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Postcard from Bordeaux – pesky Parisians, Frexit and Europe’s worst airport

October 29, 2017

Everyone knows that sites like TripAdvisor are stuffed full of bull about the wonders of the products they advertise, which is why I don’t bother to visit them. Unless I want a laugh, of course.

You want the unvarnished truth? You won’t find it here, but in keeping with my reputation for fearlessly telling my version of the truth, here are a few thoughts on a short trip we’ve just made to France.

I learned three things about our nearest neighbour this week.

The first is that Bordeaux has a truly horrible airport – the worst I have passed through in France, and possibly in Europe. The second is that the French have their own version of Brexit. It’s called Frexit. I know this because I saw a poster advertising “Le Candidat du Frexit”. And finally, it’s a toss-up who the locals dislike more – the British or the Parisians.

The source of my stunning enlightenment was a three-day break we took this week to the Bay of Arcachon, which lies thirty kilometres west of Bordeaux.

I will save the description of our airport experience until last.

What of M Frexit? He turns out to be a chap called Francois Asselineau, who stood in the presidential elections against Macron, Le Pen and gang. He looks like a corpulent version of Nigel Farage, and he turned out to be about as successful as Farage in getting elected to a meaningful office. He came nowhere.

I suspect that his adoption of Frexit in his political banner might have been part of the reason. French purists abhor the creeping colonisation of their language by us Anglo-Saxons. They would argue that exit is an English word that has no place in a French political campaign. It would be difficult, though, to cobble some snappy word out of “France” and “sortie”, which would have been a problem for Assileneau. Whereas Brexit has the wholesome ring of a bowel-scouring cereal, Frexit conjures up an unpleasant cause of death. Almost as bad as Grexit, which sounds like a condition that requires the Heimlich Manoeuvre.

Anyway, the fact that nobody has bothered to deface or remove a fading poster of Le Candidat du Brexit from a wall just outside Bordeaux suggests that unlike Farage, M Frexit has hopped back into his pond.

Since this is supposed to be an alternative to TripAdvisor, I should say something about where we stayed. This is also where the antipathy towards Brits and Parisians comes in. The Bay of Arcachon is a huge bite out of the Atlantic coast. It’s almost a lagoon, but whoever did the biting clearly lacked the courage of their convictions. The result is a tidal basin in which the water virtually disappears for much of the day, leaving sailing boats stranded. It’s ringed by pine forests, villages full of plush holiday homes and miles of cycle paths.

The holiday homes are the source of anti-Paris resentment. Improvements to the rail network have reduced the travelling time from Paris to Bordeaux to two hours. This means more Parisians buying up properties around the bay, which also means more places sitting empty for much of the year.

How the Parisians can afford their plush holiday homes is a bit of a mystery, given that the French economy is supposed to be in a worse state than ours. But they have little competition from us Brits. There are no wrecks waiting to be renovated, and few achingly beautiful medieval squares where we can enjoy our coffee and croissants in the sun as we bray about property prices. Besides, why would we come to Arcachon when we have the Isle of Wight?

Our scarcity partly explains why we seem to be viewed with thinly-veiled contempt, and why waiters are almost as keen as those in Paris to watch with a malicious gleam in the eye as those of us who don’t speak French struggle with their ornate and incomprehensible menus. All very French. Even the Irish pub we visited when we tired of fusion cuisine was about as Irish as a Pyongyang caff.

Which was fine, because we were in France. And the Bay of Arcachon is place for vigorous pursuits beloved of the French – sailing, cycling, trekking, oyster-guzzling and even dune climbing – Europe’s tallest sand dune sits like a white elephant within the tree-lined coast.

Our base for the three days was a ludicrously expensive Italianate villa overlooking the bay. We managed to secure a room for a reasonable rate through an online auction. It was billed as private villa, not a hotel, and we shared the communal dining room and kitchen with other guests. In England we would call it a high-spec B&B, but you wouldn’t get many takers for a place in Bognor Regis with a rack rate of nearly 400 euro a night.

That said, there are probably not many B&Bs in Bognor with landscaped gardens, an eco-pool that uses no chemicals, a house full of Balinese wood sculptures and other effortlessly cool features, including a room at the top of a tower with a 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape, which was where we ended up.

All of which was fine and dandy, except that the bathroom was on the next floor down. To reach it you needed to descend down a steep spiral staircase. Not ideal if you’re suffering from the effects of too much red wine (which we didn’t), or if you have creaky knees and are of an age when you need to get up for the occasional night-time pee (which I do).

The absence of a kettle in the room was explained by the charming manager, Aurelien, on the grounds that you don’t usually have one in your own home. True, but in my home I’m not charged 8 euro for a cup of coffee from the machine in the kitchen. Tea, though, is free. So at our home from home, I reluctantly suspended my daily Alzheimer’s test of bringing my beloved her morning cup of tea, navigating over a sleeping dog and up a single flight of stairs in the process. A journey akin to the ascent of the Old Man of Hoy with a mug of hot tea in one hand would have been a climb too far.

Minor quibbles though. The place was lovely, the view was great and the weather a very pleasant mid-20s.

Our forays out included visits to both ends of the bay – Cap Le Ferret at one end, and the town of Arcachon at the other. At Cap le Ferret you can just about see the Atlantic breakers on the horizon and the monster sand dune sits across the water.

Dune de Pyla, Bassin d’Arcachon

Unfortunately our attempt to secure a coffee and snack at the restaurant overlooking the bay were contemptuously dismissed, on the grounds that it was after 3pm, and wasn’t it obvious that we close for three hours during the busiest time of the day?

We had more luck at Arcachon, which has a promenade of hotels and cafes on the beach-front. It could have been an August day, with the beach full of kids making sandcastles in the sun, and the well-dressed boulevardiers strolling down the pavement with the usual variety of dogs in tow.

Arcachon beachfront

I was conveniently reminded that I’m a stupid Englishman when I expressed surprise that the guy in the ice cream van was also selling churros, which I’ve rarely seen outside Spain. Pourquoi? You bought a mango ice cream, and mangos come from China, he replied. Silly me.

All in all, a pleasant trip, but a timely reminder that there are many parts of France that won’t miss us Brits if we sail serenely away into the mid-Atlantic, unless, of course, we can read their menus and bring large amounts of money with us. Perhaps the locals feel able freely to express their contempt for les rosbifs because, unlike in some parts of France, such as the Dordogne, we don’t outnumber them.

Now for the airport.

We arrived on Easyjet at the low budget shed on the side of the terminal. Nothing too traumatic about that. We hired a car, and were informed that we must fill up with petrol before we hand it back, otherwise we would be charged a full tank and 40 euro for the hassle. Again, relatively normal, though the inconvenience charge seemed a bit stiff.

On the way back we started off fairly early. Our flight was at 10.30pm, this time on British Airways, and we wanted to get back to the car hire cabin before it closed so that that they could certify that we had not damaged their precious property.

We allowed an hour to make the 35km journey to the airport so that we could stop by a filling station. But there was none. After 15 minutes driving back and forth around the airport we finally found one courtesy of satnav. We sat another 10 minutes behind a long queue.

It turned out that the establishment closed at 8pm for some reason. What kind of stupid bloody petrol station in the middle of a large urban area shuts at 8pm, we wondered. And why did they choose to locate it in some obscure location miles from the terminal? Even Gatwick, which ticks many of the boxes in the most horrible airport category, has a gas station in plain sight just off the South Terminal.

We filled up with a minute to spare, but missed our rendezvous with the car hire guy. My wife, who is convinced – probably with good reason – that car hire companies are even more grasping than bankers, then spent five minutes videoing every inch of the car with her phone as evidence of its pristine condition in case someone took a sledgehammer to it after we’d left.

The main terminal at Bordeaux is a concrete monstrosity that has plenty of space but nothing to fill it. One of those ambitious Euro-projects, perhaps, that’s designed to handle a passenger throughput that it will never achieve. Large, soulless and lacking the vital ingredient of people. There is but one food outlet on either side of security, selling the inevitable ham and cheese baguettes and a limited selection of rather sad pastries.

The people at the X-ray machines are surly – clearly graduates of the Homeland Security charm school. In fact they’re worse than their American counterparts. At least the Yanks say Sir when they put you in a choke-hold and march you away. It made me want to give a big hug to the folks who do the same job with infinitely more jollity at our airports.

When they ordered me to put my swatch through the machine, I found myself turning into Larry David and arguing with them about the explosive capability of a plastic watch. But these are not the kind of people to pick a fight with.

When we got through to the other side, it became clear that our flight was the last one of the day. Which was just as well, because the main concourse was tiny, with nowhere to sit other than the floor, and we were unable to get to the gate because the immigration police were nowhere to be found. So about a hundred of us – yowling babies and all – stood around for an hour until a few minutes before departure waiting for a solitary policeman to show up.

The lack of immigration officers was a new one on me. Even in Saudi Arabia, which is the proud owner of Jeddah International, of one of the world’s worst airports, there is no shortage of officials delighted to stamp our passports and get rid of us. Could it be that our French gatekeepers were taking a malicious delight at keeping a plane-load of Brits standing in a queue and wondering whether we’d ever be allowed to leave France? Surely not. We finally made it out, late of course, on a packed flight full of bawling infants back to jolly old Gatwick.

I can only sum up our experience of Bordeaux Airport by saying that if Tom Hanks had arrived there in the movie Terminal, he would have slashed his wrists within hours.

Then again, it’s quite possible that I’m turning into a spoilt old curmudgeon who travels abroad too much for his own good.

Never mind, better times are on the horizon. After Brexit, when the planes are grounded and the ports are choked with lorries, I shall introduce myself to the delights of coach trips to Bognor Regis, Skegness and other fascinating parts of my home country. Like all the other (relatively) ancient people.

From → France, Postcards, Travel, UK

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