- Monday 1 July 2002
Bordeaux is an ideal holiday destination. Rachel Bridge investigates.
The region around Bordeaux may be best known for its vineyards, but there's a lot more to see than row after row of vines. Point your car in virtually any direction and you will discover magnificent fortresses, fabulous beaches, old fishing villages – and even the birthplace of an entirely different drink.
CLIMB A SAND DUNE
Halfway up the side of the Dune du Pyla you'll probably wonder how you ever managed to convince yourself that climbing Europe's biggest sand dune would be a good idea. It's over 10m high and parts of it are as steep as an Olympic ski jump, so trying to scramble up feels rather like wading through treacle and progress is about as speedy. Fortunately, the spectacular view from the summit makes all the effort worthwhile. It feels as though you're standing on top of the world and, as you get your breath back, the dense green forests of the Landes region stretch out far below you and you can see right across the bay of Arcachon.
The nearby seaside resort of Arcachon is a good place to shake the sand out of your shoes. A pleasant town of neat pastel-coloured buildings, smart shops and pedestrian streets, it boasts a vast number of restaurants. These spill out on to sun-filled terraces, where you can sample the oysters for which Arcachon is renowned. From here you can catch a ferry to Cap Ferret on the other side of the bay. Right on the end of the peninsular, this is a former fishing village where the beach is lined with painted wooden cottages and brightly coloured sailing boats.
Time by car from Bordeaux: 45 minutes; parking at Dune du Pyla: e2.30; Website: www.arcachon.com; Tel +33 5 57 52 97 97.
GO BACK IN TIME
Even viewed from outside the citadel, Blaye looks impressive. Designed by fortification expert Vauban in the 17th century at the request of Louis XIV who feared invasion by the English, the fortress only ever saw action once, for nine days in 1814. As a result it remains virtually unblemished, its grey walls solidly defining its magnificent position high up on the banks of the Gironde Estuary. But don't end your visit here. It is only when you walk up the cobbled footbridge over the former moat and enter the gates of the citadel that you discover what all the fuss is about. For tucked inside the fortified walls is a charming 17th century village whose flower-filled narrow lanes are lined with tiny painted cottages and artists' workshops, many of which are still inhabited. The original cannons still point out to sea in the Place des Armes, from where there is an amazing view across the estuary towards the Médoc region. At 12km across, the Gironde is the widest estuary in Europe and if you wish to linger longer head for the historic Hotel de la Citadell, just off the square, where you can admire it at your leisure over a drink on the terrace.
Even better, a few minutes walk from the citadel you can catch a ferry across the estuary to Lamarque, which is the perfect jumping off point for a quick tour of the Médoc.
Time by car from Bordeaux: 30 minutes; ferry to Lamarque: e3 per person, e12 per car; Website: www.blaye.net; Tel +33 5 57 42 12 09.
GET A TASTE FOR COGNAC
The ancient town of Cognac actually predates cognac the spirit by a few hundred years, but it is the drink which has ended up shaping its character, from the grand houses which dominate the town to the huge warehouses which line the banks of the river Charente. Indeed, the fumes produced by the ageing cognac are the cause of the distinctive blackened appearance of many of the buildings.
The big six cognac houses all run regular guided tours through their cellars and distilleries, although perhaps the most interesting one to visit is Otard, which is housed in the 12th century château of Francois I – visitors get to see secret passages and dungeons at the same time. Leave time for a wander through Old Cognac, a wonderfully preserved maze of narrow cobbled streets, half-timbered houses and 11th century workshops. However, the internationally famous brands are only half the cognac story. To hear the rest of the story pay a visit to one of the many small family-run cognac producers dotted throughout the surrounding countryside. The best way of finding them is by heading towards Jonzac or Barbezieux and simply stopping when you see a sign in a field saying 'Visite-Vente-Degustation'. Unlike the large cognac houses, here you can meet the producer in person and most of them will happily show you around their vineyard and cellars before letting you sample their products – and, of course, buy a bottle or two if you wish.
One of the oldest producers is the Bertrand family in the village of Reaux. At the Domaine des Brissons de Laage, founded in 1731, Madame Bertrand and her son Jean-Francois still make cognac by the same traditional methods as their ancestors. Here you will also discover cognac's best-kept secret – its younger brother Pineau de Charentes. An aperitif made from cognac and grape juice, Pineau is virtually unknown outside the Charentes region, despite the enthusiasm of the gastronome Curnonsky, who claimed those who drunk it would experience a feeling of lordly gratitude.
Time by car from Bordeaux: 60–80 minutes; guided tours of the big cognac houses: e3–5 per person; Website: www.ville-cognac.fr; Tel: +33 5 45 82 10 71.
Domaine des Brissons de Laage Website: www.abrege.com/cognac-bertrand; Tel: +33 5 46 48 09 03.
You have to hand it to the French. Where else would you find a luxury spa slap bang in the middle of a vineyard, where all the treatments are based on wine and grape extracts, and where guests are welcome to drink wine during their stay? Les Sources de Caudalie is the only spa of its kind in the world; a luxurious retreat where everything from the soap to the aromatherapy candles are derived from the grapes grown in the vineyard. Guests often spend up to six days here, staying in the smart hotel next door and eating in the Michelin-starred restaurant, but day visitors are equally welcome, either for a single treatment or for a day package of four treatments. Between sessions guests are free to use the steam room and Turkish bath or just flop on to a chaise longue and sip organic herbal tea. The theory behind vinotherapy is that the polyphenols found in grape seeds act as antioxidants against the cell damage caused by free radicals produced by sun, pollution and cigarette smoke, and so help fight the ageing process. Even if you aren't entirely convinced of the scientific basis behind the treatments, by the time you have been immersed in a wooden barrel tub containing grapeseed extracts and essential oils, and then wrapped in a warm envelope of wine and honey, you probably won't care too much.
Time by car from Bordeaux: 20 minutes; half-hour treatments from e49; a day package of four treatments: e130; Website: www.caudalie.com; Tel: +33 5 57 83 82 82.
SEE RELIGIOUS RELICS
A hermit who spent his life in a cave, the largest subterranean church in Europe and a carved stone chair reputed to help infertile women become pregnant – even without the attractions of its world-renowned vineyards there are many good reasons to visit the idyllic hilltop village of St Emilion. The best place to start is in a small dark cave where, according to legend, a monk called Emilion lived during the 8th century. Built in the shape of a Latin cross, you can still see the rough-hewn ledge he used as a bed and the infamous carved chair believed to be the source of potent fertility properties.
The Monolithic Church close by is awesome. A vast vault of a place complete with pillars, it was hewn out of a single rock in the 9th and 12th centuries. Directly above it is the nearly-as-old Trinity Chapel, which was built in honour of St Emilion. The chapel suffered the ignominy of being converted into a cooperage during the French Revolution but you can still see fragments of frescoes on the wall, one of which is thought to be of the saint himself.
Then take a wander through the winding cobbled streets until you reach the highest point of the village, where you can look out over the moat and walls of the town to the vineyards beyond. You can reward yourself for your efforts with St Emilion's other speciality, macaroon biscuits, from the Blanchez cake shop on rue Gaudet. First created here in 1620 by the Ursuline sisters, they are still baked to the original recipe.
Time by car from Bordeaux: 20 minutes; Monolith Church guided tour: e5 per person; Website: www.saint- emilion.org; Tel +33 5 57 55 28 28.