This is a continued recap of my recent trip to Europe. Read about days 12-15 of my trip in San Sebastián and San Juan de Gaztelugatxe here, days 8-11 in Barcelona, Spain here, days 6 and 7 in Nice, Èze, and Villefranche-sur-Mer here, days 3-5 in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France here, or days 1 and 2 – my travel days – here. See a complete map of my travels here.
H and I hit the road bright and early and returned our car to the San Sebastián airport. You cannot return a rental car to a different country without being charged a massive fee (think 800 euros). So we took a 7-minute taxi ride just across the border into France and were dropped at Gare d’Hendaye (a small railway station). We then took a train to Biarritz, France, where we picked up our new French rental car.
Our destination was Bordeaux, but we wanted to stop at the Dune of Pilat, the largest sand dune in Europe, on the way. We drove two hours to the dune and parked among other groups of tourists and throngs of school children on field trips. We first grabbed a sandwich at one of the stands near the parking lot, and then we set off to climb the dune, not fully knowing what to expect.
The hike up to the top of the dune was steep and challenging. One has the option to take stairs (much easier), or to climb up the sand (which we chose). We took off our shoes and felt the aches in our calves as we ascended.
At the top, people were sun tanning on blankets, walking across the entire top of the dune, or hang gliding. We could at last see the ocean on the other side of the dune. H and I considered descending to get to the ocean, but neither of us wanted to have to climb up to the top again. And so, we were content to lie in the sand, in this essentially gigantic beach, and feel the sun and strong winds on our faces.
When we were ready to leave for Bordeaux, we ran down the side of the dune (which was the best part!) and tumbled into our car for the hour-long drive to Bordeaux.
Honestly, we had a bit of a stressful drive into Bordeaux, and finding the car park was rather confusing. (I would recommend taking a train into Bordeaux and not dealing with a car.) But at last, we got our suitcases down narrow cobblestone streets and found our darling Airbnb near the center of town, surrounded by cute shops and restaurants, on a quiet street.
The host was so kind. He showed us around and then let us be. The flat looked just like it did in the pictures and was spacious but cozy. H and I got settled in and then headed out to the nearby Carrefour grocery store to snag some pastries, yogurt, fruit, and juice for breakfast. We put everything away back at the Airbnb and then left for dinner before the wine festival (more on that soon)!
H and I were feeling ravenous (as we often were throughout our travels) and some pizza caught our eyes at an Italian place around the corner from our Airbnb. There was a table for two right outside, and it felt meant to be. We could not resist. We took a seat at Masaniello, which turned out to be just as delicious as we had hoped. The rosé was divine (as it was everywhere in France, truly), and the pizza tasted just like that in Italy: fresh, hot, and flavorful.
We left, full and satisfied, and walked just a few minutes to Place de la Bourse, the main square in Bordeaux in front of the river. The architecture of the buildings before us was grand, intricate, and magnificent. We fell in love with Bordeaux right there. And just behind us: festive music, tall ships, Grand cru winemakers.
When H and I first decided to visit Bordeaux, we had no idea that the wine festival would be occurring during our visit, a festival offering tastings of some of the best wines in the world – the Grand cru – as well as tours of historic ships (the “tall ships”), workshops, nightly fireworks shows, and more. But a few weeks before we left for Europe, a French friend told me about the festival. And so, we headed into the festival area, showing our tickets that we had purchased in advance, and received a small wine glass with a carrier (which we could keep!) and a card that would allow us to taste wines at the booths. We excitedly wandered down the sidewalk by the river and tried our first wines. We admired the ships along the way, and finally, at 11:30 p.m., caught a phenomenal fireworks show. The streets were packed for the event! Thereafter, we walked just 5 minutes back to our Airbnb – which ended up being in the perfect location – and slept.
H and I woke up the next morning to a light rain falling and cool air seeping in through the open window. I was hoping we had left the cold in San Sebastián, but no matter – we were excited to explore nonetheless. And so, I pulled back on the only pair of pants I had brought and a sweater I assumed I would only wear on the plane, and we went out to see the sights.
We passed by the Grand Théâtre and through a shopping district – noticing how attractive all the shops and buildings were – and eventually made our way to La Maison Darricau, an old famous chocolate shop since 1915 that I wanted to try.
A kind woman stepped out from the back and walked us around the shop, telling us about each delicacy in careful French. We sampled a few chocolates that were utterly delightful. She fashioned a little bag of goodies for us, and we were off, back into the drizzle.
At this point, we had worked up an appetite (even after the chocolate!) and made our way over to Plume, a charming lunch spot that I had read wonderful things about. When we stepped inside, we were met with an intimate space, scents of fresh coffee and pastries, soups and brightly colored salads.
We ordered at the lunch counter and were given a table number. We sat on the cozy second floor, windows open out to the street. I got the planche du jour – plate of the day – that consisted of a light soup, arugula, ham, cheese, jam, and an egg and cheese soufflé. This ended up being my favorite meal in Europe. It was, to me, the ideal French lunch. I snagged an Earl Grey tea to go before we left.
We wandered more through town and found ourselves at the foot of a tall tower – the Pey-Berland Tower next to the Cathedral of Saint-André. Walking inside, we discovered that we could climb the tower to get the best view in Bordeaux, which we did. After, we felt a bit tired and headed back to the Airbnb to relax for a moment before returning to the wine festival.
Post-nap, we walked back through Place de la Bourse and straight to the riverside, where the tall ships were free for public viewings as part of the wine festival.
We climbed on Kruzenshtern, a Russian ship that was built in 1926. We moved across the length of the ship, taking note of the traditionally dressed crew.
We snagged our first glass of wine of the day and marveled at the festival – how random and lucky we were to be in Bordeaux for this big event.
H and I had been curious to see Darwin, an ecosystem on the other side of the river (the right bank) with an urban farm, skate park, free expression spaces for graffiti artists, an organic grocery, Le Magasin Général restaurant, co-working spaces, and more. We took the super convenient tram (our wine festival ticket allowed us free public transportation for the day) to a bridge farther down the river that would allow us to walk across to the other bank.
We snacked on a charcuterie and cheese plate at Le Magasin Général, which is a huge, open space with industrial vibes – and noticed a concert starting just outside of the restaurant.
We made our way out to the concert space just as the Bordeaux orchestra was playing songs by The Beatles! They were a talented group, and it was such a treat to hear. The conductor grinned and sang along, enjoying himself.
The evening was suddenly growing later, and H and I needed to get to La Cité du Vin, the fairly new wine museum in Bordeaux. For the wine festival, the museum was staying open at night, and we had bought tickets online especially to do this. We took an uber the modern museum – which is shaped like a decanter – and entered to find that we needed audio guides to take our tour. There was not much text or many traditional elements. The museum was interactive and visual. You swiped your audio guide at different stations and would often watch a video playing in front of you while listening to a story. The museum covered everything from the history of wine, to current winemakers and what they do, to the experience of tasting wine, to information about how different wines are made.
Our ticket included a complimentary glass of wine at The Belvedere, a wine bar on the top floor of the museum with a 360-degree view of the city. By the time we got up there, the museum was to be closing soon, and so we drank our glasses quickly (I got a delicious sparkling rosé) while gazing out at the Ferris wheel and bright lights coming from the wine festival down the river. At the museum’s close, we took the tram back down the river and walked one last time through the lively wine festival, before returning to our homey Airbnb to sleep. We were sad to be departing Bordeaux the next day after such a lovely (and quick) stay, and knew we would need to come back someday.
The next morning, we ate breakfast and clattered our suitcases back down the street to the car park. The underground garage ended up being huge – bigger than we thought – and very confusing to navigate. It ended up taking us almost an hour to find our car (a very stressful hour) although I had taken note of the floor and parking space number where we had left our car. Eventually, we got to it, and left for Saint-Émilion, an old town just 40 minutes away in the Bordeaux region that is famous for making excellent red wines. Unlike Bordeaux, Saint-Émilion was a very simple place to park and walk. We headed up through the small town to explore and found this structure (above) that had us intrigued as we saw people standing at the top of it.
It was called the King’s Tower (or Château du Roy) and the only roman keep still intact in the region. We could pay 2 euros to go up and see the view, which we did (view is above). Historians do not agree on the date of the tower’s construction, but it seems to have been sometime between 1199 and 1224. The tower is still used as a place for the Jurade (a wine council) to give speeches promoting Saint-Émilion wines.
For H and I, we simply enjoyed the view. Seeing the Romanesque churches, ruins, vineyards – we loved it all instantly. We could feel the history of the place, however mysterious it was.
We continued to climb the narrow streets of Saint-Émilion, stumbling upon more enigmatic ruins.
We admired vineyards on the outskirts of the town.
We found enchanting views wherever we went. (Notice the King’s Tower in the back right corner of this photo.) The courtyard below caught my eye, and we headed down for lunch, surrounded by crumbling, fascinating structures.
Post-lunch, we stumbled upon some fresh lavender on our walk out of town. I rubbed my fingers against the herb, breathing in its comforting scent.
H and I decided to drive through the streets surrounding Saint-Émilion where all the famous wineries lay. We passed seemingly endless vineyards and gorgeous châteaux.
We parked in front of Château Cheval Blanc (which was closed this day, a Sunday) and stepped out of the car and into the vineyards. The red roses lining each row caught my eye.
From there, we drove around to Château La Dominique, which was open on Sundays, and parked. I had read about this place online prior to our visit. The modern architecture (a red building) and rooftop restaurant were particularly highly rated. We walked up to restaurant on the roof, where there was a wide-open terrace – with a floor of red gems – on which to sit and look out.
We gazed at the miles of vineyards, feeling so fortunate to be here.
We then continued our drive out of the vineyards and made our way to Toulouse, a 2.5-hour drive from Saint-Émilion where we stopped for the night. We chose Toulouse as it was on our way to Aix-en-Provence, which was our final destination, and known as the “pink city” (due to the pink stone used to construct many of its buildings), which intrigued us.
We got checked into the Pullman Toulouse Hotel (a clean, modern stay with a very nice staff) and walked into town. On first look, Toulouse felt more crowded and rowdy, and we did not love it immediately, at least not compared to Bordeaux, which impressed us greatly. But still, there were some pretty parts.
What did enthrall us was a dreamy dinner on the roof of the Galeries Lafayette in Toulouse called Ma Biche sur Le Toit. The wine was marvelous, and H and I both ordered fish dishes that came out incredibly fresh and prepared perfectly with vegetables aplenty. We were happy.
What thrilled me further was Amorino, a bright, open shop on the Place du Capitole in Toulouse that serves creamy gelato with a macaron on top! I had never had such an impeccable dessert. I was in love. And so, we went to bed, satisfied from our night in Toulouse, but eager to see Aix the next day.
Upcoming post: Days 19-21 in Aix-en-Provence and Cassis.