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City life: Bordeaux travel guide

Bordeaux had long been France’s Sleeping Beauty, snoozing in its southwestern corner. But after years of sprucing up, the wine capital of the world is wide-awake and ready for a close-up

City life: Bordeaux travel guide
La Grosse Cloche. Image: David Bacher

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Here in front of me at Le Boutique Hôtel, in his crisp black and white uniform, Rémi is pouring three mystery French reds into glasses. “First,” he says, waving his hands around like a sorcerer, “you need to take in the aromas, to smell the bouquet.” He raises a glass to his nose, swirling the garnet-coloured wine and taking audible sniffs. “What do you think?” he asks, urging me to take a sip. I’m no expert; any conclusions I come to are very much aided by his encouraging nods and suggestions. But, with every sip of the heady reds I begin to taste what he’s preaching. There are hints of plum and cherry, and somewhere woodiness, blackberry, cinnamon. I quickly become just as engrossed as he is. He places the glass down and beams with pride. “C’est magnifique, non?”

It’s difficult not to get as enthused as Remi about wine in this city; it is, after all, soaked into its very fabric. Wine has been produced in Bordeaux since the first century when the Romans arrived, and the local obsession has never stopped. Throughout Bordeaux’s rich history, wine has remained a constant mark of the city’s wealth and success. And as the world’s largest exporter, things don’t seem to be changing — the region corks more than 750 million bottles every year. The English have played a part in it all, too. Centuries ago, they became hooked on Bordeaux’s wines and have been in a long-distance relationship with the city ever since.

But these days, Bordeaux no longer rests on its prestigious, full-bodied laurels. After decades of serious sprucing up, the city is one of France’s greatest happy-ever-afters, emerging from a provincial, increasingly tatty cocoon, to become an outward-looking, shiny modern capital. Life is good here; you don’t need to look much further than the riverside flaneurs, vibrant arts scene, and the clink of cutlery on porcelain in its feted restaurants to realise it for yourself. The joie de vivre seems so inherent that it’s hard to imagine Bordeaux was once a byword in France for old-fashioned, bourgeois stuffiness. Need proof? Even Parisians are saying adieu to the capital and setting up here instead.

See & do

La Cité du Vin: Opened in 2016, the city’s new museum is a celebration of wine’s longstanding role in culture and society around the world. The Cité’s interactive exhibits are first class, with sensory workshops to fully immerse visitors in the wonders of wine. There are often temporary exhibitions running, as well as a shop on the ground floor selling wines from producers far and wide. Your entrance ticket also entitles you to a drink at the panoramic bar on the eighth floor.

Musée d’Aquitaine: The region’s flagship museum is a deep delve into the history of Bordeaux and the Aquitaine region. The story starts with pre-history and its sizeable selection of artefacts, through Roman antiquity and the Renaissance, all the way to the modern day. Of note is the focus on the city’s heyday in the 18th century, juxtaposed with its role at the heart of France’s history of the slave trade.

Place de la Bourse: Versailles-like in its size, grandeur and symmetry, the former customs house and adjoining square have together become an unofficial emblem of the city. In front is the Miroir d’eau, an enormous rectangle that every 15 minutes transforms into the world’s largest splash pool — and vanity mirror for the reflected Place de la Bourse. It’s quite a sight.

Saint-Émilion: If the world-renowned wines of Saint-Émilion don’t draw you out of Bordeaux and up to this satellite village, then the place itself should. Just a short train ride from the city, Saint-Émilion is achingly pretty with its monolithic church and medieval heart, full of winding cobbled streets and hanging baskets. Along with the local bottles of red, a box of delicious coconut macaroons is a village speciality.

Museum of Decorative Arts and Design: Splendidly furnished to emulate the designs of the French aristocracy, this elegant museum in an old mansion is a fascinating insight into the colourful, multi-textured world of the homes and galleries of Bordeaux’s bygone era.

Tour Pey-Berland: The peal of the cathedral bell isn’t coming from the Cathédrale Saint-André itself, as its two towers were never supposed to house a bell. The bell actually chimes from the beautiful Pey-Berland bell tower next door, and if you can manage it, climb to the top to be rewarded with the best views in the whole city.

Le Triangle: Roughly bound by three thoroughfares around the Marché des Grands Hommes, Bordeaux’s most sophisticated quarter can rival anything in Paris. Amble down the elegant 18th-century, tree-skirted avenues before taking a peek inside the truly spectacular Grand Théâtre, standing proudly on the Place de la Comédie. Join the locals in a kerbside aperitif and bask in this infectious way of life.

Rue Saige, Bordeaux travel guide

Canelés in Baillardran. Image: David Bacher

Sleep

Mama Shelter: Bold, bright and even a little brash, the Bordeaux branch of the Mama Shelter chain offers great value for money, right in the heart of the city. Head up to the rooftop bar, a favourite watering hole with the locals, for refreshing house cocktails and standout views.

Hotel de Tourny: Just a short stroll from the lovely Jardin Public, this is a relaxed, intimate affair spread across three floors of a smart townhouse. Rooms are fresh, minimalist and display a dash of antique charm. For a luxurious alternative, book one of the suites in the building a few doors down.

Yndo Hotel: This former mansion in a quiet street retains all its regal charm, decked out with sumptuous furniture in rather appropriate tones of claret and plum. Be sure to luxuriate in the spacious and tranquil rooms, but tear yourself away for breakfast on the shady, flowery terrace downstairs.

Eat

Rue de la Vieille Tour: Start with a salad for lunch at Møna then tuck into a creamy dune blanche (pastry) from Chez Pascal, or, for a real taste of Bordeaux, a traditional canelé from Baillardran, the squidgy little treats fragrant with vanilla and rum. Finish it all off with a coffee at expert roasters L’Alchimiste.

Toque & Broc: Come here for generous, delicious plates, surrounded by shelves of vintage curios, from salvaged signs to copper coffee pots. The best bit is that you can snap up the decorations between courses — it’s nearly all for sale. T: 00 33 5 5777 8964.

Une Cuisine en Ville: Unassuming from the outside, chef Philippe Lagraula’s humbly named ‘Kitchen in the City’ feels just as laid-back on the inside. Beautiful, cleverly-crafted dishes include a delicious cod ceviche, pigeon breast main, and a rhapsody of a raspberry dessert.

Like a Local

Marché des Capucins: The ‘belly of Bordeaux’ has earned its nickname for good reason; six days a week the rather ugly market building conceals a bastion of food and drink whose scale and quality is the best in Bordeaux. Virtually the whole city does its shopping here.

Darwin: This collection of impressively revamped warehouses and hangars in the Bastide includes the likes of a small farm and skate park. If you’re no good with a skateboard, then join the Bordelais (Bordeaux’s residents) and stop for lunch at Le Magasin Général, a funky emporium full of locally grown grub.

Café Piha: This cool cafe breathes life into an old imprimerie (printing shop) on rue des Ayres; the owner tells me the chilled Antipodean vibe comes from his experience brewing in New Zealand. Check out the coffee roastery at the back before dropping into a comfy chair with a hot drink or their homemade citronnade.

After hours

Aux Quatre Coins du Vin: A huge array of wines from every wine-growing region in France is on offer at this chic bar off the Place du Parlement St Pierre. There will be a wine for you here, but if you don’t know where to start, an astute and helpful team of sommeliers is on hand to guide you to a bottle with your name on it.

Chez Fred: Come dusk, locals quickly fill the tables at this popular bar on the Place du Palais. It’s all about the atmosphere — grab a glass of whatever you fancy and soak up the vibe, from the gregarious students ignoring their deadlines to the golden majesty of the Porte Cailhau tower as their backdrop. T: 00 33 6 6427 4040.

La Guinguette Chez Alriq: On the banks of the river in the Bastide district, Chez Alriq has a whiff of carefree summer holidays about it. It’s a foot-tappingly good locals’ favourite in the summer, with great food and drink served under twinkling lanterns, and plenty of live music for dancing the night away.

Rue Saige, Bordeaux travel guide

Rue Saige. Image: David Bacher

Buy

Chartrons: The former wine merchants’ district is now Bordeaux’s premier des res. Many of the wide, cavernous chais (street-level storerooms) once used for storing wine are now the haunts of antique merchants and dealers. Head to the riverfront here on Sundays, too, for a food market packed with local produce.

La Nuit des Rois: They ran out of space on the bookshelves here a long time ago. Nevertheless, it hasn’t stopped this tiny bookshop on the rue des Ayres adding to its collection, from old editions of Jules Verne’s work to the most obscure of Asterix’s animated tales. There are plenty of tomes in English, too.

Côté Saveurs: For the best souvenirs, head to this épicerie fine, where a mouth-watering array of high-quality produce will leave you spoilt for choice. Pick from the likes of aged cheeses, artisan pasta, liqueurs, local snails, biscuits, caviar, and of course, plenty of wine.

Essentials

Getting there & around
Launched in 2017, the TGV L’Océane runs between Paris and Bordeaux, taking just over two hours. Return tickets from London to Bordeaux (via Paris) start from £111. British Airways, EasyJet and Ryanair fly direct to Bordeaux from London airports, and Flybe and Air France from Birmingham, from £20 one way.

The UNESCO-listed centre is largely car-free, and easy to discover on foot but there’s also an extensive bus and tram system. A Metropole Citypass is worthwhile if you’re planning to cover ground — it includes free travel and entry to a number of sights — and costs €29 (£25) for 24 hours, €39 (£34) for 48 hours or €43 (£38) for 72 hours. infotbm.com/en

When to go
Spring is seasonably mild but occasionally wet, with summer easily hitting 30C and higher. Early autumn offers a happy medium, with long days, balmy temperatures as well as the wine harvest.

More info
bordeaux-tourism.co.uk

How to do it
Grape Escapes offers the Essential Bordeaux tour, visiting three or six chateaux (depending on tour length), with wine tasting and transfers between the city and chateaux, from £470 per person, excluding travel and accommodation.

Published in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)