Biking in Paradise: Cycling and Eating Your Way Through Bordeaux, France

Biking along the quiet roads of Bordeaux on a beautiful day in May (Photo courtesy Butterfield & Robinson)

I am lost, on a bicycle, in Bordeaux. Having arrived just hours ago from the U.S. and taken a speed-train down to Bordeaux from Orly Airport, I am armed only with a vague sense of my surroundings and French language skills that can best be described as pre-school level: I know my name but I do not know where I live.

I will, however — assuming I can find someone to help me — use the one phrase I memorized from the guidebook Butterfield & Robinson Bicycle sent to all prospective bikers on this trip: “Mon mari a une tête de bois.” It means “My husband has a head of wood.” I didn’t know when I saw it why I would ever want to use that phrase. But now that my husband has biked off and left me behind, the phrase is perfect.

We did make a stop at our chateau before hopping onto our bikes, so at least I know what our lodgings look like. Although the chateau has been renovated, it still looks like an 18th Century structure on the outside. Inside, our suite looks like a Euro-Disney ride, with a big-enough-to-swim-in, bright blue Jacuzzi in the middle of the bedroom. Thankfully, they left the stone outside, with ancient turrets in that familiar mellow ochre color — thankfully because as I bike in frantic circles around the countryside and over the hills, I can see the pointy top of one of the turrets. I ride madly toward it, keeping the turret in view as I pedal uphill and downhill and around curving little roads. Finally, I pull up in the driveway and rush to our suite, where my husband, tête de bois and all, is already swimming in the Jacuzzi.

When biking in Bordeaux, the lodging is often a chateau.

Lost in Paradise

If you’re going to get lost, you may as well do it in a wondrous place. Bordeaux is a land of medieval castles, green hillsides, a cow or two grazing in the fields, people much friendlier than Parisians, and picturesque villages garlanded with flowers. When we went, in May, there were so many flowers that the scenery looked like a garden brochure, with royal blue lupine, lavender, and red Oriental poppies that would cost $5 a stem in New York, but which are considered such a nuisance here that the farmers plow them under with the weeds.

More flowers fill the window boxes and front yards of my favorite town in Bordeaux: les Ezies. Hotel Les Glycines, where we are staying, has a front terrace roofed in grapevines and wisteria. Its front porch is laden with pots of daisies, primroses and pansies. When you sit down for a drink, your eye falls on a little stone house across the street with a garden in front that looks like a French Impressionist painting, with tall purple iris mixed in with smaller purple lupines and pink and purple columbine.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • There isn’t a more perfect place to bike in the world than the gentle hills and curvy roads of Bordeaux.
  • Do you like historic castles and chateaus, fine wines and wonderful French food? Bucket question answered.
  • Good for: Anyone who loves to bike not too fast or strenuously among castles, flowers and vineyards.

Five-Star Dinners Feed a Cyclist’s Appetite

Our days follow a pattern: We each have detailed maps allowing us to bicycle with the group or by ourselves, and I can take time to time to relish the floral displays and the grapevines. Each night, we arrive at a Relais & Chateaux castle-turned-hotel just in time for a gourmet dinner. A typical dinner might begin with an egg and garlic soup followed by a terrine of sole, lotte, turbot and vegetables, asparagus in puff pastry, or steamed duck with ginger sauce. An enormous selection of local cheeses and a walnut souffle finish you off. King Henry I is said to have died from eating too much Bordeaux “lamproise,” a delicacy made from the local eel. He should have tried bicycling to dinner.

The beauty of biking Bordeaux is the meals and wine at the end of the road.

And then there is the wine. Since the 17th Century, Bordeaux wines have been considered among the best in the world. We’re in the Medoc, and one of the first vineyards we visit takes us to the cellars of the appellation of Margaux, made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who claimed that his daughter was conceived after an evening of indulgence. He named her after the wine. The right bank of the Dordogne River is also home to some of the world’s best Merlots, some of them expensive, some not.

At noontime one day, we step down from a morning of biking and head into the boulangerie and charcuterie for a pique-nique along the riverside. Wanting some wine to go with our baguette, local cheese, and sausage, we ask for a bottle of white and the clerk tells us we can buy vin ordinaire for the equivalent of 80 cents U.S. No, we say munificently, we want a bottle of your best dry white Bordeaux. “If you want to spend that kind of money,” she sputters, one eyebrow raised, “you can buy the best white wine Bordeaux has to offer, for $1.80.”

For this kind of daily gastronomy, we’d better keep biking, so for nine days, we cover approximately 35 miles a day, except for one killer day of 67 miles. The biking is considered moderate: We each have been given spanking new 10-speed bicycles for the duration, and the route follows small untrafficked roads through vineyards and villages with no big hills. It’s a perfectly beautiful way to see the southwestern French countryside and a way to get a little exercise in what is also a food and wine extravaganza.

Wobbly Wine Tastings

Indeed, sometimes wine tastings begin as early as 10 in the morning, because that is when our route takes us to the vineyard in question After one such morning spent tasting divine merlots, I understand what my fellow biker, a more experienced oenophile, meant when he said “Red wine goes right to the legs.” Being female, I thought he meant the wine turns to fat on the thighs, but when I got back on my bike I understood. While white wine, it seems, just makes bicycling afterward more mellow, red wine makes your legs all wobbly.  I am back to looking like a kid again, all uncoordinated on my first two-wheeler.

But at least I’m no longer lost.

Practicalities

  • You don’t need to be a Tour de France biker to go on these trips (nor do you have to take any steroids to help you) but you will be happier on your trip if you start some practice runs at home about a month before you go, just to build up your leg muscles and not be shocked by all-day biking when you arrive.
  • You don’t need to be fluent in French, but the more words you know in that language the more you’ll be appreciated as a tourist who tries.
  • Butterfield & Robinson, 70 Bond Street, #300, Toronto ON, M5B, Canada; telephone 866-551-9090.
  • B&R provides a shuttle van for luggage and, if a biker is tired, for the biker as well.
  • While you don’t need professional biker clothing, biking gloves are good to have, including a helmet and biking shorts with soft padding in the crotch.
  • Bring a comfortable but dressier outfit for evenings.

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