The riverside town of Blaye had been mentioned several times in our Guide Books as being one of the ‘lesser-known’ wine producing towns of the Bordeaux region and in the hope of sniffing out some lush wine bargains, it was therefore to Blaye that we made our waye.
Arriving mid-morning and without having breakfasted, we were excited to find a local market in full swing in the centre of this unassuming town. What the Guide Books seem not to have mentioned (although this was probably reader-oversight) was that the town was dominated by a huge and imposing mediaeval citadel, which provided a backdrop to the market and – well – to pretty much everything else as well.
Finding space in a car-park on the river’s edge, we immediately sallied forth in search of some cheesy comestibles, only to find that the extensive and colourful market arrays of fresh fruit, vegetables, charcuterie, cheese, meats, shellfish, underwear and kitchen aids didn’t really fulfil the brief, so we repaired to a roadside cafe-bar, fortuitously deciding to take seats inside to escape threatening rain. Fortified by the only item available on the menu – ironically enough a platter of charcuterie and cheese – the rain arrived and abated, and we set out to storm the bastion of Blaye.
The UNICEF World Heritage moated citadel was vast and remarkably well preserved. We marvelled at the towering stone-built walls and were surprised to find that within their protection a couple of small pavement restaurants were thriving as was the tourist office. Built to provide the city of Bordeaux – lying some 30 miles upriver – with protection from marauding river-borne enemies, the Citadel had been remodelled by a gentleman named Vauban, whose reputation as a military architect and engineer was clearly of great national pride.
One aspect of the Citadel which owed nothing to its historical importance – and which certainly wasn’t mentioned in any of the informative multiple-language graphic panels which were dotted about – was that, in September 2017, it was besieged by a phalanx of motorhomes. ‘Camping car’ spaces had been designated around the perimeter moat (signs for which we’d complete missed on our arrival) so the juxtaposition of massed ranks of 21st century leisure vehicles with 12th century stone walls provided a sharp and thought-provoking contrast.
Having exhausted ourselves with our bastion-storming and market-wandering activities, we repaired to the van and were just settling to a relaxing cuvette de thé, when our attention was drawn to a short queue of vehicles quietly growing in front of us and which – on further intrigued inspection – turned out to be lining up for a ferry. Further inspection identified a very reasonable 21 euros one-way fare across the Gironde river and a departure time of less than 15 minutes. With little in the way of further consideration, and still with tea in our cups, we impulsively joined the queue, tucking ourselves happily in behind a beautifully burbling, open-topped, personally-plated British Bentley in classic racing green.
A good-natured, slightly haphazard loading of vehicles and passengers ensued, with an upper deck allowing us a unique opportunity to examine the rarely-seen roof of the van and decide it really would need a damn good wash when we got home.
The Gironde is a mighty river. About a mile across, it swirled forcefully around us, the colour and consistency of milky and seemingly boiling coffee, as our vessel skated sideways across the tidal flow. Passing fortified islands and docking expertly on t’otherside at Lamarque, we were swiftly disgorged onto the Medoc, a peninsular of wine-country which we might eventually have reached by road, but only via a significant detour. Our Bentley burbled powerfully off into the chateau-speckled countryside ahead of us, as we mere mortals washed up the tea-cups and wallowed gently onwards in its wake.