After the Vendée we continued south again towards Bordeaux, stopping overnight in St Jean d’Angély en route. This is a lovely town with an abbey founded in the ninth century apparently to house the head of St John the Baptist(!). It is on the old pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela and this very unassuming town had quiet streets and an abundance of charming medieval half timbered buildings.
Having gained some confidence driving the car around over the last few weeks, including driving to the supermarket on my own, I did my first stint of towing abroad. It is still not something that I enjoyed, but I did it and I think it is important that I can tow if needed and also that the girls see that it is not just men who can tow!
We had a wonderful day out in lively, cosmopolitan Bordeaux. We took the tram in and it passed right through the centre and along the waterfront, giving us a chance to see plenty of this beautiful city. Its buildings are mostly in the neo-classical style and are made using the same lovely cream coloured stone, which gives the city a pleasing, uniform appearance. I was surprised to find that much of Bordeaux is Unesco-listed. Since 2007, 18 sq km of it (about half the city) has been listed, making it the largest urban World Heritage Site. This status, and the delightful city we see today, partly owes its fortune to former French prime minister Alain Juppé, who at the start of the century implemented a programme of restoration of its neo-classical architecture, the installation of a high-tech public transport system and pedestrianisation of many of its boulevards. And you can enjoy these today as you stroll around the city, largely unhindered by traffic. We began our exploration outside the Place de la Bourse, whose grand frontage curves gracefully round in a crescent facing the River Garonne.
Miroir d’Eau (Water Mirror)
Between the Place de la Bourse and the river is a wonderful water feature that was giving a ridiculous amount of pleasure to a huge number of people, including us. It is called the Miroir d’eau or Water Mirror and its design is very simple – a huge area paved with dark stone with slight gaps in between each stone and a small hole in the middle of each one. It is quite common these days to get public spaces with water jets that spray water up randomly into the air, but this was quite different. Rather than spurting water, a lovely cooling mist was sprayed up from the stones that created a ethereal atmosphere around the whole area. Then, as the mist cleared, the ‘lake’ started to fill up with water, until it was just covering our toes. Children were running through it, splashing and kicking up the water, watching the ripples spread out from their feet. Adults were enjoying the chance to stop and cool down and the atmosphere was relaxed and happy. Then it changed again: the water started to drain away and as it did, the whole area became like a mirror, reflecting the people standing in it, the sky above and the buildings around its edge. It was beautiful. And fleeting, as a few minutes later the mist came and the whole cycle started over again.
The area was busy, but not crowded since it was so big. We stayed for ages, watching the reflections come and go and dancing in the cool mist. I think the girls would’ve stayed all day if they could!
Our next stop was Place Pey-Berland, where we planned to climb the huge bell tower for the highest views over the city. Not having a particularly good head for heights (nor for narrow, spiral staircases) Andy and Megan decided to stay on the ground and so it was just Emma and I that climbed the 231 steps to the top. And the views were definitely worth it! Andy and Megan were tiny dots in the square below, although we could still hear them clearly.
The tower itself has quite an unusual history. Pey-Berland was an archbishop of Bordeaux, who also founded the university here. When work started on his tower in 1440, Pey-Berland took the precaution of having it built a short distance from the cathedral which it was to serve. St Andrew’s cathedral was built on marshy land and its structure had already had to be reinforced, and so it was hoped this decision would prevent the vibrations of the bells damaging it any further. Ironically, the tower was to exist without any bells at all for most of its early years. Instead it was first divided up into accommodation and later used as a shot tower for making shotgun pellets. It wasn’t until 1853 that four bells were finally installed by Cardinal Donnet, who also added a stone tower topped by a huge Madonna and Child. ‘Our Lady of Aquitaine’ is 6 metres high, weighs 1.3 tonnes and is made of copper over an inner steel structure. It was restored and reguilded with gold leaf in 2002 and, when you are up close at the top of the tower, it is incredibly bright and very shiny!
We also saw one of the two elaborate medieval gates to the city, with its turrets, clock and bell. Apparently the bell was rung by the magistrates of the city to signal the harvest and to alert the people of the town in case of attack or fire.
We don’t eat out a lot. We are working to a budget and so we normally take sandwiches with us for lunch and aim to be back at the campsite in time for tea. Occasionally it doesn’t work out that way and we need to get a meal out or sometimes we treat ourselves to a night off cooking and washing up. So far we have had some delicious meals, but what has been available (that everyone would eat) has tended to be pizza or galettes (buckwheat pancakes, usually with a savoury filling). Bordeaux was the first place we have been for a while that had a more cosmopolitan range of food available and so we made the most of it by having some fabulous, and filling, burritos for our tea. We found ourselves in the very lively student quarter of the city with lots of bars and restaurants and high jinks going on. We wondered whether it was something like our university ‘freshers week’ at the start of term when new students all get to know each other better by going out and doing lots of crazy things together. Whatever the reason, they seemed to be having a lot of fun!
The esplanade and the River Garonne
After dinner, we made our way back to the river and walked along the very busy esplanade. It seemed as though all of Bordeaux was out enjoying the evening sunshine. Walkers, runners, cyclists, skate boarders, in-line skaters and even a uni-cyclist were all happily sharing the wide path by the river. Others were sitting alone on the wide steps taking in the view or in big groups having some lively conversation over a picnic and a bottle of wine.
We reached the Water Mirror again and it was much quieter, most of the families and young children having gone. As the light dimmed, the buildings around the Place de la Bourse were illuminated and the reflections in the water were different again.
Getting into and around Bordeaux
Bordeaux has a fabulous public transport system, with clean and frequent trams and buses criss-crossing the city. It also has miles of cycle paths and a VCUB bike system where you pick up a bike from a stand and pay for how long you use it (like they have in London). Unfortunately for us this system only had adult bikes, which were too big for the girls and so we used public transport to get around instead.
The best way we found was to use the Park and Ride (Parc Relais) system. There are 21 stations with P+R and they are marked on the tram map, with road signs for them all over the city. We found one near to the campsite and parked the car in a safe, well lit multi storey car park right next to the tram stop. You then purchase a P+R ticket for the number of people in your party and you are done. You get one ticket for the whole group, which gives you two journeys per person (ie. a return trip). You need to make the first journey within an hour of purchasing the ticket and you need to validate the ticket by inserting it into a machine on the tram each time you make a journey. When you return, you use your tram ticket to open the exit barrier of the car park. The whole journey, for the four of us, and the parking, only cost us €4.50! Brilliant!
And it was brilliant, but our experience wasn’t quite as described above. And it was all because of poor information and communication. It started at the campsite, who never mentioned the Park and Ride system when we asked about getting into Bordeaux, and it continued with a lack of information at the unmanned tram stop and on the ticket machines. So we spent a long time driving around tying to find somewhere to park, not realising that only certain stations have P+R, then more time trying to work out which ticket to get and whether we needed a ticket for the girls (in a lot of places, they have travelled free or half price) and yet more time still on the TBM website and telephone helpline asking questions that could’ve been answered on the ticket machine. In common with lots of ticket machines these days, you could select any one of about 4 or 5 different languages and it would’ve been helpful if it had given an explanation of each of the ticket types and what they covered and explained how the Park and Ride worked. In the end, it was very simple and we would give the tram system itself full marks, but they really need to improve their information provision for visitors!
Le Village du Lac, Bordeaux
Length of stay: 3 nights
This campsite was ideally located for getting into Bordeaux, but it was not a good site for us. The pitches didn’t have a huge amount of shade and the few days we were there were very hot. We felt very hemmed in as the pitch was small and we were right next to a big area of bushes and so there were loads of mosquitos! We had to smother ourselves in repellent all the time (aka Avon Skin So Soft!), use our plug-ins and keep the door of the caravan shut. We also spent half an hour or so before bed inside the caravan with all the lights on trying to locate and kill all of the mosquitos that had still managed to get in. Despite all of this, me and the girls still picked up two or three new bites every day, which wasn’t pleasant. Emma got one on her foot that was really painful and made her foot swell up. It was to eventually curtail virtually all activities for us for about 4 days as it was too painful for her to put any kind of footwear on.
We stayed here for 3 nights and by the end we couldn’t wait to leave!
What we liked:
- Ideally located close to Bordeaux
- Great pool and water fun park, complete with the biggest tipping bucket we have ever seen!
- Free wifi across the whole site – having access to free data is very important to us as we have limited roaming data on our mobile phones, so a site offering free wifi is very useful. BUT, free wifi nearly always means slow wifi, so it isn’t always the boon you think it will be.
What we didn’t like:
- Loads of mosquitos – we all picked up lots of bites each day, despite using repellent!
- Small, scruffy pitches with little shade – there were pitches in the shade, but the campsite was very busy and these were all taken.
- Toilet block not very clean
- Staff not very friendly or helpful – we asked about using public transport to get into Bordeaux and they simply pointed to the bus and tram timetables saying, you get a bus to here, then a tram. We asked if we needed to pay for the children and they just said we’d have to ask the driver and never bothered to try to find out for us. They also never mentioned the park and ride system, which was brilliant and that we eventually ended up using since the buses were quite infrequent and the tram was a good 25 minute walk from the campsite.
Score: 4 out of 10
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