Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Archive for the ‘Bordeaux 2010’ Category

Bordeaux 7.10.10 (part 2)

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 12, 2010

This post belongs with the earlier post about Bordeaux, but somehow it got lost in cyberspace.  It will make sense if you read the previous post first, and it follows on with the rest of our visit to the Musee d’Aquitaine.

Until 1453 England ruled this part of France (because Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II) but it was unified with the rest of the country when the Hundred Years War ended so there were fleur de lys everywhere in the exhibits which followed. We were expecting to see exhibits about the French Revolution next but (unless we somehow missed a gallery) instead we found ourselves discovering Bordeaux’s past as a slave trading port. According to a timeline on display, the first attempt to end the trade came shortly after the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 but it was brought back under Napoleon, and then abolished again in 1848, 15 years after Britain passed its Abolition Act in 1833. There were some sobering displays in this gallery including a diagram of a slave ship which showed how they packed the slaves in like sardines – no wonder they died in their hundreds at sea.

Yes, it's called 'Crocodile'

With renewed awareness of the incongruity of arts and culture in the context of an economy dependent on slavery, we set off for the Museé de Beaux Arts, but even though it was now open, it failed to live up to expectations. It’s billed as the best collection outside of Paris, but it’s actually quite small, only about as big as the Bendigo Art Gallery and not as interesting. There are some Dutch paintings that are rather good, but nothing really memorable, especially not after the masterpieces we’d seen in Dublin. What was splendid was the Museé des Arts Decoratifs. This was full of gorgeous linen and embroidery and exquisite porcelain – and tired as we were we could not resist plodding up all three flights of stairs to see it all. There were also some gorgeous wallpapers and tapestries, and delicately carved pieces of furniture arranged in salons and dining rooms. There was also a small display of art nouveau and art deco pieces which – even though we love the art deco era – seemed rather clunky after the delicacy of the pieces from the 17th- – 19th century.

In the shop there were lovely reproductions I would have dearly loved to buy but I have tried posting things home from France before and never again – the first hurdle is finding the post office where staff are so unhelpful so you almost have to climb over the counter yourself to locate some packaging and then they are deliberately obtuse about selling the correct stamps. Not only is the whole procedure incredibly frustrating, time-consuming and expensive, the French postal service must be the slowest in the world because we had been back home in Australia for months before our parcel finally arrived. (The Brits make it really easy: all their public museums will pack and post to anywhere in the world. Hand over the credit card and your souvenirs will be on their way before you are back out on the street!)

We had a lovely dinner at Gravelier. It is said to be one of the best restaurants in Bordeaux, and the service and food is excellent. We had great fun trying to decipher some of the unfamiliar words on the menu (e.g. pavé de bar is a fillet of sea bass) but it was the sort of place where it didn’t really matter because you knew that whatever you chose would be divine and it was.

Posted in Art Galleries, Bordeaux 2010, Dining out, Europe 2010, France 2010, Museums | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Medoc, 9.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 11, 2010

On Saturday, we set off for another wine tour, this time of the historic Chartron wine district of Bordeaux and then to the Medoc district.

We started off with a walking tour through what used to be a thriving port but is now a picturesque tourist mecca. The old wine shops have been converted to antique shops and restaurants, and there is also a banking and business district further away from the river. Old buildings have been cleaned up and there is now a wide promenade for pedestrians to stroll along in the sunshine. It all seems very peaceful but we have seen a painting of the harbour full of ships so we could easily imagine what it used to be like.

When Bordeaux was under English rule in the middle ages there were special concessions for Bordeaux wine, but before methods of preservation were invented it could not travel far without spoilage. Apparently it was actually the Dutch who discovered how to use sulphur to preserve the wine, and the English who invented glass bottles – and then of course along came branding and labelling to differentiate amongst the producers.

There is only one house left which shows a distinctive style of Dutch architecture – which is interesting because it was actually the Dutch who dominated this area with their effective banking systems and sound business and marketing skills. Even at times when Protestants were oppressed in France, these Dutch merchants were left alone because of their value to the economy.

We then went to the wine museum. It was quite interesting but the guide there was unnecessarily rude and unpleasant about the English, which suggests that the people of Bordeaux have failed to move on in the modern world if this is how their representatives feel free to behave to their visitors.

From the museum we went to a leisurely lunch. We shared our table with a very nice young man from Norway – an interesting coincidence because at yesterday’s wine tour lunch we had met another very nice young man from Norway. One of the pleasures of tours like this is the interesting people you meet from all over the world. As well as the Norwegians, we also chatted with Canadians, Americans, English, Mexicans and Japanese – but we were the only Australians. We did, of course, take the opportunity to invite these wine-lovers to visit. Naturally we spruiked Victorian wines and Melbourne as a gourmet destination, but we also explained about wines from the Hunter Valley, Tasmania, WA and the Barossa Valley because wine is marketed overseas simply as wine from ‘South East Australia’ without differentiation.

The lunch was at a specialist cheese restaurant and it was paradise for a cheese lover like me! We had chevre soup for lunch – very thin slices of goats cheese in a mild stock, served with delicious bread and a good red merlot/cabernet franc wine. There was a confit of duck for main course, and one of those lovely French apple pies for dessert, but in between came the cheese course…

We went down into the cheese cellar where there were about 100 cheeses for us to choose from. There were all kinds of washed rind and stinky cheese, brie and Camembert, firm cheddar-type cheese, and dozens of different goats cheese. We were free to select as much and as many as we liked, and it was very tempting indeed!

Tasting the fermentation!

After lunch we boarded a coach and set off for Medoc. It’s flat country, and not especially scenic except for the occasional chateau, but it was pleasant enough once past the industrial suburbs. We went to two wineries and sampled their wares, enough to know now that we like three wines from Bordeaux: St Emilion, Medoc and Graves!

Bordeaux chocolatier shows off his craft

Back in Bordeaux, we had a simple dinner at a cafe not far from the tourist office and got back to our hotel just as the rain came down!

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Saint-Emilion, 8.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 11, 2010

Yes, this post is in the wrong date order, I am now pasting in the posts I couldn’t upload while we were in Bordeaux!

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We had to be up bright and early for our tour to Saint-Emilion but it was a pleasant walk to meet up at the Tourism Office and our guide, Isabelle, was lovely.

Stendhal wrote here!

First there was a tour of the city of Bordeaux – with many fresh discoveries for us, even though we had already walked around the old quarter of the town near our hotel. Bordeaux is a World Heritage site because of the wealth and diversity of its 18th century architecture, and because of Bordeaux’s historic role as the second biggest port after London. (Its role in the slave trade was euphemistically referred to as ‘other activities between Africa, the Caribbean and Bordeaux’ and we would not have known anything about this if we had not been to the museum on the previous day).

We were also shown the original Roman gate which gave entry to the city when it was walled, the old Dominican monastery, and some remnants of the medieval city too.  It is so interesting to see these vestiges of the ancient city in situ, carefully preserved among buildings from later periods – it’s just like Rome where you can wander round the corner and find yourself in a completely different era!

The 18th and 19th century buildings are protected by a strict code governing the height of the building, the columns and pilasters, the types of windows and window railings, and even the brickwork for each storey, but there are some modern buildings here and there including a truly excruciating orange clunker which is listed for protection as an example of 1960s architecture. It’s on the Left Bank but the colour is so striking it is unfortunately rather noticeable. From the tour of the city we transferred to a coach which took us out to Saint-Emilion.

The wine tour was more-or-less the same kind of tour we’ve been on in Australia except that the whole operation was much smaller. The vines were actually only 53 years old, and increasingly they are using mechanical harvesting because it’s hard to get people to come and do the picking. I am not at all surprised by this since it is back-breaking work in the hot sun, and at this chateau they did not even provide tables and chairs for the contract workers to eat their lunch, much less any shade.

Tim, clowning around with the vigneron's gearLunch was a charcuterie and cheese and three wines for tasting: different vintages of merlot/cabernet franc combinations. Good, but nothing special though they were remarkably inexpensive for those that wanted to buy them.

After lunch we then explored the village of Saint-Emilion – its Romanesque church, its ramparts, its various squares and its shops and cafes and then a swift ride back to town where we had sushi for dinner at a nearby SushiShop!

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Bordeaux, 7.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 9, 2010

Sometimes it’s hard not to get cross and sulky in France, for once again we were cursed by their predilection for industrial action. (On our first trip to Paris in 2001, all the public museums i.e. the Louvre & the Museé D’Orsay were on strike for the entire week we were there.) Now, in 2010, the World Bank has decreed budget cuts throughout Europe so that deficit budgets caused by the global financial crisis can be set straight, and in France (as elsewhere) there are public sector strikes. Today, on our only day to explore Bordeaux by ourselves,  we wasted most of our morning because of these strikes. Things began well. We spent a happy hour or so exploring their beautiful Cathedral Saint-André and then climbed all 231 steps to the top of their bell tower to enjoy a magnificent view over Bordeaux. It was a bit perilous coming back down (I did it backwards, hanging onto the thick rope that served as a stair rail) but it was worth it.

Next, I bought some truly horrible and very unflattering end-of-season light tops because the weather was hotter than my internet research had predicted. The women here are beautifully dressed in crisp white linen blouses but there were none to be had at the shopping centre we went into. My new tops are not destined to make it back to Australia and Tim is not allowed to take any photos of me wearing them.

We then set off for the Musee de Beaux Arts. But it was shut, and the abundant police who were lounging about in front of gates firmly closed were not responsive to queries about what was going on. There was nothing for it but to trek across the city to the tourist bureau for more information – and they knew nothing about it either until they had made some phone calls.

Apparently the museum needed to be protected from the demonstrators we had seen (and kept away from). They were across the square from the cathedral and seemed peaceable enough but we have seen violent French demonstrations on TV so perhaps the police had good reason. The Museé Aquitaine was open, however, because it was further away from potential trouble, and perhaps, said the pleasant young lady at the tourist bureau, the Musee de Beaux Arts might be open too, later on, when the demonstration was over?

So we moped around for a bit and had an indifferent lunch in a trendy brasserie called 5 and then braved the tram because we were tired of walking in the heat.

The Musee Aquitaine cheered us up in no time. It’s fantastic. Although some of the things on display were replicas and it was a bit hard to tell what was authentic because all the signage is in French (and my school French wasn’t adequate), it is a really rich collection of locally found artefacts from prehistoric times. It begins with the Neanderthals (because they came from around here) and there’s a fine collection of flint tools and even a skull. There are Neolithic tools arranged so that one can clearly see that magic moment in time when man learned how to cast tools with fastenings and clasps. Apes can use rocks as tools, and can even whittle them a bit to make them handier, but once part A can be joined cleverly to part B, there is real invention. The display also showed that these people were active in trade because there were shells and other items which were not local in origin.

There is also a replica of the Lascaux cave pictures, labelled ‘l’apogee de la peinture’ at 17,000 years ago, but of course these pictures – wonderful as they are – do not represent the beginning of painting at all. That distinction belongs to Aboriginal art which goes back 40,000 years or more, and it’s about time the French acknowledged that.

The Romans were here in Bordeaux too, of course, and there are the usual statues and bits of monuments. Mosaics, however, were not like the ones we saw in Roman Britain because they seemed to be made entirely in geometric patterns. So there were no charming little birds or animals or portraits of people in the designs, but there were some intriguing cabinets showing the tools and the little coloured pieces of stone that were used to make the mosaics. There were, however, some spectacularly good pieces of pottery and Samian ware – some of it so well-preserved it was hard to believe that they were originals and not reproductions. There was also a most impressive statue of Diana found in Dordogne, and a bronze statue of Hercules which was found in 20 pieces in 1832 and put back together again in time for some important Bordeaux exhibition in 1878.

From the Romans the displays then went on to the early Christian era. There were replica tombs of a splendid knight and (of course) Eleanor of Aquitaine, and many lovely remnants of medieval church sculpture too.

WiFi is intermittent here, so I shall upload this and come back to finish it off and add some pictures later if I can!

Posted in Bordeaux 2010, Europe 2010, France 2010 | Tagged: | 5 Comments »