47°15'25.1"N 0°04'18.9"W Saumur, Loire Vally ; 46°09'23.6"N 1°09'15.1"W La Rochelle
46°12'17.6"N 1°22'02.8"W Île de Ré ; 44°53'35.7"N 0°09'22.0"W Saint-Émilion
Bronny called, “Bobby and I are coming to France”.
“Ok, what’s the brief?” I replied.
“He likes wine, and history. We’ll be in Normandy at the landing beaches, then we’ve got four days to be French before we fly out of Bordeaux on Tuesday” she said.
“Give me your four days and I’l give you France” I promised.
It was a bold promise for a Kiwi, but we like a challenge.
They were to train from Normandy to Dinan in Brittany with instructions to meet us on the bridge crossing the La Rance River, we giggled to ourselves as we got off the ferry and imagined them clanking suitcases down the ancient cobbled streets of the medieval town.
I was 14 and just started a new school when I fell in love with Bronny. A blend of English and Indian heritage gave this stunning girl a glow and her smile stretched from ear to ear. We spent high school together, growing. She lost her father to illness. We learnt life lessons as team mates in a rowing boat. There were plenty of hugs, pep talks and a lot of love.
Bronny continued her education in the USA, continued to be bright, beautiful and brilliant and eventually married a Californian man named Bobby. I had yet to meet him, but I had a brief. And a vague plan for our viticulture culture vulture!
Brittany & Loire Valley
Friday 9th September
Condor Ferries arrives St Malo at 11.25am carrying C&C
Train delivers Bronny&Bobby in Dinan at 11am
Convene at 1230 at Dinan Patisserie
1230 Lunch next to the La Rance River
1400 Drive to Saumur, Loire Valley
Check in at Casa Nova
2024 Sunset from the Chateau lawn
“Head to the town’s crowning glory, the chateau on a bluff overlooking the river. It is a wonder it is there at all, having weathered all sorts of bad treatment from its time as a prison under Louis XIV and Napoleon. Within is a mishmash of items bequeathed to the municipal museum, but the location and chance to glean a little of its tumultuous history make a visit worthwhile.”
2030 Dine at Le Pot du Lapin
We had Moules-frites by the river where I gifted them a ribbon tied itinerary and a beret.
Saumur, in the Loire Valley, is a peaceful place, rowers glide along the river and fisherman and chateau’ dot the rivers edge. The Tuffeau stone is riddled with secret doorways and tunnels storing year upon year of vintages, and also, in more recent years, Mushrooms.
First stop, vineyard. I had reserved us a spot for the wine cave tours at Gratien&Meyer but hadn’t left adequate time for the drive (needed to get better at this itinerary stuff, fast) we arrived a little late in the day for the caves but they were happy to oblige with wine tasting so we bought our favourite bottle to enjoy at sunset.
For your life enjoyment please note the following wine bottle sizes from baby to great-grand-daddy are called ;
187.5ml Piccolo or Split: Typically used for a single serving of Champagne.
375ml Demi or Half: Holds one-half of the standard 750 ml size.
750ml Standard: Common bottle size for most distributed wine.
1.5L Magnum: Equivalent to two standard 750 ml bottles.
3L Double Magnum: Equivalent to two Magnums or four standard 750 ml bottles.
4.5L Jeroboam: Equivalent to six standard 750 ml bottles. (In sparkling wines a Jeroboam is 3 litres)
4.5L Rehoboam: A sparkling wine bottle with six standard 750 ml bottles.
6L Imperial: (aka Methuselah) Equivalent to eight standard 750 ml bottles or two Double Magnums.
9L Salmanazar: Equivalent to twelve standard 750 ml bottles or a full case of wine!
12L Balthazar: Equivalent to sixteen standard 750 ml bottles or two Imperials.
15L Nebuchadnezzar: Equivalent to twenty standard 750 ml bottles.
18L Solomon: (aka Melchoir) Equivalent to twenty four standard 750 ml bottles.
27L Primat: Equivalent to thirty six standard 750 ml bottles!
30L Melchizedek: (or Midas) Equivalent to forty standard 750 ml bottles!!
It helps if you were raised in a household where biblical kings were discussed.
Never say I don’t teach you anything.
We are spending the night at this little B&B, Casa Nova, with just five lovely rooms, small and charming courtyard garden and a warm welcome from the house proud hosts.
We strolled into Saumur, had a wander through the town square and then headed up to the grounds of Château de Saumur where we found ourselves a spot on the lawn, popped the cork and settled in for sunset overlooking the river.
Dinner for the evening was at Le Pot de Lapin, the first time Captain and I visited Saumur it was on a whim, we needed a stopover on the way through France, the only bed available in town was Chateau de Beaulieu, a large old chateau with huge window shutters at the edge of town, the lady of the house recommended Le Pot de Lapin. We are told it’s where the locals eat. The food is very french and very good, so is the wine. We knew it was perfect.
Saumur, Loire Valley & La Rochelle
Saturday 10th September
Petit déjeuner at Casa Nova
0930 Visit town, museum or church
Suggestion; Fontevraud Abbey
“Fontevraud Royal Abbey, situated where the three regions of Poitou, Anjou and Touraine meet, is one of the largest surviving monastic cities from the Middle Ages. The Abbey was listed as an Historic Monument in 1840, and, as part of the Loire Valley, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. In a green valley just a few kilometres from the Loire River, near Saumur, Fontevraud is one of the unmissable stops on a visit to the Loire Valley. A stop, but also a destination … an essentially unique site!”
Drive Saumur to La Rochelle (2.5 hour drive)
Explore La Rochelle
1800 Check in at Entre’ Hôtes
‘Hideaway’ & ‘Aqua’ Rooms
Wine & Dine & Crepes
Waking at Casa Nova was a gentle start to the day, followed by Saumur markets, a visit to the local street market is obligatory in France! We bought juicy peaches, nougat, saucisson, warm loaves of french bread, melon, cheese and the most beautiful tomatoes ( you could taste the french sunlight).
A UNESCO World Heritage site, The Royal Abbey of Our Lady of Fontevraud was a monastery founded in 1101, the foundation flourished and became the center of a new monastic Order, the Order of Fontevrault. Composed of double monasteries, one for men and one for women, in separate quarters of the abbey, all of whom were under the authority of the Abbess of Fontevraud. The King of England, Henry II, his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and son, King Richard the Lionheart were all buried here at the end of the 12th century. It was disestablished as a monastery during the French Revolution.
We were ticking some serious history boxes!
It’s undeniably beautiful and we kept finding little surprises along the way; a vintage model race car track tucked in the eaves, topiary rows of cottage gardens, a princess and the pea bedroom, underground tunnels with spiders’ web of lights and vegetable gardens brimming with food.
The abbey sits in the village of Fontevraud-l'Abbaye which is also pretty as a picture…
We broke up the drive to La Rochelle with a picnic stop just off the motorway… all of the goodies from this mornings market and a cheeky bottle of sparkling rose’ from yesterdays vineyard.
La Rochelle, situated around the historically important ‘Vieux Port’ or Old Harbour, is a small city filled with stories of war, religion, revolutions and lovely little boutique shopping streets.
I’d chosen to book Entre’ Hôtes for our accommodation for the night in La Rochelle. Specifically requesting that Bronny&Bobby were in the ‘Hideaway’. When I saw it online it instantly felt french and romantic and I just had a feeling she would appreciate it. I was right, we had little happy tears.
As the sun settled over the horizon we strolled Rue St Jean du Pérot and decided to dine on Canard à l'orange, al fresco.
Sunday 11th September
Île de Ré
Petit déjeuner at Entre’ Hotes
Drive La Rochelle to Île de Ré (15 minutes)
Stroll St Martin de Re
Collect 4 x bicycles from Cyclo-surf
Ride & Beach & Explore
Dip in the Atlantic Ocean
Check in La Maison Douce
Wine & Dine
Ice-cream at La Martinieres
After breakfast it was a short hop over the bridge from La Rochelle to the island of Île de Ré.
We dropped the car at our hotel, La Maison Douce, which is located right in the heart of St Martin de Re, amongst the prettiest streets you have ever seen and the decor is very french, which is important for this particular french experience!
Collected some bikes from Cyclo-Surf and off we went…
This charming island is known for its salt marshes, beaches backed by dunes and pine tree, and pretty port villages with outdoor cafes overlooking the marina.
But the best bit, in my opinion, are the crisscross of bicycle paths which mean you can meander for hours between all of these things, riding through the vineyards with the salty air in your hair, an oyster or two for lunch, washed down rather invitingly with a carafe of ice cold rosé.
Then you get back on your bike…
It was time for a dip in the Atlantic ocean and a snooze on the sand…
… Before a ride home across the moat, swinging by one of my favourite boutiques. I’m not keen on shopping but Magazine de la Republique is delightful and I insisted on stopping.
There were cries for waffles from a certain someone, so we dropped down to the water-front in St Martin de Re and devoured cream & caramel waffles with our legs dangling over the marina in the sunshine. We popped into a couple of other lovely home deco concept stores on the ‘island’ in the marina and booked a table for dinner at Baleine Bleue, the menu looked nice and it was next to the marina.
The sunset glow that evening was superb, it streaked across St Martin de Re, so we sat, again, by the boats and the ice creams and the bicycles under the pinks, oranges, purples and blues until they faded into night… then did what any self-respecting frenchman would do; sat down in a lovely restaurant, ate good food, in good company, with good wine.
Monday 12th September
Petit déjeuner at La Maison Douce
Drive Ile de Re to Saint Émilion (2.5 hour drive)
Check in Château Le Relais de Franc Mayne Saint Émilion
“A 14-minute walk from Château Angélus winery, this refined boutique hotel surrounded by vineyards is 2 km from the Musée souterrain de la Poterie and 4 km from Château Cheval Blanc winery.”
Wine tour & caves at our Chateau, followed by wine tasting
Wine tasting at Le Petit Village, Pomerol
Relax by pool, drink the Wine
2030 Cellar Table at Le Tetre
I set an alarm for sunrise. We had decided to skip a sit down breakfast in favour of getting on the road early, so I promised I would venture to the boulangerie first thing to make sure we had freshly baked goods for the journey, we are in France after all! The streets on our doorstep were so charming I was happy to stroll them in the quiet, peaceful glow of sunrise, catching the light start to dance off the window panes, the shutters swinging open, watching the birds as they flutter and feed as the day comes to life.
It really is the best time of day, slowly but surely people were starting to rise, I noted that the few other dawn customers at the boulangerie were all men, on bicycles, riding away with a stick of fresh french bread strapped across the parcel tray.
A couple of hours later we arrived in St Émilion, clambered out of the car, and were greeted with this view;
My, oh my, St Émilion!
St Émilion’s viticultural heritage owes its existence to the Romans who established this area in 27 B.C. and began to cultivate the vines… Cut a long story monstrously short and in 1999, the Saint-Émilion vineyards became the first viticultural region to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
A very french experience wouldn’t be complete without a stay in a Chateau and we had saved the occasion for our final night together, Chateau Franc Mayne was given the honour.
Just 1km from the medieval village of St. Emilion, Franc Mayne is situated in the middle of its own vineyard on the edge of the ancient Gallo-Roman path.
Every guest is welcome to a guided cave tour and wine tasting, so after checking in we were greeted cordially by the beautiful Veronique, who then lead us through the estate. She covered the history of the vineyard, the varieties of grapes grown, the pruning, the harvest, and making of the wine and then an exploration of the limestone cave/quarry.
The town of St. Emilion, and a lot of nearby Bordeaux city, was built with rock quarried from underneath the rolling rows of vines. The caves became dual purpose, excellent quality quarried stone and in its place a consistently cool temperate cave to squirrel away your estates’ vintages.
Arising from the tunnels back into the light, Veronique guided us to the tasting room, nestled at the highest point of the property, the post house/horse stable was built in the sixteenth century on the path to Santiago de Compostela and now hosts merry guests for wine tasting and entertaining.
We emerged, bottles in hand, from the Old Post House wine tasting room and spilled onto the path of Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), an ancient network of pilgrim routes that stretches across Europe and converges at the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, northwest Spain.
A spot of light lunch in the garden, then it was onwards to the neighbouring area of Pomerol to Château Petit-Village for another wine tasting.
The vineyards are plentiful around here and almost all offer a wine tasting experience and tour, however reservations seem to be required and are often only open five days a week. I had picked Petit-Village off the cuff, it was a nice modern contrast to the others we had been to. Our guide, Marine, was young, knowledgeable and we enjoyed her company.
*Hindsight; Now I have been to St Emilion, in future, unless you have a specific vineyard in mind, I would suggest simply checking the map for the vineyard tours and tastings that are within walking/biking distance of your accommodation. There are the most extra-ordinary establishments simply dotted everywhere and the lanes make walking a joy.
Two wine tastings down and having a thoroughly excellent day so far, we headed back to Franc Mayne and settled in for a few hours, lounging on bean bags by the pool with a view over the vines and continued with a little more wine tasting of our own.
The living was easy.
Franc Mayne has the most glorious natural swimming pool. Unlike most sparkling blue swimming pools, natural swimming pools or ponds are filtered organically rather than by chemicals. Another pool called a regeneration zone is built nearby, which is where the water enters either a gravel filter or a constructed wetlands made of plants that clean the water. It’s refreshing, aesthetically pleasing, wildlife friendly and more harmonious in the landscape, it was one of the reasons we came and it was blissful.
That evening there wasn’t another soul in sight as we wandered the centuries old lanes through the vines, flanked by crumbling stone walls. We’d asked the way to the village and been guided to ‘follow the spire and you can’t go wrong’.
We had time for a drink in the square in the heart of the village, towering over us was the Église-Monolithe (Monolithic Church) a cavernous church hewn from a single piece of limestone bedrock circa 1200. Although only part of the cathedral is subterranean, once you're inside its hard to miss, you are completely overwhelmed by darkness and it has the delicate soiled scent of a burrow.
Comprised of three naves, 16th-century windows and a small catacomb beneath; the church was at one time decorated with magnificent frescoes of which very little remains thanks to the church being converted into a factory during the French Revolution.
It’s tower stretches 172ft (53m) high and if you fancy climbing 196 steps you shall be rewarded with splendid panoramic views. At least that’s what they told me, I was sat in the square with a cold one.
Then it was dinner time at Le Tertre, named after the four Tertres; narrow steep streets with uneven paving that connect the higher streets of the town to the lower town.
They showed us to our table…. in the cellar!!!
I wish I could claim that this was my influence. I had simply asked our hotel reception to book us a table at Le Tertre. Maybe they only had one table left, or a cancellation, maybe she was sleeping with the maître d', whatever it was table karma was seriously on our side.
It couldn’t have been a better highlight to finish our trip together!
Bobby was THIS HAPPY all evening.
For a man who gets excited about history and wine, dining in the historic stone cave cellar of such a traditionally beautiful restaurant, piled high with vintage after vintage of local wine and a genuine french sommelier on hand to guide him…
All his Christmas’s had come at once!
Bobby was given carte blanche on the wine ordering.
Escargot was sampled ( when in Rome, right). Many courses followed.
We were the happiest bunch of American/Jerseyman/Kiwis that cellar has ever seen.
Days like this are hard to beat.
St Emilion & Bordeaux
Tuesday 13th September
Wander St Emilion town and eat Caneles’
1100 depart St Emilion for Bordeaux (45 min drive)
Bronny&Bobby flight check in at 12 midday Bordeaux Airport
Flight time 1400
C&C depart after drop-off
5 hour drive Bordeaux to St Malo
Overnight in St Malo
Ferry 8 o’clock Wednesday morning
After breakfast we made our way into St Emilion to have one last stroll around the streets.
I was drawn to a handmade folding knife with a beautifully ergonomic Olive Wood handle, found in Laguiole Aubrac, so I purchased it as a gift for Captain.
Surprisingly, given it was only mid-morning, we still managed to consume a sorbet cone, followed by an al fresco ‘Au Revoir’ glass of rosé at Le Bistrot des Vignobles.
It was a total pleasure to spend this time with you both. Bronny I can still feel that cackle of yours reverberating through my skull, down my spine and across my ribs all the way to my heart, I love that sound.
French France you have been dreamy.