Special Feature: Products Sally Recommends
It all started back in January of 2011. My son, now a Psychiatric Intern with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Houston, called me to announce that he only had two weeks of vacation for his previous year of service, and he had decided to take it (starting Easter Sunday) by traveling to Madrid, Spain for a visit with his friend “Fede,” an Argentinean who had taken a job there. He is a “big boy” now, so I just agreed that it would be a nice trip. Yet, as I suspected, there was a reason for such an early proclamation. Typically I do not hear about his plans until a day or two before their commencement. He needed “a few” mileage points in order to complete the number required for the trip, and who better to call for help than me. I asked him how many, and it turned out to be almost half of the requirement. I paused to contemplate the situation, and then agreed on the condition that he allowed me to accompany him, knowing full well that it would ruin my favorite corny jingle that I chant (“Well I’ve never been to Spain, but I’ve been to Oklahoma”) any time someone mentions that country.
Reluctantly he agreed, and we both proceeded to acquire our tickets on the same flights. I envisioned it would be the two of us, exploring the sights of Spain together as yet another treasured Father/Son adventure. But, the plot thickened. A couple of weeks later he told me that he and Fede had booked a flight out of Spain the following long weekend to Amsterdam, and I concluded quickly that I was not invited. Disappointed, but not willing to sit and pout about it, I wondered what I could do in this period of time to “make the best” of this situation. It took me only a few minutes to realize that Bordeaux, France was a very short airplane ride away. Bordeaux has been on my “Bucket List” for eons. Thus I began finding out if this would be practical for me, traveling alone. I soon discovered why so many Bordeaux guided tours are available on the market (starting in the neighborhood of 3500 Euros, over $5000, per person) for a week. It is a “major-league” undertaking to accomplish via email. Quickly I discovered that absolutely none of the Bordeaux wineries I wanted to visit were opened over that weekend. Thus my excursion was expanded from Wednesday to Wednesday, a very long-weekend indeed. And yes, I do believe that my son has since regretted missing out on my adventures.
I started a campaign of contacting “first and second growth” Bordeaux wineries (1855 French classification of premiere vineyards, still in existence today), to see if they would allow my visiting their property and tasting their wines. As a mere tourist, some of them would allow my visit. Yet, I found that presenting myself as a wine writer for Sally’s Place, afforded many more opportunities. Even so, three or four of these top rated spots would not give me an email response or the “time of day” for that matter. I have since learned how to “crack that nut,” so to speak, through connections made during this process and then my trip.
It truthfully took me over 2 months of constant work, 250 emails and 30 phone calls to France in accomplishing my goal. So I do understand how those touring companies continue their successful operation. It is tedious work which takes a lot of patience, knowledge of the mindset of those with whom I communicated and determination to succeed. By the time my work had concluded, I had arranged 14 different winery visits, all the transportation, a tour of downtown Bordeaux and most importantly, the means by which I would access each location.
My Garmin GPS system was several years old, so I went on-line and purchased the updates for their European maps. Catch 22. It turns out that this Garmin update is too much information for the capacity of my Nuvi 370 unit, and thus the download would not work. Direct conversations with Garmin representatives did not resolve the matter, because even certain members of “technical support” team were unaware that the new update could only be downloaded into the new Nuvi 2370 unit. They offered to exchange my old device with the new, since the upgrade plan I had purchased would not function with my unit. I agreed. However, the Nuvi 2370 would not be available to the public until May. I was leaving in late April (do the math). Thus I talked them into sending me the year-old Nuvi 1370, and we discovered that just Western Europe could be successfully downloaded, without the entire program for the whole continent. This concluded only a week before my departure (talk about a “Nervous Nelly!!”) I was freaking out. “So what’s the big deal?” (You might ask..)
Long Answer: Many wineries in Bordeaux are hundreds of years old, possibly before the word “address” was even contemplated. So, those who live and work here naturally know where every winery is located. Those who do not, evidently should not know. Accessing each website on-line, there would be a general location referenced, something equivalent to our “counties,” along with the postal zip code. That is it. So what the heck do you program into the GPS?? Pouring over all of the instructions for the unit, I discovered that I could program in the global coordinates to establish the route and final destination from where I was located. Did the wineries have this information? Some did, but it was rarely volunteered. For a very few it was offered on the directional page of their website. Yet, that was the only way. Thus I made multiple emails and phone calls begging for this information. I preformed web searches for the data, turning up many of these important numbers offered by folks like me who had experienced similar frustrations. By the end of my search, I had located the coordinates on all but one winery, the representatives of which swore they had never known the information. (BTW, during my visits, I gave a few tour guides my card with the proper coordinates posted on back as acquired from my GPS device.. “your current location”). Misinformation would prove to be the only contributing factor of my getting lost in the wine country of Bordeaux (more later). Thus, updated GPS devices are “God” on a trip like this. Every time I was away from my car (without fail) I would pack away the device into the shoulder-bag that I acquired to tote around all such life-saving items and identification. It never left my side. (If any of my “faithful eight” readers decide to brave such a journey in the future, I will be happy to share this hard-earned information.)
Even for exploring locations in and around town, with addresses, this navigational system is a must. Let me be kind here, for anyone who might be from the area; the roadway identification methods of France are insane. There are no highway number markings or compass directional indicators on the sparse signage, only occasional arrows with the next town or sections of town referenced. Thus, if you are from the area and know exactly where you are going (not requiring signs) they could be considered as gentle reminders, in case you are daydreaming and/or talking on your cell phone while driving. To those of us in total ignorance, they are useless. Saving money on traffic lights, “round-abouts” are located at most busy intersections, giving the right of way to those already in the circle, but requiring drivers to yield who are not. On Sundays, this might work fine. For the balance of the week, when traffic is heavy, it slows everyone to a “snail’s pace.” Without getting myself into trouble here, I will just say that the reason is due to numerous timid and/or cell phone preoccupied drivers who need the circle to be totally clear of cars before daring to enter. Without any useful markings on the exits of these circles, you really need that little female British GPS voice reminding you (and she does that a frustrating number of times) which “exit” to take, once you brave your way into the small gaps, offered by a car departing the loop ahead of you. Out in the countryside, without the roadway numbers, street names or compass information, using a map for guidance is virtually impossible. Enough said.
As an owner of a Sprint mobile phone, I contacted them about the possibility of acquiring a SIM card, useable in Europe. “Not available” was the reply. Thus, in my internet search, I found a company called “Mobal,” based out of London, which would sell me a Motorola phone for a reasonable $69 dollars and allow me to use it (without a continual monthly use fee) for only $1.25 per minute. Now that may sound like a bundle, but when you consider the cost of SIM card purchases for individual countries with other phones, and the rates still very high, my choice proved a good one. Thus, no matter which of over 200 countries I am in, I have the same access number for anyone trying to reach me. Mobal utilizes each country’s cell towers, by some magical arrangement. Texting is less expensive, so my son and I were able to communicate essential messages, without a whopping expense (under $10 for the whole trip). While dormant at home, it patiently awaits my next trip, without charge. Mobal’s phone was a really great find for this adventure.
Not traveling with women-folk, I could concentrate on the basics of staying in more economically priced hotels. Most fortunately, I did, allowing my extremely weak dollars (dropping out of sight in the midst of my trip) to go farther. The Euro seems to be utilized for much the same “dollar value” that goods and services do in the USA with our currency, yet when converting to Euros, the U.S. dollar (at the time of my trip) cost me about $1.50 (with exchange fees) to purchase a single “E.” That’s quite a pop. I did not notice many Americans on this trip, and I painfully understand why. The best deals were the hotels near the Bordeaux airport, perfectly positioned on the west side of the City’s outer belt (Loop 630, but who the heck uses such numbers?). The congested Bordeaux inner-city traffic that I mentioned before would not have allowed easy access onto the roadways away from town, in the three directions of the wineries that I would be visiting. Quick bypass-loop access was therefore critical. The only drawback was that my hotel (although clean and offering free Wi-Fi connection) had paper-thin walls, and the French (shall we say) are quite the expressive lot when traveling as couples. Solo business travelers were relatively quiet.
My rental car was a couple steps up from the most economical, just for size considerations of safety. Yet, one must have knowledge of the stick shift, unless planning to pay much, much more for a vehicle. In line at the counter, I noticed an older woman asking the representative a number of questions in French. I know enough of the language to understand his nervous response explaining to her the requirement of pushing in the clutch when changing gears. Yikes!! I am glad she was still loading up baggage when I exited the airport parking lot.
Eating meals in Bordeaux can be expensive; with noteworthy French restaurants located so far in the interior of town that the huge amount of time and effort in accessing them makes the simple, healthy option more attractive (forgive me Sally). So, I ate a large breakfast at my hotel, bringing along my protein powder to mix into the watered-down orange juice in case no acceptable lean meat products were offered. Then, to my salvation, I found a place about 500 meters down the main road (toward the loop) called Buffalo Grill. What a find!! They offered great tasting grilled chicken and fish dishes, with baked potato, rice and/or steamed green beans along with a green salad, fresh fruit dessert and two beers for under 20E (translated, $29), accompanied by Country Western music (USA variety) playing on the speakers, non-stop. I ate there almost every evening, and regretted the time I did not.
These tid-bits I wanted to present as a prologue to my first article, offering a canvas upon which I will illustrate the stories to come. Without this backdrop, my forthcoming accounts cannot be envisioned in their proper perspective. Keep tuned-in for all my Bordeaux tales. There will be some “duzies.”
Garmin GPS Systems – www.garmin.com
Mobal World Phone – www.mobal.com
Buffalo Grill – www.buffalo-grill.fr