When we landed at the remote, industrial port of Le Verdon-sur-Mer at the mouth of the Gironde River, about 100km northwest of Bordeaux, it was a cold and rainy October morning. The Gironde is an imposing body of water, the biggest estuary in all of Europe, which flows into the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic Ocean. We had arrived at the north-western most tip of the Aquitaine region, our cruise ship far too massive to sail upstream.
It was day five of our wine cruise, which had sailed out of Southampton, England and unlike most of the ship’s passengers who had booked shore excursions through the cruise line; we had made our own private arrangements for an overnight stay. Le Verdon is not a touristy port of call where you can easily rent a car, hop on a train or hail a taxi. We walked through the port yard with our umbrellas, dodging forklifts and big trucks, heading out onto the rural country road where we hoped our tour guide would find us.
Joceline wasn’t just your ordinary tour guide, in fact, she wasn’t even a tour guide by profession, she was the friend of a friend who had agreed to be our private guide for two days. My wife Debra and I live in Burbank, California, and I’ve worked in the entertainment industry for more than twenty-five years, and we know a few actors. One of them, the lovely Carolyn Seymour, a British expat lives in Poitou-Charentes and she introduced us to Joceline, another British expat. It was the start of a wonderful friendship.
Joceline had driven three hours (187km) from her home in Bonnes to reach Le Verdon, where, as promised, she rescued us from the side of the road. We loaded our overnight bags into the boot of her car and headed southeast toward Bordeaux, taking in the scenic Médoc countryside, well known as a wine growing region on the left bank of the Gironde estuary. Our destination was the town of Saint-Émilion, about 35km east of Bordeaux.
For many months prior to the cruise there had been much debate about where we should spend our one night off the ship. We spent hours researching online. I like to use Google Street View to virtually “beam down” to potential destinations and check out the neighbourhoods and look at hotels, restaurants and pedestrian areas. The visual ambience of a place is often a deciding factor. It was a difficult choice but one weekend, while visiting Roblar Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley, California, we discovered that it really is a small world after all. While enjoying a lunchtime wine pairing, we were telling our server that we were planning to take a wine cruise in Europe. She told us that Roblar’s owners, Steve and Denise Adams, also own several wineries in France, including the Château Fonplégade just outside of Saint-Émilion. Our decision was made!
Saint-Émilion was all we imagined, a beautiful medieval village with abundant character. The center of town is mostly pedestrianised cobble stone lanes, so we parked on the edge of town and walked into the village in search of our hotel. Like much of our travel planning, I had used Google Street Views to find just the right place with just the right character, on a small square in the old centre of town. The streets in medieval villages are like mazes, often a challenge to navigate without a good sense of direction, but we found our hotel half way down one of the steep cobble stone streets.
We learned afterward that we had arrived at the back door near the kitchen! A very nice gentleman came out and asked if he could assist us. We told him we had a reservation for three rooms and right away he grabbed the keys and escorted us to our rooms without even asking our names! The rural hospitality was so incredible and refreshing – not to mention the good faith of fellow human beings!
This is an excerpt from a feature about St Emilion and Bordeaux by Eric Stillwell from Burbank, California. He is well known to Trekkies around the world for his work on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He currently works for the Walt Disney Company. He and his wife Debra love to travel and dream of living in France….