“Bordeaux used to be ugly” a local tells me after I congratulate them on their beautiful city . They go on to describe the golden limestone buildings being covered in a blanket of sooty grime, the riverfront hidden by dilapidated warehouses and public transport that was practically nonexistent. That was until 1994, when the former Prime Minister of France, Alain Juppé was elected mayor.
Despite Mr Alain Juppé not being considered France’s most popular Prime Minister, he has been heralded as the saviour of Bordeaux. He ordered the historic limestone buildings to be scrubbed clean, washing away the grime. The river port was dismantled, making way for broad riverside boulevards and the city was fitted with a state-of-the-art tram system. Bordeaux recovered from its industrial hangover and marched into the new millennium fresh faced, with its head held high.
Of course, it is the hangovers (or at least the cause of the hangovers) that bring most visitors to Bordeaux as it is France’s biggest wine producing region. But the city has a lot more to offer than wine. Bordeaux is home to over 5000 uniquely styled gothic-baroque inspired buildings, 350 historic monuments and dozens of galleries and museums. So even if you are not a wine drinker, Bordeaux makes for a great city break.
Five ways to get to know Bordeaux
1. Eat Pastries
After an early morning flight, a dose of caffeine and sugar is essential and Le Boulanger de Hôtel de Ville is a great place to start. It’s welcoming golden yellow, tiled façade lures you into a haven of pastries, cakes and other enticing baked goods. The Boulangerie started out in 1992 when baker Philippe-Marc Jocyeur took over a bakery in Lyon. His empire of artesian sweet treats has expanded to Paris and Bordeaux, which is something we are truly grateful for. The coffee is pretty great too.
After filling up on the French classics it is time to try something a little more Bordelaise; the Canelè. A bitesize cylindrical pastry with a thick, caramelised crust and a light and aerated centre, gently flavoured with vanilla and rum. Like a corrugated, custard crumpet; strange but not unpleasant. The Canelè is said to date back as far as the 15th Century and was traditionally made by nuns with the leftover egg yolks after the wines were refined with the egg whites. And today the best place to sample the Bordeaux classic is Canelés Baillardran, just let the sweet scent of vanilla and rum lead you there.
2. Petite Promenade
After indulging in a few too many sweet treats I recommend going for a wander to get to know this beautiful city. A great place to start is the Cathédrale Saint-André. This gothic 12th century cathedral is an UNESCO world heritage site and it was here in 1137 that the 13-year-old Eleanor of Aquitaine married the future Louis VII before she became Queen.
Just across the square is the elegant colonnaded Palais Rohan. Built in 1784, it was once the Archbishops palace but today is Bordeaux’s Hôtel de Ville or city hall and a museum. Carry on past the Pey-Berland gothic bell tower and take a left onto Rue Sainte-Catherine. This is Bordeaux’s main shopping street and is the city’s oldest existing thoroughfare, dating back to Roman times. After a little window shopping turn right down Rue Parlement Sainte-Catherine to the pretty, café-lined Place Du Parlement square with it’s central fountain and wrought-iron balconies, before following Rue Fernand Philippart.
The view then opens to the grand Place de La Bourse, one of Bordeaux most recognisable sights. Built in 1755 as a grand royal square dedicated to French ruler Louis XV and was once dominated by an imposing equestrian statue of the monarch. The statue was destroyed in the French Revolution and replaced by the exquisite Fontaine des Trois Grâces in 1869. The symmetrical and handsome façade of Plais de La Bourse leads onto Miror D’eau. The Miror D’eau or “Water Mirror” is a dynamic water feature that ripples rhythmically across a gigantic granite slab. Just 2cm deep, the mirror reflects the view of the 18th century façade and has been honoured as a contemporary world heritage site by UNESCO.
After you have had a splash in the water mirror, head towards the Place de la Comédie. A hub of Bordeaux life, this expansive square is teeming with coffee sipping locals serenaded by the tinkering of an antique Merry-Go-Round. The squares southern border is dominated by the colossal Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux. Built in 1780, this classical theatre stands on the sight of the ancient Roman Forum and is fittingly adorn with stone statues and grand Corinthian columns. Maybe you could pop in to see if they have any tickets available to an opera or ballet during your stay?
3. Explore Le Quartier Saint-Michel
Another beautiful part of the city to explore is the Le Quartier Saint-Michel. Dominated by the giant Gothic Basillica, it is known as one of the most lively and flamboyant areas of the city. A place where the cities beggars, merchants and artist traditionally mixed and was once the mooring for flat bottomed boats carrying cargo. Nearby is Ponte De Pierre, an elegant stone bridge spanning the river Garrone. It was commissioned in 1822 and has 17 elegant arches which are said to signify the 17 letters of Napoleon Bonaparte’s name. Admire the Romanesque Porte De Bourgogne archway then stretch your legs further to visit La Grosse Cloche, a historic gateway and belfry.
4. Wine, Wine, Wine
You can’t come to Bordeaux without sampling some of the regions famous wine, and there is no better to do this than an afternoon wine tour. There are many to choose from and most start at the Bordeaux Tourist Office. Peruse the website for an option that suits you. And if you are harping for more, then head straight for the new, ultra-modern La Cité du Vin, a museum to wine culture on esplanade de Pontac.
We chose to go with an afternoon tour of the Medoc region, a narrow peninsula extending between the estuary and the Atlantic Ocean. The fresh sea breeze and well drained gravel soil creates robust, rounded Cabernet Sauvignon blends. Along with enjoying the wine and atmosphere of the Chateaux’s there were four things I learned:
- The winemakers wage war against the weather: extreme weather like wind, rain and hail are the grapes worst enemy. That’s why many Chateaux in Bordeaux use cannons, which blast shock waves into approaching storm clouds to reduce the risk of hailstorms forming. Some also use wind machines to ventilate their vineyards to reduce frost.
- It is all about the bank! I’m not referring to Lloyds or Barclays but the bank of the Garrone River. On the “Right” Bank mostly Merlot and a little Cabernet Sauvignon are grown whereas the more famous “Left” bank does the opposite. There are five main districts in the Bordeaux: Medoc, St Emilion, Pomerol, Graves, and Sauternes, each with varied soil and climate creating their own unique character of wine. Make sure to try them all.
- Dominated by Red: 89 per cent of Bordeaux wines are red; 11 per cent are white. Although prior to the 1970’s, white wine was King. It was thanks to the Brit’s love for a “claret” that the familiar reds flourished.
- Bordeaux has introduced viticulture to the world: Malbec, although a famous Argentinian variety is native to Bordeaux. Sauvignon Blanc is also thought to have to have originated in Bordeaux, before spreading all over the world, including my refrigerator!
Wine tasting in Bordeaux was insightful and intoxicating (literally). And although I enjoyed the Medoc region, it was the Saint-Émilion reds tasted later at the Aux Quatre Coins du Vin that won me over. The rich blackberry and cedar flavours will forever make a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru my dinner party go to.
There is no better cure for a foggy head than a morning sifting through other people’s junk. I was amazed at the wares available at Sunday Flea Market in St-Michel (Duburg Square and Quai des Salinières, every Sunday from 7 am to 4 pm). There were antiques, clothes, cutlery, paintings and bizzarely kitchen sinks. A must for lovers of rustling through bric-a-brac on a quest to find their antique holy grail.
But if you prefer filling your stomach than filling up your luggage then the Marché des Capucins, (known as the “Belly of Bordeaux”) food market should be your next stop. The building itself isn’t exactly mesmerising but the fresh produces, baked goods, fishmongers and cheeses all speak for themselves. The market is full with the hubbub of locals and open in the mornings, 7 days a week. A great pre-picnic stop off for supplies.
So now you have taken a stroll through Bordeaux’s carnation scented streets lined with handsome gothic-baroque buildings. You have peered up at the locals enjoying their wrought iron balconies and filled your panier full of Canelè and Bordelese antiques. It is now the perfect time to sit back in a street side bar to enjoy an afternoon glass of Medoc and toast Mr Alain Juppé for returning this historic and charming city back to the wonderful self.
Une Chambre en Ville: Comfortable, affordable city-centre guesthouse with a free breakfast, which includes a Canele. 35 Rue Bouffard, 33000 Bordeaux, +33 (0) 5 56 81 34 53
Aux Quatre Coins du Vin: Busy wine bar with over 40 wines available buy the glass, via an Enigmatic wine system (like a fun card operated wine vending machine). Glasses from €3 to €30. 8 Rue de la Devise, Bordeaux 33000, +33 (0)5 57 34 37 29.
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