My highly anticipated journey to the Saint-Emilion region in Bordeaux, France, was to begin with a leisurely, three hour train ride from Paris in first-class. Before leaving Paris I stopped by a picturesque wine store and purchased two bottles of the local wines to enjoy on the way. I would quickly realize how fortuitous this purchase was since upon my arrival to Gare De Nrt , I discovered there were no first class seats!
I stood in the galley of the train surveying the cast of characters with whom I would share the first leg of my journey to the southwest of France: There was a retired Scotland Yard police officer, a military officer on home leave, and two other people just traveling home for holiday. Wine is a great communicator …..I offered a glass to all my galley mates, as well as the ticket collector who had been the bearer of the first-class-bad news, and thus started our journey, in true Buggs’ style!
Needless to say, once the retired police officer learned that I had just retired from the FBI after 22 years of service, we would have a very interesting conversation that allowed the three hours to pass relatively quickly! The delicious wine from southern France purchased from the local market in Paris would also help.
Finally, as we approached our destination , I asked the officer’s advice on how to travel from the train station to my hotel in Saint-Emilion. He was happy to direct me to the trolley that travels around the city…what he neglected to point out was that it stops running at 6pm and I would find myself at the train station at 7pm sharp.
As we pulled into the station, I was reminded of the movie “They Call Me Mr. Tibbs”, when Mr. Tibbs gets off the train in Mississippi back in the day. …. I seemed to be entirely alone at the station. The conductor had suggested a taxi, a normal suggestion in any other circumstance, but since there is only ONE taxi in Saint-Emilion and he was otherwise occupied far away in Bordeaux, I could sense that things were about to get interesting. Finally I called the Hotel receptionist in the likely event that they might have a vehicle available. I was told that no car was available but it was a short mile and a half and I should walk.
As an ex-athlete and wine appreciator, I thought this might be a grand idea….I felt up for a little exercise after the long train ride, and the opportunity to fully appreciate the beauty of the great city of Saint-Emilion. Sort of like killing two birds with one stone, so to speak! Perhaps it was the wine or perhaps the exhilaration of having arrived at my first destination….or perhaps even the anticipation of the comforts of my hotel at the end of the day, either way, my optimism quickly diminished when reality set in: I had a 50 pound suitcase, a backpack and two bottles of the best Champagne I had ever tasted (pictures will be enclosed), when I realized the road ahead was entirely uphill, AND made of cobblestones so deep that the wheels of my suitcase were already in protest!
Stage one of my uphill journey: I set out with a determined enthusiasm…..only to discover that I had charged off in the wrong direction. I turned around, crossed the railroad tracks again and started off again, enthusiasm level dipping only slightly. Several cars would pass me during this time and I have to admit that I was hoping – no ! even counting on – the great French hospitality toward foreigners, and ready to accept a ride even if it were by mule. But I was a black man, at night, clearly in distress and sweating profusely, but no cars, bikes or mules even slowed down for me! Despite my predicament, I couldn’t help notice the great Chateaux of Saint-Emilion in the distance and I was at least appreciative for the scenic view!
My hotel was located in the center of town, or so I thought. Upon arrival, I didn’t see my hotel immediately but did notice a Pizza establishment with some lights on that seemed to be open. I asked (in my best French –not) where this hotel was located, and in his best English (not) he pointed up the hill. All I could think of was, “NO WAY”! So started the second part of my walk….to the highest point in the town, rumbling along on the antique cobblestones….
As I mentioned earlier, I am an ex-athlete, and as such, I am aware of my physical limitations and how that can be stretched to the end by the power of the mind. Gone were the romantic thoughts of the sommelier…..this was an endurance test, requiring motivation, drive, and control. I was reminded of a quote from one of our great American Generals, “If you are going through hell, keep going”. As I had absolutely no other options, I completed this walk on sheer will power.
In closing, I was so determined to experience the true greatness and history of this wine region that this experience was but a bump on the ole cobblestone road. I finally met my friends from South Africa at the hotel, who had incidentally arrived by (my) taxi from the Bordeaux Airport. My trip was worth every step that I took to reach Saint- Emilion. I visited several great wineries including Chateau Angelus, Chateau Figeac, and Chateau Chatelet and I enjoyed the great cuisine of this wine region. And I discovered once again that perseverance pays!