Jun 1, 2022
Eager traveler Geoffrey Weill guides us through France's Loire Valley.
I first traveled to France when I was eight years old. And about a hundred times since. But last month was my first time in Bordeaux, and in the Loire Valley. And there really is only one word to describe them. Wow. Or, in French, Ouaou.
My Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt landed at Bordeaux’s Merignac airport in the early evening, and it hit me that there really is a U.S.E. - the United States of Europe. No passport checks. No customs. Same currency. Napoleon’s megalomaniacal dream, and Hitler’s evil dream, have come true. But in a good way. And why my homeland saw fit to pull out of it, I shall never know. Well, actually, I do know. Deep within the British psyche, particularly of an “older” generation, there is this unreasoned emotion that Britain should stand alone. Apart. Superior. But I had just arrived in Bordeaux now, so what’s Brexit got to do with anything?
Bordeaux. It’s a name that everyone with a modicum of sophistication has grown up with. Not the city, of course, but the extraordinary wines produced for centuries in its surrounds, including what is possibly the world’s most exclusive, the wine from Château Lafitte-Rothschild. Indeed, a couple of years after my first son, Benjamin, was born in 1985, I bought a bottle of that wine’s 1985 vintage to keep in storage for him to open on his 21st. Birthday. When 2006 arrived, Ben decided that, as he barely drank anything beyond Diet Coke, he’d much rather have the money. So, he sold it on eBay for a whopping $600. Two years after my second and third children arrived in 2006 and 2008, I did the same thing. Watch this space to see whether they drink or sell in 2027 and 2029.
I wasn’t there just for the wine, but more for the city itself. The driver sent by my hotel texted me that he was waiting outside the terminal. We drove past vineyards into town. I had heard and read that central Bordeaux is virtually unchanged since the 18th-century, and that is what I had come to see.
Very quickly the drive turned from 21st-century suburban sprawl into the 1750’s. Narrow cobble-stoned streets lined with mansions, whose exteriors are unchanged since they were built 300 years ago. Each built of creamy beige stone, with tall windows, columns, wrought-iron balconies and curlicues dating from 1700, 1800 or 1900.
We turned left, then right, then right again, and drew up in front of one of the grandest of the mansions I’d so far seen, my hotel, the Palais Gallien. It sits in a very quiet street. A five-star hotel, with just 27 rooms. The mansion is from the Belle Epoque – better known in America as the late 19th-century Gilded Age. A doorman leapt out of a grand entrance built for carriages and escorted me inside. A clerk in a black suit, white shirt and black tie leapt to his feet behind the front desk and welcomed me. The check-in was speedy and within minutes the clerk, Patrick, was in the elevator with me to the second floor of the mansion. “But we must walk up to the third floor,” he apologized. "We have upgraded you to our best suite, The Montaigne,” he explained. I had no idea why, but I didn’t argue.
He pressed the keycard to a pad on the door and after a not-so-gentle push I was in a large room with a king-size bed, cantilevered cathedral ceiling with skylight, and Le Corbusier furniture. This led to a massive rooftop terrace with jacuzzi, table and chairs, and a view of the rooftops of Bordeaux. Patrick insisted that I be back on the terrace for the fireworks celebrating the end of the annual wine festival. He showed me the bathroom, massive too, with a double shower, double sinks, and a contemporary white bathtub shaped like a giant gravy boat.
It was now 8PM, and I had reserved a table for dinner in the Palais Gallien’s “restaurant gastronomique,” La Table de Montaigne, at 8:30. I quickly showered and changed into my most formal outfit: dark pants, white shirt, tie, navy blazer, and descended to a full restaurant where not a single diner was not wearing a tee-shirt, jeans, or shorts...or all three. It didn’t bother me that I was massively overdressed, but I was surprised. Most of the guests were French, and I had expected a chicer crowd.
The besuited maître’d quickly asked if I wanted a menu in French or English. He explained that the meal was a tasting menu of five or six courses. Frankly, I’m not a great fan of ménus-de-degustation (tasting menus) - I’ve sort of moved on, or should I say back, to opting for one or two courses of “real” comfort food. But what the hell, let’s do it. And I added the wine pairing (Bordeaux wines, of course).
The serving staff – Bordeaux natives with senses of humor and perfect English, were a consummate softener to the formality of the menu. Each of the five courses prepared by Chef Younesse Bouakkaoui was one that required a photograph, an artistic creation so beautiful that it was almost sacrilege to wreck it with a fork. There were oysters, the finest vegetables, perfect sea bass, pigeon, a dessert that had to be popped in the mouth, as biting into it, would squirt fragrant juices on the wallpaper. Wow, I thought, as I slurped down a sparkling Vouvray, followed by four different local vintages, this is how Bordeaux ought to be. I made sure to be back in my room by 11 and sipped more sparkling Vouvray as I watched the not-so-distant showers of light in the night sky.
Breakfast was served in a delightful room that led into the mansion’s garden where I discovered a delicious outdoor pool, grass, lounge-chairs, and several more guestrooms in the contemporary edifice that must have replaced the original stables. Next to the breakfast room is the Nuxe spa. “This place has everything,” I thought, as I cruised the buffet. When I was a kid, a hotel breakfast in France was either rolls or croissants, butter and jam, tea or coffee. Period. But that was then. Worldwide, hotel breakfasts have morphed into extravagance, and this buffet offered cereals, granola, fruits, smoked salmon, ham, prosciutto, assorted cheeses, tomatoes, cucumbers, a variety of pastries and breads – and optional omelets or eggs any style.
As I had suspected, Bordeaux is beautiful beyond beautiful. When I first visited Paris in the late 1950’s, the buildings were blackened by coal smoke. Then there was a massive cleaning project during the 1960’s and 1970’s that removed the schmutz, and Paris became the glorious city of creamy beige stone we know today.
Ditto, Bordeaux, except the cleaning is even more recent. What sets Bordeaux apart is that street after street, boulevard after boulevard, is lined with truly exquisite mansions, and apartment buildings dating from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The city is quiet and orderly. I strolled the river promenade where outdoor tables outside café after bar after café after restaurant brimmed with the Bordelais – and the occasional tourist – mostly twenty- or thirty-somethings. Bordeaux is far more south than I realized – on the same latitude as Venice. Hence, in addition to hydrangeas, bougainvillea and pines, there are palm trees. Along the river shore is the Cité des Vins, where the annual Festival du Vin (wine festival) was in full swing.
My drive to the Loire Valley took me almost directly north along autoroutes lined with vineyards. The trouble with autoroutes (and autobahns, and autostradas, and motorways – and expressways, and turnpikes and thruways) is that the quest for speed means you miss the charm of winding through villages, stopping at inns, plunging into markets. Apart from variations in the landscape, one might as well be whooshing through Puglia or the Poconos. But I needed to be at my destination for a lunch appointment, so whoosh is what I did.
The minute I left the autoroute, I was instantly in Beauty and the Beast charm. I drovc through hamlets so charming it hurt not to stop in each and amble. But my goal was a hotel named Les Sources de Cheverny which, I think you’ll agree, has to be one of the most romantic sounding hostelries on the planet.
I drew into a winding lane arched with trees and came upon the 17th-century Château de Breuil which is a part of the property. I parked in a gravel-topped traffic-circle surrounded by flowers, was greeted by staff dressed in Thomas Hardy outfits, who took my key and promised to take my luggage to my room. I entered a modern yet countrified building with a cathedral ceiling and fireplace. In its center of which was a caged booth that reminded me of a post office. Check-in was effortless, and I was handed gratis entry tickets to the nearby châteaux of Blois, Chambord and Chenonceaux.
A pretty young lady asked if I would like a tour, and we strolled to the château where I had hoped I would be sleeping. The ground floor is all public areas – endless lounges with antiques, and tables topped with board games, and an honor bar. Beyond the château is the pool and spa. My request for a room in the château had been superseded by the hotel's desire to accommodate me in a suite. This turned out to be in a meadow beyond the reception area, a meadow happily unmown, rich with grasses and wildflowers, birds and bees. My suite was an individual house on a pond, lavishly appointed, yet all a bit Scandinavian-modern and soulless. The large bottle of sparkling Vouvray (the Loire’s version of Champagne) did much to relieve me of any disappointment. I strolled to another building that extended from the reception area, on whose vine-trellised patio, I ate a delicious lunch. As everywhere in Europe right now, there seemed to be a shortage of staff, but lunch was delicious (as was dinner that night, and the massive breakfast the following morning).
Les Sources de Cheverny is a 25-minute drive to Blois, a wonderful medieval town on the River Loire, dominated by the Château Royal. The whole raison-d'être of visiting Blois is supposedly to visit the château in which Catherine de Medici produced sons, and where kings of France lived for centuries. Throughout the château, there are sculptures, tapestries, chairs emblazoned with the Fleur de Lys, the symbol not only of the French royal family, but also of my London prep school. I felt instantly at home. The castle interior is not laid out like the home it once was, but more as a museum with exhibits. I said earlier “supposedly,” because visiting Blois is more than the château. There is a maze of cobblestone streets with delicious and delightful shops – antiques, old books, fashioin, and new food. I mean, what more could one want?
From the Loire Valley, it was another three hours of autoroute to a place called Paris. I’ve lost count of how many dozens of times I’ve visited Paris since I was eight, but this was the first time I actually drove myself into the city. And it was a heady, intoxicating experience, only occasionally terrifying. The autoroute devolved into avenues, and then suddenly I was driving along the right bank of the Seine across from the Eiffel Tower. Soon, I was in the giant Place de la Concorde, wrestling with some of the most impossibly discourteous and seriously unintelligent drivers. Yet here I was, Geoffrey Weill, driving through the Place de la Concorde! “There’s the Crillon, the Tuileries, the Jeu de Paume!”
Past Maxim’s at the top of Rue Royale, the Madeleine church is being renovated behind a massive Louis Vuitton billboard. On the Rue St. Honoré, I passed “name” after “name” (Chanel, Goyard, Balenciaga, etc.), yet this was not a mall in Singapore, this is their home. Two more right turns and I was on the Rue de Rivoli (now one lane of clogged traffic, two lanes of bicycles and pedestrians) and leaving my luggage with the charming doorman of the Hotel Meurice. On I continued – yes, this is me, driving up the grandest avenue on earth, the Champs Elysées. And then braving the traffic weaving chaotically around the Arc de Triomphe, to reach 11AM on the dial of the Place Charles de Gaulle: Avenue Foch...and the entrance to the underground parking and the office of Europcar.
There seemed to be no cruising taxis, and, anway, the traffic would have turned my journey back to the Meurice into a hundred Euro half-hour. I crossed the Champs-Elysées and hopped on the metro. In my 2021 “memoir of Travel and Obsession,” ALL ABROAD, I describe riding the metro when I was eight. The subway had first- and second-class cars back then, and everywhere there were signs insisting riders give up their seats to “les mutilés de la guerre” (literally, “to those mutilated in war.” Those signs are long gone, as are two classes; within minutes I was at the Tuileries subway station, a short stroll from the Meurice.
This was my first time staying at the Meurice, and I was taken up to a gorgeous, newly renovated room on the fifth floor overlooking an interior courtyard. Everything sparkled. The bathroom was massive, all grey-veined white marble. The lobby of the Meurice was alive with guests having lunch, and after writing my name in the ice of a Phillipe Starck sculpture, strolled back to the Rue St. Honoré. I sat at a sidewalk restaurant and ordered a Salade Niçoise. As I munched, I recognized a beautiful woman strolling by – actress Kate Walsh, presumably pausing between takes of filming the third season of Netflix’s enormously vacuous, yet enormously adorable “Emily in Paris.” I told her I loved her work. She grinned, said “merci” and marched on. Short of time, I strolled to the Museum of Jewish Art and Culture, and then to the Bourse, Paris’ old stock exchange, now a magnificent art museum with architecture so gorgeous you could weep, and the Pinault collection of art so schlocky, you could weep again.
In mid-June, itsdoesn’t think of getting dark in Paris until 10:30pm. I strolled past picnickers on the Tuileries lawns to the Louvre. I wanted to eat outdoors and found the perfect table at the Café Marly which sits on the terrace of the Louvre overlooking I. M. Pei’s fabulous pyramid. I recall the fury and furor the design of the pyramid caused when its proposed installation was announced forty years ago. Yet four decades later it is as much a Parisian landmark as the Eiffel Tower, whose construction in 1887-1889 caused similar fury and furor. But it’s that fury and furor – and passion and beaty - are what makes Paris so uniquely magnificent.
Sadly, I could not stay more than 18 hours in the city. Café au lait was delivered to my room at 6:15AM the next morning, and at 7AM a Meurice Mercedes whizzed me to Charles de Gaulle Airport, and the United 9:45AM flight to Newark. As we rushed along empty boulevards, I heard Bogart promising Bergman that “we’ll always have Paris.”