Friday, February 20, 2009

Blaye, Bordeaux region - home to the zebra crossing!

The need to keep moving north brings us to a change of scenery. We are now in Blaye - a coastal town in the Bordeaux region of France. We have found the nicest guest house to stay at - Villa St Simon with its host Les Kellen and typically french housekeeper, Michele. We overlook a truly beatiful park (Jardin Publique) and with the River Gironde behind it.

Last night we sampled Les' (who is originally from South Africa) generous hospitality with wine tasting at 7:00 pm. He gets about 25% of his business (and he is full even now in the low season) from Aussies and NZers. I asked him how they find out about his guesthouse and he shrugged and said it seems mainly to be by word of mouth or on the net which is how we found him (marvelous tool!) while we were looking for something in the Bordeaux area without being in the city.

We share a pizza with Les, his friends from a local winery Yann and Florence (whose wonderfully rich 2006 vintage we tasted tonight - DM, might send you a bottle!), and Tracy and Denis from Melbourne. The pizzera is about 150m from the house and the pizzas are just so delicious. And Hey Jude (!!) guess what? Les plays the double bass!!!!!!! But at the moment the neck on his base is broken after being dropped - so there wil be no jamming tonight! Les is a bit of a movie buff so he and Michael share a fag and swap favourites. He is also a reader and offers to let us 'take' some books to read including John Steinbeck's 'Travels with Charlie' that he is just finishing. In return, we can leave a few here as well.

Ah - the wonderful french housekeeper Michele - font of much local knowledge, was warmly welcoming when we arrived about 5:30 yesterday afternoon. Our room has an old timber high double bed with the crispest whitest linen on the bed, a real key for the door (not some plastic cardy thing) and lovely little blooming pansies in the window boxes. The floors are timber, aged with the feet of families past and through which you can hear the house come to life this morning and you can hear the pigeons cooing on the roof through the fireplace in our room. Helen - you would love this – it’s just like you would imagine!

Breakfast is of course served in the breakfast room (where else). Long baguettes and croissants, fresh and warm from the baker down the street, home-made wild blackberry jam from Les' farm, orange juice, fresh coffee and a warm smile from Michele - ahh what a start to the day. Everyone is down for breakfast including two Brits who were out last night and a French couple we met last night but who dined away.

Blaye is just lovely. Very traditional French, and very relaxed. At the end of the block is the Blaye Citadel and just off this is the ferry to Le Médoc – the peninsula bounded by the Gironde estuary and the Atlantic Ocean. In the main street there are about a dozen zebra crossings - no need for chicanes or other traffic calming devices here - these work brilliantly, spaced about every 150m.

We asked Les’ advice on what to do with just one full day here. He didn’t hesitate in suggesting that we drive over to see Saint-Emilion, a UNESCO world heritage listed town just 45 kms away. But first we follow him out to his Kiwifruit farm where he is planning to develop an eco-village complete with organic vegetables. We see his pond that he proudly calls a lake (impression is everything, right!). Last night he had recounted the story of buying his first four swans for the lake, only to realise when they grew a little more that they were actually geese (they both have long necks) that disappeared at Christmas (probably to local celebration tables). He talks of the tradition of fishing in the area and we take a look at some of the traditional fishing huts that stand high to allow for tidal differences!

Then off for Saint-Emilion we set. Les’ directions were very simple – head for Bordeaux and take the Limouge turn off and it is sign-posted from there. I should not have worried as even though we were travelling back on the motorway for a little while, it literally was as easy as Les stated. There are a thousand small towns that we go through with evocative musical names as Lugon and Saint-Michel-de-Fronsac. No sooner are you out of one and you are in the next. Chateaux abound both left and right, with hectares of vines planted right up to their doors. At Pomerol the Pétrus winery makes one of the most expensive wines in the world. Haven’t tried it – yet!!

We arrive at Saint-Emilion and find easy parking, although I have no doubt that in the summer it would be a very different story – ah yes, there are some advantages to travelling in the off-season. A fortified town, seven gates used to protect the citizens within. We enter through the Porte du Chapitre in the north-west. First stop is the Collegiate Church built in the Romanesque style in the 11th century. There are amazing frescoes painted on the walls that thrill Michael. By this time, it is just before 1:00 pm and everyone is closing for lunch. So, when in France, you do as they do and . . . lunch!

We can see a busy restaurant below us and so, armed with a local tourism map, walk down through the streets to the Amelie Cantra. Situated in the Place de l’église Monolithe (Plaza of the Monolithic Church), we sit under the bare branches of what would be a magnificent shade tree in summer, enjoying the winter sun. The menu is surprisingly well developed with a good choice of simple and more complex dishes. We choose from two of the composite menus as follows:
Laminés d'aubergines avec du fromage de chèvre et sauce au poivron (Rolled eggplant with Goat’s Cheese and hot pepper sauce) Michael
Soupe aux légumes du jour (Vegetable Soup of the day) Maria
Rôti d'agneau avec des herbes croustillantes (Roasted lamb with crispy herbs) Michael
Saumon, poireaux et pommes de terre du pot (Salmon, Leek and Potato Pot) Maria
Banane NMS à la noix de coco au caramel (Banana NMS with coconut caramel) Michael
Poire pochée au vin rouge de style Amelie (Pear poached in red wine Amelie style) Maria
I of course had a glass of local red from the Pomerol area.

Then it is off to the underground Pottery Museum set in an underground stone quarry that dates from the 12th Century and that has at times housed wine cellars and a hospital. Their collection dates back as far as Gallo-Roman times and is fascinating.

We see the bell tower of the monolithic church that is carved entirely out of solid limestone. It is not open when we are there and we want to get back to Blaye in time to have a look at the citadel – so it will have to await our next visit. We have decided to come back here later in the year and on our return to the guesthouse we book in for a week from 20 June. There is just so much to see and do in this broader area and the ambiance is just so right.

The Citadel of Blaye is actually a fortified small town that also encloses the ruins of the Castle of Rudel. It sits right on the estuary of the Gironde River.

The citadel is essentially a fort belonging to a group of fortrifications, the "Pentagonal Fortresses", designed by the military engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre, Seigneur de Vauban (1633-1707). Vauban was responsible for upgrading the fortifications to 300 cities, and supervised the construction of 37 new forts, ("Fortifications of Vauban" - including the citadel at Blaye,) between 1667-1707.

The fortress is indeed a masterful example of engineering; not just from an historical viewpoint, but more for the design which has allowed the structure to have survived for so long. Our journey through Europe, has introduced us to many spectacles: Avignon, Arles, Cardona, and no matter the enormity of historical sites, some have been subjected to deterioration through human interference.

However, any deterioration to the Citadel of Blaye is through negelect. Fortunately, the Fortifications of Vauban (twelve groups in all) were added in 2008 to UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. This has resulted in on-going restoration programs to ensure the longevity of these historic sites. Unlike some of the fortifications we have visited, Blaye is open freely to the public and without having to pass through ingresses requiring one to "assume the position"!

The first impression I received, was not just of enormity, but one of intimidation. This sentinel's purpose was to protect and defend the Gironde Estuary, from prospective invaders. It's role is no longer to protect, but more as a platform to present the visitor with an impressive vista from its past guardianship.

A walk along the parapets of the perimeter walls, is a promenade for silent contemplation and magnificent sunsets as a companion. I suspect, during the peak tourist seasons, these opportunities will evapoate into a whisper brought about by the cacaphony of humanity.

However, during this twilight at least, I had the citadel to myself with a magnificent sunset, cool breeze and ghostly shadows as my companions.

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