On the road

by Martin Field

I’ve been on holidays. London, St Emilion, Paris and San Francisco to be exact. Phew! It’s good to be back in Melbourne. Here follow a few random thoughts on the trip.

Mummified suitcases
Travel isn’t the fun it once was – or maybe I’m getting old. I travelled a lot in the late ‘60s and in 1971 the hippie overland trail from London to Calcutta was a highlight. Back then you could travel (rough) without too many concerns about personal security. Thirty to forty years on it’s strange to note that in a supposedly more civilised world international travel can be a bit of a worry.

Partly it has to do with terrorism. Armed security people are everywhere. On the move you’re forever removing your belt and shoes, being frisked, fingerprinted, photographed, metal detectored and generally scrutinised. And sadly, you don’t have to go far to see frequent instances of security checks based on racial profiling. Travellers at airports grimly clasp their padlocked, plastic-mummified suitcases, their knuckles white with tension. Similarly, as many big cities abound with pickpockets, commuters clutch their belongings closely and avoid eye contact as a matter of course.

However, after a while on the road you start to relax, that is until you encounter a security alert at Orly airport, or notice, ominously, that the Dodge you’ve rented in San Francisco automatically locks all doors from the inside after 30 seconds or so of driving. Later someone cheerfully tells you, ‘It’s to thwart carjackers. Don’t forget you’ve also got a panic button on the remote key. Might come in handy.’

Check out world’s best practice
It must also be pointed out that since the introduction of advanced computer technology, economic rationalisation and world’s best practice, queues are longer than ever at airline check-ins. I won’t even mention the cramped seating and woeful food you encounter once on a plane. But for what it’s worth, of the four airlines we flew with, Singapore, Lufthansa, United Airlines and Ryan Air, Singapore had the best facilities by a long haul.

France – a baguette, a wedge, and a tumbler of red
From London we flew with Ryan Air (el cheapo) to Bergerac, a little south of Bordeaux. There we took a wander through the old town, down narrow lanes to the Dordogne River. First thing you notice is that where the streets of London and Melbourne are lined with bland, franchised food shops, the rues of Bergerac are dotted with artisan bakers (boulangeries) and patisseries. Their windows laden with exquisite pastries and proudly crafted breads.

Our first light dinner in Bergerac was highly enjoyable. We started with a Leffe Bier Blonde (wheat beer). Entrée was crusty baguette (this one was an unusually shaped roll with two horns at each end) with tzatziki dip, then followed a salad of tomato, shredded carrot with vinaigrette sauce, tiny leaves of spinach coated with a lemony mayonnaise and a generous wedge of fromage Morbier (a softish, whiffy cheese with a narrow layer of charcoal through the centre).

The accompanying red was an example of the famous ‘black wine of Cahors’ – a 2002 Chateau Du Port, showing black cherry hues, savoury light tannins, faint new wood and a finish of distinct acidity (about $10 the bottle). Dessert was a square of Poulain Noir 76% chocolate, rinsed down with Martell Cognac. The setting was our hotel room – using paper plates, plastic cutlery, and bathroom tumblers for the wine. The background music was a vaguely incomprehensible French version of ‘Deal or No Deal’, which I translated as Take it or Don’t.

The Bells! The Bells!
From Bergerac we drove to the St Emilion region where we stayed in a gite (self-catered accommodation) in the commune of St Sulpice de Faleyrens. Our house was a charming 18th century two-storey stone cottage. Fully self contained, it featured two double bedrooms, lounge room, kitchen, bathroom, laundry, antique furniture and an open fire.

Next door was the 12th century church of St Sulpice and on the other side the vineyards of the 14th century Chateau des Lescours. There was one small problem with the church: the bells! Every day at 7a.m. they woke us with a rousing 86 ding-dang-dongs and then the belfry counted out each ‘eure and ‘arf ‘eure until 7p.m.

St Sulpice is a sleepy hollow (until 7a.m. and at least in late October). Everywhere you drive there are vineyards and chateaux. The local vintage seemed to have finished by the first half of October and the air around the vineyards and villages was perfumed with the winey, yeasty aromas of fermentation. As you might expect good wine is available very cheaply. Highly quaffable local appellation reds and whites can be bought for $10 and under. Bulk vin de table can be had for a couple of bucks per litre.

Visitors will find that cellar doors can be much more formal in France than in Australia. Though some chateaux advertise ‘vente directe’ (direct sales) at the gate, most visits must be arranged by appointment and will usually consist of a short guided tour with a degustation of wines at a reasonable cost.

St Emilion – tourist heaven
Only a short drive from St Sulpice de Faleyrens is the medieval city of St Emilion. Hacked out of the limestone monolith on which the town is built are catacombs and an ancient church dedicated to St Emilion – a long dead Irish missionary. In autumn the tourists in St Emilion’s steep cobbled lanes are few on the ground. This must sadden the local shopkeepers for, despite the striking ancient buildings, if ever I saw a tourist set-up this was it. Every second establishment is a wine shop featuring tastings – some free, some at a cost. Every other establishment is a restaurant, café or bar, advertising fairly pricey tourist menus. A real turn-off are the signs on shop doors that boast ‘free entry’. As if anyone is going to pay to go into a shop!

GP driving in France – Ze grille de ma tante
As you, an Australian, drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road around the narrow streets of St Emilion, you realize that the French are worst tailgaters than Melbournians. They come whizzing up at speed to sit in your rear vision mirror desperate to pass. To paraphrase the old school French lesson, you expect at any time that ‘ze grille de ma tante’ will soon be ‘sur la boot de mon oncle.’

And to drive from St Emilion to the chateaux of Bordeaux you first have to negotiate the ring road of death known as the Rocade, which encircles Bordeaux city. This is a mighty freeway, chock full of obsessed speed demons in cars and juggerauts who resent traffic merging from its 26 on-ramps into the mayhem.

I learned quickly that the only way to approach the Rocade is to pretend you are rejoining an F1 race after a hurried pit stop. That is, you adjust the racing harness, drop the gears a cog, plant the foot and zip, eyes bulging, engine screaming at 120kph, into a gap a mere soupçon longer than your rented limo (a 1.2 litre VW Wassat?). Naturally once you are on the Rocade you make no allowance for vehicles who want to cut in front of you. One garcon-racer did just that and in a fury I flashed my fog lights (he was quite mean looking) at him. ‘Ah theenk Ah ‘ave taught ‘eem a lesson ‘ee will nevair forget!’ I remarked in my newly acquired French accent to ma cherie.

Having survived the Rocade, you desperately need a drink and driving north from Bordeaux towards the wineries and a glass or two of red is a distinct pleasure. The route to Pauillac follows the broad Gironde River and as you whiz past road signs pointing to the famous chateaux it’s like driving through a catalogue of the famous reds of which you have tasted only a very few and which you have read about in all those dusty wine books on your shelves: Cantenac, Margaux, Beychevelle, Latour, Mouton Rothschild and Lafite Rothschild, to name a few.

Pardon my Franglais
It will be apparent from the foregoing that my French is not too good, but my Franglais isn’t bad. We got by okay conversing with non-English speakers, mutually understanding perhaps 30% of conversations. In contrast to the anecdotes of many travelling whingers we found that shop staff were universally welcoming and friendly. Even in Paris. Conversation was easier at the wineries as lingua vino (techo wine speak) is universal.

Back in the real world of Paris we walked the streets of Le Marais – the Jewish quarter. This fascinating, heritage-listed area consists of meandering lanes and streets dotted with old buildings, synagogues, Jewish schools and book shops. The kosher cafés and restaurants feature delicacies such as blinis, falafel, piroskis, bagels and pickles, and at one these busy eateries, Chez Marianne, we had a lovely lunch of falafel. The falafel nuggets came embedded in a cornucopia of roasted eggplant, red and white cabbage, tomato, tahini, chilli sauce, whole pickled chilli and dill pickles, all wrapped in pita. We washed the lot down with a half bottle of the house wine, a fruity Chez Marianne vin blanc.

Rue de chien
It has been said before but it is worth repeating, Parisians are fond of their dogs. So much so that we renamed most streets Rue de la Merde de Chien. One watched carefully for deposits from no doubt well-fed, regular, and aptly named poodles. One chuckled in a mixture of sympathy and schadenfreude at tell-tale skid-marks where less observant pedestrians had taken one small step and then skated unhappily for some metres leaving runes of warning on the pavement, blazing a trail, so to speak, for the more perspicacious.

To be continued…
Next edition will feature chateaux in St Emilion and Bordeaux, the city of San Francisco and the Napa Valley

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