A Taste of Bordeaux
How to Spend a Perfect 48 Hours in the World Capital of Wine
Escape to France’s wine country
The best destination for a long weekend out of Paris this autumn may surprise you. It’s Bordeaux, the stunningly beautiful city on the Garonne river in southwestern France.
It may be almost 590 kilometres from Paris, but with the completion of the last segment of dedicated high-speed rail track between the two cities last July, Bordeaux is now a mere two hours from Paris, and better still, this very comfortable train travel is between two centre-city rail stations that are easily accessed. The new rail line is an impressive achievement, too, since it took five years and 7.9 billion euros to build and involved constructing over 400 new dedicated structures, including twenty-four bridges.
This new ease of access is only one reason for the surging popularity of the elegant town the French poetically call “Le Port de la Lune” (the port of the moon), a reference to the crescent-moon shaped bend on the Garonne where this city of 250,000 is situated. Within the last twenty years, this city, which was a small Celtic settlement named Burdigala before it was conquered by the Romans in 107 B.C. (they were the ones who first planted the region’s now world-renowned vineyards, too), has undergone a remarkable urban transformation that’s made it one of the most alluring cities in Europe, and this has happened without it losing its essential identity as a busy port and the capital of the world’s wine trade to gentrification.
To put this evolution in context, you need some history. Consider the words of the writer Victor Hugo who most aptly described the personality of the city during the 19th century, “Bordeaux is a curious city, original and perhaps unique. Take Versailles and mix it with Antwerp, and you have Bordeaux.” Hugo was referring to the contrast between the magnificent 18th century architecture in the heart of the city and the commercial traffic of its adjacent port district on wharves built out on to the muddy banks of the Garonne. Today, the city’s working port has moved down-river from the historic centre, and after the completion of a fifteen-year project that began in the mid1990s to remove the shrouds of black soot that hid the beauty of the city’s elegant limestone architecture, including the spectacular Place de la Bourse (the former stock exchange designed by Louis XV’s architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel) and several kilometres of elegant riverside façades, the centre of Bordeaux was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2007. A sleek new tramway system with dark green cars and grass planted medians now glides through the city and makes it very easy to get around (you definitely do not want or need a car during a visit to Bordeaux), and several major new museums have boosted the city’s already considerable appeal.
Beyond the beauty of the city itself, the big new attraction in Bordeaux is the recently opened 100 million-euro Cité du Vin, a multi-media centre devoted to the history of wine, both in the Bordelais region and in the rest of the world, which opened in a striking horn-shaped ten-story metal-andglass structure on the banks of the Garonne in 2016.
Designed by architects Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazières, the Cité du Vin includes a permanent exhibition area of twenty themed modules that incorporate new audio-visual creations around various wine themes, three tasting laboratories that include specially designed multi-sensory spaces for a total immersion in wine, a viewing gallery, a dock from which to embark on visits to the wine chateaux up and down the river, a special exhibition centre, a wine bar and snack bar with an outdoor patio, and an excellent panoramic restaurant on the 7th floor where a superb variety of wines by-the-glass are offered.
“La Cité du Vin is transformational for Bordeaux,” says Sylvie Cazes, president of the museum and the doyenne of one of the most famous wine-making families in the Bordelais (her company the Domaine Jean-Michel Cazes, owns a variety of the most prestigious vineyards in the Bordelais, including Château Lynch-Bages and Château Les Ormes de Pez).
“The project originated in 2008 when Alain Juppé [France’s former prime minister] was mayor. He recognised that wine tourism was vitally important for Bordeaux both for economic reasons and also as an affirmation of the city’s viniferous identity,” Ms Cazes explains. “The guiding idea for the museum was the decision that the content of the museum would be international, or treat the wines of the world and not just the Bordelais or other regions of France. The point of the museum is to present the complexity of wine in an appealingly simple way.”
Just across the street from the Cité du Vin, Les Halles Bacalan is Bordeaux’s newest food market and delicious place to shop for epicurean souvenirs like foie gras or maybe take a time out with some freshly shucked oysters and a glass of white wine, a Graves from the Bordelais, bien sûr.
A few tramway stops from the Cité du Vin and the Les Halles Bacalan, the CAPC,
Bordeaux’s museum of contemporary art, was created forty years ago in a handsome stone warehouse that formerly housed foodstuffs imported from France’s colonies. Renovated by architects Denis Valod and Jean Pistre, the museum hosts a regular series of temporary shows in addition to having an excellent permanent collection that includes works by everyone from Keith Haring to Georges Rousse. Note that the interior fixtures and furniture of the museum were designed by the late interior designer Andrée Putman, with the idea that they should become part of the museum’s permanent collection as well.
The greatest pleasure of a weekend in Bordeaux is strolling its streets and admiring its magnificent 18th century architecture, including the Place de la Bourse on the banks of the Garonne, and the nearby Opera House, but the other museum that shouldn’t be missed is the Musée d’Aquitaine, which recounts the history of both Bordeaux and the surrounding Aquitaine region in one of the largest French history museums outside of Paris. Of particular interest here are the exhibits devoted to prehistoric life in the region, Bordeaux under the Romans, and “Bordeaux Atlantic Trade and Slavery,” which explains the city’s role as France’s principal colonial port during the 18th century.
The Bordeaux City Pass sold by the Bordeaux Tourism and Conventions Bureaux includes access to all of these museums, along with unlimited use of the city’s transit system and a city tour. The pass, an excellent buy and a huge convenience during a visit to Bordeaux, is available in 24, 48 and 72-hour versions, and can be purchased online at www.bordeaux-tourisme.co.uk or at one of their three offices in the city (addresses online).