Bordeaux is one of France’s most stylish cities, stretching elegantly beside the River Garonne. The broad boulevards, spacious squares and parks, and magnificent mansions are Parisian in feel. But Bordeaux has its own distinct character and charm. It enjoys a pleasant climate, is easy to travel to, and provides access to exciting cultural and gourmet experiences. And, of course, it’s the gateway to one of the world’s greatest wine regions.
This southwestern city is easily accessible from Paris. It’s a little more than three hours by comfortable TGV (high speed train) or just over an hour’s flying time from Paris airports.
Known as the ‘Pearl of Aquitaine’, central Bordeaux became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, preserving its unique urban character and historic architecture. More than 350 buildings are listed Historic Monuments. Some of them date back to Roman times. A recent major restoration has burnished the pearly facades, while a new tramway system makes getting about even easier. The Bordelais are proud of their city and celebrate it with zest.
Visitors are spoilt for choice in this center of history and culture. Much of the city is built on a grand scale, wealthy merchants having swept away some of the older medieval buildings in the 18th century. A must-see sight is the Place de la Comédie, which houses the Grand Theatre with its sumptuous neo-classical façade. Nearby, the Esplanade des Quinconces, established in 1820, is the biggest square in Europe. A massive monument decorated with ornate sculptures honors the Girondins who were victims of the Revolutionary Reign of Terror.
The previously rundown riverfront has benefited most from Bordeaux’s makeover. The old warehouses have been transformed into hip shops and cafés, where it’s fun to sit and people watch over a glass of the local nectar. The splendid Place de la Bourse is not to miss. This former business exchange was built as the backdrop to a statue of Louis XV. The best time to see it is at night, when its floodlit exterior is reflected from the expanse of shallow water in front of it, le miroir d’eau.
Bordeaux boasts churches aplenty in styles from Romanesque through Gothic to Baroque. The Basilica of St. Seurin is the oldest, founded in the 6th century with 11 th -century features remaining. The Cathedral of St. André is a comparative newcomer, consecrated in 1096. Here, the charismatic 13-year old heiress Eleanor of Aquitaine married her first husband, Louis VII of France in 1137. Worth a look, too, are the churches of St. Croix, a 12th -century gem, and the Gothic St. Michel. Its separate soaring spire provides breathtaking views of the city and its setting.
For museums, the Musée des Beaux Arts tops the list with its stunning collection of paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Renoir, Matisse and Picasso, to name just a few. For aficionados of the avant-garde, CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art housed in a former warehouse is the place to go. The Musée d’Aquitaine follows the history of the region from the earliest times in lively fashion, with the accent on commerce and the wine trade.
Bordeaux is above all a gourmet and wine lover’s paradise. One of the most colorful food markets is held on Sundays along the waterfront in the old wine merchants’ district of Chartrons. This is the ideal place to stroll around and discover the best produce from the abundant region surrounding the city. Keen shoppers can refresh themselves with Arcachon Bay oysters and a glass of white Bordeaux in situ.
And, once the appetite is whetted, there’s no shortage of excellent restaurants and wine-bars to suit all pockets, offering inventive combinations of food and wine. On the menu are Pauillac lamb, Bazas beef, and fish and seafood from the river and the Atlantic nearby. Crisply-fried baby eels are a Bordeaux delicacy as are oysters served with spicy sausages.
As you would expect of a city that founded its fortunes on wine, Bordeaux celebrates its major product in countless ways. The Musée du Vin et du Negoce (wine trade museum), set in a former merchant’s house, relates the history of wine. At the Vinorama Museum, wine lovers can sip famous vintages in the company of wax figurines.
Wine festivals take place throughout the year, both in and around Bordeaux. The biggest is the biennial Bordeaux Wine Festival in June. Its ‘wine road’ stretches along the quays in the Chartrons district, providing plenty of opportunities for tasting famous appellations. The program features live music, a son-et-lumière show and fireworks. And there are wine tours galore throughout the year for those who fancy savoring the vintages of the Médoc, St. Emilion or Sauternes at the legendary vineyards.
After all the sightseeing, a little retail therapy is in order. The luxury boutiques are in the so-called Triangle d’Or in the center of Bordeaux. More affordable shops are located in the Rue Sainte-Cathérine. This is the longest pedestrian street in France, running through the medieval St. Pierre district. It offers more than a mile of shops, cafés and restaurants. Even the pickiest shopper will find something here to take home. Art and antiques hunters should head to the Chartrons quays or the Rue Notre Dame. And there’s a great Sunday flea market around the Church of St. Michel.
There’s something to suit every taste in Bordeaux. A single visit won’t be enough.
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