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
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.
WATER ALL AROUND
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.
A SHOPPER’S PARADISE
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.
CITY OF ART
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