With a wealth of historic mon­u­ments, el­e­gant ar­chi­tec­ture, bustling com­mer­cial streets and mod­ern trans­port links, Bordeaux is a vi­brant and in­ter­est­ing city, says Alice Phillpott

Living France - - Contents -

We give the low-down on this stylish, el­e­gant and vi­brant city

Around five mil­lion for­eign vis­i­tors flock to the cap­i­tal of Nou­velle-Aquitaine each year, with Bri­tish tourists rank­ing solidly at num­ber one. There are many rea­sons why so many choose to visit, and the fact that Bordeaux is home to the high­est num­ber of pre­served his­tor­i­cal build­ings in France out­side of Paris is no doubt one of them. Fol­low­ing its 2007 clas­si­fi­ca­tion as a UNESCO World Her­itage Site, Bordeaux ac­quired the pres­ti­gious ti­tle of Europe’s Best Des­ti­na­tion in 2015, beat­ing off some stiff com­pe­ti­tion from Lis­bon and Athens. And it is not hard to see why – the city is home to an im­pres­sive 362 mon­u­ments his­toriques, with some build­ings dat­ing back to Ro­man times.

The city was orig­i­nally dis­cov­ered by a Celtic tribe, around 300 BC. At first they named it ‘Bur­di­gala’ mean­ing ‘City of the Celts’ and over time the word evolved into the mod­ern name of Bordeaux. In sim­pler terms, Bordeaux sig­ni­fies ‘the edge of water’. In­deed, the city oc­cu­pies a dom­i­nant po­si­tion on the Garonne es­tu­ary. How­ever, make no mis­take – La Garonne is not merely une riv­ière, but un fleuve – an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion which was high­lighted to me in­stantly by a lo­cal Borde­laise (fe­male in­hab­i­tant of Bordeaux) dur­ing my week­end visit to the city. For the unini­ti­ated, un fleuve is a river that flows di­rectly into the sea. From hum­ble be­gin­nings in the Span­ish Pyrénées, this mighty body of water stretches for 374 miles and even­tu­ally emp­ties into the Bay of Bis­cay, head­ing for the At­lantic Ocean, mak­ing it one of the long­est rivers in France.


La Garonne is with­out doubt a cen­tral and much-loved part of Bordeaux’s iden­tity, and pro­vides a serene back­drop for a mul­ti­tude of at­trac­tions. The Pont de Pierre (lit­er­ally, bridge of stones) was built in the early 1800s and is the old­est (and most iconic) bridge in the city. It was com­mis­sioned by Napoléon I and its struc­ture con­sists of 17 arches, which equates to the num­ber of let­ters in Napoléon Bon­a­parte’s name.

Just a few me­tres north is Place des Quin­conces. Span­ning al­most 30 acres, it is the largest square in Europe and home to the mag­nif­i­cent Mon­u­ment aux Girondins. This im­pos­ing tower was erected in mem­ory of all the Girondists who fell dur­ing the French Revo­lu­tion. It is also the most im­por­tant trans­port hub in the city. Steal­ing the show at night is the Miroir d’Eau, which re­flects the splen­did Palais de la Bourse, pro­duc­ing a daz­zling ef­fect and draw­ing in the crowds wish­ing to cool down on a warm sum­mer’s day.

To­day, the port of Bordeaux bears no re­sem­blance to its for­mer in­dus­trial per­sona, at­tract­ing a num­ber of large and lux­u­ri­ous cruise ships, mak­ing it the sec­ond ma­jor port of call on the At­lantic coast after Le Havre. The Garonne river­front has smartened up sig­nif­i­cantly in re­cent years, of­fer­ing a lit­tle some­thing for every­one. The wide prom­e­nades cre­ate the perfect set­ting for the Jazz and Blues Fes­ti­val that runs from June to Septem­ber ev­ery year along the river­banks. Mean­while, old ware­houses along the Quai de Ba­calan on the Rive Gauche have been el­e­gantly trans­formed into a se­ries of shops, jaunty bars and cafés.

The ad­ja­cent dis­trict of Quai des Chartrons also boasts a di­verse se­lec­tion of out­let stores and a va­ri­ety of laid-back restau­rants over­look­ing the water­front. Here you will find Fin­ger Food Café where you can pick up an af­ford­able and tra­di­tional French break­fast. These eater­ies are brim­ming with char­ac­ter and ex­hibit an un­spoilt feel, cap­tur­ing the re­laxed at­mos­phere that seems so cen­tral to Bordeaux’s im­age.


Stay­ing true to its nick­name of ‘la Perle d’Aquitaine’, the city’s ca­sual grandeur is both en­chant­ing and unas­sum­ing. It has of­ten been re­ferred to as ‘Lit­tle Paris’ for it re­mains low-key, yet dy­namic and for­ward-think­ing. Bordeaux ap­pears quintessen­tially French, ooz­ing charm but stay­ing down to earth, with­out the bold­ness and chic el­e­ment of, say, Paris or Nice. When Baron Hauss­mann was asked by Napoléon III to trans­form a then still quasi-me­dieval Paris into a ‘mod­ern’ cap­i­tal dur­ing the mid-1800s, it is said that he took inspiration from Bordeaux’s largescale trans­for­ma­tion in the 18th cen­tury.

Wan­der down Rue du Loup, off the prin­ci­pal com­mer­cial street Rue Ste-Cather­ine, and you’ll no­tice the cos­mopoli­tan and al­ter­na­tive vibe present in the city. Here you will en­counter an in­ter­est­ing ar­ray of vin­tage clothes shops and tat­too par­lours. Mean­while, at the other end of the city, there’s a slice of New York to be dis­cov­ered if you look hard enough. Yes, Bordeaux has its very own ver­sion of the Flat­iron Build­ing! Lo­cated be­tween the Al­lées de Tourny and the Of­fice du Tourisme, the build­ing houses a wine bar to sam­ple clas­sic Bordeaux wines at rea­son­able prices.

Run­ning through the heart of Bordeaux is Rue Ste-Cather­ine. This pedes­trian-only shop­ping street con­tains al­most a mile of shops, restau­rants and cafés and is one of the long­est shop­ping streets in Europe. There are shops to sat­isfy ev­ery shop­per’s needs; the more up­mar­ket brands can be found to­wards Place de la Comédie – a grand and con­vivial space, ideal for peo­ple watch­ing or en­joy­ing the lat­est street en­ter­tain­ment on dis­play. Equally mag­i­cal at night, the rooftop ter­race at Hô­tel de Bordeaux op­po­site the Grand Théâtre pro­vides a stun­ning view of the city; a de­light­ful end to an evening after a meal at one of the renowned, lux­ury seafood restau­rants in the vicin­ity.


The nearby Cours de l’In­ten­dance is el­e­gant and ex­clu­sive, boast­ing a range of de­signer bou­tiques. The smaller and more mod­est Rue des Rem­parts is lo­cated in the historic cen­tre and is cer­tainly worth a look – it of­fers a scat­ter­ing of unique, in­de­pen­dent shops, such as choco­latiers, salons de thé and olive spe­cial­ists. A stone’s throw away from here is the Cathé­drale St-An­dré, which dates back to the 14th cen­tury and is at­tached to the Tour Pey Ber­land, an im­pos­ing Gothic tower that looms over the Place Pey Ber­land. There are sev­eral charm­ing cafés on this square, mak­ing this a peace­ful spot to en­joy the dra­matic ar­chi­tec­ture.

Bordeaux and the sur­round­ing area boasts some 14 Miche­lin-starred restau­rants, mak­ing din­ing out a very satisfying ex­pe­ri­ence. In­dulge in Ar­ca­chon oysters and Aquitaine caviar or treat your­self to tra­di­tional dishes such as Lam­prey in borde­laise sauce or Bordeauxstyle en­trecôte steak, grilled over vine prun­ings. As for dessert, why not try a bor­de­lais clas­sic – canelé; a French pas­try with a soft cus­tard cen­tre and a dark, thick caramelized crust. It takes the shape of a small, stri­ated cylin­der and is a spe­cial­ity of Bordeaux. The mod­ern word canelé orig­i­nates from Gas­con, a lan­guage spo­ken in Bordeaux and a large area of south­west­ern France un­til the 19th cen­tury. It re­mains to this day a favourite af­ter­noon treat for the French. If you fancy an apéri­tif, why not head to­wards Rue Par­lement StPierre, where you will be met with a whole host of charis­matic, cosy bars to re­lax in.


Dur­ing the brighter weather, artists can be seen dot­ted around the city sketching 18th-cen­tury build­ings, de­pict­ing the golden age of Bordeaux us­ing water colours, inks and charcoal. The Univer­sity of Bordeaux

is a few kilo­me­tres south of the city and at­tracts stu­dents from all over the world. Dur­ing their free time they can usu­ally be found gath­er­ing on Place Gam­betta – an an­i­mated, bustling square that fea­tures some of the finest ex­am­ples of neo­clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture in­clud­ing Porte Di­jeaux, stand­ing on the site which once served as the west en­trance to the city dur­ing Ro­man times.

Bordeaux it­self is fairly easy to ex­plore on foot – one of the best ways to take in all the won­drous sights. Be­sides, it is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to get lost as all roads lead to the Garonne river. Al­ter­na­tively, jump on one of the eco-friendly trams that glide silently across the city. Its wide boule­vards and vast squares con­trib­ute to the tremen­dous feel­ing of space in Bordeaux.

For the ar­dent cy­clist there are 550km of cy­cling tracks to be ex­plored in and around the city. Oth­er­wise, if you fancy an es­cape from city life for a while, Ar­ca­chon Bay is only a 45-minute drive away. This se­cluded spot is fa­mous for its mouth-wa­ter­ing seafood and beau­ti­ful long beaches.


It goes with­out say­ing that Bordeaux’s big­gest claim to fame is that it is the largest pro­ducer of ap­pel­la­tion wine in France. The vine was first in­tro­duced to the Bordeaux area by the Ro­mans in the mid­dle of the 1st cen­tury to pro­vide wine for lo­cal con­sump­tion, and wine pro­duc­tion has been con­tin­u­ous in the area ever since. Bordeaux now has around 287,000 acres of vine­yards and 10,000 wine-pro­duc­ing châteaux. An ex­cit­ing and re­cent ad­di­tion to Bordeaux’s cul­tural at­trac­tions is the Cité du Vin, sit­u­ated on the Quai de Ba­calan, which opened its doors in June 2016. It serves as a mu­seum as well as a place of ex­hi­bi­tions, movie pro­jec­tions and aca­demic sem­i­nars on the theme of wine, plac­ing it on the map as the world’s big­gest in­ter­na­tional wine mu­seum. An ad­di­tional perk is the stun­ning view of the city, which can be en­joyed from an el­e­vated panoramic view­point.


As the sixth largest met­ro­pol­i­tan area in France, to­gether with its sub­urbs and satel­lite towns, Bordeaux’s pop­u­la­tion is a stag­ger­ing 1.1 mil­lion. Prop­erty in Bordeaux it­self has there­fore be­come some­what of a scarcity in re­cent years, push­ing buy­ers fur­ther afield to more ru­ral ar­eas. How­ever, the future is look­ing bright as in or­der to re­spond to the surge of prop­erty hunters, Bordeaux Métropole has com­mis­sioned five teams of ar­chi­tects to think up in­no­va­tive projects to en­rich and de­velop the sur­round­ing area. Their vi­sion is to con­struct around 50,000 new prop­er­ties within the next 10 years. This ini­tia­tive will in turn trig­ger an in­crease in pub­lic trans­port ser­vices. To sup­port this in­flux, plans for 2017 in­clude an in­creased TGV ser­vice which will re­duce the jour­ney from Paris to just over two hours, a new line of tram-trains, and also a fourth tram line run­ning through the city.

This page, from top: The Mon­u­ment aux Girondins; the Miroir d’Eau is the perfect place to en­joy a warm sum­mer’s day Fac­ing page, from top: Pont de Pierre is the old­est bridge in the city; Place de la Comédie is tra­versed by trams

Clock­wise from main: The Quai des Chartrons over­look­ing the water­front boasts nu­mer­ous restau­rants and shops; La Rive Gauche (or Left Bank) is the perfect place to re­lax; en­joy­ing a meal with views of the Tour Pey Ber­land

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