by Anthony Peregrine, The Telegraph, April 29, 2019
Picture yourself on the quays at Bordeaux: before, the Garonne idles powerfully past. Behind, there’s the 18th-century magnificence of France’s noblest riverfront. And, beyond, in the city’s heart, monumental buildings and open space. The magnificent Palais de la Bourse has long suggested that Bordeaux was a capital city in search of a country to rule. The elegance is uplifting, the more so that is now shot through with Latin energy.
Bordeaux formerly was overbearing, ponderous with self-importance. Recent electro-shocks have overturned dowdiness and pomposity. The TGV train roars in, the banks of the Garonne have been retrieved from dereliction and the world’s greatest wine is now flattered by the finest wine museum anywhere, not to mention a new generation of bars, restaurants and festivities. The place is alive: Bordeaux nouveau – classical dignity with added zest and fruitiness. For immediate drinking.
Hot right now . . .
Anthony Peregrine, our resident expert, offers his top tips on the best things to do and the hottest places to eat and drink this season.
In 2018 Racines (59 Rue Georges Bonnac; 0033 556 984308) became, without much doubt, the best-value gastronomic restaurant in Bordeaux. No less than you’d expect of a Scottish-run establishment. Glaswegian Daniel Gallacher pleases exacting locals with a weekly-changing menu and superb three-course lunches, at €19 (£17).
Among the newer generation of cracking chefs in Bordeaux, Tanguy Laviale sets a pace at Garopapilles (62 Rue Abbé-de-l’Epée; 00 33 972 455536), where he earned his first Michelin star in 2018. Expect limestone walls, shelves of wine, scrubbed plank floors and high-end bistro cooking.
Bordeaux’s hottest cocktail and wine bar is Frida (27-29 Rue Buhan; 00 33 557 992844), which has a lovely interior garden – though the rest is pretty convivial, too. The bar also serves tapas and more substantial food.
48 hours in . . . Bordeaux
Begin by exploring the Triangle-d’Or – the area between Allées de Tourny, Cours Clemenceau and Intendance – where 18th-century city fathers ripped out the medieval centre to replace it with classical construction and stately open space, to reflect unquestioned trading prosperity. Then trot along to the 30-acre Place des Quinconces. France’s emptiest pedestrian square is ennobled by the Monument aux Girondins, a vast and delirious fountain symbolising freedom vanquishing tyranny, concord, triumph.
Now double back, in front of the classical Grand Theatre, to plunge into the scurrying medieval St Pierre district, where the influence of the ancient church dissipates fast along sinuous streets scurrying with bars, brasseries and boutiques. The stroll should spit you out onto the river-edging Palais de la Bourse (00 335 56 10 20 30). There’s dignity and a monumental harmony to the palace, recalling the time when business exchanges were places of carriages and wigs, not shouty traders and screens. Out front, the vast miroir d’eau(water mirror) reflects the palace brilliantly, as if opening up a new dimension.
Take lunch at the Brasserie l’Orléans (36 Allée d’Orléans; 00 33 556 005006), a bustling spot with tables close together and the requisite buzzing atmosphere. Look out for duck confit with honey, lamb chops with thyme and as many oysters as you can manage, all accompanied by a reasonably priced selection of wines.
Return to the centre and hop on a tram along the riverfront, now renewed with greensward, promenade, leisure areas, bars and a sense of open-air happiness. The old port-side buildings – ochre, slate roofs, thin chimneys – indicate how Bordeaux translated trading necessity into style and substance.
Hop off near the city’s star turn: the £63-million Cité du Vin (134-145 Quai Bacalan; 00 33 556 162 020) and the world’s finest wine museum. The shiny swirl of a building is a six-storey romp of panache and inventiveness, grabbing you by all the senses for an interactive waltz through world wine and attendant subjects: art, culture, transport (look out for a terrific moving boat show), civilisation and sensuality. There are wine tastings and a panoramic restaurant up top too. Your afternoon’s booked solid – it’s well worth the €20 (£18) entry fee.
By night, the river – so vital to Bordeaux’s livelihood – becomes a place of secretive grandeur. It’s best appreciated with dinner on a boat, courtesy of the Bordeaux River Cruise (meets at Quai des Chartrons; 0033 556 392766). Depending on the season, you might expect civet-de-cerf (venison casserole), veal gremolata (topped with lemon zest, parsley and garlic) or croaker fish. The food is significantly better than one expects on a river boat, and the riverscape is bewitching.
Visiting cities with a purpose is invariably better than ambling aimlessly. So, this morning, hook up with one of the history and food tours provided by Miam Bordeaux (miam means 'yum' in French). The tours (0033 621 800680) run by Sylvie Berteaux and her team are first-class, offering a combination of historical anecdotes and visits to food producers. The breakfast tour is an outstanding way to spend a morning, and an excellent way to explore the historical centre of the city.
The nibbles you'll have along the way will fuel a proper appetite, to be sated amid the full-blooded brasserie buzz of La Brasserie Bordelaise (50 Rue St Rémi; 0033 557 871191). The place has barrels as tables, bottles along every wall and lots of locals tackling great meat and shellfish. It’s where to be if you want Bordelais bustle and a sense that you’re at the centre of things.
Now it's time to explore the planet’s most celebrated vineyards, you are in Bordeaux after all. Bordovino Wine Tours (00 335 57 30 04 27) provide youthful and none-too-reverential small-group trips into the surrounding wine country.
Go for an afternoon in and around Saint-Émilion, where there are top-notch domaines to visit. This beautiful old wine town, just 40-minutes outside of Bordeaux, is built like an amphitheatre and has some pretty decent wines to sample. The €94 (£84) price tag for the tour may sound like a lot, but counts as reasonable value for an excellent Bordelais afternoon.
Start with a glass or two at the Aux 4 Coins Du Vin wine bar (8 Rue de la Devise; 00 33 557 343729), an innovative and convivial wine bar bang in Bordeaux's old centre. It has some 40 wines by-the-glass from self-service dispensers, plus 450 other references available by the bottle.
Then throw caution to the wine and see how Gordon Ramsay’s getting on at Le Pressoir d'Argent (Place de la Comédie; 00 33 557 30 43 04) within the big, posh InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hôtel. He’s already bagged two Michelin stars there; prices are a bit startling – mains from €73 (£66) – but so are the style and quality.
If that nevertheless sounds steep, try his Le Bordeaux brasserie (00 33 557 304444) in the same hotel, which offers a more affordable menu with a British influence.
Where to stay . . .
InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hôtel has been a Bordelais institution since the 1920s, when it expanded to its current dimensions. Today, all of Bordeaux life rotates around this lavish neoclassical monument, dripping with history. A stay here is an unusually decadent and must-have experience.
Doubles from €330 (£289). 2-5 Place De La Comédie; 00 33 557 304444
Fans of futuristic architecture will be delighted by Hotel Seeko’o: this luxurious avant-garde icon is right at home in Bordeaux's design quarter, the Bacalan, which is bristling with the beacons of the city's recent building frenzy. From the glacial-inspired palette to the minimalist furniture, the stamp of Scandinavian design is everywhere.
Doubles from €185 (£165). 54 Quai De Bacalan; 00 33 556 390707
Mama Shelter is an elegant, boldly designed hotel in central Bordeaux, occupying the historic Gas Tower building: the city's first experiment with Modernism. Rooms leave nothing to be desired, and come with plenty of quirky touches that will ensure your stay is a memorable one.
Rooms from €79 (£67). 19 Rue Poquelin Molière; 00 33 557 304545
What to bring home . . .
Wine, of course. If you’re flying and therefore limited in quantity, simply buy the most expensive you like and can afford, to maximise the advantage. L’Intendant wine shop (2 Allées Tourny; 00 33 556 480129) is laid out around a spiral staircase, with priciest vintages at the top.
The chocolates from Saunion (56 Cours Clemenceau; 00 33 556 480575) – where Thierry Lalet is the fourth-generation chocolatier – are about as good as chocolates get. Candied fruits and niniches (a type of traditional French caramel candy) are also sold here.
When to go . . .
There’s never a bad time to visit Bordeaux. Autumns and winters are generally mild, and may even be sunny. January may be warm enough to eat lunch outside – but you may also get soaked just a few days later; dampness is part of the deal. Spring is lovely and summer may be as hot as anywhere in France. Note that some restaurants shut midsummer, so check online before visiting.
Know before you go . . .
British Consulate: 00 33 557 22 21 10, 353 Blvd Président Wilson, Bordeaux. Open Mon, Wed, Fri, 9am-12pm, 2pm-4.30pm
British Embassy, Paris: 00 33 144 51 31 00
Emergency services: Dial 112
Bordeaux Tourist Office: 00 33 556 00 66 00 from UK; 05 56 00 66 00 from France; bordeaux-tourisme.com; 12 Cours du XXX Juillet
Local laws and etiquette
French law requires that you always have personal ID about your person, so keep your passport on you.
If driving, you must have a fluorescent yellow bib in the car. It’s to be put on should you break down on a busy road and need to be visible to other motorists – and it’s a legal requirement.
When introduced to someone, shake him or her by the hand. All that cheek-kissing comes a little later (considerably later between men), when acquaintance has been struck up.
Note that, when offered something (a fill-up of your wine glass, more bread, a minor treat), simply saying "Merci" indicates refusal, as in "No, thank you". This is quite different from British practice, where saying a simple “Thank you” implies acceptance, as in "Yes, thank you". So, if you want your wine glass filled or more bread, don’t say: “Merci”. Say "Oui, s’il vous plait."
Round-the-clock snacking is far less common in France than in the UK – as is eating or drinking in the street. French practices are loosening, but you’re still unlikely to draw admiring glances if you’re walking along at 4pm with pizza in one hand, a can of beer in the other.
Telephone code: 00 33 5. (French telephone numbers are almost all 10 digits, starting with 0. When calling from abroad, knock of this initial 0 and substitute 00 33.)
Time difference: +1 hour
Flight time: London to Bordeaux is around 90 minutes
Anthony has been travelling to Bordeaux since before the Queen described the city as embodying 'the very essence of elegance' in the early Nineties. Subsequently, he’s seen it coursing into the 21st century, while retaining its regality. Thank heavens.
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