Cycling the Bordeaux wine region

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Days One to Three | Bordeaux

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Ignorantly, prior to booking tickets on the train, I had always thought Bordeaux was a region (and a wine, of course!) not an actual city…

We spent three days in Bordeaux, the first night we stayed in a hotel, then moved to a camp-site in Bordeaux Lac (Lake). The weather was a bit up and down so we bunkered down for a few days, worked on the blog and took it easy.

We met an Australian (Sydney!) couple on arrival at the camp-site. It was nice to hear some familiar accents and good to compare cycling travel notes. Jason and Tina Watmore have been cycling for a bit longer than we have – their blog, whateverworks.net.au makes for interesting reading/viewing! They left us to cycle down the coast into Spain and then Portugal.

We were surprised to see how big Bordeaux was, and how beautiful. Boasting the most historic buildings in France, second only to Paris, the city is sprawling with historic laneways, lined with stone terraces. Geraniums, violets and roses were blossoming on many a patio, their spring perfume lingering in the air.

Time evaporated as we had our fill of baguettes, croissants and coffee and wandered through cobbled streets and window-shopped the Rue St Catherine – allegedly the longest pedestrian street in Europe. We spent happy hours cycling along the Garonne river to Les Quai – looking back at all the historic buildings, such as the Place de la Bourse, dodging many tourists, runners and roller-bladers along the popular river path.

We also came across an old U-boat pen, used up until 1944 in WWII, due to the enormity of the concrete structure it has been left, rather than demolished and is now privately owned. We were absolutely astounded at the size of the place, with the emptiness of the large pens creating an almost haunting atmosphere.

Perhaps due to the changeable weather, perhaps due to our headspace at the time, I don’t think we did this city justice. There were so many museums to see, so many more wines to drink… but we enjoyed it the best we could!

DAY FOUR: Bordeaux to St Emilion | 56km

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Everything we read about the wine country pointed us towards St Emilion. After eating the most decadent chocolate croissants (warm out of the oven) and having a coffee on the banks of the Garonne River we set off on our next adventure.

We didn’t follow a particular cycle path as the only one we could find would take us far more south than we wanted to go, so we just looked at our map and headed east! Going was slow out of Bordeaux as we were riding on main roads and had to battle a fair bit of traffic. Hit our first big hill in the town of Cenon – but survived!

We finally worked our way onto the smaller roads where the scenery improved and France and all her beauty started to be seen.  I swallowed an enormous bug while cycling and spluttered and coughed for the next few hours, convinced the poor creature was crawling back up my throat. Quite traumatic, although probably worse for the bug!

It was fairly late in the evening as we neared the town of St Emilion and as we rode through the vineyards with their glorious limestone chateaux, the sun was liquid gold on the vines. After a hilly days ride, we were glad to have found a place so beautiful to stop for the night.

CAMPSITE: YELLOH! St Emilion
  • Quality campsite with individual camping spots, divided by hedges.
  • Good quality, clean facilities with washing machines.
  • Heated Pool, tennis courts and lake with water sports.
  • Restaurant and Bar.
  • Shop selling essentials.
  • Tours to various chateaux and free shuttle to St Emilion.

DAY FIVE: St Emilion

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The following day we visited St Emilion – our plan was to ride around the area, but we were so captivated by the town we didn’t go any further. There is a beautiful look-out area as you enter the top-level square of the town, looking out over the winding streets and across to the vineyards. We climbed the bell-tower to have an even more elevated view of the picturesque surroundings.

We lost ourselves in the maze of small cobbled streets that wind steeply downhill. Two out of three stores are ‘caves’, wine cellars, selling mostly local vineyards’ produce – however some offer a wide variety of stock. Their offer to post it anywhere in the world was tempting, but as we don’t have a home to post it to – we thought better of it.

The cafés were full to bursting and the atmosphere was almost festival like, given the surrounds – perhaps it was just an ordinary day in this extraordinary town. We found a lovely café, where we sipped our wine and ate the delightful cuisine on offer – I started with a pineau, a regional french aperitif, recommended by a friend and wine connoisseur. It is made from a blend of lightly fermented grape must and Cognac eau-de-vie, I found it quite pleasant!

On the way ‘home’, we stopped and visited a local chateau and spent quite a while chatting with the owner/vigneron. She and her husband ran the vineyard, having taking it over from her father a few years ago. It has been in the family for 9 generations. She was a lovely woman, giving us a bit of insight into the regulations and classifications, type of grapes and local chateaux, all very interesting.

DAY SIX: St Emilion to Blaye | 72km

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In hindsight, we probably should have continued east into the Dordogne region to deepen our love affair with this beautiful area but instead we set off westward with plans to head to the coast and south to San Sebastian in the Basque region of Spain. We rode into St Emilion one last time to say goodbye, then spent the morning cycling on the back-roads through the vineyards. Although the weather was a bit up and down we had an enjoyable cycle – watching the farm workers in the vines made for a very peaceful setting.

We played hide and seek with the rain throughout the day. The minute we stopped to put on our rain pants, the rain clouds would disappear. As the pants aren’t ideal to cycle in – we would take them off, only to feel the rain drops start! Thankfully, we didn’t get hit by any major downpours.

We rode on a busy road between St Andre de Cubzac and Bourg to make up a bit of time, but headed onto the backroads shortly afterwards as the traffic was heavy and we didn’t feel safe. We headed down towards the river’s edge, thinking it would be nice and flat – but we were mistaken! The hills became steeper including a 12% incline, which we were pretty proud we had climbed!

We had mixed feelings about Blaye, despite being set on the river, it didn’t have a great ‘vibe’, perhaps a little run-down. As it was already late in the day and we had to catch the ferry over the river the following morning- we headed to the nearest campsite, which turned out to be the only one. It was set in ancient castle ruins known as the citadel – the earliest of which were built in the middle ages. The setting was very peaceful, we were one of only three campers there and with the backdrop of the ruins, with the sun setting over the Gironde river – it made for a beautiful evening.

CAMPSITE: Camping Municipal Blaye
  • Basic campsite set in the ruins of an old castle.
  • A few sites have views over the river.
  • Very basic facilities.
  • Just off the main street, very conveniently located.

DAY SEVEN: Blaye to Pauillac | 17km

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I had little sleep due to a night of strong winds and heavy rain and woke to a unsettled morning. We packed up as quickly as possible after seeing a white wall of rain coming towards us over the river – we managed to find shelter just moments before the deluge hit. With the rain delays we missed the 10am ferry across the river, and had to wait until 3pm and we decided to find the closest McDonalds for the unlimited free wi-fi service they offer (and did some much need updating on our blog and charging of electronic equipment of various shapes and sizes!)

The ferry crossing was quick, the wind was blowing a gale and there wasn’t much sight-seeing to be done. We were greeted with a little more rain on the other side, but mostly just strong westerly winds. Once disembarked, we watched in amazement as a large tourist coach reversed down the steep ramp to the ferry and boarded!

Due to the weather, we thought we would only go as far as Pauillac – the ride there was brutal. We decided to take the main road, as the wind was so strong and we wanted to get there in the quickest time. The traffic was heavy, but for a long stretch of road we had no choice but to push on. The wind was blowing sideways and it was a battle to keep our bikes on the road. At one point a bus rode so close to Carl and I that I could’ve easily touched it if I had reached out – it was terrifying and nearly caused us both to crash off the road. We stopped shortly afterwards and I felt like I had reached breaking point, tears running down my cheeks. I don’t know when last I cried for something as seemingly trivial, don’t know if I ever have – but I guess the lack of sleep, endless uncertain weather and the shock of the near accident just wore right through me. We found the back roads shortly thereafter and spent the final kilometres, still battling the wind but in far more pleasant conditions.

We stopped to shelter from the rain (and hail) in a tiny hut at the side of the road. Carl took his tripod off the bike to avoid getting wet, and left it there! We only realised when we packed up to leave our campsite a few days later, we raced all the way back to the hut, but sadly it was gone.

Thankfully the rain held off as we set up camp in a lovely quiet campsite along the river.  The site-manager recommended a local restaurant, away from the tourist traps and we had a lovely evening being delighted once again by magnificent french cuisine and wine.

CAMPSITE: Camping Municipal Pauillac – Les Gabarreys
  • Basic campsite set in the ruins of an old castle.
  • A few sites have views over the river.
  • Very basic facilities.
  • Just off the main street, very conveniently located.

DAY EIGHT & NINE: Pauillac

It rained, hard, for the next two days so we sat tight. There wasn’t much to do and we didn’t feel like doing a whole lot. We made regular trips to the patisserie, which kept us well fed and spent time sleeping, and doing a bit of work on our photos and blog.

We had planned to visit a number of the chateaux in the Medoc, as the region is renowned for its wines – arguably the best in France, but the weather was hideous and we had little interest in being drowned while cycling to each chateau.  We headed into the vineyards in the evening once or twice, when we had a little sunshine to take a few photos, but other than that – the days were pretty quiet. The campsite was comfortable with a recreation area we had all to ourselves, but we couldn’t help but feel a little disheartened and prayed for the sunshine.

My bike had picked up rather a horrible grinding sound on the derailleur, so Carl spent a good deal of time cleaning the chain etc. Turned out the oil we had bought for the chain was more harm than good.

DAY TEN: Pauillac to Hourtin | 43km

The weather cleared enough for us to set off once again, I think we would’ve ridden even if it had been raining as we were ‘cabin-fevered’ out! We stopped off in a field of orange flowers to take some pictures and after riding on the dirt road, both of our bike chains virtually seized. We spent the next half hour trying to gently wipe the small stones from the chains, using tissues (strong ones) and rode slowly to the nearest town where we bought a paint brush to clean the chains. Carl spent an hour or so working on them – we had purchased good oil in the meantime and re-applied this once the chains were clean. While Carl worked, I ate the remaining food we had bought that morning and offered various words of encouragement, including ‘run!’ when it started raining, once again…!

The rest of the ride was uneventful, except for Carl’s unexpected stomach cramps (perhaps from too many croissants?) and the unavoidable dash into the forest for the one event we have both dreaded and hoped would never happen to either of us…

We arrived in the town of Hourtin and headed to the port area to find somewhere to stay for the night. We came across a campsite and equestrian centre done up ‘Texan-ranch’ style. We were the only campers there and realised why when we struggled to find a pitch that wasn’t underwater! The place looked like it would be wonderful in summer, with a thriving patronage, but when it was just us, it felt like we had ridden into a ‘one horse town’, with the closed general store, empty restaurant and bar and just a neighing horse in the neighbouring paddock!

We enjoyed the tranquility nonetheless and made the most delicious cheese and mushroom omelette for dinner, that with a fresh baguette and wine, was the perfect ending to the day!

CAMPSITE: Camping La Rotonde – Le Village Western
  • Large campsite, with variety of accommodation options including Tipis!
  • Large, clean facilities.
  • General store (not open when we were there).
  • Restaurant and bar (not open when we were there).
  • Pool and variety of activities for kids and adults (including horseriding).
  • Free wifi.

Following post: Cycling the southern French atlantic coast

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