Spending a couple of days in Bordeaux calls for a day trip to Medoc, a wine region dotted with chateaus and sleepy villages, extending north of the city, down the left bank of Gironde estuary, to the Atlantic coast. In my last post, I wrote about two lovely days we spent in Bordeaux, and a day trip to Medoc only reinforced our enchantment with the region. A plan for that day was to drive from Bordeaux through the villages of Medoc, stopping along the way to see a chateau or two, having a lunch in one of the restaurants I previously researched, with Atlantic coast being our last stop before heading back.
I haven't been to French countryside before, so I was caught by a (pleasant) surprise that my idea of castles (or at least fancy stone houses) and vineyards perched on every corner was the reality in Medoc. As soon as we drove out of Bordeaux we caught a sight of the first castle... and then the second, third, fourth one... We started with stopping every time we've seen one but realized we won't be getting anywhere if we kept jumping out of the car at the sight of each chateau nonchalantly standing by the road. No wonder this road is sometimes called the Castles Route!
The first village we stopped at was Margaux, known for its premier cru and cru classe red wines, as well as the chateaus that produce them. The classification of the Bordeaux wines dates back to 1855 when Emperor Napoleon III requested it for the Exposition Universelle de Paris and hasn't been changed ever since (which of course received some criticism as the quality of the wines changed significantly from mid 19th century).
On our way to Margaux, a first of the beautiful chateaus we spotted was Chateau Cantenac-Brown, built in the Tudor style in the first half of the 19th century. Its then-owner, John-Lewis Brown wanted the architecture to reminiscent his Scottish origins, which resulted in a chateau quite unusual for the region. It reminded me a bit of Dutch and Belgian townhouses and palaces, with its Dutch gables and the use of brick-orange color on the facade.
We weren't as interested in wine tasting as we were in village wandering, so we took a walk down Margaux' sleepy streets, encountering construction and wine workers now and then, but except for them, we were pretty much left alone to enjoy the quiet streets and pretty stone houses. We spotted a cute cafe with a terrace in the shade of olive trees- they also had a lunch menu, but we have only started our day trip and left this lovely place for some other time. Should you be interested or hungrier (or in desperate need of a coffee) than we were, you can check it out here. We visited the local Cave d' Ulysse wine shop, with the offer so diverse I could already imagine myself living in Bordeaux, and hopping over on weekends for a couple of bottles of wine before elegant dinner with friends (candlelight and flowers on the table included).
On our way to Pauillac, we were catching glimpses of vineyards and chateaus from the car, when the Chateau Pichon Baron appeared in all its elegance with its two turrets and a reflecting pool in front of it (standing simply by the road, like the gas station would stand in some less elegant part of the world). We simply couldn't miss a short walk around the estate. The Renaissance architecture inspired chateau was commissioned by Baron Raoul Pichon in 1851 and has been producing Second grand Cru Classe wines ever since the before mentioned Exposition Universelle in 1855. Today, the estate is owned by an insurance company, so I suppose the chateau is not used for living anymore. Anyhow, it was easy to imagine carriages coming in and out the driveway, crystal chandeliers hanging above long tables, illuminating a feast- silverware and porcelain, white tablecloths, bowls filled with fruit, lamb roast in the middle, and inevitably, glasses filled with crimson colored wine.
Our next stop was Pauillac, a small town of about 5000, situated directly by the Gironde estuary. Since I was a child, I've been loving that special light and the marshy smell of the riverside- Pauillac and the entire Medoc were no exception. The town was a bit more touristy than the villages of Medoc, but still somewhat unkempt, with old shops that looked abandoned but I couldn't be quite sure, and a tad messy streets. From the pier, we could marvel at the wide-open landscape of the estuary (even the muddy color of the water) and the town's waterfront, embellished with a row of riverside grass.
There was a restaurant that we wanted to try in the village of Bages, just outside Pauillac. At the beginning of the 21st century, Bages was a derelict village, a collection of abandoned houses- until the local winemakers of the Chateau Lynch Bages decided to change that. They invested in the village: first, they opened a bakery that became popular with the locals, then, Cafe Lavinal (a restaurant where we had lunch at) and a gift shop, Bages Bazaar right in front of it. Later came a renowned butcher and a bike shop, and the village became a destination for locals and tourists alike.
The square is the heart of the village- at the same time peaceful and lively with beautifully restored houses, wisteria cascades, lush greenery, and a bench to sit on and soak in the atmosphere. Cafe Lavinal is a tasteful, yet unfussy restaurant, and we enjoyed sitting under the parasols on the terrace, drinking wine from Chateau Lynch Bages, and eating a plat du jour- sausage in form of a burger with pumpkin puree on the side. The food was simple, refined, most importantly delicious, but I think my predominant memory from that place is the light and elegant atmosphere. Bages Bazaar is your classic French gift shop, and then some. There were striped beach towels, colorful market baskets, wines from the nearby chateaus, design tableware, local delicacies- it looked like a collection of a traveler's to France must-haves.
After lunch, we ventured to the villages of Saint-Estephe, Saint-Yzans, and Saint-Christoly, all of them mentioned in Mimi Thorisson's blog Manger, which inspired our trip to the region in first place. Each of the villages was charming in its own way, sleepy, with a couple of wandering tourists like us, meticulously maintained stone houses, colorful doors (predominantly red to no surprise) and tall bell towers. In Saint-Estephe, we sat on the bench in the middle of the empty square and enjoyed the silence; in Saint-Yzans (Mimi's village), we pulled the hot doughnuts filled with jam out of the car, and ate them in the shade of a giant tree in front of the church; in Saint-Christoly, we visited a brocante store (or antique store)- we had to ring a bell to enter this treasures chest. We browsed around its vintage pieces filled rooms, admired at the old laces and tableware, but I knew that those pieces would feel out of place in our apartment back in Zagreb, so I left them for a time when we'll live in a house and collect vintage plates. :)
Our last stop (and we were already quite tired from a day of wandering) was Soulac-sur-Mer, a resort on the Atlantic coast, with long sandy beaches and Belle Epoque houses. After the quiet villages of Saint-Estephe, Saint-Yzans, and Saint-Christoly, touristy Soulac was quite the opposite, and as usual, we didn't enjoy it quite as much as the sleepy ones. I tend to find the resorts towns a bit melancholic, and this one was no exception. Maybe the fact that we were tired and the day was coming to its end played a role here, but be it as it was- we took a walk down the beachfront, walked around a couple of shops and restaurant-lined streets, and decided to call it a day. There was an hour-long drive back home, and we had a plan of spending another evening chatting with our hosts over a bottle of fine Bordeaux wine.
What is your favorite "hidden" region of France, or better yet, in the world? I am always up to exploring less touristy, more dreamy parts of the world. Let me know in the comments below!
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