For our first official trip of autumn, we decided to spend a long weekend in the Bordeaux region of France during its annual harvest, or vendanges. After pushing through a gruelling weekend of work meetings and presentations in London (balanced out by a luxe, zen-like stay at the new Nobu hotel in Shoreditch), we jetted out of Gatwick at dinner time Thursday, landing in Bordeaux two and a half hours later.
Due to a flight delay, we landed after 10 pm, so we checked into a nearby airport hotel and searched for dinner, finding only an off-putting French Buffalo Wild Wings knockoff open nearby. We went to bed hungry on a thin mattress covered with scratchy sheets, anticipating the following morning when the fun part of the trip could start.
Vineyard Bike Tour
We woke early and drove out of Bordeaux city into the countryside towards the famous town of Saint Emilion, our starting place for a day of electric bike riding with Rustic Vines through the vineyards and chateaux. Saint-Émilion is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with Romanesque churches and ruins stretching all along steep and narrow stone streets, slippery smooth from centuries of use. The Romans planted vineyards in what was to become Saint-Émilion as early as the 200s and, the Latin poet Ausonius lauded the wine from the area in the 400s. Since then, there has been commercial wine production in the area.
We met up with 6 other travelers and our guide, who was sporting a face cut from a bike accident (not the best impression), jumped on our bikes and motored through town to one of the famous wine producing chateaux outside town, where we walked through the vines, tasted grapes, learned every step of the wine producing process, and had a tasting and lunch outside as the other members of our party discussed wine - Dave was super bored during most of this part, but he was happy to be outside, enjoying wine and a very French picnic spread.
After lunch, dark clouds rolled over the vineyard, so we threw on some neon green rain slickers and headed back out into nature, riding our bikes in a downpour, which was not ideal but very atmospheric, as we watched the rainy mist spread across the rolling hills. After about a 20 minute ride on vineyard-side paths, we came to a smaller family-run vineyard, where we visited the cellars and learned about the different categories of wine in Bordeaux and tasted more, this time including sparkling whites and roses in addition to the typical Bordeaux red.
The ride back toward Saint Emilion was a a bit of a blur, and with the wet roads from the rain and hills it made for an adventure. One of the ladies in our party ate it pretty hard on a hill, which sobered some of the group up for a quiet ride back into town. We spent an hour walking through town, exploring churches and visiting a local wine shop for yet another tasting - by this time we were all delirious, so we decided to take a walk to wake up a bit before hitting the road.
After a long day with lots of elements and wine, we ventured further into the countryside to our B&B, a renovated mansion designed by a painter and his partner and operated together with their big shaggy dog named Moustache. We entered the elegant manse and were greeted with very over the top decor that made us feel like we'd entered a royal residence two hundred years in the past.
Our room featured a fluffy canopy bed, custom chaise, giant armoir and loads of antiques, and our bathroom looked like it fell right out of Marie Antoinette's era, complete with a giant claw foot tub that Erin enjoyed as she sobered up with a big cup of tea in an ornate china teacup. We spent the night in, luxuriating in the very European surroundings.
We woke early to the smell of freshly baking croissants, headed down the creaky stairs past taxidermied deer heads, ornate frescoes and period furniture into the baroque Chinese-themed dining room. Since we were the only guests the night before, we enjoyed the palatial breakfast room alone, feasting on warm pastries, homemade jams, fresh butter, juice, fruit and tea.
Chateau de Roquetaillade
Ready to start the day, we hopped in the car and drove to the Chateau de Roquetaillade, a castle in the countryside that dates from the 1200s. Apparently, Charlemagne built the first fortification there. The Chateaux wasn't open, so we explored where we could and then drove 90 minutes to the coast to check out the Dune du Pilat, the largest sand dune in Europe, which spills down onto the Atlantic coast.
Dune du Pilat - The Largest in Europe
We hiked along the base of the giant dune, from a dense forest with a strange but beautiful white sand floor up the ridge of the dune, tracing along the coast, looking out towards pale sand bar islands dotted with fishing boats. We sat in the soft sand and enjoyed the view, and then screed down to the coast for Dave to take a dip and watched kids climb up the dune and run down over and over again. Ready for lunch, we took our time climbing back up and over the dune, which was super difficult in the hot early autumn sun.
Oysters by the Sea
After our surprisingly gruelling hike, we headed to Arcachon to visit one of the many oyster shacks dotting the coast where the fishing boats tie on the nearby piers. These hole in the wall spots are quintessentially French summer coast cool - sit outside and enjoy simple menus with fresh seafood, bread and wine. We ordered a plate of oysters and some fresh shrimp, bread and butter, and a bottle of local rose wine and soaked up the joie de vivre - a perfect way to spend the first day of fall.
Chateau La Brede
After all the hiking, seafood and wine, we were super sleepy as we headed back inland, but the aggressive travelers in us kicked in and we pressed on towards Chateau La Brede. The castle was built in 1306, on the site of an earlier castle. It is surrounded by water-filled moats and an English garden. The philosopher Montesquieu was born, lived and wrote the majority of his works in the fortress castle. This was our first time seeing a real, working moat, which was a pretty cool addition to our castle nerd experience list.
Erin wanted to visit the interiors of the castle, but Dave could barely keep his eyes open after the epic morning hike and afternoon drinks. He offered to take a nap under a tree while Erin explored, but we decided to call it a day, heading back to our B&B with a grocery-store picnic that we enjoyed outside on the terrace with Moustache. We spent another night in, hanging out like a duke and duchess in our elegant manse.
The following morning, we felt like we had enough wine and bread to last us the season, so we took it easy and made a leisurely trip to the airport for our direct flight back to Luxembourg. We recommend visiting Bordeaux any time of year - the medieval towns, cheateaux and especially the wine are classic, and the combination of the famous wine region with the rugged coast and excellent seafood will charm over even the most reluctant traveler.
Visiting during vendanges is special, as the air is scented with grapes, and the unharvested fruit hangs on the vines for the tasting. We will be back again, and next time we will spend some more time in the city of Bordeaux, which was recently named on of the top cities in Europe for young professionals, with a booming startup scene and a Bohemian vibe.
Next up, summertime September weather in the Costa del Sol, Spain.
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