Travel: France - Take to the water and revisit France

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The landscapes of France look enticing enough from the window of a TGV train or a speeding car, especially when the sun is shining and the vines are in leaf. But for a slower and more intimate view, and a chance to tap into the local rhythms, try taking a holiday on France's waterways. Here, our writers listen to the sounds of nature while floating slowly from Burgundy to Normandy on a barge-hotel (right), and - on the other side of the country - mingling with fishermen and assorted flocks of sheep on the backwaters of the Medoc (below), where time seems to have stopped altogether

Early morning mist still clung to the banks of the Gironde as we headed up-river in search of a stretch where the fish would be running. The boat's master, Francois Gouzil, scanned the still surface water for driftwood, broken netting, or anything else that might foul the propeller. His family had been fishing this great tidal estuary for generations, and I wanted him to tell me about the "real" Medoc - not the glamorous world of the Grands Chateaux that produce some of the world's finest wines, but the lives of those beyond the wrought-iron gates, the hunters and fishermen and jacks-of-all-trades, who have always had to live by their wits.

When we reached the Ile-du Nord, first of the pencil-thin islands that divide the stream, thickly-wooded banks loomed up on either side. There was something primitive about this water-landscape - shades of old Louisiana, of backwoodsmen who shoot first and don't even bother to ask questions, of a scary movie I once saw called Deliverance... I had already noted that Monsieur Gouzil's forearms were thick as steel hawsers. Surely his mood would brighten soon.

He cut the engine and began setting the nets. "Where are we?", I ventured. "Well, just over there", he pointed to the west bank, "you have Margaux." I stared in disbelief. Margaux? Home to some of the world's finest red wines? I had driven through it only two days before along the Route des Chateaux, admiring its manicured vineyards and stately piles endowed with such resonant names as Chateau Palmer, Chateau Giscours and, of course, Chateau Margaux. It looked nothing like this from the land-side. Then Monsieur Gouzil pointed to a church spire poking above the trees. It was indeed Margaux.

"And on the other side", he continued, "the island: it used to be inhabited, but these days people only go there for the harvest or to hunt." A pair of mallards rose from an inlet. Monsieur Gouzil eyed them hungrily. "It is not yet the season", he muttered, and began to explain how the lives of "true Medocains" were governed by the changing seasons. For all but an elite few, work in the vineyards was strictly seasonal; as were the Holy Trinity of "peche, chasse, champignons" (fishing, hunting and wild mushroom gathering) that made life worth living.

Except that in recent years, activists and celebrities like Brigitte Bardot had tried to prevent the hunt, resulting in confrontations with locals who see this as an attempt to disrupt their traditional life-style. And Medocains do not readily surrender their birthright. As one put it: "Wealthy outsiders may come and buy up the chateaux, but we have the quality of life."

"I don't know what all the fuss is about", laughed Madame Gouzil when we returned from fishing. "After all, these hunting parties destroy far more bottles of wine and entrecotes than they do birds." But when her husband showed me his wine cellar I began to understand how hunting and fishing contributed to the "good life". There were some very good bottles, acquired not through purchase but by old-style bartering. "A fish here for a bottle there," he shrugged. "Only this way can I drink some good wines."

Likewise, when Medocains do seasonal work in the vineyards they get fed by the chateaux-owners - enough, apparently, for them to salt away some of the food to see them through the rest of the year. They use the sarments or vine-clippings for grilling fish from the river or their famous entrecotes bordelaises. If it all seems rather feudal, that is because the Medoc remains a highly stratified society - as reflected in the rigid classification of its wines into 1er Cru, 2eme Cru etc, a system unchanged since 1855.

Another reason why the pattern of life seems to be stuck in the 19th century is the region's isolation, bounded by the Gironde on one side and sand-dunes on the other. Geographically it may be a peninsula, but it feels more like an island lost in time as well as space.

That is the view from the Medoc's boondocks. Of course you get a very different impression if, like most visitors, you come for the wine. Escorted wine-tours, with "guided" tastings and sumptuous meals taken in some very grand chateaux, are an increasingly popular, if expensive, way to appreciate the region. Certainly, you get to taste some fine wines; and if the tour organiser has good connections - which count for everything in Bordeaux - the chatelaine herself will cook you your foie gras and entrecote bordelais.

With up to five tastings a day, excluding the wines taken with meals, you need staying power. And even if you are seriously interested in wine, so many chateaux coming in such rapid succession can leave one's mental faculties, well... discombobulated. Moreover, these days an increasing number of top chateaux are owned by big insurance companies or wealthy foreigners, who generally appoint their own professional wine-makers. So the wine-maker and other staff who greet you at the chateau may well be outsiders too. The age-old link between the proprietor and the terroire is breaking down. Which is why, for my money, you get more of the real flavour of the Medoc by staying in the campsite or a cheap hotel in Pauillac and going fishing on the Gironde, than you do by lording it at a converted chateau down the road.

But these two very different sides of the Medoc do come together occasionally. As when there is a popular festival like Fete de l'Agneau at Pauillac - a long weekend's binge in honour of the special kind of milk-fed lamb raised in the Medoc (the practice of trans- humance goes back to the Middle Ages, when flocks were driven down from the Pyrenees each winter and grazed in between the vines).

And, of course, there was a grand opening ceremony, with the mayor and local notables all present. Among these was one formidable lady, the Chatelaine of Pichon-Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande, an area which makes some very good wine. But for the time being she rubbed shoulders with the peasantry as all and sundry awaited the arrival of the "guests of honour" - a flock of Pauillac sheep which were to lead the procession through town.

"But where are the sheep?" demanded the mayor's frantic assistant. "Oh, they're on their way", replied a sheepish-looking shepherd. Finally, a good 20 minutes' late, the flock arrived, the mayor cut the ribbon, and the assembled notables could process solemnly through Pauillac's narrow streets whilst avoiding fresh sheep's droppings.

But my abiding memory of the Medoc is that fishing trip on the Gironde: of Francois Gouzil hauling in his nets and cutting loose the great silver- pink fish that are so easy on the eye and so bony on the plate; all the while talking softly of the changing seasons, and going out into the woods with his Auvergnais hunting dogs to the secret places where he knew he would find morilles, cepes and other prized mushrooms which might, with a little luck, be exchanged for a decent bottle of wine or two.

I discovered how Gouzil is a fisherman who lived at times off the land, just as neighbouring farmers sometimes go down to the river to catch a fish. Nothing unusual in that, for in the Medoc land and river exist in symbiosis.

Without the warming influence of the Gironde, the vines would not give of their best. "There is a saying here in the Medoc", he told me, "that all the best vineyards have a view of the river. But not many people know that the best way to see those vines is from the river." At which he swept the horizon with a broad arm and said, simply: "On a day like this, life is good".

Fact File

Getting there: Eurostar, the Channel Tunnel train company (0990 186 186 for reservations) is selling tickets to Paris for pounds 49 return, if you book in June and travel before 22 July. (see Bargain of the Week, page 12, for more details.)

This offer can be combined with a Euro Domino pass, costing pounds 105 for three days' travel. To book call Rail Europe (0990 848 848); but it may prove cheaper to buy individual tickets locally.

From elsewhere in Britain, it is faster to fly to the French capital. The two no-frills airlines to Paris are Ryanair (0541 569 569) from Prestwick and Debonair (0541 500 300) from Luton; these serve Beauvais and Cergy- Pontoise airports respectively.

Organised trips: James Seely Wine Tours (01206 298 494) runs luxury wine-tours for around pounds 300 per day including accommodation, meals and wine-tastings, but not including travel from the UK.

Alternatively, the Maison du Tourisme et du Vin de Pauillac (00 33 556590308) organises wine-tasting trips to the region's chateaux. Pauillac is hosting a Wine and Gastronomy Festival from 23-25 July.

French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (tel: 0891 244123, premium-rate line). Open 10am-6pm Mon to Fri, 10am-5pm Sats.

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