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Published: June 16th 2013
The two and a half hour train ride to Aix en Provence was uneventful and we arrived at the TGV station just after 10am. It was 14 km from the town centre but luckily there was a bus that took us to the central bus station in town. From there it would have been a 12 minute walk to the Hotel du Globe - if we hadn't stopped for coffee and pastry. Getting to the hotel, the girl at the registration desk recognised Kellys name - "you are the brother" and was quite prepared to just hand over the key to Susan and Rogers room so we could leave our packs. The typical checkin routine is just to show up, state your name ( if you have a reservation) and give no other information until checkout. How many places are they so trusting? After meeting up with Susan and Roger we caught the tail end of the Saturday market, sampling fudge and Calisson cookies - the latter are a specialty of Aix and made from sweet almonds and preserved fruit are were rather icky as well as being very expensive.
Aix is quite an elegant town with lots
of high priced shops in its narrow streets and leafy plane trees on the wide boulevards. It is where the artist Paul Cezanne grew up and did most of his paintings. Each square had pretty fountains where the water came out of some artistic sculpture.
Next morning (june 9th) we all caught the bus to Marseille. Kelly and I were catching the night train to Bordeaux from the Marseille St Charles TGV station and fortunately that was where the bus dropped us off. We put our packs in a locker at left luggage and were off to explore the town. It took us a bit to get our bearings and headed towards the port via some rather questionable streets - don't want to come here at night! We eventually found ourselves on the Canebiere, Marseille's principal street. The name Canebiere comes from the Provençal word "Canebe" which means hemp ("cannibis" - get it?) which is what ships rigging used to be made from.
The streets and port side were teeming with people - it was Sunday after all as well as being a celebration for Marseille being selected as the European cultural capital for
2013. There was a Pastis shop on the waterfront that advertised tasting - we were given a small papercup of Pastis from a cask and then totally ignored! Other people in the store were given the chance to smell different grades of Pastis - probably speaking the language helped.
Time for lunch and we headed to a Moroccan restaurant only to be told they were full - even though there were empty tables and it was only 1230pm. Heading towards the Panier district (historical area) we came across a large square filled with tables and people eating delicious looking seafood. Unfortunately there were no empty tables and as lunch quite a leisurely affair, again we were told "complet"- no tables. Hunger pangs were growing when we found a small pizza joint in an alley - we ended up sitting right next to where the pizzas were made and cooked (one at a time). Other food was prepared in the back where the cook had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. It took at least half an hour for our pizza to arrive but a chilled bottle of Rosé helped pass the time.
back to the quai we stumbled on the Eglise St Laurent (12th century). You have to wonder how they built such tall curving structures. From there it was to Fort Saint Jean which was built by the knights of Malta in the 13th century. Overhead walkways join it to the spectacular new building designed by Rudy Ricciotti - both this building and the fort house the Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean. Huge lineups as it was opening day.
The metro station had a very cool mirrored canopy over the entrance and the quai, so every one walking underneath was reflected upside down. Next stop was to catch bus # 60 which would take us up the hill to the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde. We waited and waited and finally Susan and Roger decided to head back to Aix ( they were planning on returning to Marseille the next day). Of corse as soon as they left, the bus arrived. It was a nonstop journey up the hill with some really tight turns for a large bus. There were a few places where cars has to reverse and then jockey around.
The Basilica was stunning inside - easily the most beautiful church we have seen. Great 360 degree views of the city, harbour and coastline from the ramparts surrounding the church. It was an easy downhill walk to the Fort of Saint Nicolas ( built in 1660 by order of Louis XIV). On the return promenade along the port side we again scratched our heads as to what all the boats were anchored to. They are all tied stern to the dock with anchor lines going out into the channel. We finally decided that there must be a permanent anchor point underwater that they attached to
Back up the Canebiere and a really cheap Pastis in a corner bar before dinner at a Tunisian cafe on Blvd Dugommier. Our train left at 1130 so we had a bit of time to wait - fortunately the Saint Charles station was very nice. Our platform was announced just as the train was pulling in - our carriage was the furtherest away and just as we headed to it there was a clap of thunder and it started POURING! So we got a little wet. We had elected
to travel in reclining seats rather than the sleeper carriage and overall it wasn't too bad. Kelly gave me one of the sleeping pills that he had bought over here and I was out like a light. Plus I got to use my little travel pillow which I had brought with me, expecting all hotels to have hard pillows - soft fluffy pillows all the way so far. The train ride was a bit of a milk run, arriving in Bordeaux just after 8 am.
Another really nice train station (St Jean) and after coffee and a pastry we hung around til the tourist office opened so we could get some maps and a list of hotels ( we had nothing booked). A 10 minute tram ride took us to Centre Ville and the first hotel we checked had a room for one night only (we wanted three), same with the second hotel and the third.........!!!hmmmm must be some event happening in town. By the time we were at hotel 9 or 10 we were getting a bit worried but finally one hotel phoned ahead for s and found a room for two nights at Hotel de
France on Rue Franklin - the smallest room so far with a correspondingly tiny bathroom and an even tinier shower.
Wine is synonymous with Bordeaux so in the afternoon we went wine tasting organized by the tourist office. The tour goes to a different region every day and Monday is to Cotes de Bourg and Cotes de Blaye. During the nearly one hour bus ride the tour guide explained the characteristics of the various wine regions and the types of wine produced in each one. Our first stop was to Chateaux Marquis de Vauban where we were given a short tour of part of the vineyard and an explanation of some the growing techniques - I always thought that roses were planted at the end of each row to make it look pretty. In fact it is because roses are susceptible to disease so that gives the vintners warning that they need to tend to the vines. After a description of the wine making process we were given three different wines to sample. The second stop was to Chateau Mercier. It was interesting in that although they grew the grapes organically, harvesting and pressing was by machine
whereas at Marquis de Vauban, the grapes were hand picked and gravity fed into the barrels.
When planning this trip, kelly had said that he wanted to go to Bordeaux - so here we were. When asked what he wanted to see, his answer was along the lines of - i wanted to see a cool stone town - so here we were - only problem was we had had our fill of stone towns after a couple of weeks n France. oh well. Usually every espresso we get is accompanied by a little cookie or other sweet treat. Our first coffee in Bordeaux was accompanied by a little canele ( custard inside a caramelised crust). Like all regional specialties they were really expensive so it was a nice little treat. Day 2 saw us promenading around and just enjoying the city with its wide boulevards and gracious buildings - you can see why it is a UNESCO protected site. The oldest part of the Cathedral of St Andre was started in 1096 -again an amazing feat of engineering. After crossing the Garonne r river via the Pont de Pierre and picnicking on the bank we used
the local ferry to cross back over to the other bank. In front of he Royal Palace in Place de la Bourse is the "water mirror" - a large surface that slowly fills with a few inches of water ( that everyone plays in) before draining away and being replaced by numerous misting water spouts.
At Place de Quinconces was one of the most spectacular fountains I have ever seen. It comprised 36 huge statues including 8 war horses ( complete with water coming out of their nostrils). Apparently the whole thing was taken apart during the German occupation and later all the statues were found intact and the fountain was rebuilt.
Dinner that night was one of the most memorable on this trip - scanning through a list of restaurants we had noted one that said " hearty and reasonably priced" - the Cassolette Cafe at 20 Place de la Victoire. One of the items on the menu was "Le menu Goutatout" where you got to chose 5 small dishes from a selection of 10. Having no idea what any of it was, we chose all ten between the two of us. The food that
arrived was delicious and included salmon pâté, eggplant bruschetta, chicken in a mushroom sauce, scalloped potatoes ( which sounds so much better when it is tartiflette au fromage des Pyrenees and 3 desserts!
Earlier in the day we had peeked into Bar a Vin, a very posh looking wine bar and we thought that we would treat ourselves to a very good glass of wine. Expecting to pay 10 to 15 euros we were stunned when the prices ranged from 2 to 6 euros! And we each had a most excellent glass of wine - mine was a white from the region of Entre Deux Mers while Kelly had a red from Saint Estephe in Medoc. His new obsession became to find more wine from that region. Our other surprise of the night was when the bill came straight away - normally you have to ask for it - and then they asked us ( and everyone else) to pay. The sun was still shining so we hadn't realised it was just about 10pm and closing time
As we were only able to get two nights accommodation in Bordeaux we thought that we would then spend the next two nights in Cognac and experience Cognac tasting. But having learnt from the Bordeaux experience we looked online for accommodation but there wasn't any. It was too far away and too expensive for a day trip so change of plans and next stop was Arcachon ( oyster capital of France) on the Atlantic coast.
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