“The French California”, I’m told, is how the locals proudly advertise their home. But I won’t lie to you – this wasn’t the image of France that I, and probably most Brits, have hammered into us from those dreary war films like Saving Private Ryan where adolescents are sent to a militarised beach in Normandy. Of course, California has the vineyards and the dramatic coastlines to make the comparison seem somewhat reasonable but, to me, California sounded too exotic, too epic, too other side of the world for our neighbours only a quick Eurostar ride away. So, when I decided to spend my summer in the southwest of France this year to visit my boyfriend’s hometown of Bordeaux, I wasn’t prepared for just how wrong I was about to be proven.
I arrived in a muggy and overcast Bordeaux on an early August afternoon and the first place we stopped on the journey home from the airport was the supermarket to pick up some local wine and bread. The weather wasn’t shaping up to my previous summer’s Greek island-hopping but at least it was hot. As I settle in, I’m treated to a tasty risotto-like dish, alongside rustic bread partnered with tangy cheeses, all knocked back with a few glasses of vino from the nearby artisan vineyards in Saint Emillion. My boyfriend’s family live in a primary school and we play with their dogs, Bilbo and Oggie, in the empty summer playground. Over the next few days I would find myself exploring this cultured yet laid back city with its abundance of street cafes, patisseries, and high-fashion, brand name stores – the French way of life. An eclectic mix of northern industrialism with an almost Mediterranean like summer, and from the food to the clothes to the cathedral spires, the Bordelais have an impressive eye for detail. Bordeaux feels everything French.
Once we had spent enough time filling up on chocolatines (known everywhere else in France as pain au chocolate, although don’t say this in Bordeaux unless you want to be laughed at), we decided to venture out of the tourist enclave that is the city centre, and took a short tram journey across the charming Pont de Pierre bridge, offering magnificent views of the city from the other side of the Garonne river. The vibe here is very different and, while I see a lot less of the grand architecture of the centre, there is a nice community vibe, and the streets feel a little less polished. We take a stroll through Bordeaux’s botanical gardens, which don’t have anything on Glasgow’s, but still provide us with a peaceful spot to crash in the afternoon sun and have our lunch. Hot, sweaty, and beginning to doubt if there is much else to do in this end of town, I’m taken to what can only be described as a green utopia in the heart of this humble neighbourhood. Darwin, a cluster of ex-military warehouses, is now an emergent mini high street of small businesses, all sharing the same priority of working together and protecting their environment. These ramshackle brick buildings have been converted into everything imaginable, from bars to vintage stores, and even a few day-to-day businesses thrown in for good measure. Oh, and it has its own recycling centre. I know what you’re thinking – you’ve seen it all before, and gentrification has a deceiving tendency to appear chic and trendy, while often burying its problems in the empty wallets of the local long-term residents. This is more than just a Starbucks moving in to a rough area however; this is an innovative, community driven project of renewable space and reusable materials, and the sense of community is most tangible here. In fact, this is all part of Bordeaux’s recent renaissance, as I’m told the “sleeping beauty” city has changed drastically in less than a decade as a result of its new mayor. So much so that it was named Lonely Planet’s destination of the year in 2017, something I did not struggle to believe as we hit up Darwin’s happy hour with a few beers at an outdoor bar. I felt very at home in this strange, yet fascinating city where old traditions live alongside new, alternative urban lifestyles.
I’d be fooling you if I said all my holiday was spent in the urban grind. After my quick pit-stop in Bordeaux, I’m whisked off a couple of hours deep into the French countryside, where we spend a summery day on the canoes. Meandering down a valley of castles, vineyards and mountainside villages, we explore the delights of the Dordogne region; a rural, wine-wealthy area of quaint and dreamy countryside. And even though it had only been a few days, I was already sporting a slightly on the pink-side tan which I had to convince my boyfriend’s family was no cause for concern. That’s the British way I guess.
Now, if you’re a wine drinker like me, Bordeaux is the place to be. We would pick up a few bottles each day from the local supermarket and my little Scottish heart couldn’t believe how cheap it is – never any more than three or four euros for a very good bottle. I forgot drinking wine can be pleasant when you’re not drinking a £5 bottle of Echo Falls from Londis. Saint Emilion is a tiny medieval village forty-five minutes from Bordeaux that objectively produces some of the best red wines in the world. If you’re on a big budget, you can pay for a guided tour of the vineyards. Conversely, if you’re like me and you spend most of the holiday budget within the first two days, a daytrip will suffice. There’s an abundance of authentic French restaurants, idyllic village squares and Romanesque churches, all surrounded by running green hills.
After spending a few days at the beach in thirty-five-degree weather, we head down the coast to the French Basque country. The trains in France are even more expensive than at home, so we take a Bla Bla car, a popular carpooling app that allows us to take a two-hour journey for nine euros. We stay over in Biarritz, a well-to-do resort town on the Atlantic Ocean just a few miles from the Spanish border. The Basque has an identity and culture that is very distinct from that of France and, if you go, you should try some of their unique pastries and gâteaus, perhaps along the iconic promenade lined with palm trees and beer gardens. This feels like a slightly less ‘bling’ version of Monaco or St Tropez, with all the Bentleys boasting down Biarritz’s bustling main street, as well as the old Hotel du Palais which has played host to many A-listers in its time. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, there are also other, smaller gems to visit, such as Saint-Jean-de-luz, which offers traditional Basque architecture in a thriving town centre, and a huge Mediterranean-style beach accompanied by all the expected tavernas and cafes. One of my favourite places in the Basque country is Bidart, a tiny village atop a small hill, with stunning views over the lush summer countryside all the way to the mountains at the Spanish border. It’s a little more mountainous here so the coastline is very dramatic, with cliffs overlooking the deep Atlantic Ocean, and there is a stunning hanging garden which makes for a perfect picnic stop before heading to the beach. The Basques certainly make up for what the French lack in humour and warmth, as the local people are very accommodating and proud to show off their centuries-long home in this little corner at the end of France.
At this point, it’s fair to say that the Southwest of France exceeded my expectations, and I would encourage everyone – young or old, adventurous or laid-back – to give it a go, as it has so much to offer, from beaches to vineyards. Whether you come for a long summer holiday like me, or you snatch up a cheap Ryanair flight for a weekend escape, you’ll find yourself eager to return to its dramatic coastlines and charming towns. Now I haven’t been to California, but I have been to the southwest of France, and California has a lot to live up to.
[Mark Cunningham – @markcunninghaam]