Bordeaux resident Jane Anson picks out the best places to go in the city, by the river and in the vineyards.
Bordeaux travel: Where to visit
We made it to the Garonne quayside just as a small boat was drawing up at one of the new floating piers, put in place to encourage the further reclamation of the city’s waterfront, for centuries past the starting point of its route to the world.
‘Is that a river taxi?’ asked friends visiting from London for the weekend. ‘Can’t be,’ I replied. ‘It’s February, there’s no way those things run year round.’
Luckily they ignored me, ran to find out, and five minutes later we were crossing the river on a €1.40 ticket – one that can be used for all buses and trams around Bordeaux – over to Place Stalingrad in the Bordeaux Bastide district, opposite the more celebrated quays of Chartrons and Place de la Bourse.
When we disembarked, we walked in late winter sunshine along the newly renovated Bastide waterfront and ended up at the Darwin Centre, a recent addition to the city’s list of attractions, reclaimed from some abandoned warehouses to become a popular work-eat-and-play space.
Bordeaux is having a big year in 2015. Besides the new Darwin Centre, there is a Herzog & de Meuron-designed sports stadium opening in May, just after the inaugural night-time marathon through the UNESCO World Heritage city centre, and continued redevelopment of the areas around both the railway station and the old docks.
All of this helps explain why the city has been named European Best Destination for 2015. Not ‘wine destination’, but ‘destination’ full-stop. The accolade should see the five million visitors that Bordeaux receives each year rise even further, leading up to an expected boom in 2017 when a high-speed rail link makes the city a two-hour train ride from Paris. There are even murmurs of a Eurostar service direct from London to Bordeaux once the fast train is up and running.
There are plenty of projects going on out in the vineyards also, with architect-designed cellars, music festivals and a greater emphasis on harnessing the relationship between local food producers and wine.
Bordeaux travel: Bordeaux city
Several of the key development projects downtown – the international wine cultural centre in the old docks and the stunning arts centre Méca in the former meat-packing district – are set to open in 2016 and 2017 respectively. The biggest opening for 2015 is the 43,000-seat Stade de Bordeaux (www.nouveau-stade-bordeaux.com). Local football team Bordeaux Girondins are now based there, and played their first match in May against Montpellier, followed by the Championnat de France rugby semi-finals in early June. Next year, key matches in the Euro 2016 football tournament will follow.
Opened in 2014 the Darwin Centre is over on the Right Bank, facing the historic Port de La Lune waterfront and housing organic food store and café Le Magasin Général (www.magasingeneral.camp), business work spaces and plenty of outside areas given over to skate parks and art installations, all with a view back over the river.
Back in the main downtown area, visitors can now get a better understanding of the role that the city of Bordeaux played in the development of its region’s world-famous wine industry. One of the best ways to do this is by taking a Wine in the City walking tour (www.bordeauxwalkingtours.com), which starts at the 18th-century Place de la Bourse, where the 1855 classification was first signed into existence, then heads down to the winding streets of Chartrons, the old wine merchant district, where you get to imagine how the area was for the 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century Irish, English, German, Dutch and Danish immigrants who took Bordeaux wine out to the world.
Eating, drinking and sleeping
Bordeaux city is hardly hipster material. We are not in Brooklyn/Portland territory here, but there are some distinctly exciting additions to the scene. Two new wine bars and shops worth exploring are the brilliantly relaxed Le Millésime wine bar and tapas restaurant (www.le-millesime.net), and L’Univerre Wine Shop (www.univerre-restaurant.com) opened in April 2014 by Olivier Beyre. The restaurant was already well known for its extensive wine list, but now the bottles are available to buy and take off-premises, with an excellent range from Bordeaux, the Rhône, Burgundy, Germany, Austria… you name it.
Food-wise, there has been a movement towards locavore (or le locavorisme as they call it in France) restaurants such as Belle Campagne (www.belle-campagne.fr) in the Old Town, opened by chefs Adrian Bacquet and Manuel Dagens, who source every ingredient from Aquitaine and southwest France.
At the other end of the scale, with influences from thousands of miles away, the city’s love affair with all things China has finally started to translate into a better selection of Asian food. One of the best is Dan (www.danbordeaux.com), a small restaurant gaining a great reputation for Cantonese food. Recently opened by Jérôme and Harmony Billot, it offers a Hong Kong-influenced daily menu and a good selection of sharing plates.
Then there’s the premium food trucks that have begun to arrive over the past year or so. This is a genuine revolution in a city better known for its white tablecloths and foie gras. The best of them are Rolling Jack (www.facebook.com/RollingJackOfficial; hotdogs and clubs) and Greengourmet Le Camion Gourmand (www.facebook.com/ greengourmet.lecamiongourmand; all organic food).
Even the white tablecloth restaurants are getting a makeover, most notably in the form of La Grande Maison (www.lagrandemaison-bordeaux.com), opened in late 2014 by Bernard Magrez and Joël Robuchon with the stated aim of achieving three Michelin stars. This is a luxury small hotel also, with individually decorated rooms and glamorous touches everywhere, from Hermès products in the bathroom to Moissonier furniture.
Located between St-Seurin and Gambetta, Yndo (www.yndohotelbordeaux.fr) is another upscale hotel, opened last autumn by Agnès Guiot Du Doignon. With just 12 bedrooms, it is set in a 19th-century townhouse with beautiful interior design, a stone’s throw from the excellent Garopapilles restaurant (www.garopapilles.com; owned by ex-Haut Bailly chef Tanguy Laviale, and in its second year).
Bordeaux travel: The river
The year-round river taxis are just the start of it. The Garonne is undergoing a serious period of revitalisation, with events such as the biennial Bordeaux Fête Le Fleuve river festival (held in May 2015, then again in 2017) that also marks the departure point for the prestigious Solitare du Figaro solo endurance yacht race. This is increasingly a destination for boat trips large and small. Bordeaux received 39 cruise ships in 2013, 43 in 2014 and is expecting more than 50 in 2015.
Smaller local river boats that head out to explore the vineyards of Sauternes, the Médoc and St-Emilion are operated by Viking Cruises (www.vikingrivercruises.com) and Uniworld (www.uniworld.com)– with most trips including châteaux visits and on-board wine tastings. Even large ships are able to dock downtown, thanks to the new 433-metre Chaban-Delmas drawbridge and its 117m vertical lift.
And if you prefer to stay downtown, you can even swim from one side of the river to the other in La Traversée de Bordeaux. This annual event is held in early summer, and is harder than it sounds, as currents are strong along the tidal Garonne river – but boats follow you to ensure safety while in pursuit of the Trophée du Port de la Lune.
Bordeaux travel: In the vineyards
The new cellars at Château Marquis d’Alesme (www.chateau-marquis-dalesme.fr) in Margaux will open this autumn, reflecting the French-Chinese heritage of the Perrodo family with design motifs such as dragon scales and dramatic red and gold colours. The cellars are in the middle of the village of Margaux, and will be open to the public. Tougher to get in to, but worth the effort with an appointment, will be the new Lord Foster-designed cellars at Château Margaux (www.chateau-margaux.com), also freshly completed this summer. Further north in Pauillac, the art museum at Château Mouton Rothschild (www.chateau-mouton-rothschild.com) continues its Paintings for the Labels exhibition, with original artworks displayed in glass cases designed by Francis Lacloche.
2015 is the 25th anniversary of Florence and Daniel Cathiard arriving at Château Smith Haut Lafitte (www.smith-haut-lafitte.com; www.sources-caudalie.com) and transforming it into one of the most attractive destinations in Bordeaux. The hotel has been extended with new rooms, a new indoor swimming pool and the excellent Red bistro and wine bar. Its gourmet restaurant La Grand’Vigne has just been awarded a second Michelin star.
If you act quickly, you should be able to try the cookery classes at La Terrasse Rouge (pictured above; www.laterrasserouge.com) that run until the end of June 2015. This new restaurant, which opened in 2014 at Château La Dominique, offers two-hour classes on Saturday mornings, followed by wine and food pairing over lunch. If not, the three-day St-Emilion Jazz Festival (www.saint-emilion-jazz-festival.com) is lined up for its fourth edition in July. Previous acts have included Jacky Terrasson, Youn Sun Nah, Monty Alexander, Fred Hersch and Earth, Wind & Fire, with concerts among the vineyards of Château Gaudet and Château Troplong Mondot, as well as in the historic buildings of the medieval city.
Jane Anson is Decanter’s Bordeaux correspondent and the author of Bordeaux Legends.