Anthony Peregrine explores a wonderful old city enjoying a dynamic new lease of life.
After 22 years in office, Alain Juppe — the former French prime minister — quit as mayor of Bordeaux last month. He'd done great things. Under his direction, the port city and wine HQ woke from 20th-century slumbers, gaining dollops of dynamism. Bordeaux had long been monumental and elegant — a capital city in search of a country to rule — but had grown scruffy and ponderously self-important. Juppe put it back in touch with its Latin side, fostering festivals, culture and redevelopment, threading trams through it, reclaiming the banks of the Garonne from prostitutes and addicts, cleaning facades so the Bordeaux town and riverscapes were again among the noblest in France, thus giving the city a sense of world status. This was enhanced in 2017 by the arrival of the TGV, putting Bordeaux two hours from Paris. It will be further underlined in the Northern Hemisphere summer, when the Museum of the Sea and Seafaring opens in what used to be the wet docks, where the
. Before that, on June 20-23, the city's biennial River Festival brings sailing ships, concerts, wine and nautical shows to the
. It also kicks off a summer-long roster of cultural events on the theme of
Of the rash of new hotels, the poshest is the five-star, marble'n'modern design Palais Gallien in 19th-century surroundings on Rue Abbe-de-l'Epee. Decent restaurant and rooftop terrace , too (doubles from $388). Among an earlier crop of newcomers, I rate the slightly off-centre Seeko'o on Quai Bacalan, with its all-white exterior ("iceberg," says the hotel PR, "big fridge," I say) and bright interior full of young staff who seem to like customers (doubles from $253) or ultra-central, playful Mama Shelter (doubles from $167).
World's best bookstores: Large or small, they speak volumes
Start at the tourist office at 18 Cours du 30 juillet, crossing to the Place des Quinconces, vast enough to welcome a small war and embellished by the delirious Girondin monument of half-naked men, bare-breasted women and fishtailed horses. Now stroll up river. Once gloomy and menacing, the banks are now populated by families and kids who scream with delight as they kick through the huge water mirror before the Palais de la Bourse, the sumptuous 18th-century stock exchange building built on the back of wine, spices, slaves and supreme confidence in the rightness of it all. Plunge into the old centre, around the St Pierre church and plunge out again to the Golden Triangle. Here, the city's medieval heart was ripped out by colonial looters to be replaced by stately open space and neoclassical declarations of unshakeable self-belief.
The Cite du Vin is Europe's greatest wine museum and exhibition centre. As it should be. This is Bordeaux, for heaven's sake. The
contains a six-storey interactive romp through the world of wine and attendant subjects: art, culture, sensuality, transport and more. Tastings proliferate. ($33).
Contact Sylvie Berteaux at Miam-Bordeaux for a two-hour gastronomic-cum-historical walk through Bordeaux's medieval innards, with food tasting along the way (from $49). In the afternoon, cross the river to the Darwin Eco-System — a former barracks now hosting an urban farm, eco-shops and a restaurant, an al fresco bar with terrific views over the Garonne, exhibitions, a skate-park and everything else in the alternative air-du-temps.
The most reasonable retail clusters along and around Rue Sainte-Catherine, the longest pedestrianised street in France.
Make for Le Wine Bar at 19 Rue des Bahutiers , Frida and its interior garden on Rue Buhan and/or Aux 4 Coins Du Vin, with its card-operated wall dispensers, in the old town maze on Rue de la Devise .
Tanguy Laviale's Garopapilles combines a wine shop with a Michelin-starred restaurant (lunch $65, dinner $151). Scot Daniel Gallacher offers top-end value for money with a weekly-changing menu at Racines (lunch from $32, dinner from $48). New last year was La Boca 14, a restaurant food court down by Quai Paludate and new this year is Fabien Beaufour's Cent 33 with its well-worked sharing plates (dinner from $84).
OFF THE MAP
You're in Bordeaux . You need to see vineyards and taste wine. Bordovino half-day trips in small groups or on private tours have never let me down (from $121).
flies from Auckland to Paris, via Bangkok.