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Trip Report Trip Report: Bordeaux, Aquitaine, Midi, Dordogne, Paris - June 2011

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Price are as of June 2011 and cannot reflect subsequent inflation or currency fluctuations.

After our trip through Italy (, we flew from Basel to Bordeaux. We chose to stay in Bordeaux for two nights because that meant that our car rental would fit within the Visa CDW coverage guidelines. Otherwise we would have had to rent cars for two separate periods. We needed a small car for the first half of our stay, and a larger one for the second half because our visitors would otherwise have been uncomfortable in the back seat. I stuck to the idea of splitting the rental, thinking that it would reduce the cost if we took a small car for the first two weeks, but the Kemwel representative called me back to tell me that the rental of a compact for the entire period of time was cheaper than the total of two separate rentals, not even taking into account the saving in not paying for a second RR station pickup. The total cost for the rental was $785.31 plus $102 for the RR station pick up and the obligatory road tax. With the add-ons, our rental cost came to $28.56 per day. For that we were given a Peugeot 308 diesel which appeared to go 1200 km. on a tank of fuel (I had gone 900 km. when there was a quarter tank left), driving mainly on back roads.

We knew Bordeaux from before, and decided to revisit the city because we were curious to see what they had done with the waterfront which was under construction the last time we were there. It is now a nice combination of walkways, bike lanes, grassy areas and fountains. The Sunday market is still there. We had lunch there, getting some wine at one stand and seafood at another (oysters and <i<bulots). The oysters were not the greatest, and we realized this later when we had some fabulous ones in the Arcachon area. But other things can be purchased at the market for those interested in getting a picnic lunch. We also walked into the old town, stumbling upon a beautiful living wall constructed on two sides of a children’s playground. Bordeaux’s decorative arts museum is worth a visit; don’t be put off by the first rooms which are memorials to the late Bourbon dynasty (the Restoration period--1815 to 1830) collected by some royalist enthusiast. The museum was free, but I do not know if it is every Sunday or was free because it was the first Sunday of the month. We ate at le Petit Commerce, a restaurant that I recommend for its fish and seafood, reservations advisable. We had a much cheaper meal at le Comptoir Irlandais, where for 30 € total we ate the following meal, a glass of wine included:

1 vegetable salad
1 seafood salad
Chicken and beans
ray and rice
tarte aux pommes
2 scoops of sorbet

It was ordinary, but the price was right.

Walking around Bordeaux, I stumbled upon Cognac Only Boutique, 18 r Jean Jacques Rousseau, which could interest cognac aficionados. For a more general store of Bordelais/Southwest French specialties, Le Comptoir Bordelais, a few steps from the Opera house, would be the place to visit ( ); I picked up a couple of bottles there: a barrel aged Lillet and a cherry/piment d’Espelette apéritif.

We stayed at the Hotel de l’Opéra ( ) which was fine. The room is small, giving into a narrow courtyard or large air shaft, depending on point of view, but it is well located and the price is right: 55 € per night with a complimentary bottle of Bordeaux and two so-so canneles; these were offered for weekend guests, but we had to push to get them (available only by request at the moment of reservation). The hotel, as its name indicates, is right by the opera house. We had previously stayed there, with a room giving out to the street. Those rooms might be larger than the back rooms, but will be noisier, especially if the windows are kept open. I did not notice any AC except for a unit blowing over the entry of the stairwell. The central location of the hotel is what makes it appealing. When we arrived at the airport, I was considering the airport shuttle, which we had just missed, when I noticed a city bus at the stop just behind the shuttle stop. It turns out that for 1.50 € per person, one can get from the airport to the Esplanade des Quinconces which is one block form the hotel and in the center of Bordeaux. It’s a long bus ride, but since we started at the beginning and went to the end, the issue of maneuvering luggage on public transportation did not exist--no trying to push your way through either getting on or getting off. Leaving Bordeaux was just as easy. The Esplanade is the end of the line for all (?) streetcar lines, and we could grab one that went directly to the train station where we picked up our car.

It used to be that the car rental agencies were at the main hall of the train station, and one year I remember picking up the car parked on a side street. This has changed, and not to the better. When arriving at the train station, whether by train or by streetcar, one must cross the tracks via an underground tunnel to get to exit opposite the train station--the web site for Europcar at the Bordeaux train station is absolutely wrong; the rental agency in on the rue Carle Vernet. There there is a building for the all the rental agencies. We went to the Europcar counter where the agent tried to scare me into purchasing collision insurance, warning me that if I totaled the car, I was responsible for the 15,000 € value of the car and they were keeping a record of my credit card for that purpose; I did not tell her that I had a $10,000 limit on my card. We are given the keys to the car and have to walk a few hundred yards to a parking area by the RR tracks to pick up the car. The train station is on the south side of Bordeaux and we drove off to go to Ikea which is on the north side of Bordeaux. Traffic was terrible. It probably would have been faster to spend more time on the bus to pick up the car at the airport on the west side of Bordeaux, cutting our road travel to Ikea in half. We went to Ikea to look for some replacement furniture for our house in the Dordogne. We did not find any, but did purchase an area rug which turned out to be somewhat smaller than the original one--we had lost our note giving the original dimensions. From there we left for the Arcachon area.

Here are the photos of Bordeaux, taken over a period of time:

Our brief trip to the southwest of France consisted of three sections: 1. the bassin d’Arcachon and the Landes, 2. the Basque area, and 3. the area that I call the Midi (I have not gotten used to the Midi-Pyrénées nomenclature) on our way to the Dordogne.

The Arcachon area is very appealing, with water and beaches everywhere, interspersed with fishing and oyster gathering villages. But I would not want to be there in the height of the tourist season. With the sand and sea appeal, I would imagine it to be very crowded, at least in the towns and on the safer beaches of the bassin itself. The ocean side was extremely windy when we were there, and I suspect that the waters may be a little dangerous. We drove to the Cap Ferret to admire the view (there is very little parking at the very tip--I would not advise going there on a weekend or at height of season). We then went back to the village of L’Herbe where we had oysters that put the oysters at the Sunday market in Bordeaux to shame. We did not choose the first establishment that offered oysters, but walked into the village and at the other end there is another establishment (Sceo Cap’Olivier) with open air sitting giving a view of the boats anchored in the bay. A note: if using the French Atlantic Coast Green Guide (so badly organized compared to the older guides) and following the driving tour Cap Ferret to Dune du Pilat, the Villa Algérienne (closed for renovation when we were there) is just in the opposite direction from L’Herbe when walking from the parking lot--the signage and the written directions are just lousy. We looked for it before going to L’Herbe, could not find it, tried when leaving L’Herbe and found ourselves back in the same parking area along the waterfront and decided to try walking in the opposite direction--voilà. It’s not an essential stop, and I suspect that the chapel that remains is just a simple curiosity. But it might be worth looking for it if stopping in L’Herbe.

From L’Herbe we drove to Arès and looked for a B&B. I had my list. The first one was full but recommended another place, giving me the phone number. I did not realize that it was a hotel. I think that it was a one-star or starless establishment that had just been taken over by a young couple. It was a little worn, but clean, called La Petite Auberge, 54€ per night (,or.r_gc.r_pw.&biw=1024&bih=572&um=1&ie=UTF-8&q=La+petite+Auberge,+Ar%C3%A8s,+France&fb=1&gl=us&hq=La+petite+Auberge,&hnear=0xd54a154ecf98767:0x30dc2ab9d7979d8,Ar%C3%A8s,+France&cid=16626777411210821186 ). They gave us an excellent recommendation for a restaurant in Andernos which we would have never found otherwise: Chez Eliette ( ) which offers good seafood and fish; it is located in the fishing port itself.

The next day we drove around the bassin d’Arcachon to the Dune de Pilat. By chance I found an entrance whee we could park on a residential street instead of using the paid parking. But it meant climbing to the top of the dune without the aid of the wooden walkway available when taking the official entrance. The view from the top is impressive, and the wind was incredible. When turning my back to the wind, it ripped my glasses off. It’s definitely worth a visit. We drove off inland into the Landes. We arrived in Sanguinet around lunch time, and stopped in the local eatery for lunch the plat du jour with wine and coffee came to 8€ ( --a pretentious web site for what it is). After lunch we went on to Sabres to visit the outdoor museum of Marquèze ( ). It's access is by a period train only, which gives a sense of moving back in time, but it was somewhat disappointing. One has to admire the attempts at engaging and educating the young, but some of the presentation become then juvenile for the adults; our educational needs are sometimes overlooked. In addition, the museum was not yet organized for its summer season, so that there were few animals around, even though it was to represent the farm system of the Landes. I much prefer Guédelon ( ), perhaps because it is a work in progress, or the Eco-musée near Rennes ( ), perhaps because it is partially a working farm.

We called ahead of time and found a B&B in Ascain in the Basque country. We arrived there quite late and had some difficulties in finding it because it is located a few kilometers from Ascain, right by the La Rhune cog railway. The turn-off to the B&B is the driveway at the edge of the parking lot for the railway. “Galardia” --54 € to 56 € for a room per night (tel.: 05 59 54 28 37)-- is run by Mme. Vacquié, spotless rooms--ours was quite large, as was the bathroom, but because of the slope of the roof, it only had a bathtub with a hand-held shower and no enclosure around the tub. Fortunately because of that same ceiling limitation, there was a marble ledge between the bathtub and the wall, so that one could sit on that ledge and use the shower comfortably, thus not spraying water all over the floor. The location would be perfect for exploring the French Basque country: on the east of the pass are the towns of Sare, Ainhoa and Espelette, and on the west side is the coast from Bayonne to Hendaye; nature is right there on La Rhune. She recommended a restaurant in Ascain, and we raced down the mountain because it was getting late. The Hotel de la Rhune was open, we had a very ordinary meal for 61.50€ for two. But they were willing to serve us at 10:30 p.m., so I am not complaining. We could stay at the B&B only two nights because the room had been reserved for the following night. When we left, Mme. Vacquié gave us a small can of homemade pâté.

Our one full day in that area was spent going to Bayonne, Saint Jean de Luz and Hendaye for a walk to the Spanish side to have tapas. Bayonne is well organized touristically. It has parking lots near its old walls with a minimal 2€ parking fee for the day. Each parking lot has a shuttle stop which is free throughout the old city of Bayonne. No struggle with narrow non-parallel one-way streets; just park and take the shuttle. It has a covered market where we purchased our items for a picnic lunch, a nice old town, and a Basque Museum which has a mix of folk items and “nationalistic” items, the latter of little interest to us. We picnicked in a little park in front of the cathedral. Saint Jean de Luz has a nice old town. We visited the Maison Louis XIV, which is interesting for its period furniture, although it is not quite like a museum. It is similar to still occupied chateaux that can be visited but which mix of period furniture with more recent family items. Only one floor is visited, but the central staircase has an interior bridge between the two sides of the house, similar to Owen-Thomas house in Savannah ( ) said to be an unusual design. I wonder if this was inspired by ship construction as the house was owned by a 17th cent. whaling captain who eventually amassed a fortune. It’s called the Louis XIV house because it was his residence while his engagement to Maria Theresa of Spain was arranged. We drove to Hendaye, hoping to find Spanish restaurant in the town, but we found ourselves near the RR station which is somewhat run down neighborhood and not appealing. One place advertised tapas, but when I asked, they said no, as if I was asking for something ludicrous. It was suggested that we cross the border. The RR station is right at the border--there is a separate small station for a commuter train which runs from Hendaye to San Sebastian, which was tempting but we were not sure that we would get back on time. We parked the car on the street along the tracks and crossed the bridge to Spain. That area is no longer what it used to be. The bridge, which used to be the main crossing point, is now limited to foot traffic and we were the only ones crossing. Stores are boarded up--the tourists are gone. We did find a place which served raciones, we ordered one too many, forgetting that they tend to be large, and were happy with what we got if only because the flavors were different--but there was a paucity of vegetables. Definitely not comparable with what is available farther in the interior, such as San Sebastian.

The next day was a long one. We took the first train available to go up the La Rhune mountain. The mountain is a high point between France and Spain with wonderful views over both countries. There are decent sandwiches and pizza available on top, which is where we had lunch. We did not spend much time up there, as it was windy and it does not take long to soak up the view. Many people walk to the top if they are very fit, or just walk down if they are less fit. We chose to take the train back down. Near the base there is an old Basque house that is a sort of rural museum. We went there, but it is open only in the afternoon (perhaps also in the morning during high season) and we knew that we had quite a bit of road that day. We drove on to Sare which was our introduction to the architecture of Basque churches--they are theater like in that they have galleries on the sides and the back of the church. sometimes two stories and sometimes three stories of galleries. The fronton court in Sare reminded me of the Mayan ball courts. Ainhoa (a plus beau village) was our next stop, mainly because we wanted to see how it looked since we last saw it 9 years ago. It has not changed. Espelette is more attractive in my mind, and also more commercial as it is the pepper center of the region and has built a tourist industry around that. Its church was perhaps the best of the lot, somewhat off the tourist track. Our final stop was Orthez where we stayed in the same hotel as we did 9 years ago. The room was the same, and just as funky, but the hotel expanded by adding a new section, and the restaurant no longer seemed to offer regional cooking as it did when we first stopped there ($233 for the night and dinner). Memory misled us, we could have stayed elsewhere or driven on to another town, although I was getting tired at that point. But I discovered that the bridge in Cahors is exceptional by its size and number of towers, not by the concept of a fortified bridge. Orthez has one and so does Sauveterre-de-Béarn.

Here are the pictures of that part of the trip:

The next day we picked up lunch items in Orthez and drove off via Tillac, Bassoues, Larressingle (I picked up a bottle of local Armagnac from a store where tastings are available) and Fourcès, all small villages in the Midi that were fortified one way or another. We learned, although I did not retain the exact nomenclature, that there are three types of fortified towns: The royal towns, generally known as bastides, of which the larger ones often have a ”franche” in the name, indicating a tax break for its loyalty. Others were built by the order of local bishops, and still others built around the local lord’s castle. Driving from one village to the other gives an excellent view of that part of rural France. It is a way of getting off the main road. We had lunch by a small lake just outside Bassoues.

This are the pictures of that part of the trip, with the exception of Bonaguil:

We arrived at the house in the Dordogne, facing a 3 cubic meter pile of gravel blocking the walkway, starting our vacationer's as opposed to our tourist's European stay. So over a period of three weeks I spread the gravel out on the driveway. It was what remained of the old roof which we had replaced. I discovered that I paid for all sorts of work which was not done, and it took three weeks for the company to send a crew to do some of that work--they arrived the Friday before our last weekend in the Dordogne; we left that Monday while they were finishing their work. I’m still arguing with them, suspecting of being charged 3000 € for work which was not done (I am trying to have an independent assessment of the work) and the company says that the roof should hold, so I should be happy. I cannot find any agency like a Better Business Bureau or some government agency where I could complain about the company. So a word to the wise, if you have major work done on your house in France during your absence, you should pay an independent contractor to verify that the work is done correctly. That added cost might save a lot of headaches. The problem is in finding that independent contractor that you can trust.

Aside from our visitors, our stay is just as well reflected in the following report, minus the medical complications:

We had visitors, and we tried to show them what is essential to the area and what would appeal to their particular interests. We had one architect among our visitors, so we took her to Brantôme, where we visited the “troglodyte” area, Bourdeilles (said to be if not designed at least the construction was supervised by a woman), Périgueux for the Jean Nouvel La Vésunna museum, and the cabanes du Breuil for their dry stone construction. They also saw Sarlat and wanted to see both Rouffignac and Lascaux II. They are not fancy eaters, so the Auberge de Mirandol in Sarlat was their introduction to local food, although I think that it has gone down somewhat in quality. On the other hand, its price to portion value cannot be beat.

The other couple was more interested in touristic views, so we took them to the Dordogne valley (Domme, La Roque-Gageac), including a new venue for us: Marqueyssac which gives a wonderful view over the valley--although picnicking is not allowed, there is a location in the middle of the estate that has tables in the shade unlike the official picnic site, so we picnicked there. Our friends wanted to take us out, so we made reservations (generally needed, although perhaps not on that day) for l’Essentiel ( ) in Périgueux and had a wonderful meal. Outstanding was a raw oyster in gelée surrounded by foam. Their desserts are spectacular. We also took them on the Turenne -- Collonges-la-Rouge--Beaulieu sur Dordogne circuit and picnicked in a little shaded square in the middle of Collonges, just us and another couple. Our friends also wanted to see Rouffignac and Lascaux II.

Rouffignac and Lasscaux II presented an interesting contrast. For Lascaux II, one set had a guide who could only spout the set program and was unable to elaborate. The other set had a archaeological student as a guide who studied under one of the experts on cave art, and could therefore explain and elaborate on all sorts of things after the official tour. My wife and I did not see Lascaux II this time, but I had to translate for the Rouffignac cave. Rouffignac presents a different situation in that there is a relatively long train ride in to see the art, so that the driver must explain or anticipate far more than the guides in Lascaux II. The guides we’ve had present a more intellectual view of the art, in that they argue that the Rouffignac artist must have been a single person (the curve of the back of the dozen + mammoths is exactly the same, as drawn by the same hand) and must have imagined the animals in their mind since in some cases they could not see what they drew in its entirety because of the size of the drawing in the limited space that was available. In other words, nothing “primitive” about the drawings. Yet the Rouffignac drawings are 5,000 years younger (closer to our era) than the Lascaux drawings, are monochrome and mostly line drawings. One of our friends was completely thrown by this, because it negates any idea of progress in cave drawings. I just pointed out that there is in our mind a similar relationship between Medieval art and Greco-Roman art, which is why we speak of a Renaissance.

In between the visits and shoveling gravel, we went to a market almost every day and celebrated an anniversary at l’Imaginaire ($175) in Terrasson-la-Villedieu ( ), which is definitely worth a visit. The locale is more attractive than l’Essentiel, although the food is perhaps a little less imaginative. I think of l’Imaginaire more as a destination because it is not in the middle of a large town like l’Essentiel; the clientele of the former appears of a slightly better class. Both restaurants are starred by Michelin.

We left the Dordogne at the end of the month.

Pictures of Turenne, etc.:

We traveled only the the Périgord Noir and Vert this time:

From the Dordogne we went directly to La Borne to visit our friend. In the day that we stayed there, we visited La Borne’s new ceramics showroom (all the ceramics are expensive) where we experience the credit card machine that no longer has a swipe option; the person behind the desk was very apologetic, and we had to pay cash for our purchase. We also went to the Jean Linard compound which is officially closed but can be visited ( ). Unfortunately it is already suffering from the lack of upkeep and occasional vandalism even though it is far out in the countryside. It can best be thought of as a rural version of Watts Towers, except that Linard was an artist. We also visited le jardin des Dietzs which also has whimsical figures here and there within the greenery ( ). It is a large garden maintained by the owner all by herself.

Here are the pictures around La Borne:

From there we went to Paris and stayed with friends for four days. We went to the Cité de l’Architecture to see its copies of old and new architecture--there is a reproduction of a Le Corbusier apartment from the cité radieuse in Marseilles. We also saw the MQB for a couple of hours, still impressed by the garden and how it has filled in, and unhappy about the interior which has a claustrophobic feeling to it. We also visited the Fondation Cartier in a Jean Nouvel building which had a voodoo exhibit. But more exceptional was the walk from Parcs et Jardins de Paris ... à pied starting with the parc George Brassens and ending at the parc de l’Atlantique behind the gare Montparnasse. It offered a view of green spaces, but also of new infill (quite common in the outer reaches of the 15th and 14th arrondissements) as well as the remains of an older Paris such as the villa Santos-Dumont.

Aside from a block party and eating at our friends’ house, the two memorable meals were at Eat Intuition, 53, rue de Charenton ( ) where our friends took us for a very inventive and well prepared meal, and Les Quilles, 123 Bd Ménilmontant ( ) where we invited our friends to celebrate my wife’s birthday. It’s bistro food, good but our friend who had chosen the restaurant had done better for us in the past. For eleven persons the cost was 414 € with 7 persons taking the 25 € menu with a 5 € add-on.

Our return trip was not the best. Our flight from JFK to SFO was canceled and we spent the night in an airport hotel with a $10 (!!!) voucher for dinner. The hotel had terrible service and hamburgers. Nothing was under $10 except small snacks. We had to pay an extra $5 each above the voucher, and that included an automatic service charge. My wife complained to the airline and we received a $250 voucher for our troubles. We arrive in SFO, are picked up by friends using my car, and within a mile of the house we get rear-ended. At the end we got $600 out of it because the repairs were less than the check from the insurance company who was not interested in being refunded the difference. I open my mail and see a ticket with an added fee for late payment issued to my “unregistered” car at the beginning of June in southern California--the car happened to be of a different make. I send in a copy of my registration to point out the error, and the appeal is denied. After a few phone calls all is straightened out.

Our walk in Paris took place in this set:

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