Think of Bordeaux and you’ll no doubt think of wine – with a renowned international reputation boasting more than 60 appellations, 115,000 hectares and close to 9,000 winemakers in the area alone, the industry accounts for every job in six in the Gironde d�partement.
Yet look beyond the vines, vendanges and viticulteurs, and you’ll find a noble city with a unique character all of its own. Standing tall beyond the domaines that have made the area synonymous with taste and elegance, Bordeaux is the perfect location for a city break. Not only is it ideal for wine-lovers, but as well as being an easily accessible destination, its wide open streets, pedestrianised walkways and quietly discreet electric tram service make it a dream for first-time visitors experiencing the joys of the city.
Once known as characterful port town on the banks of the River Garonne, Bordeaux has seen much change over the past few years, thanks in large part to its inclusion on the list of Unesco World Heritage sites in 2007. Although three of its key monuments – the Cath�drale Saint-Andr�, the Basilique Saint-Michel and the Basilique Saint-Seurin – had been individually listed in 1998 due to their location as part of the chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, the city’s resolve to share its unparalleled charm and historical heritage with the world at large resulted in a series of quietly determined renovation efforts. Talk to any Bordelais and you’ll hear praise of the loi Malraux, a law brought into force by Culture Minister Andr� Malraux in the 1960s which detailed that any area set out as a secteur sauvegard� must be kept in the best possible condition to preserve buildings of historical importance. Bordeaux was approved under the law, and an extensive clean-up operation soon followed – with maintenance still ongoing, eagle-eyed visitors will spot the occasional street where gleaming building fa�ades sit alongside their soon-to-be cleaned neighbours.
A stroll around the city centre soon shows why Bordeaux was accepted on to the Unesco list; the buildings here are grandiose and elegant, set out in long straight lines punctuated with peaceful squares, public gardens and luxurious townhouses as a reminder of Bordeaux’s 18th century ‘Golden age’, a time when the city’s wealth came not just from the wine, but also from trading merchants who made their money from ships coming into the city’s port. Inland from the River Garonne, the centre of Bordeaux is based around the triangle d’or, with three sides made up of the city’s grandes addresses; the spacious Cours de l’Intendance, the tree-lined All�es de Tourny and the wide Cours Georges Clemenceau. Where once chattering ladies in corsets and bustles would make their way along the triangle d’or on their genteel daily stroll, today the area is lined with designer shops and independent boutiques.
Those with a sweet tooth will appreciate Bordeaux’s best chocolatiers. Stop at the 1826-established Cadiot-Badie on the the All�es de Tourny for their speciality kirsch-soaked guinette cherries, or pay a visit to Saunion – going strong on the Cours Georges Clemenceau since 1893 – for the niniche chocolate caramels made to a local recipe. If mounds of chocolate piled high under glass-topped marble counters fail to satiate your sweet tooth, try a canel�, the city’s speciality p�tisserie. Made from a rich batter flavoured with rum and vanilla, and oven-baked in individual copper moulds, the canel� is a dense flavoursome morsel with a crisp outer layer formed by the scalloped edges of the tin. For those with a more vinous palate, make a stop at Max Bordeaux on the Cours de l’Intendance. A self-styled ‘wine gallery’, here you can try some of Bordeaux’s grands crus for a fraction of the price with their special pay-as-you-go hermetically-sealed wine dispensing system. If you like what you try you can buy the bottle, or, if you prefer, pay a visit to L’Intendant wine shop on the All�es de Tourny – be warned though that the spiral staircase winding its way up the four floors of the boutique sees the exclusivity (and price tag) increase with each floor ascended.
As befits its Unesco-listed status, Bordeaux’s cultural sphere is also a key draw for visitors. A short step away from the triangle d’or sits the CAPC Mus�e d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux – located in the entrep�t lain�, a former warehouse used for storing colonial food supplies from ships docked in the port, the museum was established in 1984 and offers temporary exhibitions based on its permanent collection including both modern and contemporary artists. As well as the CAPC, the city’s further six museums operate a free admission policy as part of the initiative to make Bordeaux’s artistic and cultural heritage accessible for all.
A city of culture and ideas, Bordeaux has produced some of France’s great historical minds; among their number stand 16th century author Michel de Montaigne who served as the city’s mayor from 1581-1585, social commentator and Enlightenment writer Montesquieu, and Fran�ois Mauriac, winner of the 1952 Nobel Literature prize. The importance of Bordeaux in French history – most notably when it owed allegiance to the English crown (1153-1453) and during the French Revolution when the Girondins played a major role – is highlighted in the many and varied walking tours on offer from the city’s dynamic tourist office for those wishing to learn more about Bordeaux’s historic past.
In the same harmonious spirit that marries the CAPC’s contemporary art with its age-old location, Bordeaux has also turned its attention to the quayside area of the city. Towards the south end of the river sit a series of both converted buildings and new structures, designed to bring the old and the new together. Hangar 2, a former 1930s harbour warehouse, is now home to a series of ultra-modern offices thanks to plans undertaken by architects BLP (Brochet, Lajus, Pieyo), while further down towards the centre is the H�tel Seek’o, a modern form based on the contours of an iceberg, located on the corner of the Quai de Bacalan and the Cours �douard-Vaillant. This area, known as the Chartrons quartier, was once the heart of the wine trade – today the old cellars and warehouses are now home to antique and brocante stores set out along the Rue Notre-Dame, perfect for browsing and whiling away a happy afternoon.
If you prefer to meander in the morning, pass beyond the centre and in front of the elegant Place de la Bourse, where the modern miroir d’eau fountain provides ample opportunity for young and old alike to cool off in the summer months with a daring dash through the intermittent water jets. The March� des Capucins food market to the north of the main action in the Saint-Michel quartier allows visitors and locals alike to sample some of the area’s tastiest fare (try the oysters from the nearby Bassin d’Arcachon, averaging at around six for €5) washed down with a glass of local wine.
With local gastronomy designed to complement the area’s grands crus, expect high standards when it comes to eating in Bordeaux. Lamprey fish cooked in a thick red wine sauce � la Bordelaise is particular to the area, as is tender suckling lamb from Pauillac, and seasonal asparagus (white from Blaye and green from Landes). Try Lillet to start, an ap�ritif wine produced from Bordeaux wine and macerated liqueurs, and finish with bouchons de Bordeaux amande, cork-shaped marzipan petit fours filled with raisins soaked in fine de Napol�on brandy.
Should you happen to find yourself in Bordeaux on the first Sunday of the month, you’ll witness Dimanche � Bordeaux, when cars are excluded from the city in favour of a pedestrianised centre. Set in place since 1998, the event prioritises cultural and sports activities, with Bordeaux’s V3 bike hire service – similar to Paris’s Velib’ system – provided for free alongside street entertainers and music performances in the open air. The city’s calendar also encompasses a major event every year in the alternate form of either Bordeaux F�te le Fleuve (as per last year) and Bordeaux F�te le Vin (set out for 2012). Designed to celebrate Bordeaux’s key markers, the events invite partner cities to celebrate alongside – last year’s Bordeaux F�te le Fleuve was attended by Bilbao in Spain in recognition of the strong links between the two cities. With Bordeaux’s traditional elegance of yesteryear sitting comfortably alongside the vibrant modernity of the 21st century, it’s clear that the city has lost none of its spirited character over the centuries. Whether visiting for a weekend or staying for longer, a city break to Bordeaux is far more than the sum of its parts – although with one of those parts as France’s top wine area, it’s safe to say that the remaining elements can’t fail to impress.