There’s more to Bordeaux than just wine. Pól Ó Conghaile admires the stunning architecture, its many pedestrianised streets and its relaxing cafés and restaurants.
BORDEAUX. The word hangs in the mouth like a chop of Roquefort cheese. Its big, portly syllables evoke one of the great French brands — a region dripping with Old World vineyards, red-nosed wine snobs, elitist waiters and the haughtiest of Aquitaine’s grand chateaus.
But a visit to Bordeaux doesn’t have to be stuffy. It doesn’t even have to centre on wine. This is a city whose centre is a World Heritage Site, yet whose knockout building was completed in 1998. It has more restaurants per capita than Paris. It boasts tight-knit, bo-ho quarters like St Michel, and its nightlife can be every bit as hi-tech as its spanking new tramway.
Most of all, Bordeaux is a gorgeous place to be — especially if you can get there on a city break before the sweltering July and August heat. I travelled with the best of intentions of grape-grazing, but quickly found myself sucked into the revamped city centre, an 18th-century core that works as much as a seduction as a geographical space.
The place to get an overview of what lies before you is the Tour Pey-Berland, a detached bell tower alongside the St Andre Cathedral whose 231 steps you can climb for €5/€3.50. Built in the mid-1400s, the tower went without bells until 1853. It’s a big, birthday cake of a building, topped by Our Lady of Aquitaine, with terrific views over the city.
Most of the city-centre is pedestrianised. It means you can wander around the Palais Rohan and Place de la Bourse, soaking up the limestone architecture and ornate fountains without being pulverised by local drivers.
Today, bolstered by zippy trams, reclaimed docklands and zeitgeisty wine bars, blasted of its old soot and snoot, the city built by Romans on a bend of the River Garonne has polished up its architectural treasures and put itself forward as a sort of Bordeaux 2.0. And it works.
Take its art. Bordeaux may not be a big city, but it houses a big city art collection in the Musée des Beaux-Arts (cours d’Albret). Sprawling over two galleries, you’ll find paintings here by Breughel, Renoir, Delacroix, Picasso and Rubens, amongst many others.
But there’s fresher fare too. Check out Le Garage Moderne (1, rue des Étrangers), an old hangar on the Gironne. It mixes up an auto-repair shop and an edgy contemporary gallery in the same space.
Take the law courts, designed by Richard Rogers and built between 1992 and 1998. Its courtroom pods are made of cedar wood, and take the shape of several vat-like structures within a glass box. The whole thing is contained under a wavy copper roof — it’s the city’s best building.
It’s amazing to think, just a decade ago, that Bordeaux was in danger of stagnating. Today, the Guardian calls the ‘miroir d’eau’ at the Place de la Bourse — a sort of optical illusion which children skip through in the sunshine — “the most beautiful puddle in Europe.” Saint Michel, based around the gothic Basilica, is enlivened with flea markets, food markets, and funky bars and nightlife.
One of the most enjoyable things about Bordeaux, certainly in the airy sunshine of late spring and early summer, is the simple pleasure of nabbing a table outside a café or restaurant, ordering a smashing glass of red or white, and paying half the price you would do at home.
The geniuses who first planted vines in the region? That’ll be the Bituriges Vivisques, a Gaulish people who sewed the ancestors of today’s Cabernet in the first century AD.
In the city you can stick out your hand anywhere in the pedestrianised zone and strike a glass of top-notch plonk, but for a guided tasting, try Max Bordeaux Wine Gallery (14 cours de l’Intenance), which serves 48 top Bordeaux grands crus by the glass.
“Perhaps you are intimidated by the appellation system, or you think that you can’t afford the good stuff,” its website cannily exhorts. “Or perhaps you associate Bordeaux with your parents’ generation and prefer to stick to the New World. It’s time to think again…” Think of it as like test driving a car. Dealing in the most recently bottled vintages from the top Bordeaux chateaux, there’s no need to drop thousands of euro on cases of Margaux, Lafite Rothschild, Lynch Bages or Haut-Brion. You buy a tasting card from €25, and off you go.
Afterwards, delve a little deeper into the history of the city’s wine trade at the Musée du Vin et du Négoce de Bordeaux (41 rue Borie; €7/€5). Housed in the former home of an 18th-century wine merchant, it’s located in the newly gentrified Chartrons area, a classy quarter where Bordelais often come before noon to enjoy a plate of oysters with a skinful of white.
All told, Bordeaux’s wine region boasts more than 60 appellations and 120,000 hectares of vineyards, so really all you can hope for is a taste. You could set this up yourself in a rental car, or check into the tourist office (12 cours du XXX-Juillet), which offers half-day guided tours of local vineyards.
With the latter, the idea is that you hook up with a guide and head off to a region like Medoc, Saint-Émilion or Entre-Deux-Mers, tasting and whiffing a variety of wines and learning how to distinguish the various appellations and aromas. The tours, together with wine, bus transfers and a guide, cost from €55pp, and should get you back to the city centre by around 6.30pm.
You can create your own trail too. From Bordeaux, six major wine-producing regions are within an easy drive — Bordeaux, Medoc, Grave and Sauternes, Entre-deux-Mers, Bourg and Blaye and Saint-Émilion. All throw up their own storehouse visits, wine-tasting classes, heritage tours and so on, giving a sense both Bordeaux’s old noblesse oblige, and newer producers’ hunger to impress.
About 45 minutes away, Dune de Pyla are the largest sand dunes in Europe. There are some lovely strips of beach around Biscarosse, also about 45 minutes from Bordeaux by car.
Bordeaux remains complex as claret. But the city has relaxed a little too, and has become a little more ravishing in the process. Could the old dame finally be joining the New World?
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