World in Motion: Bordeaux

facebookThursday 9th June
The TGV accelerated out of Paris and when I looked at the distance we’d travelled in the first hour I was staggered to realise we’d already covered roughly half the total journey length. After the first hour we slowed though we were probably still probably fast by British standards. During the journey we passed some pretty towns and the scenery was nice without being spectacular. After passing some possible vineyards John caught a glimpse of the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux and we knew we were on the final approach to Bordeaux.

We walked the short distance from the train station to our hotel and I admit I warmed to Bordeaux straight away although I was surprised they hadn’t been able to finish the building work at the train station in time for the football. We checked in at the hotel which was fresher looking than our accommodation in Paris. The staff were very friendly and keen to help us and the general vibe seemed good.

We ate a late lunch and a wine at a restaurant near the hotel and I finally had the French steak I’d been craving for a few days. Once we were refueled we were ready to explore the UNESCO listed part of the city. Admittedly the opening stage of the walk wasn’t through the nicest setting but the sun was at least shining. Eventually we took an inadvertent diversion when we mistook a church spire for St Michael’s Tower and took the opportunity to look inside.

We arrived at the St Michael’s Tower and initially made our way to the crypt where a documentary on the building was playing in French. There were no subtitles so we didn’t stay down there long however we had been given a information sheet in English so we looked at that whenever we paused at the different levels as we made the journey up approximately 200 steps. On the way up we saw the bell and eventually we arrived at the top. The view was pretty spectacular in the mid afternoon sun and it was clear just how preserved the centre of the city was because there were no modern sky scrapers.

We continued through the pedestrianised old streets before we came to the Cathédrale Saint-André and noticed the freestanding belfry Tour Pey-Berland opposite. As we were only probably going to be in Bordeaux once and the weather was good we decided to climb the second tower as well. The view from the tower gave a better view of the Cathedral and there was a statue at the top but when we got to the bottom we agreed “no more towers” We then had a look around the Cathedral and a bit of quiet contemplation in the peaceful surroundings

After all the walking we decided to sit down and to enjoy an ice cream at Le Café Français. The banana split that I had was huge and any weight I’d lost from climbing the towers was put back on, if not doubled. We left the café and briefly had a look at the
Rue de l’Hôtel de ville with Euro 2016 flags flying outside. We wondered who was there but the security were strict and sent John on his way when they felt he’d been loitering near the gate for too long.

We continued our walk to the Le Palais Gallien, the Roman Amphitheatre remains which in any other city would have probably have been a major landmark but in Bordeaux could almost be overlooked such are the number of historical buildings to see. Whilst now it is known it is an ampithreate, during medieval times people that Charlemegne had buildt it for his wife Galiene. I was expecting to only see the foundations so was impressed at the height of the ruins.

We continued our walk through Jardin Public a pleasant park where we had a walk past a pond before we finally reached the Fan Zone at Esplanade des Quinconces (the largest public square in Europe). The fan zone still appeared to be under construction and there were still men at work and quite a few unfinished tasks which was slightly concerning because the opening match was due to kick off 24 hours later.

We sat for a while at its entrance marked by a monumental fountain honouring a group of politicians during the French Revolution before we started our journey back to the hotel. We’d decided to walk along the river and the route also took us past the Place de la Bourse which had been recommended to us by the two German receptionists. It was quite a wonderful scene as a musician played music outside the grand building whilst opposite children were running and sliding across the Mirror d’Eau a water area whilst other families relaxed in a garden area.

We returned to the hotel and after freshening up went back to the row of bars near the hotel. We noticed one of them was showing the live concert from the Fan Park in Paris and settled down to watch it with a glass. Eventually we decided to move on but the next bar we tried was closed so we returned to the hotel to discover they were no longer serving alcohol. We had a soft drink before deciding to have a relatively early night so we were fresh for our trip to the Médoc wine valley and the sand dune Dune du Pilat

Friday 10th June
We woke up in good time and made our way down to breakfast which had a much better selection than the one in Paris. We had booked a taxi to take us to the tours meeting point however not only was our driver late he seemed to take us on a particularly long, busy way. We arrived on time but that was because of the buffer we’d built in and we both felt slightly resentful about paying what seemed extortionate but accepted it probably included a ‘Euro 2016’ surcharge.

There were only 6 people on our trip to the largest/tallest sand dunes in Europe Dune du Pilat. Neither John or I had checked the weather before leaving and had left our rain coats back at the hotel. As a few drops splattered against the dashboard, the dark grey clouds looked ready to unleash their fury. Meanwhile we chatted to out flow passengers, a couple from Birmingham, and two ladies one from American the other from Hong Kong.

After driving for over an hour we parked up and made a short walk to the foot of the Dune by which time the rain had stopped. The Dune had steps leading up to the top which made it much easier than the one I’d attempted (and failed) to run up in Wadi Rum in Jordan. Once at the top our guide poured us some wine. Fortunately the rain held off and whilst the view wasn’t as clear as it could have been the Dune itself was still spectacular.

After leaving the sand dune we continued to a small harbour where we were taken to a restaurant called La Baraque a Huitres. As it was quite windy we were in a slightly sheltered, covered section but it didn’t prevent a few serviettes blowing away. This was my first opportunity to have oysters and all I could think about was the Mr Bean episode when he got food poisoning. I’m not a huge fan of fish or shell fish so rather as I expected I wasn’t overly keen but I ate them all (and I didn’t get food poisoning).

We returned back to Bordeaux where we were provided with lunch before we joined up with another tour group for our wine tour around two chateau wineries in the Médoc valley. On our way our guide told us about the “appellation d’origine contrôlée” (AOC) rating however I admit I was being told one of those in jokes that are meant to test how gullible tourists are when she told us about the anti hail system. Amazingly it seemed to be true and it is possible to scatter the clouds so the hail from falls as rain, which rather begs the question why we can’t pump money in to developing something that is better than an umbrella.

Our first Château was Siran. This one had not been classified in 1855 and the current owner explained the family hadn’t agreed with the Imperial Governments Introduction of the clarification system because they supported the monarchy. Despite that we were assured that the quality was equal to many of the competitors that were classified and were told the rankings will never change. Our guide showed us some of the memorabilia collected by the family and company over the years before we were taken to where the barrels were stored and were told each held a staggering 300 bottles of wine.

We were then given a brief wine tasting introduction course where we were told to: See, Sniff, Swirl, Smell and finally Savour the wine. First we were also given 4 mini bottles of scent and using a card with the different options listed we had to identify what they were. John and I failed quite miserably but it had been quite interesting. Next we got to try 3 different types of wine and had to try and establish how old it was by the colour and how much of a body it had. The second was probably my favourite and I suppose analysing it gave me an added level of appreciation.

We briefly had a photo stop at Chateau Margeaux however my knowledge of wine is rather limited so I didn’t quite appreciate the significance. Apparently it was one of four wines to achieve Premier status in the Bordeaux Classification of 1855 and a bottle of Château Margaux 1787 insured for $225,000 is the most expensive in history.

We continued on to the next Château winery Gruaud Larose. The site was made up of some historical buildings and there were some very pretty gardens. There was one building it was impossible not to miss, a tower offering panoramic views of the region which really didn’t fit in to the surroundings. The view from the tower was however pretty spectacular and we could see fields upon fields of vines.

We had a brief tour through the cellars which almost felt like like crypts of a church and saw the owners personal collection of wine and the bottles from previous harvests that were still available for sale including a couple from 1815. The most expensive bottle was estimated to cost €12,050 without tax however I can’t remember which vintage it was from.

Finally we were given a cheese and meat board to accompany our wine tasting. I think the intention was for us to compare how certain foods went with the wine however I just saw bar food snacks. I also don’t remember much about the wine I tried and can’t really say whether it was better or worse than the first Château.

John and I had always planned to watch the first match (France vs Romania) and the opening ceremony in the Fanzone and fortunately the tour finished right outside. The security services were out in force in preparation to deter any kind of attack, a painful reminder of the age we live in. After the awful atrocities that took place Paris in November I felt quite proud that I and millions across Europe were united in watching a football match and effectively sticking our fingers up at those who committed them.

Once inside we sat down to get some food at one of the temporary restaurants where I had another steak and chips (and some more wine). Once we’d eaten we made our way towards the front of the big screen where a DJ and compere was trying to get the crowd going. Whilst the crowd were lively I noticed very few people were holding beers and I can only think that shows a difference in the drinking culture. The match itself wasn’t great but there were wild celebrations when Payet scored the winner with minutes remaining.

We stayed for a bit after the match enjoying the general atmosphere and even made our way to the front of the stage. The organisers had arranged a bit of a light display to “officially” open the fan park and to show some goals from previous tournaments including “that” Gazza goal against Scotland Eventually we left the fan zone and then I got us lost on our way back so we walked nearly 30 minutes longer than needed.

Saturday 11th June
After having breakfast we walked through the city to get the tram stopping off at a couple bars on the way. In Marseille England and Russian fans had mixed with French locals to create a war zone where as in Bordeaux Welsh and Slovakians sat in the Cathedral square drinking in separate groups but side by side. Eventually we decided to eat and get a final pre match drink in the fan zone which was mostly a sea of red Welsh fans. The sun was shining and it seemed like the perfect day to watch a game of football.

John and I arrived at the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux early before the crowds were too large so we could get a quick picture with our flag. The Welsh and Slovakian fans were already having a giant street party aided by a French brass band. They danced to the French Cancan and various other high tempo tunes. Each time the band stopped the crowd howled for more and each time the band delivered. Eventually John and I briefly entered the fray before I went in to the stadium because I was feeling slightly dehydrated and needed some water.

The atmosphere inside the ground was electric from both sides but the Welsh fans heavily outnumbered the Slovakians. When the Welsh belted out “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (Land of My Fathers) the hairs on my neck rose. They then sang a song “Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home, I just don’t think you understand, I want to stay out here, Drinking all your beer, please don’t, please don’t take me home”. I joined in, I wanted to stay out in France as well. The match itself wasn’t the best in terms of quality but was quite exciting.

John and I had hoped to see a Bale free kick go in and got our wish in the 10th minute. Slovakia were the better side for much of the second half and got a deserved equaliser. Wales were crumbling but then the fans sung the National anthem and the players found an extra 1%. Robson Kanu scored the winner with minutes remaining and the stand went crazy. There were nervous looks as the seconds ticked down and an almighty cheer (and a number of tears of happiness) when the referee finally blew the whistle.

Eventually we arrived at the fan park and even though it was busy we were able to get a table at the same restaurant which just about gave us a view of the big screen showing England vs Russia. We only really got to see the second half and as the minutes ticked away England seemed devoid of ideas. Eric Dier scored a free kick and some lads stood on a table and I relaxed to such an extent I allowed John to order a second bottle of wine.

We started to chat to the Welsh fans on the table next to us and just as I thought we’d scraped a win Russia equalised. The place went wild. I sat stunned. The lads that stood on the table could do nothing but take the flack they fully deserved. As a football fan it had been a great day, as an England fan it had been one of the worst and I felt sick especially after I read about the trouble some of our fans had (jointly) caused in Marseille.

I had an early start and went home as soon as we finished the wine whilst John stayed out. I returned home angry. Angry at the players, angry at the England fans, angry that my hopes had been dashed yet again. I’ve seen England win the Ashes, I’ve seen them win the rugby world cup, I’ve seen a Brit win Wimbledon and I remember “London 2012”. But football has been a constant disappointment. In fact the pinnacle for me in terms of international football is arguably still Euro 96 when we were a stud away from the final. But to end on a high, it had been a fantastic couple of days and Bordeaux in particular entered the list of cities that have pleasantly surprised me.



All Together Now: Paris and Versailles

DSC_0434Monday 6th June
4 years ago during London 2012 my mate John and I had discussed seeing a football tournament abroad. We’d discussed Rio in 2014 and whilst he visited South America when the tournament was on I stayed at home having only recently returned from my 5 month “walkabout”. Euro 2016 in France was much more doable and whilst we both applied for two sets of tickets in different cities we were ultimately only successful with one selection in Bordeaux however we decided to start our journey in Paris.

My flight from Gatwick wasn’t until lunch time so I cannot use the excuse I was tired once I reached the airport. Perhaps the early starts I usually put myself through force me to focus more because at security I forgot to take my belt off. The flight was scheduled to take 85 minutes however the actual time spent in the air was only about 40 minutes and the majority of the ‘flight’ was therefore spent on the runway at Gatwick during which time I had a peaceful nap.

Once I’d arrived at Charles de Gaulle I made my way on the bus to the city centre. The journey took a lot longer than the 50 minutes advertised and seemed to spend ages on the approach to the Stade de France. It did however mean that I got a good view of the stadium that was to be used in the opening ceremony for the 2016 European Championship.

I met John at the Grand Hotel opposite the same shopping centre I’d said goodbye to Victoria only 6 days earlier. The weather couldn’t have been any more of a contrast, where as a week before I’d been cold and soaked on this occasion I was overheating. Luckily John had a beer waiting for me and it was very pleasant sitting outside the bar with a nice view of the Opera House.

Eventually we made way to the hotel which was simple enough to find, hung our Euro 2016 flag up (just as a bit of fun), unpacked, freshened up and finally made our way back out to get dinner. We eventually set upon a restaurant called The Crêperie Framboise Champs Elysées which offered a deal which included a main crepe, dessert crepe and a drink.

Some may have relaxed at a local bar whereas we went straight in to exploration mode. We made the most of our location and walked up the Champs Elysées to the famous Arc de Triomphe. The queue to get in was long, no doubt because it was the first sunny evening since the previous Saturday but we persevered. We made it to the top just in time for the wonderful pink sunset and then in the distance John noticed a thunderstorm with flashes of lightning which looked quite spectacular. We stayed until it was dark and security started to clear people off.

Once we were back on ground level we decided to walk to the Eiffel Tower. Due to its size and the beam of light we knew what direction to head in and it was a fairly simple journey. We arrived at the same bridge Victoria and I had passed under a week before when we had desperately tried to catch our cruise. The path we had walked along was still quite a few feet under water due to the recent floods and the river was running incredibly fast.

We watched a bit of the famous light display which was impressive and although vendors tried to sell us some beers we politely declined. It seemed everyone else in the park had taken up the option and there was a good relaxed vibe, although a lot of litter. Eventually we decided to go home and opted for a taxi rather than public transport. We’d certainly made the most of our first evening and once we were back in the hotel we both fell asleep almost as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

Tuesday 7th June
The next morning I was up first and once we were both ready we went down to breakfast. We were in good time when we left the hotel to get the train to Versailles which was good because the mainline station was on 2 levels and there was no central departure board showing which level or platform we needed. The usual, more simple route recommended for tourists was suspended due to the floods and due to a national strike there were less trains on the route we intended to use which meant the train was also particularly busy.

We arrived in Versailles and without seeing any signs made our way in the direction which seemed most direct however it meant we accidentally bypassed the main street through the town which would probably have been a more interesting walk. Once we arrived John got a photo with his Yorkshire flag however it hadn’t escaped the attention of the security team who promptly removed it from him as soon as his bag was searched.

The queue to get in to the palace was quite long however moved fairly quickly. We were given a free audio guide which provided an interesting commentry of the different room. I had expected the rooms to look grand however I was utterly stunned by the decoration of some, particularly the Room of Mirrors. I’ve been fortunate to have visited Buckingham Palace, the Taj Mahal and the Alhambra however I think the decorations and luxury of the rooms in the Palace of Versailles beats all three.

After we left the Palace rooms we looked down on to the Gardens before making our way to the the Grand Trianon. The gardens at the Alhambra had been impressive and Hampton Court has its maze but the fountains and scale of Versailles knocked both out of the park. It was utterly staggering and seemed to grow in grandeur once we picked our way through past the different fountains as classical music gently played in the background.

Eventually we took the main path down the centre, past numerous statues towards the huge 3km man made canal the start of which was marked by a modern man made waterfall dominating the skyline. We took the wrong path to the Grand Trianon but we weren’t in a hurry and had explored an area we might not have done otherwise.

The Grand Trianon was built as the private retreat for Louis XIV, later the residence of Napoleon and still used to host foreign officials. It didn’t appear quite as grand as the main Palace but it still had some interesting rooms and lavish furnishings. We walked around the house relatively quickly before walking around the gardens and then towards the Petit Trianon via the

The Petit Trianon was Marie Antoinette’s private residence. History has given her a reputation for spending money and whilst there were hints of heavy spending many of the decorations had been sold after the revolution to raise funds. It is likely our senses had been spoilt by the main Palace and perhaps we were also feeling a bit tired because the rooms didn’t quite have the same impact as those we had seen earlier. After leaving the Petit Trianon we briefly rested under the Temple de L’Armour Pavilion before we continued to a historical “Village”, Hameau de la Reine.

The village was built around a lake and was meant to represent how rural France appeared on the eve of the revolution. When we arrived it seemed a bit too neat, almost resembling a historic Disneyland and I therefore assumed it was a modern creation. It wasnt, it had actually been commissioned by Marie Antoinette in 1783. The money that was clearly spent on such a folly when most of the population was in poverty was staggering. It was however good for the modern tourist and it was a very pleasant and pretty place to stroll around.

By now we had seen all the main sites but decided to explore the gardens and the water fountains in greater depth as we made our way back to the Palace and exit. The gardens were quite simply unreal and the more we walked the larger the area appeared to become. We watched a display at the Mirror Pool which was in time to classical music before we continued to the modern Theatre Grove. Along the way we saw other grand fountains including Apollo’s Bath Grove

We retrieved John’s Yorkshire flag on our exit and decided to have dinner in Versailles rather than trying to find somewhere in Paris. We found a nice looking bar/Café on the main street and it was nice to relax outside in the sun. I had a croque Monsieur which was really good and we stayed for a couple of wines before making our way to the station.

Finding the train back to Paris was easier and whilst it was initially busy by the next station we were each able to find a seat and eventually I dosed off. We made our back to the hotel and both perhaps relaxed slightly longer than we should have which meant we were in a slight rush to get ready.

We arrived at the iconic Moulin Rouge, shown to our seats which weren’t the best, and were presented with a complimentary bottle of champagne. Even so it was more about the experience and the show was stunning. A particular highlight was two dancers on roller skates who performed a number of moves which looked impossible and The Can Can which predictably got the crowd going. The set and costumes were spectacular and it was definitely an unforgettable experience. After the show we decided to have a drink at the café across the road whilst we pondered our next move. We didn’t have to be up early the next day and perhaps because of the adrenaline from the show we weren’t quite ready to head home. As a happy compromise we found a nice bar near the hotel where, because we’d developed a taste for it, decided to continue with a couple of glasses of Champagne and stayed out for a further hour or so.

Wednesday 8th June
The next morning we both woke up tired, dehydrated and mildly hungover. We were both in need of a fry up but the only offering at the hotel was the standard continental breakfast. John and I were doing separate sightseeing days but prior to going our own ways we decided to take our flag to the Stade de France.

We walked to the metro station via the Grand Palace in a park just off from the Champs-Élysées. We arrived at the stadium and got a couple of pictures but it didn’t have the vibe of somewhere that would be full of colour and noise in 2 days time. The graffiti on the giant Euro 2016 sign was also a reminder that parts of the Saint Denis area of Paris are still a bit edgy and a football tournament will not gloss over that fact.

John and I then headed off in separate directions though my simple looking journey to the Catacombs involved more walking than anticipated because the route around the stadium was fenced off (understandably) for security reasons. I’d known since being in Paris with Victoria that I wanted to visit the catacombs but it hadn’t occurred to me that I should book tickets. I was therefore somewhat horrified when I arrived and saw the length of the queue. I must have spent well over an hour and 15 minutes in the line and whilst I patiently waited I read a very moving article about how it is hoped football can unite the divided French society following the recent terrorist attacks.

Just walking down in to the catacombs felt errie, even more so than the ones I’d visited in Rome which these were named after. Whilst I looked at some of the information boards I preferred to rely on the audio guide as I slowly made my way through the different tunnels. Originally a mine system, the tunnels fell in to a state of disrepair and some collapsed in the 18th century. The solution was to reinforce the walls and to turn them in to a mass burial site because the main cemetery was also full. Overtime they then became a tourist attraction and the chambers even hosted classical music concerts.

I spent longer than planned and still had a lot I wanted to see before meeting back up with John. As I made my way to the Père Lachaise Cemetery, arguably the most visited Cemetery in the world I suddenly remembered that my friend Emily had recommended I visit the Sainte Chapelle. I just happened to be at the nearest station when I remembered so I quickly jumped off the train just as the doors were closing. It was a great recommendation. Recently I’d felt a bit blasé about visiting churches and Cathedral’s but the stained glass windows at the Sainte Chapelle had even me gasping at their magnificence.

I looked around for a bit, hunting for the “Rose Line” thinking it was the church from the Da Vinci code but eventually after looking on different tourist websites, some which said it was at Sainte Chapelle realised it was elsewhere. Rather than going directly to the cemetery I went on another detour to the Republic Square which was very moving because it had been turned in to a makeshift memorial to those that were killed on 13th November 2015.

Having had quite a macabre day I felt quite sombre when I did eventually turn up at the cemetery. I only had an hour to look around before it closed but I felt that was all I needed. It was quite sobering, and despite being in the city, very quiet. I started by visiting the Communards’ Wall a memorial to 147 victims of the revolution. I then continued on to Oscar Wilde’s grave before reaching the one for the Lizard King Jim Morrison which had friendship bracelets attached to the barricade.

Security were keen to ensure everyone left on time so I and a group of Americans were hurried out just before the official closing time. Due to a particularly loud barking dog I had no intention of disobeying the orders. I then walked down to the site where the Infamous Bastille had stood. Now a column commemorating the July Revolution of 1830.

It was slightly later than I planned when after catching the metro and train I finally arrived at the Invalids Hotel. Effectively I’d done the revolution backwards because they’d broken in to the Invalids Hotel to collect weapons before storming the Bastille and blowing it up. It now housed a military museum but my intention had just been to see the famous building from the outside.

I made it back to the hotel slightly later than planned and as we had both had a busy exploring the streets of Paris decided to go for a meal and drink locally. We opted for Le president where we sat on the seats outside with a couple of drinks and I finally had French onion soup followed by a salad. We planned to go in another bar on the way back to the hotel but it was shut so we won’t straight home.

Thursday 9th June
We had packed the night before so once we had showered we went down for breakfast and after checking out made our way to Paris Montparnasse. This was the same station we’d used to get to Versailles so we were familiar with the layout. We arrived shortly before the platform was announced and found out seats on the famous TGV without any difficulties. Our next stop was Bordeaux.