Bordeaux, France: A Shining City by the Garonne
By Max Hartshorne
Bordeaux, in the Southwestern corner of France, is a gleaming, gorgeous city filled with natural-born boosters, and beautiful neo-classical and Beaux-Arts architecture.
“The Bordelaise love their city, and they are proud of it, but they’re not as open-minded as people in Paris or Lyon….they’re a bit provincial,” said Anne-Sophie, a pretty 20-something blond who has just moved back home to the city after a long stint in Rome.
She said the rent was drastically less here in Bordeaux than in Rome, or probably in Paris too.
“People here [in Bordeaux] would rather spend their vacation in nearby Arcachon, or Biarritz, just to the south, than travel somewhere far away. They’re not as interested in faraway, they like it right here. They know how to relax and appreciate the quality of life that Bordeaux affords.”
On a hot morning in June, I walked the streets of Bordeaux with Stephane Thierry, who for 35 years has run the press marketing for the large region of Aquitaine, that covers five distinct parts, from Perigeaux and the Dordogne in the north all the way down to glitzy Biarritz in the South, and west to Lot-en-Garonne.
Like Anne-Sophie, Theirry is a booster who loves the city and is proud of the progress that’s been made after a firecracker mayor helped move everything from the trams to the riverfront forward. Now that man has moved on to head the state department in Paris.
Getting Rid of the Walls
With a history stretching back to pre-Roman times, the city wasn’t always as attractive as it is today. That’s because in 1998, they tore down twelve large warehouses and factory buildings and a big wall that separated the city from the Garonne river. Wine guru Robert Parker wrote in March 2008: “I remember the old days and the rotten, abandoned buildings on the waterfront, now a ravishing destination.”
Today there is a graceful four kilometer promenade, bordered by gardens, historic limestone buildings from the 1800s and areas for festivals and bandstands. The riverfront is a Bordeaux highlight, and 20 cruise ships a year sail all the way up the river and dock right near the city center. The freight is now handled out by the ocean, no longer in the city.
In 2007, Bordeaux was honored by a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, based on the attractive architectural styles from the boulevards to the Garonne waterfront.
One thing that strikes the visitor here are those 1800s buildings….so gleaming yellow, their limestone polished and cleaned and their original color restored. You especially notice this when you see a building that’s not yet had the treatment. The big church was being cleaned and the difference was quite remarkable.
Longest Shopping Street
There is the longest pedestrian mall in Europe down the center of Bordeaux, it’s three kilometers of shops, restaurants and only delivery vehicles are allowed to get in.
They’re building an arena in the city since there is no place for big concerts and the city’s theaters are all small little storefronts. The tourism is way up in the region, and at the airport luggage carousels, man-sized replica bottles of Bordeaux’s finest wine are perched above the belts.
Dining at Bordeaux provides a huge wealth of choices. For prime people-watching, you can’t beat the terrace in front of the city’s top hotels, the Regent. Choosing the wine, finding a local selection that was sold in a box for heaven’s sake…It was so good we wrote it down: Ch. Haut Phillponser.
Another dining spot that’s right wherein the center of things is Le Bistrot de Gabriel, which won a Bocuse Gold medal in 2001. The restaurant overlooks the fountain, where the trams glide by silently every few minutes in front of the river. I took this tram to the railroad station for my sojourn in the Dordogne countryside…very convenient!
Brasserie de l’ Europe
The Brasserie de l’ Europe at the Regent Hotel is another prime people-watching location, with upscale travelers coming and going and a tasty inexpensive menu. Here again, we deferred to our host, the head of Aquitaine Tourism. It’s right across from the Opera House.
Famous Vineyards Nearby
Besides the vibrant nightlife in the bars and clubs adjacent to the river, the city is a great jumping-off point for day trips out to wine enthusiast’s meccas like St. Emilion, Macau, or Paulliac. These names are famous for wine lovers throughout the world, and visiting the wineries is a great day trip.
Bordeaux boasts some of the largest and oldest vineyards in the world…more than 10,000 estates, 300 wine shippers and 93 wine brokers make their living from this fertile wine-loving soil.
We heard a few stories about the new crop of nouveau wine appreciators from China. With newfound wealth, one group came into a Michelin starred restaurant, complained about the wine list, then went out to a store for a few bottles of $500 wine from a neighboring vineyard. He paid the $250 per bottle corkage fee with pride. Rich and happy about it.
Day trips from Bordeaux
The city is also a great launching pad for many fascinating day trip destinations…starting with the glorious Atlantic coast to the west. Arcachon is the first big town, about forty miles away and the gateway to the pine-forested beach lands.
Further south is other beach towns, then the glossiness of Biarritz and the famous hams of Basque influenced Bayonne.
The village of Biscarosse brings me very fond memories. I traveled there in 1988, having been married just eight years and our time was memorable, a balmy week in June. We visited their very large clothing-optional beach where a sign directs you to Biscarosse Plage’s “Aire Nudist” or family clothed. We chose the first option.
The Biscarosse website includes a gorgeous panoramic view of the beach showing the surf conditions which are often excellent for surfing
Along with the elegant Grand Hotel Regent, which has a royal suite with a rooftop jacuzzi for $3000 a night, regular rooms are between $300 and $600. There is a pool on the fifth floor right next to the newly renovated spa.
In this big hotel, now locally owned, a highlight is a shiny device in the dining room that’s one of only five in the world.
The fine restaurant Le Pressoir d ‘Argent is famous for this $40,000 silver lobster press, that removes the homard’s shells right in front of diners as they sit in the plush dining room. It weighs 90 pounds, is made of pure silver, it presses out the lobster ‘jus’ to add an elegant flourish and flavor to sauces made by the seafood-crazy chef.
Another good centrally located choice for Bordeaux lodging is the Hotel Majestic, at 2 rue de Conde, right in the center of the city. Comfortable and spacious rooms for $200 euros.
It’s very easy to get to the train station to hop on a train heading east toward the lovely Dordogne region.
The medieval towns of Bergerac and Sarlat are fantastic destinations a little further than a day trip but magnificent places to see. The Dordogne is also famous for the canoeing where each time you turn around a corner of the river you are greeted by the castles perched up on hillsides. Surprises along almost the whole river trip. Bordeaux is full of citizens who are pleased with the great progress the city has made in making itself look so nice in recent decades.
More than three million visitors come to the city each year, many for the annual wine festival in June. It’s well served with more than 25 daily train departures and arrivals from Paris. A new track built for the TGV now speeds travel time between Paris and Bordeaux to under two hours. A new tram line has been built that will connect outlying areas better to the city center and help with the crushing traffic jams.