normally enjoy museums, this one was actually quite fascinated, since it took me through a sequential timeline of the early years of the region to the high Middle Ages with Eleanor of Aquitaine ruling the region to present day. I spent a good one-and-a-half hours there, and for only 2 euros, it was not a bad deal.
After the museum, I headed out to visit the Bastide Botanical Gardens, which were located on the other side of the Garonne River. I crossed the pont de Pierre (which was longer than I’d thought) and spent what seemed like forever trying to find the gardens. Even with Google Maps, I was unable to find it, so in the end, I just found a small, secluded park behind some apartments to sit down and eat the pastries that I’d bought. Crossed over the bridge again and returned to the city center, where around 15h00 I was to meet my Couchsurfing host at an arts and cultural center where he was attending with his friend. The theme was all things Studio Ghibli, specifically Hayao Miyazaki’s films (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, etc.). It was interesting that France would be so keen on Japanese anime, but all the same, I was interested in going, too, since I’d grown up watching and loving those films (Castle in the Sky was my favorite).
I met up with my host and his friend at the event, which was filled with kids and young adults alike. Lots of different activities were going on, from arts and crafts to video games to even a Just Dance choreograph line! Food was served as well, and I decided to treat myself to some onigiri (rice ball). Also saw some cute cream tarts decorated like Totoros, but I didn’t end up getting them.
We also waited in a really-long line to test out the new Oculus Rift console, in which you put on these really-heavy goggles and you’re basically taken on a roller coaster of a ride. Dizzying so, but quite an experience. Afterwards, we decided to head out, taking the tram over to the Grand Théâtre again where my host took us to a special wine bar for a “real Bordeaux wine-tasting” experience, without needing to go out into the countryside to do so. Unfortunately, it was 18h00 when we arrived and it was totally packed, so we ended up not going in. Instead, we headed over to a different bar for some beers before attending another Couchsurfing meetup called “Dutch Pancake Night” (to this day, I still chuckle at the name). Along the way, we popped into a bio (“organic”) store to purchase some wine for the event. Headed over to the location, which was actually in a gated community, so we had to ring up the host to come out and let us in.
By the time we’d arrived, the event was in full swing. Compared to the previous night’s Couchsurfing event, which was laid-back and calm, this one was the complete opposite: lots of people crammed into what looked like someone’s living room, with a small bar littered with wine and beer bottles, and a single, Dutch pancake-making machine cooking up pancakes to feed what seemed like over fifty, perhaps even sixty, drunk sweaty people.
I did my best to stick close with my Couchsurfing host and his friend for the night; we ended up opening up the bottle of white wine that we’d purchased at the shop, and it was not good: somewhere between the taste of sour cider and wine, which was not ideal, but otherwise a cheap way to get tipsy. Also ordered some food at the bar, eventually trying the Dutch pancake and other drunk food. Again, there was so much alcohol, and I admit, I let myself get carried away. Had to use the toilet a few times, which was in the corner of the room and a struggle to get to and open the door, since there were just that many people. Oy vey…
Around 22h00, the neighbors in the gated community basically complained about the noise, and eventually, the party was shut down. However, people decided to migrate to another part of town, so I went along with my host and his friend. By that point, however, I was really drunk and tired; my host noticed this and told me that I could head home before him, giving me his keys and saying that I could let him in when he returned. That said, I took the tram back to his dorm and it was a miracle that I managed to get all the way there, remember the code to get into his building, take the elevator up, unlock the door (and lock it), and crash on my floor bed. Again, I was so drunk, to the point that I didn’t even hear him call my phone four times and the university phone blaring twice- thankfully, I woke up and let him and his friend in, mumbling a “good night” and going back to sleep.
Woke up the next morning around 8h00 with a minor hangover, but otherwise I was fine. I was to leave at 9h15 to catch my BlaBlaCar ride to my next destination over the holidays. I freshened up, packed my things, and said goodbye to my host and his friend, who’d stayed the night, thanking them for the time in Bordeaux.
Overall, my two nights in Bordeaux have got to be one of the more…interesting travels that I’d done in that year. Not that it was bad or anything, but it was definitely more of a party one than others. I don’t usually go to social events, so having stayed with a Couchsurfer who was into that scene had ended up being that way for the weekend. It was fun, though, while also being exhausting- certainly an experience that made Bordeaux (which otherwise was a beautiful, but modest city) a pleasure to have visited.
With a lively start to my past vacances d’hiver, we’ll move on to Pau & Toulouse in the next post, so stay tuned!