Nov 27, 2010

Wining and dining in Southwest France

I have never been a Franco-phile.  In fact to the astonishment of admirers of the lingua franca (before English), I always found the French language pretentious even though my two years of high school French still comes handy, as a last resort. Further, having lived in a country whose political system was very much inspired by French ideas like Jacobinism and hostility to religion and (not surprisingly) caused a lot of grief to its people, I always had mixed feelings about France. Add to that the notorious attitudinal problems of the French which finds its best expression in the way the English put it -France is a beautiful country, only if the French weren’t there- and the incomprehensible and enduring French love for radicalism and street protest, one might ask why I am even bothering. Indeed, I always wondered how the hell a whole nation can take itself so seriously. All these reservations notwithstanding, as a traveller, I admit that France is a beautiful country to explore. So believe it when I am saying it is worth visiting:-)

Biarritz beach in Southwest France after surfers leave it to people at night.

A tribute to the Resistance in La Rochelle, is a common sight in every part of France.

So in 2009, my sister -who lives in France and is a Franco-phile- and I joined forces. I was going to be the travel guide and the driver while she was going to do the talking and ward off the scolding  (and respond in kind) that comes from French hotel and restaurant owners, waiters and the like! Destination: Southwest France. Note that coming from Turkey, the place for peaceful bays and coves of the Mediterranean and Aegean, we were not drawn there for the Atlantic beaches. We wanted to see the places, taste the wine and cognac and eat foie gras, oysters and muscles and spend sisterly time with each other, me being the adventurous, she being the sensible one, despite being six years younger than me. We met in San Sebastian, Spain (subject of another post) couple of kilometers away from our first stop Biarritz, in the Pyrenees region of France. Right by the Spanish border, next to the charming St. Jean De Luz, Biarritz’s beaches ensured in the 19th century that it became a playground for the rich. Today, the grandiose feeling of those days is maybe gone but the town is a playground for something else: surfers, despite the prevalence of the high retiree population. Especially in summer days when the days are long, surfers are on the beach until late who then leave it for people who spend time on it while drinking and singing.

La Rochelle harbour in France.

Tour St. Nicola in La Rochelle on the left, a chain was put between the two towers during war.
After spending one night in Biarritz, we drove all the way up to La Rochelle in Southwest France. La Rochelle is an important commercial port on the Atlantic side of France as well as the biggest yacht centre in the country. The easily discoverable city center has beautifully cobbled streets with a summer house atmosphere. Along the board walk, one can see the tide which depending on the time of the day, leaves yachts stuck in sand or safely afloat. This is one of the parts of France that was most open to Anglo-Saxon influences and according to Dorling Kindersley France, it had a tendency to back the wrong side: the English and Calvinists for example. The city has a famous aquarium signs of which are everywhere but we preferred quiet board walks and admiring yachts than visiting museums and aquariums.

La Venice Verte (Green Venice) in France.

A tour on Marais Poitevin, north of La Rochelle.

Approaching Coulon in Venice Verte, France.
Next day, we went to Marais Poitevin north of La Rochelle where the national park consists of two marshes. The wet marshes (Venice Verte) contain canals on which you can take a boat trip in flat bottomed boats moored in Coulon and enjoy waterlilies and shadows of trees in a peaceful atmosphere. Afterwards enjoy a lunch menu in Coulon with French delicacies such as frog leg and escargots! Yummyyyyy! After our green Venice trip, we drove further south towards Bordeaux.

The Grand Theatre in Bordeuax, France.

One of the many bridges over the Garonne river in Bordeaux.

What a town! Elegance describes it better than anything else. Its 18th century architecture, its cuisine, wine districts around it and a nice atmosphere not taken over by tourists and picturesque bridges over the river Garonne make this place one of the most underrated towns in France. One should also explore many wine shops and indulge in red and white wines and champagne for amazingly affordable prices. I should also mention that given its proximity to Cognac (the town itself), the region is also where you can find tasty brandy for much affordable prices. You can easily spend a weekend wining and dining in Bordeuax but when in Bordeaux, a visit to one of the many vineyards is a must. We picked St. Emilion also because we are a fan of St. Emilion wines.

French kiss on the quais along the Garonne in Bordeaux.

Palais de la Bourse along the river in Bordeaux. 
What a nice little place! Notice that you can also stay in one of the many auberges in St. Emilion instead of Bordeaux but I would not advise against missing out on the elegance of Bordeaux especially Rue Remy with all its bistros. Given the big business of wine in that part of France, in St. Emilion you can find many stores that ship all over the world if you do not want to carry all those bottles. 

A must for gourmets in Bordeaux is Rue Remy with its many bistros.

La Brasserie Bordelaise with its killer wines in Bordeaux.

This part of France is definitly worth visiting again and again for food and sightseeing. I am planning to get back to the region to do the Pilgrimage Route to Compostela in Spain. 

Charming St. Emilion close to Bordeaux and not only for wine tasting.

St. Emilion is right out of an impressionist picture.
It appears that in St. Emilion, the French CAN actually make fun of themselves.