Having cycled from Bordeaux to Mirambeau and on to Royan , here we are on day three of a tour of the Gironde estuary, which started of...

Gironde estuary cycle tour 3/4: Royan > Saint-Seurin-de-Cadourne

Having cycled from Bordeaux to Mirambeau and on to Royan, here we are on day three of a tour of the Gironde estuary, which started off with us following signposts to the ferry port in Royan so we could cross back over to the left bank of the estuary. 

En route we engineered a short detour to view our second Operation Frankton memorial. This one was formed by a flower-like arrangement of five canoe-shaped “petals”, four of which are made of see-through blue Perspex. Behind the various shades of blue lay the spot in the distance where the Marines exited the submarine that had brought them from the UK to south-western France on this daring mission.

The ferry we caught, L’Estuaire, was a wider, longer and generally meatier affair than its Lamarque-Blaye counterpart further upstream, built to carry up to 600 passengers and 138 cars (whereas the Sébastien-Vauban caters for a lowly 300 passengers and 40 cars). After a 20-minute voyage we were back on dry land and cycling the short distance towards the very northern tip of la Gironde, la Pointe de Grave, to inspect the three memorials that I had last viewed during my Girondin four corners road trip: one saluting General Pershing’s First World War US troops who had defended France, another generally commemorating all those who gave their lives in the fight for the freedom of France during the Second World War, and the third completing our trilogy of Gironde estuary Operation Frankton memorials. This one comprises four separate leaning stone panels, providing a full historical overview of the raid, an illustration depicting the mission in progress, and a host of military insignia.

We had our own leisurely mission to accomplish, so we picked up the southbound cycle path running alongside a disused railway track parallel to the Atlantic coastline, which took us all the way into the pleasant northern Médocain seaside resort of Soulac-sur-Mer. Our first port of call was one of the world’s many replicas of the Statue of Liberty, symbolically positioned on the seafront looking out towards the United States. An explanatory text at the base of the statue explains that it was commissioned by the town in 1980 and manufactured by the Paris ateliers of Arthus-Bertrand, using the original mould designed by sculptor Auguste Bartholdi. However, an urban legend also suggests that the statue is the very one which was located on Place Picard in Bordeaux from 1888 until its disappearance at the hands of the Germans in 1941. Which version is true? Most probably the former…

We were then naturally drawn towards le Signal, an angular apartment block which has long been an eyesore for some, but was a much-loved home and holiday residence for others and was initially set to be just the first of a number of such buildings in Soulac. Importantly, when it was built, between 1965 and 1970, the ocean was a good 200 metres away. But over the ensuing years, the Atlantic has literally gained ground on this lone building, at a rate of between four and eight metres per year.

Le Signal therefore now perches precariously at the water’s edge, and after the violent winds and harsh tides of early 2014, the Atlantic was officially declared the winner and residents were hurriedly evicted from the premises. Since then, the residence has fallen into a state of disrepair, becoming a haunt for squatters, looters and vandals, and the co-owners – some of whom are still paying off the mortgages which enabled them to acquire their rooms with a sea-view – have since entered into a long and painful battle for compensation from local authorities and the French State. At the time of writing, the building itself is facing the inevitable prospect of being demolished – if it doesn’t simply collapse of its own accord first.

After admiring some impressive, colourful street art that embellishes some of the ground-floor exterior walls, I bravely did what any self-respecting urban explorer would have done in my situation, and trespassed just enough to see inside what remains of the building. It was a haunting and harrowing feeling to be taking in the interior of le Signal, with graffiti on the walls, old radiators strewn on the ground, doors, cupboards and wardrobes all wide open, and bits of broken glass scattered everywhere. Being in somebody’s apartment naturally felt wrong, but it also put this grand urban planning misdemeanour into perspective: the view over the Atlantic Ocean which some had put their life savings into making their own was now framed by empty window frames and a desperate sense of loss. Whatever came next on our cycle tour was bound to seem trivial by comparison.

And what came next involved about stocking up on food to make it in one piece through the next stretch of our ride, taking us into the central section of the Médoc presqû’île along quiet roads through wide expanses of marshland and deserted villages with little or no dining options. We eventually dug into our picnic lunch in the shade of trees on the town square in Saint-Vivien-de-Médoc, where the church is a curious hotchpotch of architectural styles: its apse dates all the way back to the 12th century, while other sections were gradually added over time, culminating in the addition of a bell tower in 1875, which was destroyed by bombs during the Second World War. A new bell tower was erected in 1957.

We eased our way back to the estuary coastline and we reached Jau-Dignac-et-Loirac where we visited the immensely photogenic Phare de Richard lighthouse, which was recently granted its own standalone article on the blog. The lighthouse was first built in 1843, at a spot on the bank of the estuary where a tall poplar tree, known as “l’Arbre de Richard”, stood and served as a navigation aid for sailors until it was destroyed by a violent storm in 1830. However, after entering into service, it was soon established that the Phare de Richard had one serious shortcoming: at just 18 metres, it was too small! And so, in 1870, navigation duties were handed over to a less elaborate but taller (31 metres) and more effective metallic structure, and the two lighthouses cohabited side by side for nearly 80 years.

But by the 1950s, shipping navigation methods had evolved on the estuary, switching to the use of beacons or buoys. The second, taller lighthouse therefore ceased operations in 1953 and was demolished three years later to be used for scrap. The surviving older, shorter Phare de Richard, along with the surrounding land were sold on to private owners, who subsequently abandoned the lighthouse, which fell into a serious state of disrepair.

That was the case until the 1980s, when a group of local youths took it upon themselves to clean up the site, out of a combination of boredom and frustration when they saw the state of neglect the original lighthouse was now in. In their endeavour they soon gained the support of the local mayor and council, and come 1988 the land was re-acquired by the municipality. Over the following years, the lighthouse was restored from bottom to top, and in 1993 a non-profit association was set up to bring the lighthouse back to life as a heritage site, to draw tourists and organize cultural activities.

For a token admission fee (two euros) we climbed the 63 steps to the top of the structure and, from a small platform that stretches around the top of the circular building, enjoyed the unique vantage point over the estuary, the view stretching as far as Talmont-sur-Gironde, where we had been barely 24 hours earlier.

Back in the saddles we set off towards the south, making a short impromptu stop before we’d even left Jau-Dignac-et-Loirac to view the so-called Site de la Chapelle, a small plot of land which proved to be of historical and archaeological interest when the remains of a Gallo-Roman period temple were uncovered during routine farming operations in 2000. Further finds showed that a burial church and cemetery were established on the site in medieval times. The bottom line is that there’s not much to see there, but the local council has ploughed a lot of resources into building a raised viewing platform, producing a whole series of extremely detailed information panels, and installing low-height blocks and columns indicating where the buildings stood in the past. 

From here on, the Médoc’s famous vineyards began in earnest as we descended as far as Saint-Seurin-de-Cadourne, a small community to the north of Pauillac and Saint-Estèphe. Our rooms for the night were in a bed and breakfast in a converted barn that had, in the past, served as a makeshift drama school and theatre for locals. We were directed to the only nearby restaurant, whose chef, Gabriel Gette, most certainly deserves a namecheck here because his immensely creative and imaginative cuisine was of such a high calibre that he is most definitely going places. There could not have been a better way to wrap up day three. 

Gironde estuary cycle tour day 3 mapped out.

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In the first part of this cycling road trip around the Gironde estuary , my travelling companions and I made it as far as Mirambeau, sl...

Gironde estuary cycle tour 2/4: Mirambeau > Royan

In the first part of this cycling road trip around the Gironde estuary, my travelling companions and I made it as far as Mirambeau, slightly inland in the Charente-Maritime département. Departing on the morning of day two, our natural turtle-like instinct was to head back towards the estuary, riding through the ghost-town that was Saint-Bonnet-sur-Gironde, where the only person we saw was keen to strike up a conversation about where we were from and where we were going, all in the short space of time it took us to cycle round a bend in the road.  

We hit the Gironde at a spot where the tiny marina of Port Vitrezay had developed, complete with a jetty that reached some way into the water. Little did we know it, but we were about to embark on the most pleasant and most memorable part of our trek, cycling through a massive nature reserve known as Pôle nature de Vitrezay. The cycle path was as close as could possibly be to the water’s edge; the view over the estuary was only broken up by an endless succession of more carrelet fishing huts, while the linear route was only broken up by the occasional waterway heading inland. Eventually the cycle path distanced itself from the waterfront and followed the course of narrow canals. To one side, horses roamed free in the distance, while on the other side we could admire storks perched in their nests built on man-made poles.

The environment, and therefore our route, gradually became hillier before descending to Mortagne-sur-Gironde, where we were only able to steal a long-distance glimpse of Saint-Martial hermitage, where troglodyte living quarters are said to have been carved into the limestone cliff face as early as the 4th century, although the first written records of the site date rather from the 10th century. As the gate was closed, we were unable to investigate further and instead elected to proceed a little further north to Saint Seurin d’Uzet in search of some form of dining option. None was forthcoming though so we pressed further still, eventually settling down to late lunch at a no-frills restaurant in the hamlet of Barzan-Plage. 

Saint-Martial hermitage, Mortagne-sur-Gironde.
From then on everything went large-scale and it felt as if we were auditioning to be extras on the back of a Massive Street Preachers album cover, following the coastal cycle path as it traced its way up to the top of the chalk cliffs of Le Caillaud. The sense of space was almost overpowering as we rode alongside vines labelled as being “le Talmondais”; it could be argued that no winegrowing plots in the area enjoy a view which is as stunning as this, with the wide open Barzan beach now to the south-east, the estuary waters delivering a 180° panorama, and one of France’s most scenic villages, Talmont-sur-Gironde, peeking out over the horizon to the north-west. 

Talmondais vines with a view.
We took some time out to visit Talmont, which is officially home to 105 souls but draws a steady stream of tourists all year round. The strategically-located fortified community was founded in 1284 by Edward 1st, King of England and Duke of Aquitaine, although today it is more of a haven for artists and makers of handicrafts, whose workshops and stores give the narrow pedestrian streets an air of laid-back bohemian creativity. We edged our way as far as the 11th-15th century Sainte-Radegonde church, which stands tall above the estuary waters providing natural photo opportunities from all angles.

Downtown Talmont.
The view from the church in Talmont.
Twenty-or-so kilometres still lay between us and our evening destination, Royan, so we set off once again, staying as close to the coast as possible, although between Meschers-sur-Gironde and Saint-Georges-de-Didonne the roads did lead us away from the waterfront and towards some more challenging hilly terrain. Reaching the resort of Saint-Georges, we were surprised to see the number of people on the sandy beaches there, soaking up the year’s first warm sun rays. We were naturally drawn to the town’s 36-metre-tall lighthouse, Phare de Villières, which has been in position since the very start of the 20th century, although it ceased operating in 1969. Not far from its base was a memorial to the Operation Frankton commando raid on the city of Bordeaux during the Second World War, the first of three we planned to spot on our estuary trek. This memorial was a flat stone plaque featuring a bas relief portrayal of man paddling in a canoe from north to south, reminiscent of the direction taken by the Marines when they passed this point some 75 years earlier.

Phare de Villières.
Saint-Georges-de-Didonne's Operation Frankton memorial.
What was Saint-Georges seamlessly linked up with Royan and we proceeded along the waterfront, past the maritime port and into the residential heart of the town towards the hotel where our rooms had been booked. Once we had set up shop, and in spite of the day’s ride weighing down on our muscles, we did head out to take in one of Royan’s most distinctive edifices, the audaciously-designed Notre-Dame-de-Royan church, executed to the designs of architects Guillaume Gillet and Marc Hébrard, which first opened in 1958.  

Quietly opening the main door of the church, we stole a brief inside glimpse of the church’s dazzling stained glass windows, along with the sight of a member of the cleaning staff waving at us to indicate that the church was very much closed for the time being; she wasted no time in locking the door! We therefore had to make do instead with an outdoor tour of the angular structure, viewing from afar its various nooks, crannies, windows, balconies and spiral staircases. 

We signed off with a brasserie meal a short walk away in the bay of Pontaillan, where we were able to spot from afar the legendary Cordouan lighthouse. Sometimes referred to as the “Versailles of the seas”, Cordouan was originally erected between 1584 and 1611, and went on to become the first lighthouse to be registered as an historic monument in 1862. It remains the oldest lighthouse in France still in operation although it has, since 2006, been fully automated and computer-controlled. With daylight dipping, I managed to capture a shot of Cordouan with a couple of carrelet fishing huts in the foreground, and the lively waters of the Atlantic Ocean in between.  The photo was an apt way to sign off for day two.

Gironde estuary cycle tour day 2 mapped out. 

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A few weeks back my wife Muriel, my father-in-law Michel and I hopped onto our respective bikes with the sole aim of departing from Sai...

Gironde estuary cycle tour 1/4: Bordeaux > Mirambeau

A few weeks back my wife Muriel, my father-in-law Michel and I hopped onto our respective bikes with the sole aim of departing from Saint-Aubin-de-Médoc, cycling up the right bank of the Gironde estuary as far as Royan, and then returning to base back down the left bank. We were all set for four full days and 285 kilometres of cycling. And this is how it went!

Immediately heading north, the suburban landscape north of Bordeaux segued with ease into the rolling, sprawling plains of the Médoc winegrowing territory and we were soon admiring several of the area’s most renowned châteaux. Some, such as Château Sénéjac, seemed to be the archetypal mansion house and grounds. Others were more surprising. Take Château d’Arsac, where the owner has positioned extravagant and outsize works of modern art in amongst the vines, and the unconventional shoebox-like Château Tour de Besson. Then there’s the sheer scale of the spectacular Château Cantenac-Brown which we stopped to admire just short of hitting the legendary village of Margaux, where we alighted for photos and pleasantries in front of the mythical Château Margaux, before viewing its brand new winery building. 

Modern art in the grounds of Château d'Arsac.
Cycling up to Château Margaux.
We continued to make steady headway northwards to Lamarque and had a little time to kill before reaching the ferry port proper, where we were due to catch a ferry ‘cross the Gironde. We viewed a restored windmill (moulin de Malescasse), cycled past the tall steeple of Saint-Seurin church topped off by its unusual panoramic viewing platform, and made a short detour to explore a curious ghost railway station.

The story goes that in the latter years of the 19th century, plans were drawn up for a railway line to connect nearby Moulis (and the established Bordeaux-Le Verdon line) with the port in Lamarque, to facilitate the transport of goods to the water’s edge. Much of the infrastructure was built in the mid-1880s to accommodate the line, including level crossings and stops in Cussac and Lamarque. But, for “administrative reasons” (according to the information panel which retraces the story), the plans were scrapped 20 years later, the tracks were never laid and the rail link was never to be.

Lamarque's ghost railway station.
The estuary-side building we visited was therefore what should have become the “gare maritime” and was to serve as the link between rail and water. Today, the two-storey building lies virtually in ruins although it possibly serves as a makeshift workshop and meeting point for fisherfolk who spend their days on the nearby "carrelet" fishing huts, wooden fishing huts which have been built on stilts and which are very much characteristic of the Gironde estuary waterfront. Their main implement is a square-shaped pulley-operated net (or “filet carré”) which has given the humble shacks their name.

We finally made it to the port and embarked on the Sébastien-Vauban ferry which connects Lamarque and Blaye, a State-run service which has been operational since 1934. This latest boat entered service in 2014 and its name is an apt reference to the 17th-century military architect and engineer who dreamt up the fortifications built either side of the estuary as well as on an island, that combined to form the so-called “verrou de l’Estuaire” (the bolt of the Gironde estuary) to protect the area from foreign invaders. On the left bank, this took the shape of the extensive Fort Médoc. Mid-estuary a more minimalist structure was built on Île-Pâté. Meanwhile, we were about to alight in Blaye, a mid-sized town which is arguably best-known for its large-scale citadel.   

The ferry that connects Lamarque and Blaye.
It was market day down by the waterfront in Blaye, making for far too many food options for three hungry cyclists, although we did eventually manage to narrow things down to three radically different combinations of takeaway dishes and desserts. From there we trekked up to the citadel, the tall stone walls of which encase what is almost a self-contained village in its own right, encompassing pre-existing edifices including the 12th-century Château des Rudel, the 13th-century Porte de Liverneuf and the 15th-century Tour de l’Eguilette. We followed the course of the perimeter walls, taking in the view over the estuary, uncovering a tiny vineyard and even entering the municipal campsite, which must be an oddball spot to pitch a tent for a night or two. 

A campsite plot within the perimeter walls of Blaye citadel!
That, however, was not our plan as we still had a full afternoon of cycling ahead of us. We progressed north of Blaye, taking in notable winegrowing establishments such as Château Segonzac, whose substantial water tower wouldn’t look out of place in New York. And, as we gradually moved inland, we made a point of making a couple of diversions to see a couple of tiny ports – Port de Bernu and Port de la Belle-Étoile – which are basically rudimentary outlets onto the estuary, each with a handful of boats tied up.

Port de Bernu.
The landscape was changing, the vineyards mixing and matching with crops of rapeseed and the occasional roaming animal; we spotted herons, snakes, sheep and even a few cows just as, in the distance, the distinctive shape of the Blayais nuclear power station drew into view. We entered the neighbouring town, Braud-et-Saint-Louis, welcomed by advertisements announcing upcoming asparagus-themed festivities (Fête de l’Asperge du Blayais) in nearby Étauliers, and the heart-warming sight of one of Gironde’s two surviving Tournesol swimming pools.

These sunflower-shaped prefabricated structures mushroomed throughout France during the 1970s and early 1980s as part of a nationwide plan known as “1000 piscines” (1,000 swimming pools) aimed at making swimming accessible to the masses. The target figure of 1,000 ultimately proved to be overly ambitious, but between 600 and 700 establishments did come to be built. Various designs were rolled out, with poetic names such as “Plein-Ciel”, “Plein-Soleil” and “Caneton”, but the most distinctive and memorable was surely the UFO-like polyester “Tournesol”, the dome of which comprised sections that were mobile, running on a rail system and making it possible to open the roof 60° either way. This resulted in the Tournesol’s most notable feature: the ability to be instantly transformed, whenever the weather permitted it, from an indoor pool into an outdoor pool.

Of France’s 183 Tournesol pools, four were located throughout Gironde. The ones built in Lesparre-Médoc and Saint-Médard-en-Jalles have been demolished, while the Braud-et-Saint-Louis and Cestas pools survive to date, and long may they continue to welcome bathers to their eminently affordable prefab facilities.

From there we continued to press still further inland, passing under the A10 motorway and entering the département of Charente-Maritime. The flat terrain had suddenly become far hillier, making for a steady freewheeling downhill section followed by a painfully steep uphill section that took us into our first port of call, Mirambeau, the sort of small French town where most commercial activity has been shifted out of the centre to identikit business units that lie on the outskirts. Mirambeau boasts two landmark châteaux, one of which (Château de Mirambeau) proved to be out of sight and the other (Château Cotard) out of bounds. We instead opted to make do with a quiet meal in our hotel and settled down for the night. 

Gironde Estuary cycle tour day 1 mapped out.

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Once again, Invisible Bordeaux has delivered a "listicle" to the good people of easyJet Traveller magazine, and you can read ...

'Five places to pretend you're in a French movie in Bordeaux' feature in easyJet Traveller magazine

Once again, Invisible Bordeaux has delivered a "listicle" to the good people of easyJet Traveller magazine, and you can read the article on board the airline's entire fleet of aircraft as they criss-cross Europe throughout the month of August 2018. 

This latest article compiles a number of places in Bordeaux which would form the perfect setting for scenes from a classic French movie. Where then should you go to act out the boulangerie scene or to do some serious café terrace people-watching? Where is the best neighbourhood for some clothes shop fitting room action, a shady car park encounter, or a romantic stroll on a bridge? 

All the answers can be found in the article!

> Read the full article here!
> The August issue of easyJet Traveller can be viewed in its entirety here.

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