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The Gironde Estuary: a world unto itself

The Gironde Estuary: a world unto itself

Emmanuelle Jary - 2008-08-25

The difference between preconceived ideas and factual reality struck us as being uncommonly significant in the Gironde Estuary. ‘The estuary is a world unto itself,’ we were told. ‘Folk from those parts consider that they belong to the estuary rather than to either of the départements - Charente Maritime or Gironde - which it borders.’ Voilà precisely what drew us to this region of France: we wanted to understand just how a physical reality could become a cultural idea.

What is an estuary? According to the Collins online dictionary, it is ‘the widening channel of a river where it nears the sea, with a mixing of fresh water and salt (tidal) water’. On a map, the Gironde estuary looks rather like the aquatic forked tongue of a serpent as it probes the earth, with one of its points reaching out to tickle the city of Bordeaux, where it is called ‘the sea’.
The least polluted of Europe’s estuaries and Western Europe’s largest, 12 km (7.5 mi) wide at St. Seurin d’Uzet, it can certainly seem like an actual inner sea.
The fishing methods used and the species fished are specific to the milieu. For example, meagre, fish which come to the estuary to reproduce, are caught ‘by listening’. ‘You have to hold your ear to the bottom of the boat so you can hear the arrival of the school and the characteristic grunts it makes,’ reveals Jean-Pierre Royer, one of two fisherman still working in Mescher-sur-Gironde, a small port in the Charente region located on the mouth of the estuary near the ocean.
Other kinds of fish contribute to the renown of the local cuisine: shad (protected from fishing for the next five years), sea lamprey (cooked à la bordelaise), sea bass, congers, a bit of sole, eels and their young, the famous baby eel locally called ‘pibales’; and finally a native sturgeon which used to be fished for its flesh but is now farmed for its eggs (Aquitaine caviar).
The estuary is a world of its own, a world of silt and water. A slow world of melancholy landscapes which grab you and hold on - just ask Philippe Lacourt. Born by the side of the Gironde River, he left, came back, then left again, like the tides - as if the estuary’s powers of attraction were such that the lives of those who are born near it are transformed into a perpetual movement of comings and goings. Lacourt finally settled down on the island of Patiras where he’s built a refuge of modern architecture, wide open over the vastness of the water; he hosts epicurean evening meals there. Other private ventures have marked the landscape in recent years, giving rise to the association Gens d’Estuaire - People of the Estuary.
It arranges sports activities (sailing, notably), cruises with island picnics, a table d’hôte serving local lamb, and so on. The organization has made it possible for visitors to discover the region’s natural, social and cultural wealth from Bordeaux to the Atlantic Ocean without ever taking a motorcar. And it also means to establish the estuary as a territory of its own right, and not just as a boundary.
But the earnest members of the association have not yet achieved their goals. In the minds of most, the estuary separates a great deal more than it unites. Those on the right bank speak of the land across the water as if it were another planet. ‘You’ll see - the estuary is a frontier.’ ‘Ah! You’re coming from the other side! It’s another story over there!’ ‘It’s the desert in those parts!’ We’d never really taken these comments seriously, convinced as we were that a few kilometres couldn’t possibly make such an enormous difference.
How could a scant hour’s boat journey bring such changes? But we kept hearing the same discourse, and curiosity finally got the best of us. We crossed over, and yes, entered another world, the world of the estuary’s left bank and of the great domains of the Médoc whose very names make discerning oenophiles giddy with pleasure: Margaux, Pauillac, Beychevelle, Saint-Estèphe…
A great many villages with prestigious names featuring a great many chateaux and vineyards of the same standing. And beyond the grape vines, emptiness. A strip of earth like a No Man’s Land, wedged between the Atlantic and the Gironde estuary, isolated due to its geography.
It is a region unconcerned with départements, although that of Charente-Maritime covers most of the right bank down to the area around Blaye, that famous citadel of military architecture reconstructed by Vauban. From there on the estuary belongs to the département of la Gironde, as does the entire left bank.
Remember: the estuary is a boundary. The shores themselves seem to agree, very majestically on the right with its superb cliffs, while the left is rather swampy and flat; humble, in sum, with its small coves holding just a few boats.
To the left, only grapevines appear to have the upper hand. If the right bank is proud of its vineyards, particularly the Côtes de Blaye, it can not compare with those of the left bank’s Médoc. ‘Here we say that the finest grapevines look toward the river,’ proudly states the owner of the magnificent Château de Loudenne on the water - left bank, of course - while we savour his wine at dusk. The river? Just another name for this estuary which, some mornings, takes on splendid pink tones which are mirrored in the colour of the château. We didn’t imagine this harmony in a dream; we experienced it at daybreak, just as the region was waking up.
The difference between ideas and reality may not be as clear as we thought when we began our journey. The Gironde estuary is a world unto itself which doesn’t care a fig for administrative divisions. Left or right, the only things that count here are the water and the earth, subject to the rhythm of the tides.
Practical information
Comité départemental du tourisme de la Charente-Maritime
85, boulevard de la République
17000 La Rochelle.
Tel: (33) 05 46 31 71 71
Maison du tourisme de la Gironde
21, cours de l’Intendance
33000 Bordeaux
Tel: (33) 05 56 52 61 40
Things to see and do
Pôle-nature de Vitrezay
17150 Saint-Sorlin-de-Cognac
Tel: (33) 05 46 49 89 89
Rent a fishing net and pretend you’re an Estuarian while the tide is right.
Parc de l’Estuaire
Saint Georges de Didonne
Tel: (33) 05 46 23 77 77
Lovely and well-conceived scenography presenting the estuary’s history, culture and society.
Côte de Beauté
Port de Meschers
Information and reservations: (33) 06 72 00 95 75 or directly at the kiosk on the port.
Discovery boat tours of the cliffs and quaint little fishing harbours.
Gens d’Estuaire 
Quai Albert de Pichon,
Face n°7 La Rotonde
33250 Pauillac
Tel: (33) 05 56 59 09 34
Contact this dynamic association for an introduction to the estuary and its islands. Sailing, picnics, gourmet evenings at the Patiras refuge, boat cruises....
Château de Beaulon 
25, rue Saint Vincent
17240 Saint-Dizan-Du-Gua.
Tel: (33) 05 46 49 96 13
For premium pineaux and cognacs.
Where to stay, where to dine
Château des Salles
17240 Saint-Fort-sur-Gironde
Tel: (33) 05 46 49 95 10
Spend the night in a magnificent 15C chateau set amidst the Cognac vineyards. Top quality table d’hôte.
Moulin du Val de Seugne
17240 Mosnac.
Tel: (33) 05 46 70 46 16
Very well-appointed rooms and excellent dining with a peaceful view of the river Seugne.
Château de Loudenne
33340 Saint-Yvans-de-Médoc
Tel: (33) 05 56 73 17 80
A superb 17C Chartreuse with an extraordinary view of an heirloom rose garden giving onto the estuary. Table d’hôte serving simple, excellent cuisine complemented by wines produced at the vineyard.

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