Bordeaux, a truly elegant city
Bordeaux is a wine, a wine region, and of course a city that is strategically placed for visits to the well-known appellations of Médoc, Graves and Saint-Émilion. It is one of France’s biggest cities and amongst the most elegant, so take the time to visit this fascinating destination before heading off to the vineyards.
Bordeaux lies on the river Garonne, close to the Atlantic Ocean. Water plays an essential role in Bordeaux; it is important for the vines because it of its effect on the climate, tempering the cold of winter and the heat of summer.
Originally a town with narrow, winding streets, in the 18th century Bordeaux became one of France’s most beautiful cities with wide avenues, stately homes and small private palaces built of pale sandstone, placed along the quayside and around the magnificent horseshoe-shaped Place de la Bourse. The splendid opera house – Le Grand Théatre – was also designed in the 18th century by architect Victor Louis. Some years later, one of his apprentices built one of Médoc’s most famous wine chateaux: visit Château Margaux and you will recognise the style.
Renaissance of a stunning city
The façades of Bordeaux’s buildings have been carefully cleaned in recent years and the whole city has had a face lift, including the Cathédrale de Saint André which has been restored to its original colour.
Bordeaux is a major city of around 700,000 inhabitants. The centre is small and almost everything can be reached on foot. Alternatively, one can simply hop on one of the ultra-modern trams which glide soundlessly through the streets.
Many of the central thoroughfares have become off-limits to cars, and thus visiting Bordeaux as a pedestrian is a highly enjoyable experience. Take a pleasant stroll along the elegant Cours de l’Intendance and admire the upmarket boutiques and and luxury brands. L’Intendant is a wine shop with a vast selection of bottles and vintages from prestigious chateaux; as it is not always possible to buy wine directly from the more famous names, the city’s many specialist wine stores are a boon.
Le Grand Théatre is situated in the very heart of Bordeaux. This is a good spot to take a break and watch the world go by from one of the many café terraces. Order a coffee, or perhaps a small Lillet, Bordeaux’s very own apéritif. Nearby, the Maison du Vin de Bordeaux houses a very good wine bar selling wine by the glass at reasonable prices, and across the street is the tourist information office, a valuable source of maps, châteaux visiting hours and everything else pertaining to wine tourism in the Bordeaux area.
Le Vieux Bordeaux
At the Rue St-Catherine we turn towards Vieux Bordeaux, the old town, making our way to the attractive Place du Parlement with its many cafés and restaurants. Chez Philippe is a seafood restaurant serving excellent local oysters and fish.
On the corner is a Danish-owned wine store, Cousin et Compagnie, offering a variety of wines from Bordeaux and the rest of the world. Their opening hours are somewhat unusual but handy for tourists: 10 am to 10 pm, 7 days a week (note that most shops close at 7 pm).
For a selection of accessibly priced restaurants, some of which are really good, head to the area around the church of Saint Pierre.
The Quai des Chartrons
We continue down to the river and the legendary Quai des Chartrons. In the old days, this is where the négociants (wine wholesalers) had their offices and warehouses. At the time, the majority of wine sales passed through these négociants, who even bottled the wines of the famous chateaux, but nowadays most of the chateaux bottle their wine themselves.
The négociants still perform an important function as a sales channel and many of them also have their own labels, but most have moved to the outskirts of town as it was not practical to have large warehouse facilities in the middle of town. Hence the buildings along the quayside have been renovated, and many restaurants and cafés have moved in. There are a few old signs left that tell the story, and négociant Schroeder & Schyler is still here.
If you are in the mood for some culture the Museum of Modern Art is close by, housed in an enormous, beautifully restored warehouse dating back to 1824 (the warehouse itself is remarkable and well worth seeing).
Delicious local specialities and colourful food markets
One of the things I love about France is the food markets. There is a very lively market held on Sunday mornings at the Quai des Chartrons which is wonderful for browsing and people watching, and of course if you are peckish, you can enjoy a plate of oysters and a glass of wine; walk across the Pont de Pierre and you’ll find another food market on the other side of the river.
Oysters are perhaps the best-known gastronomic speciality of Bordeaux as we are not far from Arcachon. This upmarket seaside resort is also home to one of the largest oyster farms in Europe. A typical Bordeaux speciality is to serve the oysters together with small, flattened sausages known as crépinettes. It’s an unusual but successful combination, and all the better for a glass of crisp white Entre-deux-Mers.
Another gastronomic speciality of south west France is duck. A marvellous dish often served in restaurants here is fresh duck liver (foie gras), lightly fried and served with a glass of Sauternes: foie gras poëlé. Duck breast (magret de canard) is another typical dish, as is entrecôte with its sauce bordelaise, a delicious sauce made from red wine and shallots.
Something you must try at least once when in Bordeaux are the little cakes made from egg yolks, vanilla and rum known as canelés de Bordeaux. You’ll see them for sale at a variety of café and boutiques around town (look out for the Baillardran name): enjoy them with a glass of sweet Bordeaux wine or coffee.
On the Allée de Tourny, Bistro Noailles is a typical French brasserie. The place is lively and often crowded, but if you’re lucky enough to get a table you’ll enjoy all manner of delicious dishes including entrecôte steak and oysters.
Another favourite Bordeaux dish is agneau de Pauillac (baby lamb with a very delicate taste). If you want to try this delicacy head to Café Gourmand, near the small shopping mall Galeries des Grands Hommes. In the same area is another good restaurant, Le Mably, hidden in a tiny back-street. The food is traditional but very well prepared, and it has a certain innovative finesse.
Be sure to take a stroll at nightfall over the magnificent Pont de Pierre. Commissioned by Napoléon, this handsome bridge will take you to the other side of the river to admire the spectacular residences that line the quay. The façades of these buildings are impressive and when the Bordeaux tramway system was built, ground-based power feed technology was developed in order to avoid suspended electric cables disturbing their harmonious appearance. Here and there you’ll see a building that has not (yet) been cleaned, and the contrast is remarkable.
The historic centre of Bordeaux features on the UNESCO World Heritage list and it is easy to see why: it is a stunning, elegant city brimming over with history and gastronomic heritage, and of course it is a perfect base from which to discover the region’s great wines.
Finally, try to catch one of the most amazing sights in newly-renovated old Bordeaux, namely Le Miroir d’Eau (literally, the water mirror). Situated opposite the Place de la Bourse, this fascinating water feature changes from hour to hour, from a reflecting surface to clouds of mist, to a dry, empty expanse where puzzled pedestrians stand and wait for the magic to begin. See it at its most magnificent at nightfall, when the illuminated facades of the buildings opposite are reflected on the water’s glassy, mirror-like surface.
Le Mably, 12 rue Mably. Tradition, well-prepared French cuisine.
Bistro Noailles, 12 allées de Tourny. A lively brasserie with good oysters, entrecôte and more
Villa Tourny, 20 allées de Tourny. Trendy, very popular and lively later in the evening
La Belle Epoque, 2 allées Orleans. Attractive, Belle Epoque atmosphere.
Cafe Gourmand, 3 rue Buffon. A combination of tradition and innovation.
Bouillon Rubicond (previously Gravelier), 114 cours de Verdun. Top quality cuisine from south-western France, at reasonable prices.
Maison du Vin, 3 cours du 30 juillet. Wine bar with small tapas dishes.
There are many; here are two suggestions for starters.
Cousin et Compagnie, place du Parlement, open from 10 am 10 pm every day.
L’Intendant, 2 allées du Tourny.
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