Beach Real Estate

We REALLY didn’t want to leave San Sebastian this morning! That city deserves a closer look on another trip. It seems very livable. San Sebastian and Bordeaux are battling for the Winning City Award from this visit.

For those of you looking at your maps, from San Sebastian we headed north for a little stop at St. Jean-de-Luz, which is on the coast just north of the border in France. This lovely old-school French beach resort town is one step below Biarritz on the not-affordable scale. King Louis XIV was married here. The current residents are only slightly less highbrow than Louis. Charm and good taste just pour out of the open shop doors.

The ship is hanging over the center of the church where Louis was married
Those are the Basque peppers hanging like curtains.
Sandwiched between the mountains and the sea
They have a beach that goes around the cove.

 

No calories in just looking

Paries pastry shop (that we had ead about) was splendid. Each raspberry was adjusted on each tart to the perfect angle. 

Each one is perfect.

 

There was nothing in that shop that didn’t deserve to be photographed. We did our best and then ate a couple.

 

 

 

 

 

St. Jean-de-Luz is a Basque town in France, but St. Jean-de-Luz feels French first and Basque second, while San Sebastian feels Basque first and Spanish second.

Follow the map north to the Arcachon Basin and the city of Arcachon. It takes fewer dollars to live here, but not many. The beach is wide with calm water. The area is known for its seafood and we needed to verify the reputation. We found a table at one of the myriad restaurants by the beach. Cindy had seafood soup and mussels while Jim had shrimp salad and marlin. Sitting by the water on a cool, sunny day and watching the people stroll by as you eat fresh seafood is a good use of time.

Grilled marlin
Mussels in spicy sauce
Shrimp salad
Fish soup served with cheese, croutons, and mustard
Arcachon and its wide beach

We then drove north to the north side of the Arcachon Basin and our home for the night at Lege-Cap-Ferret. Our hosts quickly made dinner reservations for us at their favorite seafood spot. Our lunch had barely been consumed before we had reservations for dinner. That’s setting priorities! This area is known for Europe’s longest sand dune. It does seem like another area worth more time, but alas we don’t have it. Our dinner spot was a tiny restaurant in Andermos near the promenade. When we arrived, people were already claiming their spots by the seawall to see the sunset. The sunset lived up to the hopes of the promenaders. The seafood could not have been any fresher if the cook had been sitting on the boat moored outside the restaurant.

Shrimp making a sacrificial offering of a lemon. It didn’t protect them.
Treasures from the sea

You map-readers may wonder why we selected Lege-Cap-Ferret. If you look east a bit on your map, you’ll see the Bordeaux Airport. We have a flight out tomorrow to take us back to Chicago. We keep waiting to hear of a pilots’ strike or something, but no luck yet. Our plan is to take the one hundred notes that were in the anticipation jar and look at one per day for the next one hundred days and use them to spark memories of this vacation that took us from the Neanderthals of 30,000 years ago, to the Romans of the first century, to the chateau-builders and Templar knights of 14th century, to modern architects, artists, chefs, and winemakers of today. It’s been a relaxing, entertaining, educational, tasty, memorable, joyful trip.

Sometimes It’s Even Better

In January of 2017 I was sitting in my basement office as the snow fell outside and I was on email with a guy in France asking about meeting with him in October. We discovered Stephane Gabart through a blog written by a woman who wanted to learn about photography. We looked at Stephane’s site at myfrenchheaven.com and were taken by his images and words. Several emails into the conversation I felt we had struck a goldmine. Stephane lived in Chicago at one point and worked for the Four Seasons. He came back to France to be with his family and to live in his family’s home in Libourne. Libourne is a small city to the east of Bordeaux.

We met Stephane today in Libourne outside of his favorite pastry shop, Lopez. His warmth, humor, and openness were obvious right away.

He ordered some of his favorite pastries for us to share later at lunch.

 

 

 

He then took us to the market to buy the largest shrimp we have ever seen and a few cheeses to sample after lunch. After a quick stop at Stephane’s home to put things in the fridge, he drove us to Chateau de la Riviere. If any of you are looking to buy real estate in France, this place has a lot to recommend it. The major renovation of the property was designed by Viollet-le-Duc, the architect who renovated Notre Dame in Paris during the nineteenth century.

 

 

 

The four gargoyles at the chateaux are the same as the ones used in Paris. Perhaps they got a volume discount.

 

 

They have some bottles from the 1960s.
The quarry workers tallied their day’s work on the walls.

We toured their extensive caves and sampled some of their wines.

 

 

 

 

On the way back to Stephane’s home, we stopped at a famous Libourne bakery. They bake fresh baguettes every thirty minutes in a kitchen the size of an average dining room. The smells coming out of there would a make person swoon. Cindy got to carry the warm baguettes for the trip to the house. Ah. French heaven, indeed.

For lunch we made an amazing dish with the world’s largest shrimp, cognac, Jack Daniels, and cream.

 

 

 

 

 

After the shrimp were partially cooked, we smashed their heads to get all the flavor out.

 

 

 

 

 

The heads were then removed and the cooking was soon completed. The warm bread came in very handy to sop up any extra sauce.

 

 

The cheese course followed and then the sampling of desserts. The food was wonderful, but what we’ll hold closest will be the time talking politics, family stories, travel tales, and food adventures with a person we will now think of as a French friend. When January and the snow comes back, we’ll try hard to be warmed by the memory of today.

Sunset from our room in the castle

Wining Without Whining

Neither of us is a wine aficionado (Jim fancies himself a beer expert, and he’ll tell you that if you ask him). But today we ventured to St. Emilion, the holy of holies of the effete world of wine snobs. We had poked around St. Emilion a bit yesterday, but today we returned for an in-depth taste.

Following the advice of our innkeeper, we headed to St. Emilion’s Tourist Information office and purchased two sets of tickets — one for the “petite touristic train” and the other for a tour of the ancient church, which is private property.

We are not the types to frequent trains touristique, which operate in many of France’s towns and cities. They generally take a slow lap around towns and tell you a little bit about the attractions — but we try to research that kind of stuff ahead of time, so that we aren’t wasting time getting an overview. However, the tourist train in St. Emilion goes out into the vineyards, showing you the chateaux and vines of some of the priciest (and ostensibly the best) wine estates in the world. You can see how the locations differ and what the $$$$ locations have in common.

We stepped off the train to taste wines at a chateau close to town. The chateau guide took us underground, showing us the rooms in which they lay down barrels and bottles to age. It was a very impressive operation. When we emerged and went to their tasting room, we were offered a glass of wine — and we didn’t think it was all that great. Mind you, it wasn’t Two-Buck Chuck, but we couldn’t imagine forking over $40 for a bottle of something that we didn’t love. So we hopped back onto the train, empty handed, and returned to town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hake
Sea bass

Our innkeeper had suggested a restaurant for lunch, so we headed there, grabbed a table (reservations weren’t required!), and had one of the best meals of the trip.

 

 

Truly excellent. The only problem was that the waitstaff — in truly French fashion — didn’t rush us, and we had to skip the cheese course (horrors!) in order to make our appointment for a tour of the church.

 

During the French Revolution, the populace of France turned against the church. In many famous cathedrals, such as Chartres, the statues on the exteriors still bear the scars of those times. Sculptures were “beheaded.” In the case of St. Emilion’s church, the church was sold to a family. So you can’t enter this church without a guide and a ticket.

It was founded by followers of St. Emilion himself (he was a hermit who was originally from Brittany, but walked to what is now St. Emilion and settled there). Parts of the church were hewn out of the rock, making it a troglodytic church — one of the largest examples of this type of church in the world. Most parts of the church were completed in the early twelfth century.

The best part of the day came when we returned to “our” chateau. The innkeeper gave us a tour of his winemaking operations. After two of the most delightful hours of our trip, we know more about the history of the area, the history of the property (including a tree that was a gift from Benjamin Franklin), and the story of his wine. This was a terrible year for this winery and many others in the area. He lost 95% of his grapes to a late-season frost. It is so very sad. He is the eighth generation here and he faces serious challenges keeping this property after the tiny harvest this year. His attitude is great and the wine from his past vintages are super. We have the feeling that there will be a successful estate to pass to the next generation.

Country Life

Here are a couple of closing thoughts about Bordeaux.

  • The river is a tidal river. Part of the day the river flows to the ocean and part of the day the river flows away from the ocean. Heading toward the sea, the water is a very muddy brown. It is clear and blue coming from the sea. The current is so swift that people can surf on the river!
  • The City Pass, with which you have unlimited access to city transit, is worth buying. We became experts with the tram and bus system.

  • The people of Bordeaux are very proud of the rebirth and cleaning up of their town. (They also don’t don’t have much positive to say about the rest of France, especially the neighboring departments.)
  • A city with THREE hallmark desserts is a winner in our books. We were finally able to try the “le puits d’amour” after several attempts to find the shop open. OMG! The canales and dunes blanc were wonderful, but the le puits d’amour were gifts from the gods. Imagine, and I know you will, a tart shell about two inches across filled with delicate meringue and sugar on the top that had been torched just briefly to give it a crunch.

We went back to the airport and picked up our rental car for the remainder of the trip. It was comforting to hear Stephen Fry’s voice on our GPS again. Those of you with maps, head east from

Bordeaux, past Libourne. Turn south at Perigueux, make a stop at Les Eyzies. Now if you find Pechboutier, we’re really impressed. It is between Les Eyzies and St. Cyprien. We are staying at Le Chevrefeuille. This was the first reservation me made 18 months ago. They have a cooking school here and we’re in the middle of many sites to visit.

We stopped in Les Eyzies to visit the prehistory museum and get prepared for the week. Some parts were just too mind-boggling to grasp.

A skeleton of a child from 30K years ago
France, home of the rhinos? Not recently, but thousands of years ago.
Those Neanderthals were mighty talented.
Does he look familiar? We’re related.

We checked in with our hosts and then took a little ride around the area to get ourselves orientated for the week. The roads are winding and narrow, and the locals drive like they are on the autobahn in Germany. We saw a sign that said, the Dordogne — home of a thousand and one castles. So far, we’ve seen six. We have work to do!

The view from our back door
Our landscape at our new home

 

Say Cheese! (and cheese and cheese)

As with most other days of our travels, today involved the consumption of immoderate amounts of food of the highest quality. But we did get in over ten miles of walking as we ambled about Bordeaux.

Just after the sun cleared the horizon, we were off to the market near St. Michel church — in search of one of the delicious melons that we had for breakfast on Friday. That done, we had melon, toasted baguette, goat cheese, yogurt, and coffee to fuel ourselves for the first activity of the day — a “wake up your taste buds” food walk! Hey, we needed sustenance!

We met our hosts at the appointed time. Our group consisted of ten guests, and there were two hosts — one for the francophones and one for the anglophones. The other English speakers were from Sweden and England. Today’s tour started at a bakery run by two young guys. They are one of only three bakeries in all of Bordeaux to use only products that they create themselves (we were surprised that only three did so, but I guess times have changed). They served us different types of breads and croissants, then took us on a short tour of their kitchens.

Next stop was a specialty shop with great local products. Salted caramel that was truly amazing. Apricot jam that tasted like apricots — not sickly sweet. A confit of onions. All great products from the region immediately surrounding Bordeaux.

Then it was back to our favorite “dunes blanches” baker – those are the little round chou pastry balls covered with chunky crystals of sugar, filled with the finest whipped cream, and dusted with powdered sugar. They’re famous, and for a good reason.

To our surprise and delight, the two group leaders pulled us aside and asked if we could get together with them after the tour to sit and talk. It was like getting asked to hang out with the cool kids! So we invited them over to taste a treat that Cindy created back in Chicago and brought along with us as a host gift. It was a real treat to chill with the Bordelais.

We spent part of the afternoon seeing a few sites on our own — we walked across the Pont de Pierre (pierre means “stone” in French) to the other side of the river. We ambled about (the weather was quite fine again today) and then decided to take the water taxi up the river. After that we walked to the “Miroir d’Eau” — the world’s largest reflecting pool. All of Bordeaux seemed to be there, with children splashing through the mist sprayed at the site. We made a mental note to come back in the evening.

Just soaking in the sun and the energy of the spot
Check out those artsy benches!

We then had to rest up for dinner, which tonight was at Baud et Millet, a restaurant specializing in (wait for it) — cheese! We each chose the upper cheese extravaganza special, which consisted of walking from our table down a stairway into their basement, then entering a cool, damp room in which 106 different French cheeses are displayed. We tried over half of the 106. The cheese cave was a treat for all the senses. They even piped in the sounds of cows, herding dogs, and dairy farmers. It was a hoot. One is able to help oneself to a plate and pile it up with ALL OF THE CHEESE THAT ONE MIGHT WANT TO EAT. And you can visit the cheese cave as many times as you wish. And it wasn’t that expensive.

Needless to say, this was one of the culinary highlights of Jim’s life. There were some cheeses that amazed, and others that were merely good. Jim kept a scorecard of sorts, and the winners were:

  1. The gold medal goes to Le TrappeÉchourgnac, a cow’s milk cheese that is bathed in walnut liqueur (it’s a washed rind cheese). It tasted like the marriage of milk and walnuts.
  2. Coming in second by a cheese crumb was Beausejour, local to Bordeaux, but that’s all the info we can find. Google didn’t help.
  3. In third place was Brillat-Savarin with peppercorns (au poivre). I think we’ll be able to find it in the U.S.

We then walked back to the Miroir d’Eau, where a large screen was showing a Bollywood movie. Kids (and adults) were still splashing in the reflecting pool.

Pont Pierre at night
With the misters on
With the misters off

 

We’re leaving Bordeaux tomorrow, and it will tug on our heartstrings for a long time, for sure. It is beautiful and elegant, but not stuffy. The energy in Bordeaux is off the charts. What an amazing city.

 

A Day of Wine and Poses

We had a great night’s sleep in our “hole in the wall” and woke up to the realization the we are really in France. Life is good. It’s morning in France, so a market is a fine start to the day. We headed to the Capucins Market to see what might catch our eyes. There were many stalls vying for our attention. We bought some dried sausage with cheese and a melon that has a special name that is lost to us right now.

A little sausage would be nice!

We then headed to Le Boulangerie in St. Michel parish that we had marked on a map a few months ago. It did not disappoint. We came back to our hole to assemble a breakfast that would make you weep. Spinach quiche with a puff pastry crust, the melon that was related to a cantaloupe but MUCH better, fresh goat cheese, a fresh baguette, sausage, and a pastry with raisins. This breakfast will be hard to top.

 

We needed to be fortified for the rest of the day. We took the tram, like the native Bordelais that we now are, and headed up the river to the new Cite du Vin. It opened just over a year ago.

We started with a tour of the architecture of the building which is made to feature the materials in wine production — aluminum, oak, and glass. The inspiration for the design was wine swirling in a glass. Everything is “round and seamless” which can also describe a good wine.

The museum itself is cutting edge for interactivity and variety of ways of conveying information. There were interactive sniffing stations, holographic history skits, interactive interviews with experts, and on and on.

Some libraries have books, a wine library has wine.
The scent of leather

A tasting bar at the top of the museum with views of the city

We could have stayed for many more hours, but it was getting past lunchtime.

We had a lovely lunch break at the Bar au Vin with some goat cheeses and a little wine. There were four types of bread included to keep us counting our blessings.

Wine, cheese, bread. No problems.

We stopped by Beillevaire cheese shop again. We figured we would never find that walnut liquor washed cheese again, so we went back to buy a round to bring home. They kindly vacuum-sealed it and we’ll keep it chilled until we get home.

Feeling the need to walk off the sins of the day, we headed to the park to view the famous fountain with the web-footed horses and the beautiful public garden.

Part horse, part frog, part fish.
he has broken the chains of bondage.
The French rooster crows.

A public (free) garden with a welcoming basket of flowers

We stopped in at St. Andre cathedral for a little peek at the elaborately painted columns on our way back to the “hole” for a little break before our evening’s adventure.

 

You might think that we’d seen all that a city could offer as far as tasting, but nope. We went with Nola from Miam. They specialize in showing visitors some of the many passionate food venders in Bordeaux. We started at Art et Vins to learn about wine with a man who was born and raised in the business. What a charmer. We then visited L’Heritage de Robert and met a cheesemaker. We were in heaven.

Following cheese, we went to Foie Gras Monblanc and just went wild with foie gras and various duck offerings. As a final treat, we went to Gabriel and tasted his seasonal dessert of twists on apples and hibiscus.

Oh my. We even got a tour of the restaurant’s kitchen! We even got to pose for a picture with the chefs. What a wonderful way to top off a gastro-perfect day.

 

 

Our “Hole in the Wall” in Bordeaux

We had lovely flights to Amsterdam and then on to Bordeaux (no strikes in France — which we had feared) and we managed the bus and tram system in Bordeaux like pros. We even found our rental apartment on the first try. Our apartment for the three-day stay is at 18 Rue Reniere. Rue Reniere is a very narrow cobbled street just a block or so away from the Pont Pierre bridge. We rang the buzzer and the owner came to welcome us. She led us down two flights of dark and narrow stone spiral stairs. Then she opened the door to a magical warren. The apartment was built into the inner wall of Bordeaux that was constructed in 1249. The windows, set in four-foot-thick walls, look out on what used to be the moat. It has barrel ceilings and just took our breath away.

The view as you open the front door

Not every place one stays has a view of a moat.

Note from Jim: Bordeaux has an incredibly pedestrian-friendly “centre ville.” When a city decides to close many of its  downtown streets to traffic, it can create an amazing buzz as people and bikes take over the streets. There is a bustle and vibe here that most cities can’t match, and a lot of it has to do with the lack of four-wheeled traffic and the predominance of foot traffic and two-wheeled traffic. It also helps to have a university with tens of thousands of students.

We didn’t get to stand breathless for long because Cindy’s sister gave us a Christmas gift of a gastronomic walking tour to welcome us to town. Hela, the owner of Bordeaux Walking Tours, was our guide and our caloric partner. Could Hela have been warmer, more thoughtful, more helpful, or more fun? Not possible! We started at Beillevaire Fromagerie, one of three Bordeaux fromageries we’ve been following on Facebook for the past two years. If you can go to only one fromagerie in Bordeaux, you aren’t the McPhersons, but anyway, this would be the one to visit. We tasted and talked and tasted again. They had a cheese washed in the local walnut liqueur that was just a revelation.

The first cheese photo of the trip! Might there be more to come? Silly question.

 

We then went to two places to do comparison tastings of caneles. The ones from La Toque Cuivree got our vote, but we have decided that more research will be needed.

We went to a shop that makes very unique chocolates. One type had cinnamon on the outside and a grape hidden inside. They were made to look like little cobblestones. We also got to try the famous dunes blanches. A dunes blanches is a powdered-sugar-topped chouquette stuffed with fresh whipped cream. There might need to be some follow-up quality control checks on those tasty treats.

Our final stop was at a wine bar, La Conserverie,run by women who stock excellent wines that are largely produced by women. We sat out in the back courtyard looking up at the cloudless sky, tasting dried meats and tasting local wine. The moment was not lost on us.

After saying farewell to Hela, we walked around and made come cheese purchases and scoped out the sites and possible restaurants we had researched. We payed homage to our beloved Normandy with galettes and cider for dinner before returning to our lovely “hole-in-the-wall” to finally get some sleep after the long trip and great opening taste of Bordeaux.

Galette with ham, cheese, and herbed cream

We’re here. We’re really here.

 

Anticipation

<Feel free to hear Carly Simon singing in the background as you read.>

“We can never know about the days to come.

But we think about them anyway.”

We leave later today for our next adventure in France. We made the first reservations for this trip more than 18 months ago. When we started contacting people to make reservations, we began with, “Please don’t laugh but . . .” The responses we got back were only rarely, “This is great, but could you contact us a year from now? Our reservation system doesn’t project out that far.” More often they said something like, “We get it. We love to travel too, and planning is more than half the fun. We’ll mark you down for those dates.” Those dates are finally here.

One hundred days ago, I gave Jim an “Anticipation Jar” festooned with the colors of the French flag. In the jar were one hundred pieces of paper. On each was written something that I was looking forward to about this trip. For each of the past one hundred days, he has reached into the jar and pulled out a random note. We would chat briefly about that particular anticipation note and then get on with our day. Today’s final note said, “I’m looking forward to saying, “We’re here. We’re really here!” It won’t be long now.

“These are the good old days! These are the good old days!”

Thanks, Carly Simon!

P.S. For those of you who like to follow us on maps, we’ll be focusing on the southwest corner of France with a tiny dip into Spain. You can “anticipate” our next message from Bordeaux tomorrow.