Three Hours or Less by Train from Paris: Bordeaux

(Photo by Richard Nahem)

An historical and architectural gem, Bordeaux has been having a major renaissance in recent years. A few key factors have contributed to transforming Bordeaux into the fastest growing city in France, including former mayor Alain Juppe being responsible for the cleaning and refurbishment of much of the buildings in the historic center, the installation of an extensive tram network, and, most importantly, a new high-speed TGV train from Paris to Bordeaux that takes just over two hours.

We took the 7:52AM train from Paris Montparnasse station and arrived in Bordeaux St. Jean station at 9:56AM. Having a tourist information booth in the train station was a plus in our book, and we received a map and directions in English to the attractions we were visiting.

A recent edition of a major wine museum and center has become one of the top draws for tourism in Bordeaux. We took an easy 20-minute tram from the train station to the Cité du Vin, an 80-foot tower dominating the skyline wrapped in swirls of aluminum and bronze.

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The comprehensive museum incorporates temporary exhibits, lectures and talks, workshops, a library, a wine bar, an haute cuisine restaurant, and a boutique selling wine-related products.

The permanent exhibition, housed in a cavernous space, is an interactive experience designed with numerous viewing and listening stations. At the entry hall, we were given state-of-the-art headphones and instructions on how to operate them once inside. The presentation in English (other languages are available) was entertaining but also very informative. We learned about the history of wine throughout the centuries; the economics, shipping and storing methods; folklore; bottle design; and current trends and styles. One part of the exhibit had three movie theater-size screens displaying breathtaking videos with aerial shots of the great wine regions of the world. After our immersive experience, we were ready to savor some wine, and our ticket included a complimentary glass at the wine bar on the top floor of the museum. An elevator whisked us up to the eighth floor, where we were greeted with a 360-degree, gasp-worthy view of Bordeaux. The server recommended a local red wine and we enjoyed it while admiring the views.

Feeling peckish, we discovered the delightful Les Halles de Bacalan, an indoor food market across the street from the museum. Twenty-four vendors were selling top-notch international foods, including fresh oysters, Spanish tapas, organic peasant bread, cheeses, fresh grown produce and rotisserie chickens.

The Chartrons quarter is a trendy neighborhood like the Marais in Paris, dotted with fashion boutiques, vintage clothing shops and a few leftover antique shops, from when it was the antique center of Bordeaux. We found a few local designer shops on the rue Notre Dame, a charming street with two and three story limestone buildings. We had an espresso at one of the many outdoor cafes around Place de Chartrons, a lively square where hipsters gather.

We popped into the CAPC, the contemporary art center housed in a former food warehouse that dates from 1820. The museum has exhibited many significant 20th century artists in the past, including Richard Serra, Louise Bourgeois, and Daniel Buren, and the current show features 400 works of Japanese artist Takako Saito.

It was a splendid, sunny day, and we walked through the Parc Publique, a verdant, well-maintained garden in the center of the city. The park was abuzz with children riding the carousel and laughing at the live puppet show. Early spring buds from the magnolia trees and daffodils were already blooming.

We crossed the Garrone River on the historic Pont de Pierre, with its seventeen stone spans, commissioned by Napoleon and inaugurated in 1822.

Walking on the riverside we were awed by the stunning architecture of Place de la Bourse, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel (who designed major sites in Paris, including the Place de la Concorde) in 1739, it was the original stock exchange, a series of limestone buildings built around square with a fountain with Corinthian columns. In the recent renovation, a series of holes were drilled into the ground to accommodate spurting water, making a spray shower fountain.

Dinner that evening was at Miles Restaurant, one of the most talked-about contemporary restaurants in Bordeaux. Four friends/two couples who met at cooking school in Paris combined their culinary talents to open their first restaurant. The small tasting plate menu, Five Miles, is comprised of five surprise dishes, which change seasonally. The dining room only has counter seating facing the open kitchen, and it was fun watching the skillful staff prepare your upcoming dishes before our eyes. The price point for the thoughtfully executed menu was a very fair 43€ per person.

We stayed at the hip and happening Mama Shelter Bordeaux, part of the Mama Shelter chain. Stopping for cocktails at the lively Mama bar, we met some friendly locals and enjoyed two of the bar's custom cocktails, the tangy Passion ginger fizz with Beefeater Gin, passion fruit and ginger, and the Wicked Monk (we love the name!) made with single malt whisky and chartreuse liqueur. Top Parisian chef Guy Savoy has tailored an appealing menu of well-known French and Mediterranean dishes with a long list of small, shareable plates for the restaurant. We liked our spare, cocoon-like room designed by Philippe Starck, with soothing pink walls, all white, cotton and silk sheets, and fluffy towels. There was a good-sized work desk attached to the back of the headboard and a lamp with a high-wattage bulb. A special touch we liked was a small, cotton tote filled with the hotel’s own line of organic skin and bath products. Mama Shelter Bordeaux has 97 rooms on five floors with state-of-the-art technological amenities, including a 27’’ iMac in every room. Room sizes range from 200 square feet for the Small Mama Double room, starting at 79€, to the 300-square-foot XL Mama, which fits up to three people and starts at 129€.

The XXL Mama Family suite is more like a home away from home apartment, with two separate bedrooms with their own desk, coffee machine, computer, and mini-bar, plus a spacious living room area. If travel advisors are sending a VIP to the hotel, the best person to contact is Flavia Guitard, head of sales, at [email protected].

We always like to find a local food specialty on our trips to bring home with us, so we bought a box of canelés, a pastry cylinder flavored with custard, rum, and vanilla with a caramelized crust on the outside. Needless to say, they were scrumptious and we ate every last one on the train home.

Cité de Vin
Esplanade de Pontac, 134 Quai de Bacalan, 33300

Les Halles de Bacalan
10 Quai de Bacalan, 33300

CAPC/Museum of Contemporary Art of Bordeaux
7 Rue Ferrere, 33000

Miles Restaurant
33 Rue du Cancera 33000

Mama Shelter Bordeaux
19 Rue Poquelin Molière, 33000

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