Today was Sam’s actual birthday. And after another sublime French breakfast, this time in the dining hall, we returned to our room to open some presents. On this special day we had plans for a day trip, we were heading East to Saint-Émilion, a quintessential French vineyard town, where wine has been made since the 4th century.
On Rue Fondaudège we bought a baguette and some sliced saucisson, to go with some chocolate and fruit. There’s a lovely fromagerie here too, but at 11am on a Monday it’s closed; it seems Sunday trading extends into Monday morning. No worries we thought, a vineyard town in France is bound to have its own cheese shop. We walked down to Quinconces, hopped on the tram to Gare Saint-Jean and tried to buy our tickets. But all ticket machines were offline, and no-one in the station could sell us anything, “our systems are down”, we were told. We were given a voucher to use onboard instead. With some time to kill, we sat outside in the sunshine with some coffee at Café Brasserie Le Terminus.
The train was an old diesel one, decades old it was roomy and comfortable, and oozed more character than a rickety old London train ever could. The journey to Saint-Émilion took about 40mins and no officer ever came to sell us tickets. There’s no ticket office at Saint-Émilion, and no-one came on the way back, so the trip was free. A little extra present for Samantha. Everyone else on the train was going to Saint-Émilion too.
The station, two rail lines and a hut, is a 10 minute walk out of town through recently harvested vineyards with picturesque views out across the Gironde valley. In summer and on weekends this place gets rammed with tourists; but on a peculiarly hot Monday afternoon in October it was just right. The village is perched at the top of a hill, where steep and narrow cobbled streets climb up to ancient romanesque churches. Picnic time, we explored the sandstone labyrinth for a fromagerie; every other building is a boutique de vin, separated by the occasional restaurant, gift shop or macaronerie. Without luck, we stopped at the tourist office and asked, “where’s the cheese shop?” … “Sir, there is no cheese shop”.
At the top of the hill behind Église Monolithe we devoured our French picnic, then boarded the incredibly touristy Great Vineyard Train; one of those cheesy electric vehicles made up to look like a train, one of those things. From the top of each carriage a speaker boomed facts about the vineyards we passed, first in French, then just as we’d gone past, in English. It was all wonderfully touristy. The train does a round trip, and takes about half an hour. Some vineyards were older than others, some were better, and evidently there’s much to learn about growing vines and making wine; the details escape us though, we are not connoisseurs; perhaps if we were we wouldn’t be on the train.
We paid a little extra too, for a tour of Chateau Rochebelle. A guide greeted us from the train and showed us underground to their 18th century cellars — formerly a quarry. Barrels lined stone walled halls, and bottled wines from different vintages were stored along narrow corridors. In the dark he explained their process, and why their wine is obviously the best wine, he emphasised its French-ness, and how many surrounding vineyards were American or Chinese owned. In the daylight again, in a little shop, we tried a single glass of young red wine, and avoided the sales pitch.
Back on the train again, we completed our route around the village. Peckish by early afternoon, we sat in Saint-Émilion’s main square at Amelia Canta — the courtyard was bathed in sunshine, and lies beneath the towering steeple of the monolithic church. An English couple next to us were just finishing off a cheese board. Perfect! A single waiter hurriedly rushed about, meeting everyones demands with a smile and a quip. We polished off three cheeses, some bread and half a bottle of red wine (2009, Chateau La Grace Dieu) before continuing our exploration of the town. We had our cheese and wine at last.
With it being autumn the sun began to dip and the light turned a golden yellow. Making the most of it, we scrambled up the cobbled streets to the tourist office where I exchanged my drivers license as deposit for a 6-inch steel key. It’s the key to the tower. Down some hidden steps there’s a big bolted wooden door to unlock; through the door and you’re inside Église Monolithe. We climbed up and up and up a spiral staircase made of stone, right to the top.
Stopping just short of the spire itself there’s a narrow walkway which lets you squeeze right the way around for fabulous panoramic views in all directions. The vineyards disappear into the hazy horizon whichever way you look. Beneath us were the pastel brown rooftops of the ancient town, the narrow streets now in shadow.
The trains were irregular, and we needed to be back in Bordeaux for a restaurant reservation. Back down the tower, through the streets, out of town, past the vineyards, onto the train and back to the UNESCO city we rushed. Our connections were timed perfectly, we stepped off the train and onto a tram and were whisked across the city; we were back at our hotel and freshened up with minutes to spare.
For Michelin star number two, and one of the few high-end restaurants that opens its doors on a Monday, I’d booked an 8pm reservation for Le Pavillon des Boulevards, just a short walk from our hotel. And the guide says in all its exquisite understated-ness:
Immaculate table linen and a verdant terrace: this pleasant setting is the ideal spot to enjoy fine gastronomy. The chef knows his classic dishes and revisits them with subtlety.
Less formal than Le Gabriel, the unassuming front door leads through a narrow corridor into a room with tables laid out for two to four people. The building feels like a converted residence, and the room opens up onto a garden. The walls are jasmine white, with orchids on shelves. With the sommelier’s help we ordered a fruity Clos Floridene (2012) white wine.
Once again we ordered the tasting menu. 8 courses this time, quelques amuse-bouches. The restaurant was full, most tables seated well dressed couples or families of three. All of us seemed to be having the same tasting menu, and we spied our later courses as the waiters brought them out, brushing aside an obstructing ornamental bamboo tree each time they passed.
Quelques amuse-bouches suivis de huit preparations
pour vous faire partager notre univers culinaire
au gre de notre fantaisie
The menu is from memory, we misplaced our printed list of exactly what we ate; so many courses, they blur into one fabulous meal. What stood out were the eggs; the opening amuse-bouche, a fake egg shell with real quails egg inside, and to end with the reverse; a real egg shell but containing a fake egg, a white mousse with a yellow centre, above chocolate. Brilliantly quirky symmetry. And everything in-between was sumptuous. From the fish cocktail, presented as a cocktail drink to the melt in the mouth pigeon.
We stayed until late, finishing our wine and then having coffee. Everything here has a touch of design flair; the sugar for Sam’s coffee came in cubes, each neatly arranged in a grid.
Sated, and a little drunk, we walked back to our hotel along Bordeaux’s quiet nighttime streets. Autumn, but the weather still unseasonably warm, it was pleasant in just a shirt.