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Trip Report: Southwest France-Aquitaine Spring 2010

Trip Report: Southwest France-Aquitaine Spring 2010

Jul 25th, 2010, 03:47 PM
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Trip Report: Southwest France-Aquitaine Spring 2010

TRIP REPORT- SOUTHWEST FRANCE SPRING 2010
July 25, 2010
Area of Travel: Bordeaux area, Bike Trip to Aquitaine Coast, France and Spain Basque Country
Timeframe: May 26-June 12
Trip Budget: Moderate
Map: Aquitaine: Michelin 524 Regional France

Day 1: Arrive Paris CDG airport late morning from SLC. Walked to TGV train terminal in airport, but discovered the TGV from CDG to Bordeaux was cancelled due to a strike. Took RER B train and subway 4 to Montparnesse train station, and catch another high speed TGV to Bordeaux. The train was US $127 per person for standard class, purchased in advance from Rail Europe. It may have been cheaper to buy the ticket at the station, as I believe Rail Europe has a hefty mark-up. Discovered that this train will not be stopping in Libourne, so continue to Bordeaux and take local TER train back to Libourne, then taxi to St. Emilion. Stayed at La Petite Madeleine Bed and Breakfast (90 Euros/night; dinner 18 E/person) and enjoyed 4 course home cooked dinner prepared by host, including local fish, duck, vegetables, and cheese plate. Great location, wonderful host and hostess. There are trails, vineyards, and caves next to the facility to explore, plus bicycles for riding into St. Emilion. B & B is about 2 km from St. Emilion. Phone: 00 33 05 57 24 78 45.
Day 2: Explore St. Emilion UNESCO world heritage sites. Took one of the local self guided hikes outside of town; great views. Tour of underground church was fascinating and had good views of the town from the church bell tower. Great tourist information office in town by church.
Day 3: TER train back to Bordeaux. Stayed at Hotel Majestic, about one block from the main tourist information office downtown. Clean, reasonable price at 87 E/night for double standard. Right around the corner from the tourist office; one block from river and palace. Phone: 33 05 56 52 60 40.
Day 4: Toured Bordeaux: River walkway, main palace by river with great fountain, Museum of Fine Arts, main church (be sure to walk up the bell tower for an amazing view). Got map from tourist office for self-guided walking tour, which lasted us all day and guides you over about 5 kilometers of amazing sights/architecture/history.
Day 5: Got list of bike rentals from tourist office. Arranged rental of two touring bikes from Tempovelo, 5-7 av Charles de Gaulle, Bordeaux 05 56 02 54 77; cell 06 65 71 18 58. Rented 2 21- speed Winora bikes with panniers, locks, tool kit, and lights for 100 E/each for 7 days! Great service by very friendly young staff and owner. Procured several cycling and road maps, and with the additional help of a GPS we cycled out of Bordeaux and rode 66 kilometers to Lacanau-Ocean. Excellent paved bike trails; a little confusing finding the path out of town (make sure to get “La Vie Velo: Carte Du Reseau Cyclable” map for the bike trails in the Bordeaux region. Also Gironde: Carnet de Voyages Cyclo. Stopped along the way at a pastry shop right next to the trail in St. Medard en-Jalles. The bike trail is not on the highway; it is a designated trail system and in many places cuts through countryside in remote areas away from any major roads. Stayed in two stars Hotel at ocean front in Lacanau Ocean, Hotel L’Oyat for 75 E. Was OK hotel, with tacky décor, but great location and price. Owner was upset we didn’t eat at his hotel restaurant.
Day 6: Lacanau Ocean reminds me of typical tourist traps you find on the Washington or Oregon coast, such as Seaside or Long Beach, with lots of trinket shops, pizza restaurants, and the like schlocking up the area near the beach. However, the ocean is terrific and check out the old Aquitaine style cottages in the residential areas. It is possible to rent mountain or touring bikes in Lacanau if you want to drive there, and then use this town as a base (same for many of the coastal towns, such as Cap Ferret. Went to tourist office and got large brochure with hundreds of available hotels, bed and breakfasts [Chambres d’Hotes] in Arcachon area. With the help of another map (Plan des pistes cyclables et du GR8), we struck out on the wonderful trail system that stretches from Soulac su-mer, at the mouth of the Gironde River, all the way to the border with Spain at Biarritz/Hendaye. From Soulac to Cap Ferret, the terrain has lots of wild ocean front and huge blocks of pine forests. There are several nudist resorts in this area, and many of the beaches appeared to be “clothing optional”. Did a 31 kilometer loop bicycle ride from Lacanau Ocean up to Carcans Ocean, inland to Lac de Carcans (picnic on a beach at the lake), back south to Le Huga, and then back to Lacanau Ocean. Nice paved trails, pine forests, and old ranger cabins in the forest near the beaches. Some of the trails were asphalt and some were concrete or large concrete slabs.
Day 7: Saddled up on the bikes and rode about 25 km down the coast to Cap Ferret. Stopped at beaches along the way. Trails on the coast were well signed, in good repair in most sections, and a GPS is not necessary. Stayed at fantastic B & B in Cap Ferret: Chez Annie ([email protected]; 05 56 60 66 25). No English spoken here, but most lovely hostess, cozy new cabins, and nice breakfast. The Arcachon bay area is a popular French tourist region, and there are lots of choices of areas for lodging. If you don’t like large cities, crowds, and noise, Cap Ferret is great: nice beaches, oyster farming, village atmosphere, etc. There are also bike rental outlets in town, such as Cyclos-Cap (05 56 60 47 15, www.cyclos-cap.com ).
Day 8: Got back on the bikes and rode about 20 km, going north from Cap Ferrret to L’Herbe, Le Canon, Lcaouey, and to the Reserve Naturelle at the top of the bay to see the mini-museum of the Pine Tree tappers. Lots of stops along the way in these small villages to rest at the beach, eat pastries, and see an old Moorish style church. Highlight was a stop at the fish ponds in Piraillan, to see a white heron bird sanctuary right along the coastal road. Hundreds of herons, along with cranes and hawks in a slough-like area closed to motor vehicles.
Day 9: Took boat ferry across bay to Arcachon and rode another 25 km to Gujan Mestras and back into Arcachon via La Teste de Buch. Along the way, found an old boat canal near La Hume gare and road a few kilometers in a beautiful green belt area. Bike trails were near road for most of the day, with more traffic noise and congestion. Great collection of sculptures on the beach front walk in Arcachon. Town is very busy and definitely a tourist trap. Some great old mansions in town if you are into architecture. Boat ferry back to Cap Ferret.
Day 10: Ferry back to Arcachon, TER train back to Bordeaux with our bikes (fare was 8 E each). Returned bikes and took TGV to Biarritz. Rented Avis car at train station. Note: you are eligible for a discount at Avis if you arrive on the TGV; they also rent at the Biarritz airport. The total cost for a diesel Ford Focus was 339.85 Euros for 6 days, and the car got great mileage (waived the CDW insurance option). The service at the Avis office was great. Stayed at Hotel Maitagaria for 68 E for double (05 59 24 26 65, www.hotel-maitagaria.com).Clean, comfortable hotel next to city park; quiet at night. Did not pay the extra to eat breakfast. Spent the day in Bayonne, touring the old city, visiting museums (went to the art museum, but missed the famous Basque museum). Very helpful tourist office in Bayonne. Enjoyed walking the old city, visiting chocolate and pastry shops. Great architecture: the bridges, the churches, fort, train station, and buildings fronting the river. Enjoyed pintxos (tapas-like appetizers) at a local bar next to the river, along with the traditional hard Basque apple cider. The cider is a bit on the vinegar-tasting side, compared to the French sparkling hard cider made in Normandy.
Day 11: Drove 30 minutes to San Sebastian, Spain. Walked to top of fort, aquarium, city hall (Hotel D’Ville), old city with multitude of tapas bars, main church, and beach. Went to tourist office and they set us up with an amazing hotel: Hotel Palacio de Aiete, up on the hill overlooking the harbor phone: 34 943 21 00 71, [email protected]; www.hotelpalaciodeaiete.com). Paid for the hotel at the tourist office; about 60 E, which was the best lodging price of the entire trip. The hotel is very new, modern, clean, and almost like a sleek style Hampton Inn with a European flair. Had a great meal in the hotel restaurant and was most pleased; one of the best moderate-priced meals on the trip.
Day 12: Drove north from San Sebastian on the N-1 to the Leitzaran Green Way trail along the Leitzaran River. Hiked about 15 km on the old railway turned well-groomed trail, passing through old Basque farms and beautiful countryside. Trail is very well signed and has small signs identifying local plants. It passes through several restored train tunnels and appears to be a popular biking trail with locals. Drove to the nearby Basque town of Tolosa and toured the old town and monuments. Planned on staying at one of the local bed and breakfasts, but had language barrier problems and ended up staying at a Spanish hotel chain plastic hotel near the freeway in Olaberria, Hotel Castillo. Bad news: extremely noisy from the highway, tacky room and furnishing, and nothing interesting nearby. Foot note: the city hall in Tolosa was bombed by the Basque separatists a few years back.
Day 13: Plugged in the GPS and headed from Spain back into France through the low Pyrenees via N121B. Beautiful country and lots of B and B’s to stay in along the way. Lots of small villages with the traditional Basque houses. Stopped at the pass at Col d’Ispeguy and had a great view of St. Etienne-de-Baigorry. The pass is right on the Spain/France border. Right next to the small restaurant at the pass is a great trail system that takes you into amazing beech forests. The trails are well marked and a great way to get a feel for the Pays Basque country side. After the hike, dropped into St. Etienne and took lodging at Hotel Arce, which came highly recommended. The hotel has a gourmet restaurant, and is located right on a picturesque setting by the river and the church. This was the best hotel of the trip and was 125 E/night. The breakfast was 11 E per person and was taken in a small tea room right on the river (phone: 33 05 59 37 40 14 www.hotel-arce.com ). Although the guide books touts the nearby St. Jean Pied-de-Port for its attractions, this town was much nicer, quieter, and more beautiful than St. Jean. Could have stayed two weeks instead of two nights! Nearby, one can take cheese tours and visit all the sheep cheese operations, sampling the different Basque farmstead cheeses. At the small tourist office, one can get a map of all the local trails (55 balades et randonnees en Pays Basque). It is possible to hike from St. Etienne to St. Jean, and to a multitude of other nearby villages. There are trails for pedestrians, mountain bikes, and horses. We started the day driving to Les Aldudes and taking a side trip to Esnazu, where there is a small trail around the village. Then we went back to St. Etienne and hiked almost to the top of a nearby peak with the Chapelle Oilandoi at the top. The countryside was green and gorgeous.
Day 14: Explored the local area and drove to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port. Very busy, but quaint Basque village with old town.
Day 15: Drove back to Biarritz via Osses, Espelette, Ainhoa, and Sare. Enjoyed one farmers market and the city hall and church in Espelette. Purchased the most amazing yoghurt we have ever tasted: Gerezia “Yaourt de Brebis Brasse”, made in Esplette. This was sheep’s yoghurt with cherry preserves. Don’t miss the incredible cheese store in Esplette, where we purchased this product. All of the Basque villages were quaint, but more overrun by tourists as we got closer to the coast. The train in Sare is a big hype: it is not in the mountains in the Pyrenees; rather it goes up a large hill that overlooks the coast and the ocean. For those that can’t hike, it may be worthwhile, but as we drove passed we were impressed by the huge lines to take a short ride. Stated at Hotel Maitagaria in Biarritz again and had a great room overlooking the fish pond and gardens.
Day 16: Caught the morning TGV from Biarritz back to Paris. Paid US $114/each for first class seats. The extra expense probably was not worth it, as the seats and views were just as good as the standard seats. The trip took almost 6 hours to the Montparnasse station in Paris. From there, took the subway to the Louvre area and stayed at Hotel Louvre Forum (01 42 36 54 19 www.paris-hotel-louvre-forum.com) . The cost for one double room, plus breakfast for two (advanced booked) was 155 E. The hotel is on a side street and is relatively quiet and very clean. Walked over to the Louvre Museum and had no problem buying tickets (9.5 E/each at kiosk) at the IM Pei pyramid entrance, as it was around 5:30 pm Friday night. Visited a few wings of the museum, and marveled at the treasures inside.
Day 17: Took the CDG Paris airport shuttle from the opera house back to the airport (only a 10 minute walk from Hotel Louvre Forum). Very inexpensive, but allow lots of extra time ( at least 3 hours) from departure to the time of one’s flight, due to traffic jams in route and at the airport. My wife had a crochet hook in her purse, which also slowed us down through security and made for great consternation of security personnel. There were lots of security checks at the airport; at least 3 passport checks were required. Delta flight back to SLC with no delays for volcanoes.
ElPelar is offline  
Jul 25th, 2010, 04:42 PM
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I enjoyed your report even though I am not a biker. What a wonderful way to see France.
TPAYT is offline  
Jul 25th, 2010, 05:28 PM
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Thank you, TPAYT. We found France very bike friendly, and drivers were much more courteous to bikers than you will find in most places in the US. I think cycling has a "national sport" status in France that lends some respect...
ElPelar is offline  
Jul 25th, 2010, 06:09 PM
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Thanks for this. For future reference you do not want to use RailEurope NOR do you want to buy tickets on the spot. You want to go onto the French National Railway (SNCF) site and buy PREM tickets about 3 months before your trip. A ride from CDG or Montparnasse in 2nd class on the TGV would have cost you about $30.

Thanks for the info on Cap Ferret and Arcachon - been there many times and never saw any of that!
StCirq is offline  
Jul 26th, 2010, 02:17 AM
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Thank you! That area is one of my favorites and I enjoyed reading your report.
ekscrunchy is online now  
Jul 26th, 2010, 03:58 AM
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Join Date: Jan 2010
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Thanks for the detail about the Basque villages in both spain and France. We are headed there and will definitely follow some of your path.
jubilada is online now  
Jul 26th, 2010, 04:47 AM
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Very interesting report. thanks for the tips and details on hotels in San Sebastian and St. Etienne. Much appreciated!
Cathinjoetown is offline  
Jul 26th, 2010, 07:32 AM
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Interesting trip! What gps system did you use, we had a garmin nuvi and had some trouble using it to get to some of the cities you went to which was a problem...thanks!
cherrybomb is offline  
Jul 26th, 2010, 07:12 PM
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Thanks for all your kind words.

cherrybomb: We had a Garmin Nuvi 275T, which comes with maps of USA and Europe. In May 2010, right after I purchased it, I downloaded the free Europe map update. It worked like a charm in France and Spain, especially helpful on navigating the back roads of the Pyrenees where the signage was confusing at times. It also picked up the speed limits in French towns and gave a warning sound if you were going too fast! The restaurant and hotel feature was not very useful and we learned the hard way in a wild goose chase for a supposed hotel in Spanish Basque country, that turned out to be a convent (I can laugh about it now, as I remember the started expression of the nun coming to the door at 10 pm).
ElPelar is offline  
Jul 26th, 2010, 07:25 PM
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St Cirq:
Appreciate the comments about the train tickets. I did much research ahead of time from Fodor posts and tried to buy the Prem tickets on the SCNF website. Unfortunately the instructions did not work, and I kept getting redirected on the web to the Rail Europe site. If you have updated procedures for folks living in USA to buy the lower cost tickets, I sure you would be doing a big favor for a lot of people (or even if you could list a web link for current information)!
ElPelar is offline  

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