Savoring Life in France’s Greatest Wine Region

Six years ago, I first visited Blaye, a small city less than an hour northeast of the French city of Bordeaux. I made friends, visited a dozen more times, and eventually decided this was a place I’d like to live. Choosing to live here was easy. It’s affordable, safe, has access to an excellent international airport, and good healthcare. And then there’s the amazing quality and reasonable prices of fresh food and good wines.

Blaye sits on the wide waters of the Gironde estuary—which flows north to the Atlantic Ocean—and has existed as a wine production region since the time of the Romans.

In the 17th century, King Louis XIV commissioned his military architect Vauban to build a massive defensive fortification known as the Citadelle. The small village within the walls includes three restaurants, as well as small stores and a tourist information office.

My apartment is a fully furnished, newly renovated, one-bedroom place just a 10-minute walk to the Citadelle. It includes a wine cellar in the basement and is on a quiet street overlooking a garden and courtyard. It cost me $175,000.

Also close by are all the stores and restaurants in the city, the local outdoor market, and a car ferry that travels across the Gironde to the Medoc region. Though I own a car, I use it only to drive 50 minutes to the splendid city of Bordeaux every few weeks.

Most towns in this region have open-air markets (typically held twice a week) which sell fresh, in-season, healthy, and inexpensive foods that are a gastronomic treat—fresh oysters, roasted quail, mountain cheeses, shaved asparagus, saucisson ( a dry cured sausage), hand-made pasta (stuffed with goat cheese, or salmon), fresh raisin rolls, and local confectionary made from hazelnuts and chocolate.

And wine? Here the most expensive local bottle costs $20 and is an excellent quality that would cost at least twice that in the United States. I shop twice a week at my local market and spend $30 to $50 to stock up on fresh fruits, vegetables, baguettes, cheeses, and fish.

Local hospitals here provide excellent healthcare. A South African friend who moved here 15 years ago has had two operations in local hospitals (one for a fracture, another for a heart condition) and was so pleased with the results and treatment that he regularly invites the nurses and doctors to dine at his restaurant for free.

There’s so much to do in and around Blaye. The French government subsidizes frequent social events, including the spring asparagus festival in the town of Etauliers and the open-door wine tasting in Blaye where a one-time payment of $9 allows you to spend two days tasting hundreds of wines from 80 different regional winemakers.

There is also a local escargot festival, dozens of music festivals, night markets with musicians and vendors who sell freshly cooked food, and antique markets within the ancient fortress walls.

Also within a 20-minute drive of my apartment is the Grotte de Pair-non-Pair, a protected cave where humans dwelt for 30,000 years and which is filled with amazing drawings of extinct animals including mammoths and giant deer (incisors from a hyena were also found there).

Down the road in the town of Plassac is a museum and remnants of a Roman villa. This includes the remains of a sumptuous Roman summer home built by a wealthy wine merchant in 100 AD, which had heated floors, lush inner gardens, and intricate mosaics which have been restored.

A 20-minute car ferry journey takes me across the Gironde estuary where I can visit the famed wine chateaux and the long white-sand beaches along the Atlantic coast where tanned surfers and vacationers enjoy summer weekends.

Being close to Bordeaux’s international airport means I have access to inexpensive flights throughout France and Europe, as well as to Morocco and Turkey. I travel a lot but each time I return to the quiet, friendly life of rural Bordeaux, I realize how lucky and content I am to live here.

©Fotolia.com/serge parin

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