Goodbye, Milan. Hello, Bordeaux

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Bordeaux at dawn

We checked out of our Milan hotel, ready to hit the road for Malpensa terminal two, where we’d catch our flight to Bordeaux. In a last, “thanks for staying, do come back” gesture from the clerk at reception, we were overcharged the city tourist tax. As an extra inducement to tourists, you have to pay a sum per person, per night, according to rating (3/4/5 star) paid directly to the hotel (it’s 4 star). We did query the amount, but we were fobbed off with a feasible explanation – and we had a flight to catch. We paid €20 instead of €8 per couple. Anyone want to bet that extra €12 went to the city’s coffers?

We arrived at Malpensa without incident – we’d become quite proficient at working the Metro. At least, everybody else had. I just trailed along behind and hoped somebody knew what we were doing.

Our flight from Milan to Bordeaux would be our penultimate flight on EasyJet. Why EasyJet? Because there weren’t any reasonable options for a direct flight. For us, it would be an interesting adventure with a cut price airline. The idea was that all passengers carried one piece of luggage small enough to fit in the overhead lockers. However, since we had baggage to store in the hold as well as carry-on bags, we paid for the top of the range package.  Even paying for ‘the works’ it sure ain’t business class. We got to pick our seats and selected 1A and 1B, while Col and Sandy were in 1E and 1F, and we got to get on before the people in the cheap seats. That was it.

Malpensa terminal two is basically an enormous barn run exclusively by EasyJet. There’s a line of check-in counters rather like a supermarket and a long, long line of lanes snaking around, all filled with people shuffling along with their bags, clutching their pre-printed boarding passes. Not knowing any better, we joined the queue and eventually reached a counter, where we were told that since we had bought the ‘plus’ package we could have gone through the exclusive counter up the end. Oh well, we were here. She was pleasant and helpful and we moved on to security, then to the gate.

All EasyJet flights used a hard stand, where you walk across the tarmac and climb stairs into the plane. Needless to say, there was no lounge, not even many seats. We elite passengers were herded into a roped off area near the door, while the rest milled around behind the rope. They’re very strict on the one cabin bag policy. I watched one woman trying to stuff her quite large handbag into her suitcase before they’d let her in with the rest of the passengers.

After some time, with the plane still scheduled to leave on time (which was impossible), we were moved to another herding pen. I expect that was to make us feel something had happened. Never mind. We got on the flight and about an hour and a half later we arrived at Bordeaux.

A nice young man from Uniworld was waiting for us at the luggage carousel. We picked up our bags and went outside to our transport, a full sized bus for four of us. There were two more glitches before we got to the boat – some low-life abandoned his car where the pick-up lane merged with the road leaving the airport and since we were in a 52-seater bus, we were trapped. The French bus driver was NOT HAPPY. He put his hand on the horn and blasted the neighbourhood for five minutes before the driver (clutching a sandwich and a take-away coffee) ran up and moved. The driver gave him an earful to be going along with and added, “Parisian” as a final insult. Our driver wasn’t having the best day. The bollards along the waterfront wouldn’t go down as they were supposed to, so we had to sit in the bus for a few minutes longer while that was rectified.

Hey ho. We arrived.

All the river ships are much the same, so nothing to report. The room was small, with the bed taking up nearly all the space, and there was an ensuite in the corner. As usual, we found signs of lack of maintenance, such as a leak in the sink which dripped into a drawer. We reported the problem once, were told it was fixed – but it wasn’t. We reported it again. I think after the third report, it was finally repaired. The burgeoning mould in the shower stayed, though. Apart from that, we had the usual large lounge area and a bar with drinks on tap, and a sundeck to enjoy the views – assuming the midday sun didn’t scare you away.

Uniworld tries to enforce a dress code in the dining room for dinner. Shorts and sandals are not allowed. The hotel manager (the man who looks after all the crew except the sailors) was standing watch at the entrance as we filed in for dinner. He called Pete aside and told him he couldn’t wear shorts. Mistake. Pete pointed out he’d spoken to the reception staff, explaining he had problems with his legs and found it uncomfortable to wear long pants and enclosed shoes. He also reminded him who was paying for the trip. Pete wasn’t the only one. Another man walked past the hotel manager, saying, “I didn’t bring any long pants”. I think APT gave up on even mentioning such a thing, and Scenic suggested a dress code but didn’t try to enforce. It’s stupid, anyway. As long as you’re clean and neat, who sees your feet when you’re sitting down? Besides, the temperatures were up in the high thirties (90+F) the whole time.

Apart from that, we thought maybe the hotel manager had better things to worry about. Our main course arrived luke-warm, and Pete’s coffee was delivered stone cold. However, as usual the servers were great, most of them residents of Eastern Europe. They work very long hours but they earn much better wages than they could at home.

Bordeaux is capital of France’s Aquitaine region, where the Dordogne River and the Garonne River merge and flow out into the Atlantic Ocean. The rivers are tidal and not very long, so this river trip doesn’t involve a lot of actual river cruising. The River Royale did cover both rivers, as well as the estuary, but some of the sailing happened while we were off wine-tasting. We would be visiting Libourne and Cadillac, amongst others.

Apart from food and wine, the region is famous in history. One of its most prominent figures was the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine. At a time when women were breeding stock, seen and definitely not heard, she was a stand-out. She was married to Louis VII at age fifteen and went with him to the Crusades. She persuaded the Pope to annul the marriage and aged thirty-five she married seventeen-year-old Henry Plantagenet, who became Henry II of England. As a result her lands, the Duchy of Aquitaine, became English. She’d had two daughters with Louis, and had eight children with Henry. Two of her sons – Richard and John – became kings of England. Aquitaine was English until the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453, when it reverted to France. We would come across Eleanor again on our jorney. And you might want to watch the classic movie The Lion in Winter, which is about the later stages of Eleanor’s life. She’s played by Katherine Heburn.

Tomorrow we would be starting our tour.

The sun rises over the bridge

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