Just Back From
What is it about France? This question came up during a recent dinner at the 13th-century wine estate Château Pape Clement, in the Bordeaux region. At first, the answers remained surface, based largely on stereotypes that speak more to our American insecurities than about the realities of being French: everyone in France is, in fact, not effortlessly stylish, svelte or better at rearing perfect children. But when you dig deeper – as hooked Francophiles tend to do – it’s undeniable that there’s an intoxicating, pleasure-seeking spirit that’s natural to the French and completely magical to the visitor.
It has to do with history, sure, but anyone who has visited the buzzing city of Bordeaux recently can attest to the fact that there’s also a great deal of youthful innovation in the air. It has to do with beauty, definitely – my recent trip took me from the moody seaside of Biarritz, through the red-and-white villages of the Pays Basque to the vineyards of Bordeaux in a week. But above all, it has to do with pleasure as quotidian as opposed to extraordinary. In the States, we “reward” or “treat” ourselves with the occasional lunch away from our desks, a shopping spree, a rich chocolate dessert. In France, there’s absolutely nothing exceptional about identifying and pursuing the small things that make you happy.
Which is not to say that there are not crippling problems. I traveled in midst of the Air France strike, where the company lost €20 million every day for the incredible duration of 14 days. One of the most impressive images in Bordeaux was a job fair in front of the city’s stone cathedral, a stopping point for pilgrims en route to absolution in Santiago di Compastello for centuries. Long lines of hopeful Bordealaise youth stood clutching their resume folders, coiffed and dressed as if they were waiting to enter a Wall Street boardroom as opposed to flimsy tents that had been set up al fresco (surely there were many more applicants than jobs). One of my taxi drivers told me about his daughter, an oenologist who could not find work in Bordeaux and left for the Napa Valley. “She makes about four times as much there than she would here,” he said. “But her dream is to come back one day."
And isn’t it everyone’s? Whenever I leave France, I’m already planning a return trip. Usually it’s to a different region, but Aquitaine, which encompasses Bordeaux, Biarritz and the Pays Basque, was such a delightful surprise that my next trip will be back there. Comprising five of France’s 100 departments, Aquitaine is an amazingly varied place in terms of landscapes, food, customs and even language (Basque is Europe’s oldest language and in written form, looks like elvish from The Lord of the Rings). Based in Bordeaux, you can reach the Basin d’Arcachon, home to Europe’s largest sand dune in under an hour; you can explore the nearby wine region’s 4,000-plus châteaux; or you can take the train to Biarritz, jumping off point to the French Pays Basque, in two hours. For travelers used to the international glamour scene of the Côte d’Azur and even parts of Provence, this region offers a laid-back and more authentic take on French country and coastal life. Highlights of my trip included steering a fire-red Citroen 2V along the winding roads of the Pays Basque, a cooking class in red-pepper capital Espelette, and a wine-blending workshop that yielded a custom blend of red (it's highly questionable whether aging it for "a minimum of three years," as we were instructed, will actually happen).
The most unexpected discovery, however, was Bordeaux, a city that is young, fun and just now coming into its own.
Large parts feel like Paris’ Marais before that quartier became overrun by chains and tourists. Bordeaux still has an artisanal, homemade vibe, with cute boutiques, a fabulous café and bar scene, and some very good brasseries serving the unapologetically rich southwestern cuisine (hello foie gras and rillette de lapin). Historic monuments seamlessly blend with contemporary additions, like the easy-to-use tram system and brilliant public art installations. Add to this a couple of very cool, up-and-coming neighborhoods, a few gorgeous, high-end hotels (including the historic Grand Hotel de Bordeaux) and the fact that 4,000 wine châteaux beckon nearby, and you have yourself an inspiring addition to your next Paris trip. (It takes less than 1 hour 30 to fly to Bordeaux.)
In fact, Aquitaine was full of the components that answered my dinner party’s question, What is it about France? It’s the tangy-sweet taste of tiny fraises des bois used sparingly in a dessert; it’s the gold-colored Sauternes served in a handspun glass of unbearable lightness; it’s the impassioned Espelette pepper farmer standing in his red-dotted field and the congenial chef/owner of a chambre d’hôte in the tiny village of Ainhoa. It’s walking along Biarritz’s Grande Plage on a chilly morning with fog in your hair, already sensing the heat of the sun forming behind the horizon, not yet knowing what treasures — and pleasures — the day will reveal.
Read Indagare's Bordeaux destination report.
Read Indagare's Biarritz destination report.
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