Monday, September 2, 2013

Crystal Symphony - Patricia Riley's Review: August 22-September 2, 2013 (Lisbon to Dover) - Part IV - Bordeaux and St. Emillion

My cruise on the Crystal Symphony continues sailing up the Garrone River to Bordeaux, France where the ship docked at noon on Tuesday and would remain docked in the center of town overnight. In September 2012 Eric Goldring gave you a perspective on Bordeaux that focused primarily on wine.  My perspective, however, is on the other things that Bordeaux has to offer including fantastic architecture, history and art. With the benefit of our overnight stay in Bordeaux, it allowed me enough time to explore beyond the city center.

It is said of Bordeaux that the view of the promenade, the old city gates and the riverfront buildings one sees today would be much the same as the sailors on trading ships, sailing up the Garonne River,  had seen in the 1800's.

The stunning cityscape of Bordeaux is thankfully not marred by skyscrapers popping up among the original buildings, many dating back to the 1700's.  The tallest building is the Cathedral St. Andre, (pictured below) whose soaring spire is the third highest in France.   What Notre Dame is to Paris, St. Andre is to Bordeaux.

Cathedral St.Andre in Bordeaux, France
Bordeaux is rich with museums including those dedicated to the fine arts (Musee des Beaux-Arts), the decorative arts (Musee des Arts Decoratifs) and the history of Aquitaine (Musee d'Aquitaine).   There is also the Centre Jean Moulin which is dedicated to those who fought in the French Resistance.

Bordeaux also offers a large public garden (Jardin Public) to stroll thru.  A short walk from that park brings you to a beautiful square, fashioned in the English Garden style that has a very bloody past.  That square is called Place Gambetta and it is here that over 300 people lost their heads to the sharp blade of the guillotine during the French Revolution.  Another must see is the classically inspired Grand Theater which sits on the eastern side of a square, Place de la Comedie, and was built on the site of a old Roman temple.


Construction started in 1773 and was completed seven years later.  Its columned entrance would be at home in either Rome or Athens. The Place de la Comedie is also the starting point of Rue Saint Catherine.  Almost a mile long, this pedestrian street is lined with popular French stores, such as Galleries Lafayette as well as smaller boutiques.  Of course you can also see the obligatory McDonald's.   It's hard to get the correct depth perception on the below picture of the street but it is quite a walk .  The street is also one of the entrances into Vieux Bordeaux

The Vieux Bordeaux (old Bordeaux) is the most popular area of Bordeaux.  Though the pedestrian shopping streets and plazas are crowded, just a block or two off the beaten path finds quiet streets and less crowded cafes.


Getting around Bordeaux is easy.  For the most part it is walkable, but for the further reaches, such as the furthest point of the public garden, or the train station,  the excellent tram system will whisk you around to wherever you need to go. A ride is only €1.40 and you can get on and off as much as you want for a period of 60 minutes.   After that you need to purchase another ticket.

Ticket kiosks are located at every tram stop, but a word of advice: Have euro coins with you. The kiosks do not take euro bills. They do give change for coins though.  Be sure to validate your ticket upon boarding the tram.  The validation machines are near the doors of the tram.  If you don't have a ticket, or don't validate your ticket you can be fined by one of the random ticket inspectors!

The tourist bureau offers one hour walking tours of old Bordeaux, year round  at 10:00am,  except on Wednesday and Saturday.     If you would rather explore without walking a fully narrated open top bus tour operates every day.  During July and August there are 11 departures during the day from 10:15am until 6:30pm.  The bus tour is an hour and costs €11.00. The benefit of the bus is that it crosses the Garonne River so you can see some of the sights across from Old Bordeaux.    You also have a lovely view of Bordeaux as you come back across the Pont Pierre, a magnificent bridge with 17 graceful arches.

Rumor has it the reason there are 17 arches is to honor Napolean.  Napoleon Bonaparte  had 17 letters in his name.  Unfortunately I couldn't get all 17 arches in the picture.  


The next day the Crystal Symphony left for Le Verdon, at 10:30am.  Le Verdon is not a port per se.  Those passengers that did not stay in Bordeaux were not allowed to disembark in Le Verdon.  It merely served as a pick up point.  (Crystal Cruises has put in place a very flexible schedule where longer cruises can be broken up into very short segments, so you can put together some very creative itineraries even if you only a few days.)

As the Garonne River is tidal entries and exits into Bordeaux have to be carefully coordinated. As a result the Crystal Symphony had to leave Bordeaux but not the area.  Those who wished to stay and enjoy Bordeaux's charms a little longer were offered a complimentary shuttle to meet up with the ship.  It left at 3:00pm from town and it was a two hour motorcoach ride through the Medoc wine region to reach and rejoin the ship.

One of the most popular side trips from Bordeaux is to St. Emilion.  It's very easy to get to using public transportation.  From the Place de la Bourse Tram Station, across the street and about a 5 minute walk south from where the ship docks, you will take Tram C in the direction of Gare St. Jean.  It's a less than 10 minute tram ride.  To get to St. Emilion from Gare St. Jean is a 40 minute train ride.  Fares are anywhere from €6.80 to €9.00 depending on time of day.  Senior discounts are available to those over 60.  The trains are operated by SNCF and there are ticketing kiosks in the station.  Again, coins only.  U.S issued credit cards pose a problem as SNCF requires a signature for the transaction.  If paying by credit card you can complete the transaction at the ticket office.  There are ticket windows that are marked with a British Flag indicating that English is spoken by those agents.  They are very helpful.

Trains run once an hour at about 4 minutes after the hour until the 2:04 pm train.  There is a not another train until 4:04 pm. Always check the train schedules before setting out as schedule changes do happen, especially seasonally.  Trains back to Bordeaux go at approximately 19 minutes after the hour.  The last train is at 8:19 pm.

The areas around train stations are not usually known for their scenic beauty.  A walk from a train station into the center of town sometimes is not the most pleasant.  That being said, the walk from the train station into St. Emilion is a very pleasant stroll through vineyards.



It's about a mile or so, once you turn right on the street in front of the station, before you reach the beginning of St. Emilion.

What I am about to say may be surprising as one always hears about how wonderful St. Emilion is.  I did not like it.  To me it seemed as if it were nothing but wine shops offering complimentary tastings.  The wine shops seemed to outnumber the other shops 10 to 1.  Even if you like wine and enjoy tastings I don't recommend tasting more then 1 or 2.  The reason is that the walking in the towns' streets is treacherous.

The picture below doesn't do justice to the steep incline and slippery surface of the cobblestones streets spread throughout the town.  Navigating while sober is a challenge.  I don't know how someone could do it being even slightly buzzed.

The Streets of St. Emilion are a Challenge...
Even Without Wine Tastings

The town itself is quaint and can be covered, easily, without wine stops,  in an hour and a half.  You can stroll around and make your way to the highest point.  You'll be rewarded with a lovely view over the rooftops of St. Emilion and the vineyards beyond.  I like this view as you can't see all the wine stores!  
The View from the Top of St. Emilion
It is an Unesco World Heritage Site and has played an extremely important role in the development of wine in the area.  I am glad I went as I was able to see and judge for myself.  Honestly, with so much to do and see in Bordeaux, the next time I will spend all of my time there.