Thursday 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.