A sym­phony of move­ment

Bordeaux of­fers the ap­peal of Paris on a smaller scale


The gen­tle ding of an ad­vanc­ing train tells pedes­tri­ans to clear the tracks. Peo­ple, bi­cy­cles, skate­boards and scoot­ers make way for the elec­tric tram that glides into the his­toric cen­tre of Bordeaux. It passes and within sec­onds the bus­tle of street life spills over the tracks again.

I watched this sym­phony of move­ment and I mar­velled at the sooth­ing flow of life in this French city, where an opera house, pala­tial ho­tel and busy pedes­trian boule­vard in­ter­sect.

In­spired rail tran­sit is just one rea­son be­yond wine to visit this old port city. Bordeaux traces its be­gin­nings, and the wine in­dus­try, to Ro­man times. It has a tur­bu­lent his­tory of in­va­sions stretch­ing from Huns and Visig­oths to Vik­ings. France and Eng­land sparred there for sovereignty. The city pros­pered in part on the slave trade.

To­day, Bordeaux is a cosmopolitan cap­i­tal with the ap­peal of Paris but on a smaller, liv­able scale. For­mer mer­chant man­sions along the shore of the Garonne River pro­vide liv­ing, eat­ing and re­tail space. There’s a mas­sive new soc­cer sta­dium and a stun­ning new shrine to wine. Elec­tric trams run through the his­toric cen­tre with­out un­sightly over­head ca­bles, a costly op­tion match­ing the city’s des­ig­na­tion as a UNESCO site. All this plus shop­ping, food, mu­se­ums and the po­ten­tial for day trips to wine coun­try. It’s why sev­eral travel sites, such as Lonely Planet, picked Bordeaux as a top des­ti­na­tion to visit in 2017.

I’ve been for­tu­nate to ex­pe­ri­ence Bordeaux in the fall and in the spring, visit­ing tourist sites and lesser-known at­trac­tions. I’m im­pressed that the city pays spe­cial at­ten­tion to aes­thet­ics in de­vel­op­ing old dock lands. Here are a few treats to be savoured on a Bordeaux va­ca­tion.

Pub­lic spa­ces

I love visit­ing cities that in­vest in pub­lic spa­ces. Bordeaux has gone a step fur­ther by adding in­ter­ac­tiv­ity to many open spa­ces.

Miroir d’eau is a mas­sive re­flec­tion pool in front of the Place de la Bourse, a key piece of water­front re­de­vel­op­ment.

You can cool down on a hot day by run­ning through its wa­ter streams or bask­ing in its mist. It jux­ta­poses mod­ern ur­ban de­sign against the grandeur of Ver­sailles-style build­ings that are well pre­served.

Parks and neigh­bour­hood squares of­fer abun­dant green space and spots to en­joy a baguette and cheese.

En­ter Jardin Pub­lic through its golden gates to en­joy quiet time by the pond and tow­er­ing trees. The English-style park cov­ers 11 hectares and dates back to 1746.

His­tory you can climb

For a view of Bordeaux from on high, climb the 233 steps of Tour Pey Ber­land next to the Cathé­drale Sainte-André. The bell tower was built be­side the cathe­dral to pro­tect the cathe­dral from bell vi­bra­tions.

An­other im­pres­sive view is from the top of La Fleche, a bell tower dat­ing from the 15th cen­tury. It’s billed as the sec­ond tallest bell tower in France with a view­ing area 47 me­tres high. Not that long ago you could view about 60 nat­u­rally mum­mi­fied bod­ies there. Visit­ing au­thor Vic­tor Hugo is among many to ref­er­ence the macabre Saint-Michel mum­mies. In 1990, the mum­mies were given a more dig­ni­fied rest­ing place in a cor­ner of La Chartreuse ceme­tery. You can now view video in the tower about the Mum­mies of Saint-Michel.

Re­minders of mil­i­tary for­ti­fi­ca­tion dot the city and pro­vide more op­por­tu­ni­ties to walk through his­tory. The Cail­hau Gate of­fers a view 23 me­tres above the river. The struc­ture was ded­i­cated in the 15th cen­tury to French King Charles VIII. The Grosse Cloche has an older pedi­gree, dat­ing to the 13th cen­tury. The bell was rung reg­u­larly to mark spe­cial events up un­til the French Rev­o­lu­tion. It was pro­duced in 1775 and is rung just a few times a year now.


For a dif­fer­ent din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, head to the Bastide Quar­ter on the right bank of the Garonne (by car, tram or wa­ter taxi) to see how Bordeaux is re­gen­er­at­ing old build­ings and space.

Your des­ti­na­tion is Dar­win, a trendy area that’s a short walk from the Stal­in­grad tram stop. The re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion project with an en­vi­ron­men­tal fo­cus started as a lo­cal busi­ness in­cu­ba­tor. Of­fice space and eater­ies now oc­cupy the ware­houses of a for­mer mil­i­tary bar­racks. The Ma­gasin Gen­eral restau­rant and food mar­ket bus­tles. You can browse Mag­i­cal streetscapes, like a view of the Porte Cail­hau, await you around ev­ery cor­ner in Bordeaux.

dif­fer­ent sec­tions – epicerie, fro­magerie, snacks – in an open con­cept set­ting with pic­nic bench seat­ing.

Out­door benches are placed near an in­trigu­ing wooden struc­ture that con­nects two build­ings. As a vis­ual re­minder of en­ergy con­ser­va­tion, this art piece has stream­ing lights in­di­cat­ing elec­tric­ity con­sump­tion at that mo­ment.

Walk around the com­plex to see skate­board parks, tem­po­rary hous­ing mod­ules known as tétrodons, and chicken coops. There’s talk of more de­vel­op­ment at this spot, which pro­vides a stun­ning view of old Bordeaux across the river.

You know a restau­rant is good when there’s only one thing on the menu and lo­cals still line up for it. L’En­trecôte, a steak­house in the city cen­tre, is renowned for serv­ing one main course on a set menu with a salad and fries. It’s a sim­ple for­mula and highly suc­cess­ful based on re­views I got from lo­cals who are will­ing to wait for a ta­ble.

Pep­pone, on Cours Ge­orges Cle­menceau, spe­cial­izes in piz­zas and pas­tas. I got a street­side ta­ble early one evening. Line­ups later at night are to be ex­pected. The fresh pasta was di­vine, the dessert plat­ter even more so.

You can’t leave Bordeaux with­out try­ing a canelé. This rum-flavoured pas­try orig­i­nated here and can be found on break­fast, lunch and dessert menus. Patis­series spe­cial­ize in orig­i­nal flavours and new vari­ants. Lo­cals are quick to rec­om­mend that you sam­ple these lit­tle fluted cakes that fea­ture a caramelized crust and chewy in­te­rior. Take a few home for gifts.


Bordeaux is a shop­per’s dream with high-end de­signer stores, funky in­de­pen­dent bou­tiques, large de­part­ment stores and street mar­kets.

Rue Sainte-Cather­ine is said to be the long­est out­door pedes­trian shop­ping street

in Europe. I don’t doubt it af­ter walk­ing the full length. It’s a lively street scene with chain stores, bou­tiques and larger de­part­ment stores such as Ga­leries Lafayette.

You can get a wel­come tax re­fund on pur­chases made in one store if your to­tal bill there is more than 175 Eu­ros. If you plan to make large pur­chases or get gifts, it makes sense to do it in one place. The store fills out the pa­per­work (you will need to show your pass­port at the store) and you file for the re­fund at the air­port cus­toms of­fice on your re­turn flight home. This is eas­ier to do from a smaller air­port such as Bordeaux com­pared to the line­ups you can ex­pect at cus­toms of­fices in Paris air­ports.

High-end de­signer stores are clus­tered on Cours de l’In­ten­dance, near the city cen­tre, and on nearby side streets with in­ner malls. French brands min­gle with in­ter­na­tional la­bels on the wide, el­e­gant boule­vard. It’s worth a visit even if you are only win­dow shop­ping.

Smaller neigh­bour­hoods fea­ture lovely bou­tiques. One of my favourite shop­ping walks is Rue Notre Dame in the Chartrons dis­trict, near the water­front. This is where wine mer­chants built beau­ti­ful lime­stone build­ings in the 18th and 19th cen­turies. They now house apart­ments, funky bou­tiques, an­tique stores, bistros and cafes. For truly French pur­chases, drop by Do You Speak Français?, a con­cept store that only sells goods made in France.

To stroll the water­front while shop­ping, head to the Quai des Mar­ques, a pedes­trian prom­e­nade along the Garonne River. You will find dis­count re­tail out­lets and cof­fee shops plus views of the river and its bridges. You’ll be joined by jog­gers who are run­ning eight kilo­me­tres be­tween the bridges, cy­clists and skate­board­ers. There may be a cruise liner docked nearby.


If you can’t see a soc­cer game while in Bordeaux, you can get an in­sider’s tour of

the world class Nou­veau Stade (also known as the Mat­mut At­lan­tique be­cause of the spon­sor­ship). It’s an im­pres­sive struc­ture that hosted games for the 2016 Euro­pean cham­pi­onship.

The sta­dium was built in 2012, de­signed to re­flect French el­e­gance. The sparkling white ed­i­fice has unim­peded views of the field and space for 250 jour­nal­ists in the me­dia area. Our tour lasted about 90 min­utes and we had ac­cess to locker rooms and train­ing ar­eas as well as pri­vate boxes, the pres­i­den­tial suite and the field. We sat in the Pres­i­dent’s chair, re­served for the most se­nior of­fi­cial at a game.

Our tour was in French, but English tours are of­fered if booked in ad­vance. Tick­ets are avail­able through Bordeaux-tourism. co.uk or stop by the tourism of­fice in the city cen­tre.

I was thrilled to learn that there is a pro­fes­sional hockey team. The Bordeaux Bull­dogs play at the 3,200-seat Méri­adeck arena. They have a faith­ful fan base and a team that fea­tures seven Cana­di­ans, in­clud­ing the cap­tain. It was fun to watch hockey in France. In­stead of hot dogs we had sweet and salty pop­corn and mac­arons. Cheer­lead­ers per­formed on the ice to fire up the crowd. We got used to hear­ing the an­nouncer bel­low “But!” rather than “Goal!”

You don’t have to see a pro­fes­sional sports match to ex­pe­ri­ence the fit­ness scene in Bordeaux. You can watch a neigh­bour­hood game of pé­tanque, a lawn ball game sim­i­lar to bocce. You can also watch skate­board­ers on the water­front park, rent a bike or take leisurely strolls along the boule­vards.

Garonne River and its bridges

City plan­ners have turned the Bordeaux river­front into a place where peo­ple con­gre­gate for evening walks or spe­cial events. There was a food fes­ti­val this spring and a cir­cus last fall.

I love the river but had to get used to its muddy brown tinge. Lo­cals say this is be­cause Bordeaux is where fresh wa­ter meets salt wa­ter. Un­for­tu­nately, your river pic­tures will never fea­ture crys­tal blue wa­ter.

Bridges re­flect old and new. The Pont de Pierre, a stone bridge with 17 arches, seems an­cient while the high-tech Pont Jac­ques Cha­ban-Del­mas bridge nods to the fu­ture. The Cha­ban-Del­mas lifts its cen­tre sec­tion like an el­e­va­tor to al­low cruise ships into the port.

Signs alert res­i­dents and driv­ers when the bridge is sched­uled to lift.

Tran­sit utopia

I rode the elec­tric train (known as the tram) all around Bordeaux. It’s quiet, fast and I love the lit­tle bell. There are three tran­sit lines with a fourth un­der con­struc­tion. You get tick­ets at the sta­tion stops. I found a 10-trip ticket worked best. One ticket is good for an hour with trans­fers to buses or the wa­ter taxi.

The tree-lined Place des Quin­conces is the tran­sit hub and not far away is the im­pos­ing Mon­u­ment aux Girondins, a foun­tain com­mem­o­rat­ing those who fell in the French Rev­o­lu­tion. It’s one of the largest city squares in Europe. The bronze quadriga horse-fish will make you smile as they spout wa­ter from their noses. They rep­re­sent hap­pi­ness.

Round­abouts are com­mon in France. Driv­ers and pedes­tri­ans use them ef­fec­tively. It was good to see driv­ers stop for pedes­tri­ans at busy round­abouts and I got used to driv­ing around them.

It’s just a one-hour flight to Bordeaux from Paris. The Bordeaux train sta­tion pro­vides links to nearby cities such as Toulouse, also worth a visit.

Let’s not for­get the wine

The Cité du Vin cel­e­brates the re­gion’s sto­ried wine his­tory. The mas­sive build­ing on the water­front in an in­dus­trial area is an ar­chi­tec­tural gem. Guides will tell you it was de­signed to have per­pet­ual move­ment and re­sem­ble a de­canter.

The mu­seum fea­tures per­ma­nent and tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tions, spe­cial events, work­shops and guided tours. You can also take a self-guided tour. In­ter­ac­tive fea­tures are abun­dant.

The Buf­fet of the Five Senses in­vites you to “in­dulge in the sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence of wine tast­ing.” You stick your nose in a fun­nel and guess the aroma associated with some

wines. There were fa­mil­iar smells (roses, honey comb, lemon) but some had me scratch­ing my head (pen­cil shav­ings).

Ex­pect to spend most of a day at this trib­ute to all things wine. The top floor has a wine sam­pling bar. The ceil­ing is a mass of bot­tles. (There’s grape juice for chil­dren). Step out­side for a panoramic view of the city and sur­round­ing area.

Day trips

Out­side Bordeaux, you can be in wine coun­try in less than 30 min­utes. Book a La Cité du Vin rises from the old in­dus­trial lands to of­fer wine con­nois­seurs and neo­phytes a cul­tural cen­tre that cel­e­brates wine. wine tour at a nearby chateau. I toured the 17th cen­tury Château de Fer­rand, a win­ery owned by just two fam­i­lies in 300 years. Ac­cord­ing to our tour guide, the court of Louis XIV was known to party there. Cur­rent own­ers are de­scen­dants of Baron Bich, founder of the Bic com­pany. And, yes, you can buy a Bic pen in the gift shop.

A tour in­cludes walk­ing through the vine­yards, visit­ing the cel­lars and learn­ing about the wine-mak­ing process. You get to taste wine at the end of the tour.

The nearby me­dieval town of Sain­tÉmil­ion is a charm­ing daytrip. You can climb the Tour du Roy (King’s Keep) for a grand view of the vil­lage. It dates back to the 13th cen­tury.

Some winer­ies al­low you to visit un­der­ground stor­age cel­lars for free. When it’s time for lunch, you can eat out­doors in the shadow of a church that ap­pears to have been carved out of the rock be­neath it. Wear good walk­ing shoes (old stone streets are slip­pery) and bring a sweater. Wine caves are chilly.

Lesser known spots of in­ter­est

When Nazi Ger­many oc­cu­pied Bordeaux in the Sec­ond World War, they built a mas­sive con­crete sub­ma­rine base, la base sous-marine. Ger­man U-boats were sta­tioned there start­ing in 1942 to fight in the war for the At­lantic.

The build­ing’s orig­i­nal pur­pose is dark and men­ac­ing. To­day it’s used very dif­fer­ently as a place to cel­e­brate cre­ative arts. You can tour it for free if a tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tion is run­ning on the in­side. Oth­er­wise you can walk around the out­side.

From in­side you feel the over­whelm­ing scale of the bunker with its mul­ti­ple dock­ing bays. It has a roof more than nine me­tres thick and it cov­ers a to­tal area of 43,000 square me­tres. It’s easy to see why the city has re­pur­posed it rather than try­ing to de­mol­ish it.

A small me­mo­rial hon­ours the mem­ory of 6,000 labour­ers, mainly Por­tugese and Span­ish pris­on­ers of war, who were forced to build it.

An­other less pub­li­cized site is the Cen­tre Jean Moulin, a mu­seum about the French Re­sis­tance and the ex­pe­ri­ence of Bordeaux res­i­dents dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. Ex­hibits seem tired and there’s lit­tle English trans­la­tion, but pho­to­graphs, maps and ar­ti­facts evoke the at­mos­phere of that time. There’s even a boat on the top floor with news­pa­per clip­pings ex­plain­ing how it ar­rived there. Ad­mis­sion is free.

Bordeaux has worked its charm on me, em­brac­ing change while not for­get­ting its past. You can see and do a lot. Or you can re­lax in a café and watch those quiet trams glide by. You could even stroll to the whim­si­cal carousel in the heart of the old city, to find yet one more way to get around.

The Mon­u­ment aux Girondins is the tow­er­ing cen­tre­piece of a mas­sive city square known as Place des Quin­conces. While quadric horse-fish spray wa­ter from their noses, the nearby tran­sit hub of­fers af­ford­able quick tran­sit for the area.

Me­dieval streets of­fer sweet del­i­ca­cies, like mac­arons, but also tricky foot­ing. Be sure to wear good shoes if you visit Saint-Émil­ion.

ABOVE: Old meets new at the world's largest re­flec­tion pool, across from his­toric Place de la Bourse. RIGHT: The Grosse Cloche dates to the 13th cen­tury. The 1775 bell weighs 7,800 kilo­grams.

A tram glides through Bordeaux’s his­toric city cen­tre as skate­board­ers and pedes­tri­ans go about their daily rou­tine.

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