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Published: April 3rd 2006
A coach load of field tripping Exeter Geography students wasn't really what I was expecting on my first night at the youth hostel in Bordeaux.
Standing in the lobby, I saw a familiar looking badge on a jumper. It took me a few minutes to recognise what it was, and I had to ask to be certain; But, sure enough, the hostel was crawling with Exeter University first years.
I made very little contact with them. I hate to generalise,but I often find your average Geography student to be a little unispired. I would go as far to say that these were the type of people I would have tried and avoid a year ago, and I'm sure the feeling was mutual.
Due to it's vast size and clinical (though thankfully clean) atmosphere, the hostel even resembled university accomodation. As reliving my first year of university isn't exactly high on my list of priorities right now, this wasn't exactly a welcoming situation.
I was going to come on here write a lengthy rant about my unsociable french room-mate, but he turned out to be an alright chap. Just nervous,I think; and self conscious about his lack of
English. For the first few days he ignored me, played bad French Hip-Hop every morning and watched DVDs till late at night (sometimes with the hip hop as an accomponiment). The first words he uttered were "Do you have a cigarrette". But he turned out O.K. We got chatting in a curious hybrid of French and English Verbs and Nouns. He was from Orleans, being interviewed for a job in Bordeaux. He seemed kind of lonely.He still played the Hip Hop though.
I booked myself onto a vinyard tour on my second day. It was expensive, but sometimes tours are essential. On the way to the Chateau (in Bordeaux a Vinyards headquarters, not a castle) we drove through miles and miles of vinyards, of which the density and sheer number were quite astounding. Save for a few road side trees, or a little farm building in the distance, vinyards were all there were stretching all the way to the horizon.
The owner of the Chateau, fancied himself to be quite the comedian. His jokes were largely distasteful and aimed at his absent wife. But he knew his stuff, and his explanation of wine making was entertaining at least.
A characteristic of wine, is that a step up in quality is not always self evident, whereas a step down certainly is. The Merlot we sampled was decent, it was good wine, but to my untrained palate it didn't seem outstanding. It was, however, responsible for the carafe of wine I shared at dinner, being drunk a lot less rapidly than usual.
The tour took us to the precocious little town of Saint Emillon, famous for a number of vintage wines, housing the largest underground church in europe, and inventing macaroons. Not bad for a population of under 2,000. What I found wonderfull about Saint Emillon, apart from the quiet streets, was the lack of typical high street shops. The usual tourist orientated tat was present, but apart from this it seemed to be a proper authentic country town. Residents seemed to go about their business in a traditional manner.
I'm possibly just being naive; and there is some sort of all powerful tourist board that represses all signs of progress for the sake of tour groups. Any town where it is possible to find a 20-strong group of German tourists, all wearing yellow baseball caps, is
probably not the most authentic in the world. Yet having split away from the group, and elderly gentleman carrying two large pales of water overtook me. It was a charming moment. He was probably on the tourist boards payroll.
As is often the case when travelling, my opinion of Bordeaux was higly affected by the area in which I was staying. The youth hostel was located by the train station in a slightly seedy area, that could seem a bit threatening at night. It was about 30 minutes walk from the city centre and consequently very different from it. It was also a short walk from a largely student area, which at night was very lively.
I had met an Australian guy, Paul, on the wine tour, and A kiwi girl, Helen, at the hostel the night before. The canteen of the hostel was no place to spend the night, so we went out. First, to a cheap eatery which had the very clever idea of providing tapas size portions of French food; then to a bar.
Maybe its because I'm not immersed in the culture, and don't speak the language; but French students, and young French
people in general seem to have a refreshingly unrestrained attitude to just going out and having fun. They seem to have less inhibitians, and fewer cultural niceties seem to be observed. Bear in mind, this was a Wednesday night and there was dancing on the bar and a two hour wait for the Karaoke. The French let the side down in other respects though, specifically their quite appaling taste in pop music.
Bordeaux is a very multicultural place:yet this influence is not really present within the city centre itself. Instead it is largely confined to an area just south of the city, and the hostel was situated right on the edge of this. This combined with the large student population, made the area very lively place to be, which was a welcome change, coming from the ghost town that Blois could be.
I got my hair cut at a local place. My Barber was an Arabic/French guy called Hammed. Despite the fact that his English wasn't great and my French was worse, I had the longest conversation I've ever had while at the mercy of the scissors. Normally a few half hearted comments about the weather are attempted
before I lapse into silence. But this guy was lively and talkative. He was interested in England and he was interested in me. The price was very reasonable too.
I had a day to spare, and any number of places to visit; so I turned up at the train station and jumped on the next train to the first place that interested me. That's how I ended up at Arcachon.
Arcachon is the original seaside town that they forgot to burn down. Miserable weather; a lonely strip of beach;ugly, modern, empty hotels; mini golf, little, electric tourist busses; overpriced restaurants with english menus and a casino could all be found here. It was utterly dreadful. It does, however, have a very big sand-dune. The largest in europe, apparently.
Having rarely left europe, opportunities to witness, and more importantly climp up, very large sand-dunes have been rare; so I was hoping this one didn't disappoint, particuarly as I'd taken a train, a Bus and a smaller Bus to get there. I'm happy to report that the sand-dune was very big, bigger than I expected, and also impressively sandy. At the top, the wind whips across from the ocean
at incredible speeds, picking the sand up as it goes. I put my bag down for a minute or two, and it was almost buried by the time I picked it up. Thinking that it would protect me, I tried to put my raincoat on, but the wind caught the arms and almost lifted me of the ground. I found that by holding the edges of the raincoat to act as a sail, I could lean forward at a very steep angle and not fall over. My only regret was that someone else wasn't someone else there with me. One can look very foolish messing around on a big sand dune by oneself.
Something I've noticed about travel guides, is that whenever describing cities or towns that are less than aesthetically desirable, the writer always seems to enthuse about the lively student nightlife or the vibrancy of the poplation. It's always seemed to me a mask to hide towns's flaws. Bordeaux, while not spectacular, is a very pretty town, particuarly around its recently rennovated central area. But stuck 30 minutes out of town, round the corner from the ambitiously titled 'red light district' it took me a while to
notice this. What attracted me was, in fact, the cities vibrancy and liveliness; and this manifested itself in a number of ways, energetic student protests or lively saturday markets for example. Unlike Paris, where the pressure of history and tourism can seem heavy, almost unreal at times; Bordeaux is a very real place where people lead real lives. It is not a monument, as some tourist towns can be, but a city situated very much in the present.
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