Wine, mais oui! And so much more besides...
reason that I didn’t know whether it was right, left or straight on to the car park because the car park signs had run out. Only to reappear, glimpsed in the rear-view mirror, pointing back the way I’d come.
Finally, I ducked down into the Parking des Grands Hommes (“CarPark of Great Men” – in recognition, I imagine, of the talents needed to find the damned place), parked, locked up, clambered above ground, and everything came right. No matter how often you’ve seen it, the elegance of the city’s hyper-centre – the Triangle d’Or – smacks the senses. As with Vitruvian Man, the proportions are exactly right. In the 18th century, they ripped out medieval squalor and replaced it with stately open space and neoclassical expressions of belief in the power of colonial riches. A sense of entitlement floats on the air; this is evidently a capital city in search of a country to rule. I always want to go around ordering slovenly pedestrians to smarten up. Then I see my reflection in a shop-window, and hurry on.
As I now did, down a side-street to the Mama Shelter hotel. From the outside, it looked like the regional HQ of an insurance company. Inside it confirmed Mama Shelter as, presently, my favourite hotel chain: groovy enough for groovers, without casting the old adrift. It’s intuitive to use and full of good touches. Bedrooms are comprehensible, the entire bed headboard constitutes the reading light, and the bar-restaurant is a cross between a school canteen, beach club and coffee shop. The exhortations written here and there (“Mama loves you from head to toe” in the bathroom) are wearisome, and I had to shift myself smartly from the reception-area display case on realising that the Eiffel tower-shaped items were sex toys. Otherwise, full marks.
But you can’t spend all afternoon in a hotel bedroom, not by yourself. I lit out. It was Monday, so galleries and museums were closed, except the Fine Arts Museum (Musée des Beaux Arts; musba-bordeaux.fr). A stroke of luck. This was the only one I’d not before visited. Its northern wing was full of renaissance yearning, beseeching and Virgins. In the southern wing – dealing with 19th and 20th centuries – I fell among the animal paintings of Bordeaux-born Rosa Bonheur. On a Monday afternoon, I ask no more of art than the hugely powerful horses of her Treading the Wheat in Camargue. Critic Théophile Gautier wrote: “There’s no need for gallantry. [Bonheur] approaches art seriously, so may be treated like a man.” Quite. To get close to her subjects, she wore trousers – for which Ms Bonheur, like all other 19th-century Frenchwomen, had to request bi-annual permission from local authorities, lest “transvestism” get out of hand. (The law remained on the statute book to 2013.) Bonheur met Queen Victoria, was a friend of Buffalo Bill and, during her life, sold paintings for a fortune. Post-mortem, she fell from favour. Now she is esteemed once more, and about time, too.
I roamed on, from the monumental Place Pey-Berland – where the cathedral faces the palatial town hall, repair of mayor Alain Juppé and his dashed 2017 presidential hopes – to the even more monumental Place de la Comédie. The kitchens of the Grand Hotel are now under the control of Gordon Ramsay. Opposite, the restaurant of the great classical theatre is run by Philippe Etchebest who, by coincidence, is troubleshooter for the French television version of Kitchen Nightmares.
Both were too expensive for me. So I went to the nearby pedestrian Rue St Rémi, where cheap and cheerful reigns, to eat at a Corsican restaurant which, surprisingly, was neither cheap nor cheerful.
Next morning, I had two breakfasts – one at the hotel, a second with Sylvie Berteaux on the hidden terrace of the À La Recherche du Pain Perdu bakery. Sylvie regularly has breakfast with unknown men. And women. And it’s always here, at the foot of the St Pierre church. From the bakery, the city’s second oldest, she kicks off a morning gastro-tour of Bordeaux’s medieval innards, the parts that hold together the monumental stuff elsewhere. The district constitutes a conspiracy in which anyone can join; Sylvie provides an entrée (miam-bordeaux.fr; two hours, £22pp).
So does the baker Noël Capron, a one-time quantity surveyor who now bakes, inter alia, a rye-bread which sustained me for days. Unusually in a French baker’s, the walls bore posters of Hendrix, Lennon and Frank Zappa. Sylvie led on, via fruit and veg, spice and cheese emporia – with chat and tastings in all – to a charcuterie store where nibbles of smoked magret stuffed with foie gras came accompanied by a glass of sauternes. What an outstanding way to spend a morning.
The Cité du Vin, right; main, Mama Shelter restaurant