It doesn’t seem right to compare Bordeaux, which dates from Roman times, with She’s All That, the Freddie Prinze Jr movie in which the jock remakes the nerd into a prom queen.
So let’s go classier and suggest the city, whose ornate 17th and 18th century architecture and wide waterfront have been hidden by decades of grime and decaying warehouses, is similar to the alluring bookstore proprietress in The Big Sleep who casts off her glasses and unpins her hair: “Hel-lo,” responds Humphrey Bogart, lifting his glass to her. In the finest of traditions, Bordeaux has had a makeover.
The region is one of the most vaunted wine producers in France but until recently many visitors gave the city itself a pass. Prostitutes and shady characters strolled its rundown waterfront, black grime obscured the architecture.
The experience was a little defeated. But a recent regeneration project, backed by mayor (and former French Prime Minister) Alain Juppe, has scoured buildings, turned the area by the Garonne River to a sweeping promenade with a shallow pool reflecting the Place de la Bourse and resurrected its graceful beauty.
Even the sex shop I passed on the waterfront on the way to dinner was tucked into a delightful 18th-century carved limestone edifice, its neon sign glowing almost decorously in the night. A new whisper-quiet tram, free from overhead lines in the central city, whisks visitors and locals around its 35km tracks (expanding to 45kms). On 28 June, 2007, it was named as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Oenophiles may sputter into their vin rouge to hear it, but just making the rounds of Medoc, Margaux or Saint-Emilion isn’t the full Bordeaux experience anymore.
Within the city limits, there is the earthy terrine-like grenier medocain made of pig’s snout and ears to taste, chocolate from historic chocolatiers to be eaten, canele– the traditional fluted cakes once made by nuns for the poor in the 1800s, now a bordelais standard – to learn about (“It must be crusty outside, but inside mellow, yellow,” describes my guide with intensity and passion. She also points outs a shop where I can get the traditional copper molds to make them affordably rather than paying a premium price at the ubiquitous chain Caneles Baillardran).
This is one shortcut you won’t want to miss to get the most from Bordeaux: enlisting the Bordeaux Tourist Office. It runs tours and walks every day of the week, taking in everything from the area’s most famous wine regions to bike tours and monument tours by horse-drawn carriage.
The guides have overarching knowledge about the history and architecture and reveal unusual and interesting features of the city, such as the foodie tour which includes a visit to the renown local cheese shop in town that ages its wares in its own cave (Jean D’Alos). “The cave is from the old convent from the 11th century”, my guide tossed over her shoulder as we walked in).
Recently on a bright chilly Saturday autumn morning I waited at the tourist office with visitors from Japan, England and the US, for a walk around the old wine merchants district. Our guide, in a distinctive lime green puffy coat, lead us round the old wine merchants area, known as Les Chartrons.
Wine merchants, or neciants, had imposing buildings here, where they lived, ran the business, made wine and, in ground-floor cellars, aged their vintages. These days only the gorgeous houses, built on marshland, remain. Except for one. Calvert is the only wine house still operating in Les Chartrons. We toured the restored historic building and wine-making facilities and finished with a tasting in the cellar.
Then we wandered back, through streets whose design still mimics the cellars below them, coming across the La Fête du Vin Nouveau and de la brocante, a wine and flea market festival, where she pointed out a knickknack shop that’s also a bar.
We stopped for lunch at Baud & Millet, a snug cheese and wine restaurant where we ate confit de canard amid crates of bottles and wine memorabilia. Then we were invited downstairs to pick from an array of wonderfully furry malodorous cheeses in its cave as water dropped delicately down our necks.
After lunch, we boarded the coach to visit two wineries in the Medoc, 40 minutes (and a quite thorough kip) to the north, where we toured facilities and of course tasted the wine.
The next morning I set off on my own to the flea market at the foot of St Michel, opting for the tram so as to take in the waterfront. This is a proper old-fashioned flea market. One stall seller tried to sell me two entire boxes of vintage magazines for €10.
Tables were piled with videocassettes, clothes and old Barbie dolls; blankets spread on the ground showcased scrap metal and knickknacks. Across the street at a sunny café old-timers and visitors alike sat smoking cigarettes and drinking their cafes. I walked to the Place de Capuchins, where the Marcheux Capuchins – a large covered food market – is held.
I sat at café just inside, amid the fishmongers and an accordioniste playing the theme from Amelie and had the standard half dozen oysters plus a glass of white wine for €5.50. Then I walked over to the Saint-Andre Cathedral, Bordeaux’s finest church, had a chevre chaud salad at a café in the sunny plaza outside, then walked back to my hotel. The diversions in Bordeaux are legion but you don’t have to spend hours running all over town to find them.
A weekend here on the tourist trail can feel very cosy, especially when you run into other visitors several times, as I did. I spotted two couples my first night in town at La Tupina: They were having animated conversations across the aisle while a married French gentleman of a certain age struck up conversation with me and – in the best of French traditions – flirted, shared his wine and discussed the state of politics and good food.
They spotted me the next day and struck up conversation. Paul and Katrina Hindmarsh were visiting the city for a weekend with their friends Julian and Sarah Cole, taking in an afternoon wine tasting tour in the Medoc. “We booked through the tourist office and they were fabulous,” said Katrina. Their room at the Quality Inn St Catherine was adequate, but they loved being in the pedestrianised old town. “It’s the location. That’s what you need,” said Katrina. Like me, they’d planned to visit some museums. But “we ended up in the chocolate shop.”
Rue des Remparts, good for shopping with characterful boutiques selling chocolate, shoes, surf gear, sewing supplies, baby goods and toys. Head to Porte Dijeaux for typical mid-range French and international labels (Zara, Petit Bateau, Kookai, etc).
Rue Ste-Catherine is one of the busiest shopping streets and an old Roman road. It links the Grand Theatre to the Place de la Victoire.
The graceful Jardin Public off the Esplanade de Quinconces has a stream with geese and ducks, a playground, a carousel and a cafe as the Theatre Guignol Lyonnais in the Jardin Public puts on marionette shows from September to June, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays and school holidays at 3:30pm. Cost is €3.50. For more information contact Monsieur Guerin (6880 1769). Outside of city of Arcachon, which is about 50km from Bordeaux, is Dune du Pyla, Europe’s highest sand dune. Buy ice cream and climb up, then visit the family-oriented Arcachon beach.
Bordeaux’s unique treat is a cake called canneles first made by nuns in the 19th century. It is like a portable crême brûlee and can be anything from a street snack to a gourmet dessert. One of the best-known makers is Baillardran. Details: Galerie des Grands Hommes.
Everyone knows about Bordeaux wine, but it took James Bond to appreciate the local aperitif, Lillet. It went into 007’s favourite cocktail when it made its first appearance in Casino Royale. Show some local knowledge by asking for it at the Connemara, an Irish sports bar with a surprisingly sophisticated drinks menu.
La Maison Bordeaux on rue Albert Barraud has doubles from £100 a night. It is a stylish boutique hotel, a stroll from the city centre, owned by a designer from a wine-making family.
Where to eat
Jean-Pierre Xiradakis at La Tupina – a sure-fire spot for a hearty bistro meal, like duck confit and roasted shoulder of lamb. The set menus, at €32, won’t break the bank. Also try Le Café du Musee(7 Rue Ferrère, Phone 33 5 56 00 81 50), the rooftop restaurant at the Contemporary Art Museum.