Cadillac: More Than a Car in France

Cadillac is a working town of about 2,500 people. It has no real tourist traps. It is what it is – to us, an authentic, delightful, almost innocent town.

We are heading up the Garonne River south-southeast to the town of Cadillac into the land of the sweet wines created by “a noble rot,” the fungus botrytis cinerea. It’s hard for health professionals amongst the passengers — even if they are wine enthusiasts – to show passion for “a pathogen that triggers the host to induce programmed cell death…” but the boat will tie down in Cadillac, our own personal end point. Those who love Sauternes will continue on to the 17th Century Chateau d’Arche where they will meet, says Uniworld, winemaking “members of an aristocratic family with their feet on the soil and their minds in the cellar.”

Cadillac, now there’s a name!

The French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac is credited with founding Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit in 1701 but he surely wouldn’t want to be blamed for the modern city. Maybe someone was prescient about that because when he returned to France in 1717 he was imprisoned for a year. Those were not the Good Old Days.

Yet when Henry Leland founded his fabulous automobile he used the Cadillac family’s coat of arms for what was to be, he thought, “the standard of the world.” The world, of course, changes. Writers still use Cadillac quality as a metaphor but others merely note the company this year announced it would move its symbolic headquarters from Detroit to the Northeast.

Agents of Henry III, king of England, founded this town Cadillac in 1280 as a bastide. Those were new towns expected to develop as political strongholds when southwest France belonged to the English monarchy.

Cadillac is still a walled city although grass and flowers now grow around its defenses and wide open gates.

We enter through the sea gate where a plaque on the wall, as in Bergerac, shows the height the Garonne has reached in the past, flooding events that still cause problems. Celine and Jessica in the tourist office tell us the townspeople who live along the river learn to support each other and all answer calls if one town has suffered more during a storm. “If we have too much rain, we get mudslides! We are all going to Paillet this weekend to help them,” they tell us earnestly. They continue, “The river is tidal and when it is angry we learn to be patient and to work with others. We collect wood to dry and we go down at low tide to collect the limon, the sediment or silt from those areas to improve our soil.’’

Sounds as if not much has changed over the centuries,

Sea gate entrance. River flooding plaque. Lithograph, age unknown, Lege, Bordeaux, of Entrée de Cadillac. Town bookmaker F.Navarri, 28 years in the same location, with a hand-crafted work of art.

This is a working town of about 2,500 people. It has no real tourist traps. It is what it is — to us, an authentic, delightful, almost innocent town. We show the brochure to a fellow passenger later over dinner where a page advertises its castle as a “place of splendor and decadence." “Sounds like our Washington, DC!” he says with a grin.

Cadillac doesn’t give itself airs. It’s rare and refreshing to find a place that implies what you see is what you get. What you get are gritty streets, people quietly enjoying lunch and, naturally, lots of French cars.

After lunch we head for the central square. We pass on the barber’s shop because we are looking for the Office of Tourisme.

We are not looking for bottled beer nor a chance to draw with giant colored pencils, just permission to take photographs at the castle. We had just been dismissed from the Chateau de Cadillac either because we had not acquired the necessary free photo permit or because our French was so atrocious.

The castle was built in the early 17th Century, plundered during the French Revolution and became a women’s prison in 1818. It has been empty since 1952.

The castle was built at the beginning of the 17th Century by a local landowner who gave it as his daughter’s dowry to the first Duke of Epernon who declared the castle fit for his king, Henry III. No one really understands how the duke rose so quickly in the king’s favor but the castle was plundered during the French Revolution. It became a women’s prison in 1818, then a remand home for girls until 1952. At the moment it is empty of furniture.

Painted ceilings, large fireplaces. Aubusson and other magnificent tapestries.

Portraits of queens and kings. Busts of kings. A tapestry of the king displaying his great valor in the Siege of La Rochelle. Keep walking: there are 18 vast rooms and there’s a garden. The garden is closed off to the public; it became the prison’s kitchen vegetable garden and still has the well where some prisoners took their own lives.

Shortly we’ll be heading back to the river and the River Royale but the tourist office says we have time to visit La Cloisiere. The what? We ask. It’s a chartreuse dating back to the 17th Century, Celion translates for us. A chartreuse? A green liqueur? Turns out that is a large stone luxury single story house common in this part of France, and the one they are suggesting is one mile away in Langon and home to the 400 properties on 3400 acres of the Cadillac-Cotes de Bordeaux appellation. Named the Maison des Vins Cadillac, it offers wine tasting and a small museum

The Maison des Vins Cadillac was surprisingly difficult to find a mile down a straight road because we came in the wrong way but it was fun to try the region’s wines when a young Charlotte Rouniguie poured samples for us. The small exhibition had signs in English, too. One showed the tools used by barrel makers, an occupation we forget to ask about at wine tastings.

The other passengers show up in their coaches in pelting rain which we had walked through actually enjoying it as Southern Californians do. And again we set off in the River Royale heading back to our regular river-side stop and current home in Bordeaux.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.