Bordeaux used to have a reputation for being a bit grubby. It’s hard to believe as you wander its streets of honey-coloured buildings. But, if you head to the 17th century Church of Notre Dame (modelled after the Church of Gesú in Rome), stand facing it and look to your left. You’ll see a tea room and in between the church and the tea room is a narrow alley. Look at the walls there, you’ll see what colour Bordeaux was before the big clean up began in 1995 and left it the mellow, gleaming blonde stone beauty it is today.
Locals recall the dark days. When buildings were blackened by years of pollution so that you couldn’t see the lovely carvings and sculptures. And, the walkways by the river were blocked by ugly warehouses.
The project to beautify Bordeaux is ongoing and seems to have a moving goal post. Currently it extends to 2050, with the introduction of a new tram line, the continued regeneration of the docklands and more museums opening. The ugly warehouses are no more. Instead there are swanky shops and loads of bars and restaurants, pleasant walkways and fabulous views. Now the quaysides are busy with runners, cyclists and people enjoying themselves. The Miroir d’Eau, a water sculpture in front of the impressive Place de la Bourse draws people day and night to marvel at and enjoy it, kids splash in the water and cool down in the misty spray.
Bassins des Lumières
More watery fabulousness.In a former German submarine base in Bordeaux, a most spectacular sensory digital art venue now resides: the Bassins des Lumières. It is absolutely unmissable, spectacular. It was so beautiful it’s actually quite an emotional visit. Read more about it here: Bassins des Lumieres.
Opera National de Bordeaux
The Opera National de Bordeaux is a veritable landmark in a city of landmarks. It isn’t like other opera houses. It’s traditional to be boisterous and noisy I’m told, a throwback to the good old days when it first opened and it was a place where the rich went to let their hair down. More a club than an opera house in those days, it would open at 5 pm and cost the equivalent of several days wages for the average working man. It was meant to keep the poor out.
By the 18th century, when the Opera was built, Bordeaux was the second wealthiest city in France, after Paris. It already had a reputation for some of the best wines and its harbour was one of the most important in the world with an an immense flow of goods coming into the city. When Louis XIV visited in the mid-17th century, Bordeaux was very medieval looking despite its growing wealth, and the king commanded that it be modernised. After all this was where many visitors to France first came, he wanted to make a good impression.
UNESCO listed architecture
The rich merchants built new areas and erected fabulous buildings in the neoclassical style. Today they are part of what gives Bordeaux the status of a UNESCO world heritage centre. All around you, the magnificent architecture is truly impressive. Pick up a map from the tourist office and simply wander the streets. As you wander you might notice that some streets have more than one name. Streets often changed names over centuries, and this was particularly so in France following the French Revolution. In Bordeaux though, they kept the old names too. For instance Marché Royale became Marché Liberté– but both names are shown.
A wine store you’ll remember
Opposite the Opera is L’Intendant wine store. It’s an institution for the locals, with wine from 6 euros to 6000 euros. “There isn’t” says local Alex Palerologue “a single bad bottle in here. They are all outstanding even the cheapest, and the people who work here give excellent advice”.
The best wine bar in Bordeaux
The Bar a Vins housed in Maison Gobineau looks very chic and sleek from outside so you might think it’s expensive, trust me, it’s not. Inside there are stained glass windows, an Aubusson tapestry behind the bar and rack upon rack of bottles. You’ll also find a very long wine list menu on which you may be astonished to see so many wines costing from just a few euros per glass. The bar man explains that it’s about making the wines of Bordeaux accessible and known to all.
Another great wine bar is at the top of the Cité du Vin museum (tasting included in ticket price). And the roof top bar of the Grand Hotel is rather fabulous. Let’s face it, this is Bordeaux, it’s brimming with brilliant wine bars!
Cathedral of Bordeaux
The great door of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris were modeled on the doors of the 11th century Cathedral of Bordeaux. Here Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII in 1137. In the 14th century, Bordeaux’s Archbishop became Pope Clement V and moved the seat of Papal rule from Rome to Avignon.
UNESCO listed churches on the Camino de Santiago
You’ll see little brass floor plates as you walk through the city indicating that you’re on the Way of St James (Camino de Santiago). There are 3 UNESCO listed churches on the route.
Not far from the Cathedral, the current town hall of Bordeaux was intended to be the palatial residence of Archbishop Monseigneur Prince Rohan Ferdinand-Maximilian de Mériadeck in the 18th century. He spent 2 million livres on it, a phenomenal sum of money in those days. In fact, he could have built three enormous chateaux with 500 hectares of land for the same money. He never spent a night there as he was sent to a new job. Napoleon did though, and whilst there he commissioned the building of the Pont de Pierre. It was the first bridge across the Garonne River in Bordeaux.
If you think the wine bars are good, wait until you see the restaurants. Bordeaux is foodie heaven. I’ve made some recommendations via the link at the bottom of this post, but seriously, there is such a great choice, the fun is in finding your favourites!
Cité du Vin
Don’t miss the magnificent Cité du Vin. It is a superb museum, the history of wine throughout the ages and around the world though of course with an emphasis, of course, on Bordeaux. Innovative displays, high tech marvels, a most fabulous wine tasting area with panoramic views over the city. A superb wine store and gift shop are also terrific. (Read more about Cité du Vin here).
There are several markets in Bordeaux including the Marché des Quais on a Sunday morning, not far from the Cité du Vin. And if flea markets are your thing, the weekly Puces de St Michel will thrill with its vintage, antiques, books and more (Sunday morning).
When your legs are weary from walking the streets of this wonderful city, just hop on a boat. Take a tour to admire Bordeaux from it’s river, said to be one of the cleanest in Europe.
Nip to Saint Emilion, the train journey takes about 45 minutes and its around a 20-minute walk or take the shuttle or tuk-tuk (in peak season) to the famous little wine village. Very different from Bordeaux city, incredibly pretty and well worth a half day or day detour. Read more on Saint-Emilion.
Bordeaux is full of brilliant restaurants, read where to eat out in Bordeaux
Bordeaux Tourist Office: www.bordeaux-tourisme.com. Stop here first for a map, to book tours and find out what’s on.