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Monday 10 June 2024

Cotes de Blaye and beyond

Our plan had been to head north from Lacanau to the tip of the Médoc then take the ferry across the Gironde to Royan. In September 2017 we did the opposite, heading south, making a sentimental stop-over at le Gurp to revisit somewhere we had stayed on our first road trip to France in the early 1980s. However, these days nostalgia is something we consciously try to avoid. The older we get the less time we have, so why waste it looking backwards? Embrace the moment! Which in this case means heading back to Bordeaux and travelling up the northern side of the Gironde, somewhere we had not visited before. Our other antidote to ageing - do different stuff!

The decision paid off, the landscape of the northern bank of the estuary is significantly different to the opposite one. The gravelly soil of the famous vineyards on the south side of the estuary is one of the things that give the vintages of Paulliac and Margaux their unique character. Are they still regarded as the pinnacle of world viniculture?  I have no idea, but what is certain they remain among the world's most expensive tipples.  

We were heading for the old wine port of Blaye, centre of the Bordeaux appellation 'Cote de Blaye'. In fact the area has been renowned for wine production since the Middle Ages, long before its more famous cousins across the water. Just looking at the landscape hereabouts you can tell the wines will be different. The Medoc may produce highly sophisticated wines but the flat landscape looks thin, scrappy almost. The countryside between Bourg and Blaye is gently undulating, very green and fertile looking, a mix of vineyards, cereal crops and pasture, a veritable land of plenty.

The aire de camping-cars at Blaye is run by the local authority. It's one of the best designed we've come across with big pitches, wide access roads making manoeuvreing easy and a service area where the drains actually drain. Hallelujah!

It's prettily positioned too, on a low hill overlooking the broad estuary and next to a swanky looking winery at the Chateau Marquis de Vauban. It too has a motorhome aire and offers wine tasting and tours of the vineyard. The cheapest wine on offer was €12.50 per bottle so failed to meet the third third condition of our wine buying criteria - interesting, delicious but inexpensive!

It was a ten minute cycle into town along a smooth but unmetalled track by the shore. It was pleasantly wooded and passed below old cliffs which must mark the ancient river bank. A big Vauban fortress sits atop the cliffs, with another on the opposite shore. Just for good measure on a small island in between the two on the somewhat oddly named Isle Paté there is a third fortress, all constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Clearly the various Louis of the time were paranoid about defending Bordeaux.

We locked the bikes near the entrance to the fort, opposite the tourist office. The Vauban defenses in Blaye itself are so extensive you can't actually capture them in a single photo. 

It was Sunday afternoon, the town was sleepily quiet with just a few tourists wandering about. We spotted an ice cream shop. So had everyone else. We formed a confused gaggle around the counter, it's the nearest thing you get in France to a queue. 

Service was painfully slow but we weren't in a hurry. Eventually we got served and tubs in hand headed off to find a seat. We caught up with the rest of the ice cream gaggle who were occupying some bench seats next to fountain in a small public space opposite the Mairie.

Blaye's an attractive place we decided. Beyond the shopping area there is a less frequented area of eighteenth century mansions and wine merchants houses which testify to the town's former preeminence as a wine exporting port.

These days the area looks slightly unloved, a half forgotten backwater. It was quite confusing too, a bit of a maze, but we ended up back at the riverside eventually, but not quite where we expected.

 A Sunday 'brocante' was winding down in the scruffy park by the river. Google translate defines 'brocante' as a 'flea market', this one looked more like a car boot sale.

 Beyond the park we reached Blaye's river port. A queue had formed for the ferry across the Gironde to Lamarque in the Médoc.
 
It was a small boat, however there was one coach built motorhome in the line. I checked the notice board, it seemed vans and motorhomes up to 3.5 tonnes were allowed - the cost €37. Using it would have saved us an hour or so driving and avoided the Bordeaux rocade. Splitting hairs, our moho would have been a tad overweight at 3.7 tons, but actually it's not obvious, our van looks identical to all the other C-class 7m motorhomes mostly badged at 3.5 tonnes. The only time this became an issue was at the toll booth for the Store Baelt bridge in Denmark. The jobsworth at the barrier insisted we present our V5 document and then charged us €80 - the rate for a small truck. Also, next May it's going to be an issue once again when I have to re-apply for my driving licence. In order to retain the C/C1 vehicle categories I will need to pay to have a medical form completed by a doctor. 

Next day we drove 65kms north west towards the mouth of the Gironde, staying at an aire de camping-car in the marina at Meschers-sur-Gironde, a small port a few kilometres from Royan. Gill had found an interesting cycleway from here through the 'marais' to the village of Talmont. The place was marked with two stars on our Michelin road atlas indicating it was of significant historical interest.

I have a thing about estuaries, the emptiness of their marshlands and mudflats, the big skies and ever changing silvery light, how they look entirely different depending on the tide. Perhaps the Gironde is Europe's largest, I wondered. I couldn't off the top of my head think of a bigger one. The continent's bigger rivers tend form deltas - the Rhine, Rhone, Danube and Ebro. 

The shoreline between Meschers and Talmont is dotted with unique wooden structures built by local fishermen. Basically they are big fishing huts on stilits with an enormous nets attached to a crane at the far entrance of the pier. At high tide the nets are lowered into the water, as it ebbs fish are trapped in the big net and at low tide the fishermen winch in the net - et voila! A big catch without the need for a boat. Some of the structures are stiii in use, most were somewhat picturesque wrecks.

We arrived at Talmont. Maybe the stars on the Michelin map should have alerted us the the fact the place might be a tourist trap. It has been graced with the title of a 'tres beau village de France' - Rocmadour, Mont St Michel, Pont Aven, Eze, we've been to a few! We know what to expect, ghastly craft shops, over-priced restaurants, over restored traditional buildings. It is what it is, after all nobody in England would head for Bourton-on-the-Water, Robin Hood's Bay, Grasmere or Bakewell and expect to find authenticity.

Like all these places the ancient centre of Talmont is traffic free, however it's the first time we have been instructed to leave our bikes in the car park. The jobsworth was friendly, but insistent. 

Talmont has an Romanesque church by the river but otherwise is a pretty, but architecturally unremarkable place - a grid of low whitewashed cottages.
 
It is very flowery, specialising in two metre high avenues of hollyhocks, enormous rose bushes, scattered among alleyways packed with craft shops and cafes.

One of the small squares had an enormous lime tree in the middle of it. 

It's the setting that gives the place it's particularly charm, otherwise it's just another soul-less tourist trap. I became unbearably smug after Gill asked how old I reckoned the church was. "Looks late eleventh century to me," I ventured. Google supplied the foundation date - 1085. Thank you to Dr Alexander who delivered the Early Medieval module at Manchester University in 1974, I still remember the basics half a century later! I didn't take a picture of the whole church - just one of a scary looking gargoyle. 

Gill had wandered off by this time to admire some low limestone cliffs to the south of the village. At least geology has no designs upon the observer, unlike state sponsored art which, in the case of the Romanesque basically was designed to subjugate and terrify the populace through politicised religious propaganda.

When we got back to Meschers we decided to check out a well reviewed café by the fishing port that had a tapas menu. It was closed, as were all the other cafes, except one. The place had odd low slung seats, like normal stainless steel and wicker café chairs but with sawn-off legs next to low tables. Despite them being uncomfortable and problematic for over sixties to actually get up from we persevered. 

We ordered 'deux demis but were served two 50cl beers and were charged €13.50. Maybe that's the going rate, we don't go out for drinks very often. The waiter was spectacularly off-hand and rude. It's France, it happens, we are more used to Hispanic and Italian hospitality, but we know France well so  should not get irritated by the fuck you attitude. But I do, and did.