It was ironic to me that, when I’d constructed my list of cities I’d like to visit this fall, I listed big names like Athens, Barcelona, and Rome. And yet here I was, clicking “Complete Your Order” for a roundtrip ticket to Bordeaux, France.
Bordeaux was on my list only because my friend, Sam, lived there. We’d been friends via social media for over a year, and when I’d told him back in the fall of 2018 that I was going to London, he said a trip to Bordeaux had to be in order.
Meeting friends in person who you’ve only met online sounds like a wild, and quite frankly, dangerous thing to do. But in the fitness community, it’s oddly common. I have online friends in New York, Los Angeles - you name it. (And yes, we’ve hung out in person. I can hear you calling ‘That’s not a real friend!’ back there, Darla. Take a seat.) There’s definitely a weird feeling I get every time I meet someone for the first time that I’ve grown close with online. Are they who they seem to be? Do they just put up a front? Sam was exactly how I expected him to be - kind, hospitable, and comical - no bullets to be dodged there.
I did a little research before arriving on French turf for the first time. Bordeaux is located in the southwestern part of France, known for being a hub for wine-growing. (This won some immediate brownie points with me. À votre santé.) It was about an hour from the beach, and it was also home to a few different universities. I had no expectations or plans for what to do when I got there - I wanted Sam to show me around and make me feel like a local, in a sense.
The first thing I noticed when I exited the airport was the air. It smelled so fresh and clean, and there was even a small vineyard on the outside of the airport walls - this felt like a vacation already.
The first night we spent walking around and taking it in. We passed Place de la Bourse, a semicircle of old, 18th-century classical buildings, and Port de la Lune. The silhouette of the buildings complimented the golden blanket of light on the ground as the sun set around seven in the evening.
For a snack, we had saucisson and bread at La Marikita. (With Sex on the Beach cocktails and Mojitos, of course. Happy hour is not a time of day, it’s a way of life.) Saucisson is basically a French thick, dry sausage, usually made with pork. I really enjoyed it - my first food in France.
The sun had finally disappeared, so we walked over Miroir d'Eau, “The Water Mirror.” A large slab of granite covered the ground, and little bursts of water popped up every once in a while to a rhythmic beat. I can’t imagine how much simple joy this brings to a child. It did kind of look like a mirror when you looked at your feet and saw a faint outline of yourself.
One of the coolest parts was going to Place des Quinconces. It’s a large square in the middle of Bordeaux, and, according to Sam, it usually has a fair there nearly year-round.
It was fun to browse through the different vendors, rides, and games, although we decided to save money and just watch other people have almost near-death experiences on the drop towers instead of strapping in ourselves.
Something that caught me incredibly off-guard - the toy guns used for the carnival games. They looked shockingly real - life-size and black. This was something you would NEVER see in the United States, with gun control being the heavily-debated issue it is today. It was one of the biggest culture shocks I ended up having over the entire course of the semester.
For dinner, we ate at Bistro Regent, a local, pretty affordable French chain. I got duck, salad, and fries, and Sam and I split a bottle of wine. (Wine in the wine capital of France? Yes, please.)
Another culture shock: The French eat their fries with forks. The fries are usually skinny pieces, and you stab a few of them in one bite. An interesting take compared to my usual American finger-food habits.
That night, we went to a restaurant/bar called Frog & Rosbif. Talk about a trip. The place is in a former 16th century women’s prison. (Don’t believe me? The metal bars are still on some of the windows.) It kind of had an American vibe to it, so it was honestly funny when “Born in the USA” blasted over the speakers as I gulped a mouthful of beer down my throat. (#MURICA.) In all honesty, in the beginning of October I’d started missing the States more than I thought I would, and this was just what I needed to feel at home in a new country again, even if I was nearly on the opposite side of the globe.
Sam had a coupon for a pint of beer, so, much to my tastebuds’ dismay, we got that. I did my best, but I mostly made him drink it. (Taking one for the team this time around.) We also had my first B-52 shots - yes, the ones that come lit on fire. I was terrified to say the least - what if I blew it out and the alcohol was still hot on my tongue? I downed it anyway, and didn’t find myself disappointed with my order.
By this time, we were ready to get home. Sam panicked and realized we would only be able to make the last bus if we ran, so he sprinted off ahead of me. I wheezed and huffed behind, clutching my stomach as the glass or so of beer I’d managed to down bounced around in my stomach. (If you’re looking for a good pre-marathon snack, this would not be it.)
We didn’t make it. Go figure. So Sam said the next-best thing was to rent a bike. In Bordeaux, apparently it’s extremely normal to run to the electronic bike racks, called V³, and fight for a chance to pedal your way home. We found a rack of them by a nearby station, and got in line. No one’s cards were being accepted. The girls in line behind us were laughing and jeering at Sam, saying something along the lines of “Looks like you’re walking!” in French. (Sam is from England but moved to France when he was ten, so he’s bilingual. This was a godsend anytime someone tried to talk to me and my elaborate range of French vocabulary - “Bonjour!” “s'il vous plait” and “merci” - wouldn’t quite cut it anymore.)
The bad news - we didn’t get a bike. The good news - those girls didn’t either. (Karma, man.)
We ended up finding a single bike somewhere along the road. We had me pedal in the front, standing up, and Sam in the back, sitting on the seat. For all my days spent at the gym, I was embarrassed at how hard this venture was - and the beer gut was definitely not helping. We switched for a bit, then said screw it, and had one person pedal (mostly me, whoops) while the other person walked alongside. We eventually ditched the bike and walked a quarter- to a half-mile home, and cashed out. Safe to say I completed my workout for the weekend.
Day Two: The temperature hung around the low seventies most of the time, and the sun remained dominant in the sky, no clouds threatening to rain out my second day in France. The first stop was something to eat. We found a cute place for brunch called Cafe Verde Nero. While we preferred to sit outside, the inside seating was interwoven with what looked like a little library, so we went for it. After sitting down for a minute, though, I felt my forehead prickle with condensation before I could even open my menu (Europeans really are not about that AC life). There was a waiting list to be outdoors, and my hanger knows no patience, so we got pastries to go.
And, because pastries don’t do zip to curb my infamously ravenous appetite, we got lunch, too. The place was called Saint-James, and - to my literal thrill - we got to sit outside. (Not being sarcastic. Sitting outside is such a mood for food. I digress.)
Sam is like me in the sense that we like to keep a steady stream of caffeine flowing throughout our arteries at pretty much all hours of the day. Lattes were our first priority here. (Solving hangovers one stimulant-based sip at a time.) I had Sam ask the waiter (because I wasn’t about to speak my three words of French to him) what sandwich he recommended, and that's what I got.
I wish I could recall its name. (After scouring the Internet for a menu, zooming in on a blurry photograph of the chalkboard sandwich listing in the restaurant, and trying to decipher the scribbled French, I figured the picture alone would have to do.)
The restaurant is located in the cutest part of the city, in my opinion. If I looked to my right, and gazed out over my cup of iced coffee, I could see Église paroissiale Saint-Éloi, or Church Saint-Éloi, home of some beautiful gothic architecture. (I asked Sam what the church was, and I found it funny he didn’t really know much about it. Goes to show that 1. American architecture lacks creativity - maybe because we’re “lazy” - and we tend to appreciate the detailed stuff more when we see it - and 2. You really can live somewhere for years and not know what’s right next door.)
After lunch, we crossed the Pont de Pierre, which stretched over the Garonne River. (Pretty bridge, not a pretty river. Unless muddy brown is your cup of tea.)
Sam took me to Darwin next. Online it’s described as an “ecosystem,” a “grand utopian experiment,” and a “coworking space.” Basically, it’s a big artistic stab in the face to anyone who argues that climate change isn’t real.
Darwin is at the Quai des Queyries, occupying what used to be abandoned military barracks. In 2009, it was purchased by the Evolution group, and they transformed it into a place that allows artistic expression, informational outreach, and some pretty wild food.
I’m a sucker for anything graffiti, but nothing could prepare me for the art I saw here. It was so intricate and thought-provoking. Inside one of the buildings was a skate park, where kids were taking lessons. Off to the side was a row of retro pinball machines, and an old bus (out of commission, obviously) that people were climbing and sitting inside. Sam almost paid to skate a little, and I was tempted to, too. (Yes, all I can do is go in a straight line without falling and cracking my head open. Yes, that would have been worth the little internal street cred I would have gained.)
That evening, we took on the Dune of Pilat, the largest sand dune in Europe. The drive took about 45 minutes, so we blasted some Seven Lions (shared love of EDM), rolled the windows down, and I tried to mentally prepare myself to see a beach for the first time in months. (You just can’t be in a bad mood at the beach. That’s a fact.)
We paid a few bucks to park the car and begin our ascent. I tucked my socks into my shoes and held them in one hand, my phone in the other. (Pictures of this place don’t do it justice.) Digging my bare feet into the sand, I started the climb.
Sam beat me to the top, so I guess this, plus the missing-the-bus incident, says a thing or two about how much cardio I need to be doing. The view at the top made it all worth it, though. The mounds of sand seemed endless. People sat having picnics with their loved ones, or throwing toys for their giddy dogs to dash after. We hiked to the third mound and set up a blanket before getting Sam’s camera out and doing an impromptu photoshoot. When the sun set, we cracked open a couple beers, and I prayed my taste buds matured overnight. (They once again let me down. I’ll like it someday.)
It was my last night in Bordeaux, and I was feeling pretty melancholy. This was the first time since coming to Europe that I felt somewhat at home - being with a friend who knew me prior to my temporary move was probably the key. That night, Sam cooked some dinner and we played a new genre of music I have fallen in love with - Electro Swing. (He described it as if the 1920s Jazz music met EDM. My two favorite genres. G.E.N.I.U.S.)
His flatmates came home not long after (we don’t say roommates in Europe, we say flatmates.) One of them spoke a little English, and the other - well, he knew the word “douchebag,” and I guess that’s all you really need.
Sam and I had already had a drink, so we decided to play a French drinking game. It ended up being one of the coolest cultural experiences I have ever had to date. I spoke zero French, Dimitri and Xavier spoke little English, and then we had Sam, the link between us all - the translator. The language barrier almost made the game more fun. They tried to teach me some French, then practiced their English on me. It was incredibly amusing how we had similar senses of humor, but so much of it could get lost in translation.
The next day, it was back to London, another weekend leaving me richer in culture, friendship, and memories than before.
Bordeaux. It might not have an Eiffel Tower, but it should definitely be at the top of your French bucket list.
And, they have wine. That should be enough alone to make you open that Expedia tab and start browsing flights.
I luckily had Sam to chauffeur me around, but when we weren’t driving, we took the metro. Bikes are also huge there.
For an appetizer and drink:
La Marikita https://marikita.business.site/
For an affordable dinner:
Bistro Régent https://www.bistro-regent.fr/
Verde Nero https://verdenero.fr/
Frog & Rosbif https://www.frogpubs.com/pub-the-frog-rosbif-paris-1.php
Places to See:
Miroir d'Eau http://www.bordeaux.fr/l10812
Place des Quinconces https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Place_des_Quinconces
Church Saint-Éloi https://www.saint-eloi.org/
Dune of Pilat https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dune_of_Pilat