Ah, la France! Immediately we think of Paris, of sipping champagne on the Champs Elysees, of taking photos in front of the Eiffel Tower, of tooling through the Tuileries on tandem bicycles. We think of museums, and palaces, and of Notre Dame, looming grandly along the Seine. But, we also think of crowds, of packs of bewildered tourists, of rude waiters, and smelly metro cars. We think of impossibly tiny hotel rooms at impossibly huge prices. And suddenly we’re thinking that maybe Italy would be a better choice…
But hang on a minute! Italy is a beautiful country too (and we’ll get there, stay tuned!), but first there is another side to the French story. It starts a little to the south, and a little to the west, in France’s ninth largest city, Bordeaux.
Why choose Bordeaux for your honeymoon?
Have your cake and eat it too. Bordeaux has all of the elegant “Frenchness” of Paris without all of the negatives. The city itself is gorgeous; breathtaking 18th century architecture, a huge gothic cathedral, the imposing Grand Theatre, magnificent city parks (perfect for a sunny picnic and fruity glasses of rosé), a medieval quarter, and the wide, sparkling Garonne river, winding through the middle of the city center. Elegant cafes sprawl out onto sunny terraces, and bright and bustling farmers’ markets offer tempting homegrown and homemade faire. An ultra-modern tram system winds through it all, bringing you easily from one side of the city to the other. Notably, the tram also connects you to Bordeaux’s international airport (a bit outside the city itself) and Gare de Saint Jean, a major train station that will get you to any corner of France in a hurry on its high-speed rail system, the TGV.
And, most of the tourists in Bordeaux are French. The significance here is that the waiters and shop owners aren’t inundated with crowds of foreign tourists unfamiliar with French customs and manners… and therefore, unlike the jaded denizens of Paris, they’re more welcoming and understanding with newcomers. Know a little French? In Paris, you might get a sneer when you attempt an excusez-moi, but in Bordeaux you’ll get compliments and smiles of surprise. The Bordelais aren’t very strong in English, and so they’re impressed by any effort to be bilingual (however, the local tourist office and major sights will have English guides available). Just make sure you follow a few simple rules (more on this in a minute) and you’ll wonder why Americans ever decided the French were rude. Less international tourism also means fewer tourist traps and lower prices, so expect roomier hotels and reasonably-priced meals.
Lastly, the city serves as a convenient home-base for those looking to spend lots of time tasting wine and taking advantage of the beautiful surroundings.
What can we do on our honeymoon in Bordeaux?
Participate in a wine harvest. Rise early to spend a day in among the vines, clipping bunches of juicy purple grapes, as dappled sunlight filters down through the leaves around you. Learn about the intricate process of winemaking, and perhaps best of all, enjoy a family-style, several-course meal with your new friends. For honeymooners who don’t mind a little work and a few grape juice stains, this is truly an unforgettable experience, and a unique, behind-the-scenes look into French culture. I participated in a harvest a few years ago, and it was the highlight of my 8-month stint in the Bordeaux region (if you’d like to learn more, I wrote about my own experience here).
Harvest time is September-October, so make sure to contact your chateau of choice around August or earlier to plan your trip. Some chateaux offer accommodation as well, if you’re interested in enjoying the countryside a little longer. Unfortunately the chateau I visited is no longer in operation, but you can find others in the same region here. Simply call or email the chateau directly– most are eager to welcome extra pairs of hands! Be sure you can commit to a full day; since wine harvesting is a delicate process that requires exact timing, and the chateau will be counting on your help to get the crop in on-time.
Taste wine in Saint Emilion. Just a short train ride away, Saint Emilion is a medieval town that feels like it’s straight out of a fairytale. Friendly, helpful shop owners will invite you inside to taste their wines as you wander the narrow lanes. Have lunch in one of the sunny plazas and take a guided mini-tour of the region, stopping to taste wine along the way. This is an easy trip for the more-relaxed wine-taster, taking the guesswork out of choosing particular wineries to visit. Be sure to add your train tickets, your wine tour, and your lunch to your wanderable.com registry!
Climb Europe’s largest sand dune in Arcachon. You’re probably raising your eyebrows at this one, but I promise, it’s really impressive! Rent a bike in the little beach town of Arcachon and follow the seaside road out to the Dune du Pilat. Bring good shoes, because you won’t want to miss the awesome view of the coastline from the top of the dune. Fancy a little adventure? Join the paragliders that sail gracefully down toward the ocean. There are several schools that offer courses and tandem flights, and a couple examples with English websites are here and here. Why not add a tandem flight or a day course to your registry?
Eat and drink. As you could surely tell from my last post about Spain, I believe no trip is complete without sampling the local cuisine. Bordeaux makes it easy for you; simply peruse the menus as you stroll through the city and pick something that sounds tasty. It would be fairly impossible to have a bad meal in Bordeaux. If you’re watching your expenses, opt for lunch instead– you can quite easily find a really nice 2-course lunch for less than 20 euro, and that includes wine. A good place to start would be Café Crème; my favorite dish was the tarte salée, but everything is delicious.
Not looking for a full meal? Grab a mouthwatering pastry or sandwich at any bakery. Visit a cheese shop on a lazy weekday afternoon, and the proprietor will be happy to give you free samples. Stop at a little cafe along the river and sip an espresso (most places will also give you a little cookie or pastry to go with your coffee). Drop into L’art et vins, a fabulous little wine and spirits shop (owned by wonderful people who were practically family by the end of my trip) that does excellent free wine and spirits tastings on Thursdays. Looking for a break from wine? Visit this impressive Belgian beer bar, with its Bible-like beer list.
I can’t mention food without urging you to try a few local delicacies, like canelés, Bordeaux’s signature pastry, or confit de canard, a rich and salty duck dish that is typical of the region. Also be sure to sample real goose foie gras with a glass of sweet Sauternes wine. Delicious food is everywhere in Bordeaux, so make some room in your registry for that sunny terrace lunch, that romantic dinner along the Garonne, and that elegant picnic you’ll have in the Jardin Public!
Browse the Chartrons Sunday market. A weekly staple in the lives of real Bordelais, this outdoor food market is unforgettable. Buy a newspaper cone of cajun-style shrimp, or a richly garnished wood-fired pizza with innovative toppings (made by one man at lightning speed in his own little pizza oven trailer), or a plate of fresh oysters with baguette and lemon. Buy a bottle of chilled graves white wine for a few euro and sit along the water to enjoy a bit of people-watching as you sip leisurely in the sunshine.
Tips for a successful honeymoon in France
French customs can be very different from American ones, and this often leads to misunderstandings. Follow the simple rules here, though, and you’re in for a friendly experience:
Say bonjour when you enter a shop. In France it’s rude to enter a shop without acknowledging the person working there. No need to have a full chat, but a hello is always appreciated.
Say excusez-moi before asking for help. Even if you’ll need help in English, this simple phrase will start you off on the right foot.
Expect to wait for your food. Food is a slow and careful affair in France. Your meal will be painstakingly prepared with only the best ingredients, and so you may have to wait a while to eat it (potentially up to an hour). Have a snack first if you’re starving. Similarly, the restaurant expects you to take your time, and so they won’t hurry you out. If you want your bill right away, you’ll need to ask for it.
Prepare for Sundays. On Sunday, lots of things are closed, including grocery stores and many restaurants. Make sure to scope out things to eat before you’re desperate! Chains and fast-food places will usually be open everyday.
Wow, I really need to go back to France! This post is giving me the travel bug, and I hope you’ve found some inspiration too. Stay tuned for an Irish adventure next week!