A Pilgrim’s Refuge Near Bordeaux

Several of my friends planned to walk in the spring of 2013 along the Camino Santiago pilgrimage trail from Saint Jean-de-Luz in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Bill and I decided to honor that endeavor by visiting the UNESCO World Heritage site at the Abbaye de la Sauve-Majeure, an important religious center built in the 12th century.

Located near the original Camino Santiago route, the abbey was a twenty-minute drive from our lodging at the Château de Crécy in Romagne. The day promised to be bright and sunny with just a chance of scattered showers. Perfect for a ramble in the countryside!

Situated at the entrance to the abbey we found a Maison des Vins, or tasting room for wines of the Entre-Deux-Mers appellation. The name of this appellation comes from the region between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers in the beautiful countryside of Aquitaine.

During a previous trip to Bordeaux, we enjoyed these very fine wines with several meals. We found the white wines to be sublime when paired with salmon and other seafood dishes. Unfortunately, wines from this region seem to be elusive at our local wine stores, so we were ecstatic to have the opportunity to taste and buy a few bottles. The manager of the tasting room explained that she was just closing for lunch, so we pledged to return after our visit to the abbey and church.

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For the next couple of hours, we toured the grounds. Built as a Benedictine abbey, the site served as a welcome place of rest for pilgrims walking from northern France to Spain. Within the property are the crumbling remains of the church, scriptorium and refectory. The outlines of the chapter house and cloister are visible although the buildings are long gone.

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Throughout the ruins of the Romanesque style church one can still find stone carvings that depict scenes from the bible such as “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” and “The Life of Samson.” At a time when only the clergy and some nobles were literate, the graphic sculptures provided a way to instruct the faithful about the mysteries and traditions of their religion.

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I was struck by the clarity of the messages created by those craftsmen of long ago. During visits to other churches throughout Europe, we have noted the similarities in the way that the stories of the bible are shown. One can see that during the age of faith, there was a coherent set of beliefs throughout Western Europe. What a contrast to the modern world where globalization has exposed us all to a tremendous diversity of thought! We now have the freedom to sculpt our own beliefs from the rich heritage of many cultures.

The beauty and relative isolation of the abbey created such an atmosphere of calm that we immediately slowed our pace. One could almost sense the sacred aromas of incense and candle wax in the now open to the sky nave. Faint chants of liturgical music played in my imagination. Wandering the grass-covered paths among the half-destroyed walls and arcades, we could picture the brown-robed monks and travel-stained pilgrims who thronged the site in medieval times. A bustling place then, today it is an evocative oasis of peace and tranquility.IMG_1465

After a short walk through the museum to view the artifacts excavated from the ruins, we returned to the Maison des Vins. We purchased just enough bottles of Entre-deux-Mers white wine for the next phase of our journey through southern France. In the morning, we’d be leaving for the Dordogne region and a week at a rental cottage in the tiny village of Le Mustier. But for now, we were eager to return to Château de Crécy as we anticipated another delicious dinner.

 

Maison des Vins de l’Entre-deux-Mers 4, Rue de l’Abbaye BP 6-33670 La Sauve-Majeure. Tel. +33 (0) 5 57 34 32 12.

 

Abbaye de La Sauve-Majeure, 33670 La Sauve-Majeure. Tel. +33 (0) 5 56 23 01 55.

GPS or Bust

In 2012, we were eager to explore the region of France east and south of the city of Bordeaux. Checking our favorite on-line travel sites, we discovered a bed and breakfast on the outskirts of the village of Romagne. It was situated in a vineyard in a rural area far from major towns. In their confirmation email, the owner stressed, “You will require GPS navigation to find us!”

Taking the admonition to heart, just before we left for Europe we purchased an inexpensive Garmin GPS unit. Neither of us had used GPS before, relying instead on auto club maps in the states and Michelin maps in Europe. We decided to test out the device on the drive from Bordeaux to St. Emilion, our first stop before Romagne. We had a map of the area, but this seemed like a good place to get some practice before heading south later in the week.

Before leaving the parking lot of the rental car agency in Bordeaux, I plugged the Garmin into the power outlet and turned it on. It took a while for it to download maps of France, but no matter. The rental car attendant was educating Bill about the operation of our car. This trip we rented a Citroen Picasso that must have been designed by someone in the spacecraft industry as the controls looked nothing like any car we had ever driven. As Bill speaks just a little French and the attendant spoke no English, it was a lengthy training session.

Just as Bill decided he was ready to say au revoir to his trainer, the GPS revealed a screen where I could type in the address for the Maison de la Commanderie, the boutique hotel where we would be staying in St. Emilion. A map of our immediate area popped up on the screen. A female voice with an English accent mispronounced the street we were to turn onto, but no matter. We could see the first street sign from the rental car lot.

We trundled across the bridge over the Garonne River and merged onto the highway towards St. Emilion. Traffic was swift, but light. At the beginning of November, the vineyards were green-gold. Hues of scarlet and orange crowned the trees. We drove with windows down catching whiffs of acrid smoke from burning leaves. It was a perfect day for a road trip.

For many miles, our GPS unit was silent as we sped along towards the wine country. Two hours or so into our trip, the Garmin began issuing frequent commands. “Take the first exit on this roundabout! Rue St. Germaine!” “Take the third exit on that roundabout! Boulevard St. Pierre!”

Sometimes it took the GPS device so long to spit out the road name that we had to whiz around the roundabout more than once. After years of driving in France we were used to that. Roundabouts are a bit like a car-driven merry-go-round. Round and round and round we went! The GPS wasn’t so sanguine. At every missed turn that British voice snarled, “Recalculating!”

The road narrowed as we wound through countryside of sunlit hills and shade-dappled valleys. Neat rows of grapevines disappeared into the horizon. We slowed through tiny villages where stone houses clustered around barrel filled warehouses. Farm vehicles lumbered onto the highway forcing us to drop speed.

Finally, the GPS instructed us to turn onto a road that was bounded by high limestone walls on either side. In the distance we could see a church tower, but otherwise our view was limited to asphalt and stone. After a half-mile or so we emerged from the walls and found ourselves at yet another roundabout. “Take the second exit!” directed the Garmin. We could see that it led straight into the parking area of a commercial building.

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“That can’t be right!” we both muttered and kept driving around the roundabout. On our next circuit, Bill took the first exit. This road led us away from town and back to the countryside and to a dirt track that looked like someone’s driveway. We ignored the Garmin’s cries of “Recalculating! Recalculating!” and found our way back to the start of the limestone walled road.

There was no spot to pull over to peruse our map, so at the roundabout Bill took the first exit again to give me time to figure out the route. I hurriedly studied the Michelin map. “Take the third exit this time! It looks like that road leads to the far side of town. We can park somewhere there and walk to our hotel.”

Back down the limestone road, to the roundabout and out the third exit we went. Garmin shrieked, “Recalculating, recalculating, recalculating!” I ripped out the power plug.

Our new road did lead us to the other side of St. Emilion. We clattered to a stop in a rock-strewn parking lot on the outskirts of the town. Nearby, I glimpsed what looked like a gate, very narrow and overhung with creepers at the nearest side of the lot. An ironwork door sagged from one side. A rusty-brown arrow-shaped sign with white lettering stated: “Centre-Ville.” Bill combed his beard with his fingers and grimaced, “There’s no way we’re going to make it through that gate!”

I had to agree. We were driving a full-size Citroen and even though it was slim for an American car it was a behemoth by French standards. At the far end of the parking lot was a wide alley that also appeared to lead in the general direction of the Centre Ville or center of town. We saw no other entrance into the town proper. Bill shifted back into drive and crept towards the alley.

A middle-aged couple jumped in front of the Citroen, waving their arms. “Non, non monsieur!” We gaped at them. The gentleman rushed to the driver-side window. With hand gestures, he indicated that what we took to be an alley was actually a broad, but steep stairway!

I held up the map showing the circled location of our hotel. The man thrust a finger in the direction of the gate, “La, c’est la!” We were dubious, but the man nodded vigorously and his wife joined in.

We murmured, “Merci beaucoup, madame, monsieur!” Cheeks ablaze, we slid down a bit in our seats. I crammed the GPS device into its carrying case and shoved it into the glove box. Bill backed up and crawled through the gate. It was a tight fit, but our car squeezed through without scraping. We noticed that the gate while very narrow was quite tall.

Parking in the first lot we came to, we sat for a moment, catching our breaths. Then we both began laughing so hard the car shook. On foot, using our map and seat of the pants rather than GPS navigation we found the four-room hotel where we would spend the next few days.

In chatting with the strapping blond owner, we discovered that one wall of the ancient building dated to the 14th century. In that era our hotel had been the home of the knight of the town. Now the tall, narrow gate made sense. A perfect entry for a knight on a charger!

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Ancient St. Emilion is a town made for walking, not driving. We left the car parked for several days and explored the winding, cobblestoned streets on foot. Our GPS device remained in the car…resting up for the trip to Romagne.

Maison de la Commanderie 3 bis rue Porte Brunet, 33500 Saint-Emilion, France. Tel.  +33 5 57 24 26 59.