The French will tell you, ‘There’s Paris, and then there’s the ‘real’ France.’ Paris, of course, is one of the great cities of the world, and a must-see for everyone. But on a recent trip, we wanted to get straight to the heart of the world’s most famous wine region. You can fly into Paris, should you wish to see the City of Lights first, and then take the train to Bordeaux, or fly right to Bordeaux. Our final destination was Blaye. Situated on the eastern side of the Gironde estuary north of Bordeaux, Blaye is best known for its Citadel (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and, of course, for the wine produced in the surrounding region.
With 4,700 inhabitants, Blaye is a small town, but has a long history of military and strategic significance. It’s also brilliantly close to St. Emilion, the Medoc regions and Cognac.
We stayed at Villa St. Simon, a lovely Inn in the heart of Blaye, and would highly recommend it. The owner, Les Kellan, arrived in Blaye about a dozen years ago. He arrived as a South African lawyer on a holiday to check out the area. He didn’t speak a word of French, but fell in love with the area, bought an old building in downtown Blaye to renovate into an Inn, and basically never left! Since he opened the Villa, he’s also become an expert on the
local wine region as a ‘negotiant’ – a wine buyer. As such, he’s the perfect person to conduct the many wine tours you can book right from the Villa. The first thing we learned from Les is that the French live for all things pleasurable – food, wine, family, love. A rather nice life if you ask me!
Upon arriving in Blaye, we were shown to our lovely self-catering flat at Villa St. Simon. It was a little hike up to the top floor, but worth it to pre-burn off the calories we’d enjoy over the next week thanks to the amazing wine & cheese from the local producers! Our flat had a full kitchen, sitting area, large bathroom and extremely comfortable bedroom area. The view was like a postcard – looking into the distance over the ancient rooftops.
Even if you’re new to wine, you won’t feel intimidated here. A ‘Wine 101’ class is included in everyone’ stay at the Villa. You’ll hear lots of funny stories on the peculiarities of Bordeaux, and become relatively expert in the classifications of Bordeaux, tasting techniques, and deciphering the labels! After class, you can stroll over to one of the nearby restaurants for dinner.
We booked several wine tours, and would suggest the Cotes de Blaye et Bourg tour to get started. It’s the closest, and you’ll get to not only try amazing, affordable wines (more pocketbook friendly than their ‘Big Chateau’ cousins on the left bank), but meet the wine makers and chateau owners themselves! Another must is the Medoc Tour. This area is home to the most famous Châteaux in the world: Mouton Rothchild, Latour, Lafite, and Margaux. This full-day tour starts with a ferry ride from Blaye, visiting one of the famous Chateaux, lunch at a local restaurant frequented by the winemakers, then another Chateau in the afternoon, and the return ferry trip. The last wine tour we enjoyed was the St. Emilion tour.
This historic town is a UNESCO world heritage site, and home to the famous Merlots of Bordeaux. The city was mainly built in the 13th century and constructed from sandstone blocks mined under St Emilion. There are 200km of tunnels under the ancient city. We were told that decades ago, you could walk from one end of St. Emilion to the other underground, and in fact, children used to have great fun riding their bikes through the passageways. Today, many of these underground tunnels are used as aging cellars and you’ll find gates between the various properties. We enjoyed walking through (and even under) this amazing village on the tour. The winery we visited there was Couvent des Jacobins, a former 16th century monastery that’s been making some of the very best wine in the area for generations. We even met Madame Rose Noelle Borde, the owner and driving force behind the winery. This winery isn’t open to the public, so what a special treat it was to see it as part of our tour. The rest of our day was spent visiting the historic sights of this village, learning at the ‘Sensory Centre for wine’, shopping, and of course, visiting wine shops in St. Emilion. We learned it’s possible, but a bit difficult to ship wine back to Canada….but if you find an absolute favourite we can’t get here, go for it! We also enjoyed a lovely, meal at a little outdoor café in St. Emilion: fois gras on toasts, salad, roast chicken and crème brulee – exquisite.
Wednesdays and Saturdays are market days in Blaye – a foodie’s dream! Since Blaye is close to the Atlantic, there’s lot of seafood (mussels anyone??), paella to go, local cheeses, meats, roast chickens and fresh breads.
If you ask Les about life at Villa St. Simon, he loves to quote Martin Buber who so-aid “All living is meeting”. We derive so much pleasure from our guests from
all over the world and it seems that they feel the same.”
Let’s be clear – Blaye may as well be a thousand miles from Paris (fortunately it’s only a 3 hour train ride). This is truly, small town, heart of Bordeaux, French life. Simple, honest, charming, and best enjoyed with a lovely glass of local wine!