One visit to Bordeaux and I am hooked. Even if the vineyards disappeared, the chateaux dotting the countryside vanished and the wine merchants across the city center started hocking imported American Cabs, Bordeaux might still be my favorite city in France, if not the entire world.
To the uninitiated, the simple six-letter word France evokes images of love, wine, and food. Young couples kissing on the Eiffel Tower and rolling countryside hills of golden wheat. All of that is true and I’ve probably seen too many couples who think social norms need not apply simply because they’re in France.
To those who truly love wine, not just drinking it, but knowing it, each region of France has its own lifetime of secrets to uncover. From the famed Loire Valley to the lesser known Jura, France, food, wine, and love are synonymous. For me, you can’t top a chilled glass of Sancerre on a warm spring day, but for most, the Bordeaux region of France sits like the Sun King inspired by the heavens, on top of them all.
When you say Bordeaux, you may be referring to the wine producing region in the southwest of France made up of several towns and villages surrounding the cultural and economic hub of Bordeaux. For today though, I’m referring to the actual city of Bordeaux. It has that certain feeling for me that it is just meant to be. Going beyond the wine, you’ll find that Bordeaux is a city with rich culture, incredible architecture, with a vibe that I’ll call Continental-Casual: comfortable, but just sophisticated enough to remember where you are.
In short, it is the amazement of Paris, without the hype. It is the good kind of crowd, the kind that only pops up in places where you want one. This is my Bordeaux, but here’s a secret, it can be your Bordeaux too. Maybe even our Bordeaux?
Getting to Bordeaux
Arriving to Bordeaux is easy enough. The airport receives air service from most major European hubs (Paris, Amsterdam, London, etc.). I last arrived by train after a few days’ stopover in Paris and found it to be the best experience. From Paris’ Montparnasse station to Bordeaux St-Jean, it is about a two hour and fifteen-minute journey, just enough time for a snack, or for me, a snack and a cocktail. The French TGV is efficient and the countryside views and brief chats with the overwhelmingly local crowd on board made for a really enjoyable journey. Once you arrive, there are taxis waiting outside of the station to take you to your hotel, apartment rental, river cruise ship or anywhere else you may want to go.
Word of warning: pay attention when your departure time nears. They only give you about ten minutes from announcing your train platform number until the train begins chugging away from the station. Don’t miss it!
Loving Life Like The French
Bordeaux offers a wealth of options to pass the day, but on my first day (in almost any city), I find there are generally two things I like to do and Bordeaux had me covered either way I choose: get a lay of the scene hanging out for a spell at a local cafe or restaurant or hitting the local market—the very best way to immediately immerse yourself in local living. Call me nosey, weird, or even a culinary voyeur, but I find that a stroll through a market examining the contents of the shopping baskets tells me more about local life and the differences from my hometown than almost anything else.
Today though, cafe first. Bordeaux has loads of spots to just sit, be present, and watch the people. Whether you’re traveling alone, as a couple, or in a group, a street-side cafe table at Le Regent on Place de la Comedie is a fine spot to get your bearings. Many years ago, during my first visit, I discovered that ‘un cafe’ in France is not a coffee. It is essentially an espresso, served in a small cup, black with no cream or sugar, and simply wonderful. (Note: for a full espresso ask for ‘Un café serré‘).
Enjoying my table at Le Regent, I pass an hour or so, enjoying conversation and the sights of French living. Just across the street is Opéra National de Bordeaux, a charming square with shoppers strolling along, and just a few steps in the other direction, the mouth of the famed Rue Sainte-Catherine—the longest shopping street in Europe.
Visit Bordeaux’s Rue Sainte-Catherine
A few tourists dot the immense crowd of this famed street, but generally, it appears to be mostly locals. As the economic hub of the region, the French version of the county seat if you will, many inhabitants from surrounding towns make their way into Bordeaux for shopping. There are a lot of people on the street, a lot, but somehow it doesn’t feel too crowded. This is one of those good kinds of crowds.
My first stop is Galleries Lafayette, a French department store. Similar to visiting the local market, department stores are like a looking glass into the culture of everyday life. I peruse the men’s department and make a few mental notes of what may be fashionable back home – in two or three years. Moving on to the homewares, I’m delighted to find an entire display of different varieties of foie gras, a fattened duck or goose liver, and wonder why they don’t sell foie gras back home at my local Target (dear Target legal department, no need to respond, I know why you don’t sell it, but it is delicious).
And we’re moving, I step back onto the busy street and make way past a cool variety of international fashion labels, local specialty merchants, and yes a few American fast food joints. Rue Sainte-Catherine is a street buzzing with activity and you can spend several hours just walking around watching the families do their shopping. Little vein-like streets and alleys jut off Rue Sainte-Catherine to the left and right and I duck into one to see what kind of trouble I can find.
Trying to Get A Little Bit Lost
Bordeaux is the kind of place you can wander the streets and find it pretty hard to get lost, as long as you remember which way the river is. Trying to get a little bit lost is a great way to explore the city. Off Rue Sainte-Catherine I head west on Rue des Trois-Conils and wander in a short zigzag, spotting what I soon discover to be the spire of Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux. Constructed about 1,000 years ago, the Romanesque cathedral sits and watches over much of Bordeaux. Still in use today, the Cathedral is a great landmark to regain your bearings. I meander through the city, stopping occasionally to pop into a store or two, generally without agenda or care in the world. This is what is meant to be living in France and all in all, a great way to spend an afternoon.
Marches des Quais
It’s Sunday and that means market day in Bordeaux. The smell of freshly baked bread will lure you in, and then, you see it and you’re hooked. Along the banks of the Garonne River atop a recently revitalized river walk, over 70 vendors display the many fruit of the land and sea. Cheese from local producers, oysters and other ocean delights fresh from the mouth of the Garonne River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, simmering escargot, a merry-go-round of fresh and smoked meats, fresh produce and Caneles, a decidedly fantastic Bordeaux pastry creation made with rum and vanilla that has a caramelized crust with a soft and tender custard center.
Check out this great, easy recipe for French Mussels in white wine sauce inspired by most recent visit to France.
I enjoy a plate of fresh oysters with lemon and baguette capped with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. The sun is shining, the merchants are friendly, and the crowd of locals and tourists are smiling (and eating and drinking). What’s not to love? At one of the boulangerie carts offering an amazing assortment of breads and pastries, I chat with Appoline in half broken-French mixed with English and learn that her family has been in the baking business for over 100 years. Well Appoline, it shows. If you are lucky enough to visit Bordeax on a Sunday, the Marche des Quais is your must-stop destination. Explore the market and you’ll find your own treasure—that I can promise you.
Bordeaux is to France as Tuscany is to Italy
Pop culture elevates Tuscany to be the romantic, wandering Neverland that all of us should aspire to set foot to its gravel roads at least once in our lives. Tuscany is terrific and the many books and movie portrayals don’t have it entirely wrong, but I think over the coming years you’ll hear more about the little big city of Bordeaux. I’ll go out on a limb here and say to you that before you leave this spinning rock for the farmer’s market in the sky, be Bordelais at least once.
For more on the sights and experiences in and around Bordeaux, check out the upcoming articles on Bordeaux’s Architecture and History, and Local Events.