Wanderlust: Strong longing for or impluse toward wandering (source)

Imagine you own a house in the French countryside, where you live with your dogs and horses. Now imagine that you want to spend Christmas with your family in the U.K.

Such situations are exactly what the website Trusted Housesitter sets out to resolve. Once you have signed up, then all you need to do is list photos of your house, the dates you’re away, and what animals needs to be looked after. Then people can apply to look after your house and beloved (usually furry) friends for no cost. You give them accommodation; they look after your animals. Like many online platforms that rely on trust to some degree, they use upfront identity checks and follow-up reviews to try and keep people honest.

We recently made use of Trusted Housesitter to find a house in the Aquitaine region in France, where we spent a week over Christmas. For those of you who don’t know so much about European geography at the regional level, then look at the map below and think mustard yellow and south-west (that’s bottom-left, for the even more geographically challenged).

Bordeaux is the capital of the Aquitaine region, and it is a historical city that is famed for its red wine. When photographed from a particular angle in certain climatic conditions, part of Bordeaux looks like this. That is, quite nice.

I understand the central city is UNESCO heritage listed. We spend three nights in Bordeaux itself, and especially enjoyed walking through the Old Town, along the river, and then looping back through the old wine district. I could actually see myself living and loving here. Bordeaux is lively, with good restaurants and bars, without too much hustle and bustle.

From a transport perspective, the most interesting aspect of Bordeaux is probably the LRT; in the city centre the system is powered by induction loops embedded in the pavement. I understand the use of induction was prompted by the desire to avoid the visual polllution caused by overhead wires. Like most innovative technologies, this one has encountered its share of reliability issues. Could cities like Auckland learn from the issues Bordeaux encountered?

The city itself is also very flat, and I was somewhat surprised with the lack of cycle infrastructure, especially compared to the Netherlands and even Paris.

Nevertheless, after three nights in Bordeaux itself, we grabbed our hire car and escaped to the Aquitaine countryside to take up residence. The house we were living in was located in a little hamlet called Lunas, which was about 15 minutes drive north from Bergerac. The house we stayed in (with our Dutch friend Nienke) was rather delightful, as shown below.

During our stay we were charged with looking after Filou (brown dog), Elmo (black dog), Thomas (black horse), and Blue (white horse). I am pleased to report that all are still alive, even though Thomas did try and have a chew of my jacket.

During the middle of the day we ventured forth to surrounding towns and villages. Aquitaine is an interesting region partly because it was ruled by the English royals for approximately 300 years from 1154 until the end of the so-called Hundred Year’s War in 1453, when it was annexed by France (source). Thereafter the region sustained a high proportion of French Protestants, or Huguenots, at least until St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, military defeats, and loss of rights resulted in sustained emigration to new world countries with more tolerant religious climes (NB: Game of Thrones fans may want to read-up on these events, as I understand they inspired the Red Wedding scene). Or for a somewhat related take on the European (Norman) influence on England, some of you might be interested in this article.

Partly because of this historical legacy, Aquitaine is peppered with partially fortified villages, called Bastides, which combined a central marketplace, church, and fortification. On our day-trips we visited several lovely small villages, such as St Emilion, PerigueuxLimeuil, and Monpazier. Here’s a couple of pics to tease the taste-buds. We were there in winter, so many of the shops were shut. Nonetheless, we always found somewhere decent to eat and as well as some talented local artisans hawking their wares. I have heard, and can imagine, that these places bustle during the peak summer months.

Our week in Aquitaine makes a hard man crumble like a freshly-baked croissant. The food was amazing, and very affordable. We ate several three course lunch meals for 15 Euro, or 23 NZD. And when I say three course meal, I am talking about a shrimp risotto entree, marinated roast duck mains, with creme brulee for dessert. That is, a decent poke of the tasty food stick for a small piece of the old travel budget. I’d highly recommend the restaurant Euskadi, Bergerac. For those who don’t know, lunch is a serious event in France — and most tourist places will shut between 12-2pm. Be warned and plan ahead; I’d recommend joining them in enjoying a slow lunch.

One of the most impressive things about Aquitaine is that it’s quite wild. In the woods close to where we were staying, wild deer and boar roamed relatively freely, at least until they were hobbled by a hunter. Indeed, one long-term upside of the gradual decline of rural areas in many parts of Europe is the gradual “re-wilding” of marginal land that was previously used for farming. This is a topic to which I’ll return in a future post, as it’s been the topic of considerable debate, especially when it is accompanied with the return of mega-fauna, such as bears and wolves (source).

Either way, the key messages of this post are:

  1. If you are an animal lover with wanderlust, then check out TrustedHousesitter.com. The site operates in many countries around the world, including New Zealand and Australia. If you’re somewhat flexible, then it’s a great cost-effective way to travel and also puts you in touch with locals who can advise on things to do.
  2. If you want to go off slightly the beaten track in France, then I’d recommend Aquitaine. You can easily spend 1-2 weeks visiting the towns and villages, even in winter. If you’re short on time, then I can recommend St Emilion — as it’s close to Bordeaux and has a wonderful monolithic cathedral in the centre of town.
  3. Rural areas around the world are struggling with demographic, environmental, and technological change. Is it possible for government policy to help rural areas transition their economy away from marginal extractive and/or agricultural industries? In ways that will benefit both urban and rural areas? I’ll be pondering such issues in an upcoming post.

Until next time, travel safe. And to finish, here’s some lovely street art from Bordeaux. Goodbye concrete; hello psychedelic wolverines. Have any of you travelled in theAquitaine region? If so then please feel free to share your experiences and advice in the comments section. I’d personally be keen to know a bit more about the Atlantic coast, which we didn’t visit on this trip — but may do on another.

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  1. Hey Stu, another great trip! Surely a good plan to go to Bordeaux in the off season and dodge all the wine bores.

    Euskadi is Basque for Basque, so was that a Basque restaurant? If so no surprise it was good, we had great experiences eating in the Spanish Basque Country, a ‘nation’ which of course crosses the Franco/Spanish boarder to include southern Aquitane.

    1. yes Euskadi was a basque-influenced restaurant transplanted to provincial Aquitane. And yes good to miss the boorish tourists, although I think you could achieve that in the shoulder season while still enjoying the benefits of some facilities being open. Nonetheless, we enjoyed ourselves and had no shortage of things to do.

  2. This was a pleasure to read!
    Aquitaine is the Province of (English King) Richard the Lionheart, son of Eleanor of Acquitaine, whence a whole mythology of ‘Knights of Old’ stories about the First Crusades, Bad King John (Regent while Richard was in Palestine), and of course the Robin Hood stories.

    In this era, it’s better known as the wine terroir that produces some of the world’s best reds.
    As you named small villages, my mind floated back to lovely bottles of preserved sunshine, acquired through the good graces of Rumbles wine shop in Wellington, & the special deals for Alliance Française members.

    Absolutely keep writing about your travels in this region! I love the way the pragmatic French are threading innovative PT solutions between the ancient and much loved heritage districts of their old fortified towns. We can learn a lot from that attitude to town planning.

  3. My partner is a Basque from St Jean de Luz,further down the coast close to Spain. In my mind it is one of the best places on earth. Mild climate, ocean, mountains, 3 cultures, exceptional cuisine and lifestyle, history, traditions but also quite hip and alternative. We’re planning to move there in 6 months time.

    1. yes, the whole Basque area sounds just about perfect. We travelled through San Sebastian earlier this year. While we loved it we then headed west to Spain and Portugal, so didn’t make it to the French side of the Basque region. As mentioned below, I’m currently planning a cycle tour from St Malo down the Atlantic coast via Nantes etc to Biarittz area to cover that off, and perhaps east into the Pyrenees thereafter — time-permitting.

      If you potentially wanted a visit and/or a coffee from a wandering kiwi transport blogger then let me know; I’d be happy to drop you a line if/when I’m passing through town (NB: At which point I may have a touch of the vagabond about me). I can also be tracked down on LinkedIn fairly easily …

      1. sounds good I might also have some insight on the local transport scene by then. From what I saw from previous trips though it is all about cars and cars everywhere (apart from a train line that should be soon upgraded to high speed)

        1. interesting. And that high-speed rail upgrade is rather exciting, not just for the Basque region itself but also the wider network, and areas to the west and south. Not sure of the status of the plans, but I believe there was talk of taking the HSR line from south-west france into the Basque region in spain, and then south to hook into the Spanish HSR network at Vitoria-Gaistez

        2. I agree about the sweet spot that the Basque nation is in, well except for the lack of self-determination, although they have done well with the limited independence within Spain. But climate, culture; especially food, and remember this is the even the rugby playing part of Europe!, topography; beach to mountain, and great urbanism. They live compactly in beautiful towns so their beautiful and productive countryside is not only better preserved but so accessible. Great train network, currently getting even better. Anyone interested in this lovely part of the world could a lot worse than starting with this enjoyable read:
          ‘Basque History of the World’Mark Kurlansky, Vintage. 2000. I look forward to returning, and am delighted we have a link to this culture through our new trains. There is something quite NZ like about the place and its not just the ocean beach and sheep on the green hills…

        3. not sure I agree about the great train network, at least on the Spanish side.

          But 1) I am spoilt living in the Netherlands and 2) it is getting better

  4. Lived/Studied in Bordeaux in 2002 in a very old sandstone apartment on Rue Sainte-Catherine. This was the main shopping street in the old town and is/was completely pedestrianised and full of life. Think Vulcan Lane but much longer and flatter. I started out speaking no French – and the only connection to New Zealand with the locals was via the late great Jonah Lomu.
    At the time the town was in a complete shambles as the LRT was bang in the middle of being installed. Even so, absolutely loved my 6 months there. Went back again a few years ago and was amazed at the transformation that the Trams brought. Clean, easy to get around and navigate and still charming and full of character. Atlantic coast is wonderful too. Highlights – The incredible sand dunes at Dune du Pilat and the surf town of Biarritz further south.

    1. Bordeaux was tres cool. And technical issues aside, I thought the LRT was fabulous. Never used it, but it seemed well-used from my smart casual observations.

      And thanks for the tips with respect to the Atlantic Coast. That’s the direction I’m potentially headed on my next major European adventure.

  5. Périgeux is hardly a “small village” 😀 It was the local centre for 2 years I spent living in Le Périgord Noir. Best place I’ve ever lived, and I’d return in a heartbeat if I wasn’t trying to abstain from flying for climate change reasons.

    1. yes we loved Perigeux.

      And yes it is definitely larger than a small village, apologies for implying otherwise! I think I wrote that sentence with the other villages, and then remembered we’d also been to Perigeux, so it was added to the list of places without reflecting on the earlier description :).

      With regards to flying, I certainly appreciate your efforts to abstain. And I say that as someone who tends to fly regularly, but who is also trying to reduce their carbon emissions in other ways. I haven’t yet got to the point of using a calculator, but might add that to my NYs resolutions.

      1. I still have in mind the idea of traveling back via cargo boat and bicycle to Europe. Some countries I’d probably pass through are undeniably a little/lot less safe than the last time I traversed them in 2010/11 though.

        The future of sustainable air travel is probably Zeppelins.

        1. starting a company running bio-diesel powered zeppelins is on my list of things to do in the next 40 years.

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    2. Of interest to me, and highly relevant, is that Bordeaux has a population size similar(it) to Auckland (740,000 in the “municipality”, and 1.17million in the greater Bordeaux area: source Wikipedia), vs Auckland (1.495million). Very different cities, agreed, but interesting to see the modern trams circle past the front entrance of the main train station – could Dominion Road light rail terminus one day be this simple in QEII square?
      Lovely article thanks Stu – any chance you could find a city in France about the size of Wellington as a comparison for that too?

      1. hi Guy — thanks for your comment and yes Bordeaux and Auckland do have similar populations. In terms of a comparison for Wellington, I know of none in France itself, but I am a newcomer to these parts of western Europe.

        If I was picking a peer city for Wellington based on where I’ve travelled so far, then I’d struggle to go past Bergen in Norway. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bergen. It is the right size, plus has the hills and harbourside location. Has some decent LRT and bus infrastructure as well. Not so sure about the heavy rail?

        As for LRT in Auckland, I do think we could achieve such as outcome, yes. Improvements in battery/transistor and induction technologies in the last decade since the Bordeauux LRT was installed should mean Auckland has the option of running without overhead wires in certain locations.

        1. Nice is building their second LRT line now (actually will be underground through the city centre). Amazing how similar Rue de France (Nice) and Albert Street (Auckland) feel right now.

        2. Just to clarify: My reading of Guy’s comment was that he is looking for peer cities, rather than just any small city with LRT.

          In which case I’d still stick to Bergen as a peer city for Wellington.

        3. definitely the most similar city to Wellington must Trieste in Italy.

          Similar size, beautiful gulf, an end of the line train station, a very very steep and scary tram line but especially the windiest small city in the northern hemisphere

  6. We stayed in the camping ground at St Emilion and got the bus or the train to Bordeaux. You walk in to St Emilion from the camping ground past the vineyards. We learned that French vineyard guard dogs take 3 exposures to recognise that you are just walking past and stop barking at you.

    1. Ha! I suspect it would only take 1-2 exposures for me and my partner, given that we tend to stop and greet all the furry animals everywhere we go ;).

      But it is definitely a lovely spot.

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