Below is the story of our 5 days in Bordeaux. It is a fascinating city too rich to cover in such a short time. We look forward to returning and exploring more of this beautiful city.
The word “Bordeaux” brings to mind myriad images. Hundreds of medieval stone buildings and churches mix with cutting edge, modern architecture, along with the numerous quays, parks and bridges alongside the historic Garonne river. There are dozens upon dozens of charming boulevards, avenues and rues to explore, made even more arresting when the evening lights come on.
Among its many attractions the city on the river also boasts dozens of museums exhibiting everything from history to the decorative arts to the region’s maritime and natural history. And of course, the newest addition to the French passion for wine, the Cité du Vin museum, which celebrates all things wine related.
Like many of the great cities in France, Bordeaux can also lay claim to some of the finest wines in the world along with legendary gastronomy, calorie inducing fromageries, bakeries and world renown chocolatiers. The “la bonne vie” vibe of the city is evident around every corner with cafes, restaurants, shops and galleries teeming with locals and travellers alike.
In short, Bordeaux’s architectural, epicurean and cultural milieu is as diverse as a five star wine list.
Bordeaux is also conveniently located between Paris and the Basque country so it’s only a few hours by train to reach the capital or the South of France. The city is also a short drive to Arcachon Bay, famous for its oysters, water sports and mild coastal climate.
Following nearly a month in Ireland it was time to for us to leave for Bordeaux and discover this amazing city for ourselves. After a short 2-hour flight from Dublin airport we arrived at the Bordeaux–Mérignac Airport. Within hours we found ourselves sitting at a long communal table at Le Bistro Du Pave enjoying a wood board filled with charcuterie and a variety of regional cheeses. Oh…and a bottle of Bordeaux wine! It was a great way to start our four days in the “city on the river”.
Although our hotel was located outside the hustle and bustle of Bordeaux proper we were a short tram ride to many destinations within the city. On our first morning we decided to walk to the city center rather than take the tram. For us, walking is generally the best way to get to know the layout of a city, even if you occasionally get lost!
Soon we were strolling along the Garonne river which splits Bordeaux into its right bank to the east and left bank in the west. Public gardens line the curving river quays and cyclists, couples with strollers and hundreds of runners were already out and about enjoying the cool January weather. Although the river looks like coffee year-round it had a pleasant, slippery glow in the early morning sun.
Bordeaux is the perfect size, and the ideal city, to explore on foot. There are three tram lines, an extensive bus network, water taxis on the Garonne river and a large self-service bike system, all of which made it effortless to make the most of four day stay.
Bordeaux contains so much amazing architecture that it can be a bit daunting to know where to begin or to map out an itinerary of what to leave in / what to leave out. As we were entering the city the previous day we noticed a group of buildings that looked like interplanetary bee hives. It was fascinating to see these structures juxtaposed against so many 18th. and 19th. buildings. Through the kindness of a couple we briefly met they informed us that those buildings were the Palace of Justice.
We set out to find the “bee hives”.
After an hour or so of zig zagging our way through the city we turned a corner and there they were. Seven gigantic “pods” as they are called, that comprise the courtrooms, administrative offices and open public spaces of Bordeaux’s Palace of Justice. It is a stunning set of buildings to admire from the outside and equally stunning to behold once inside.
Clad in cedar, under an undulating copper roof the seven pods are raised on massive concrete pilotis and the entire complex is shrouded in floor to ceiling glass curtains. Squint and the pods resemble some sort of giant organic space capsules. It takes more than a few minutes to comprehend just what you are seeing. To add an element of historical contrast the architects even went so far as to include a section of the city’s medieval wall.
It is architecture at it most stunning and most daring and the very definition of avant-garde.
While walking around inside this astonishing building we noticed a door to one of the seven courtrooms was open. Tentatively, we stepped in, removed our baseball hats and sat in the back of the courtroom. Being that court was in a temporary recess we had plenty of time to observe the pod from the inside. To use an obvious pun, it was truly amazing to witness.
With our fascination and curiosity satisfied we headed out to discover a place to have lunch. Eventually we settled into a bistro in a plaza facing one of Bordeaux’s oldest cathedrals. Lunch was a mix of steak tartare and breaded chicken, although the view of the plaza, people and the church were considerably more appealing than the food. Note to self…do not eat in plaza restaurants geared for tourists.
With plenty of daylight in front of us we walked back to the river to enjoy a ride aboard one of the river taxis that criss-cross the river throughout the day. One of our favorite ways to take in the skyline of a city is from the water. The river taxis that traverse the Garonne offer expansive views past the quays, parks, boat yards and historic buildings.
On our way to the Cité du Vin we passed under the stunning Jacques Chaban-Delmas bridge which enjoys the unique distinction of being the tallest lift bridge in Europe. It is a bold architectural statement and a extraordinary example of modern bridge building prowess. When night falls the four massive pylons are lit in blue or green signifying either high tide or low tide. That is truly an impressive sight to see.
With the January sun fading early we stayed on the boat long enough to witness the sky turn crimson while reflecting off the river. Our first of several rides along the river was a wonderful way to experience one of the twin glories of Bordeaux’s heritage.
To learn more about Bordeaux’s other twin glory, wine, we would need to visit the Cité du Vin museum. Good thing the river taxis stop there!
Before heading in we stopped in a small coffee shop across the street from the market to get properly fueled up for our adventure. A cup of coffee along with some of the best tiramisu we ever had and we were good to go. Being that we arrived during the week the market was largely populated by locals with a smattering of tourists. Not all vendors speak English so we simply went with our time tested method of “point and purchase”. We bought several cheeses, a variety of salumis and, of course, some crusty bread.
With dinner secured we decided to stroll around the city for a while before catching a river boat to Lormont, a small town on the right bank of the Garonne, just 6 kilometers downstream from Bordeaux. Our goal was to take the river taxi to Lormont, have lunch, then return to the city on foot. This plan would give us the chance to walk across the Jacques Chaban-Delmas bridge before taking the tram home for the day.
As we were making our way through town to the river we heard several loud explosions coming from not too far away. It was not long before we saw a massive crowd of protestors coming down a main boulevard carrying banners and expressing their distaste for the governments proposed pension reforms. With dozens of megaphones and loudspeakers mounted on pickup trucks the crowd was certainly making their grievances known, as shopkeepers stood in doorway, keys in hand, prepared to lock their doors if necessary. It was a largely peaceful, albeit noisy, protest yet the presence of local police along with a heavy presence of the CRS, France’s version of riot police, gave us the impression that the protest was being taken seriously by authorities. For half an hour we observed the cat-and-mouse movement of the protesters and police. As the crowd advanced the police would speed off to control their movement at yet another intersection until the protest culminated at the riverfront.
Arriving at the river the taxi set off to its final destination of Lormont. Crossing under the Jacques Chaban-Delmas bridge we got our second look at just how tall and graceful the four pylons are as they loom high above the water like architectural quadruplets. From certain angles they take on the appearance of giant sailing masts. It is a magnificent and elegant structure shining bright white against the brilliant blue sky.
Past the Cité du Vin museum and 15 minutes later we were disembarking in Lormont. We knew nothing of this small town except for the fact that it is the last stop for the water taxi and has a small castle in a nearby park, which as it turns out, had been shuttered for years and was being consumed by nature, so instead we explored a bit more of the laid back area known as the “village” with many beautiful vintage houses. It was closing in on one o’clock so we decided to turn our attention to finding someplace to have lunch.
As luck would have it we found L’Hermitage, a charming restaurant located in the heart of a very quiet historic district that seats only 16 guests. No grand plaza. No tourists. Our kind of place. As we sat down we were informed that they only served their signature pizza during lunch hours. Not just any pizza mind you but the crispiest, most delicious pizza we had enjoyed in a long time. We lingered over our lunch and a couple glasses of red wine until it was obvious that the staff was preparing to close until dinner. Time to go.
We headed down the hill from the village to the river and began our journey back to the bridge. There was a well marked, and well maintained, trail that allows outdoor lovers to bike or walk on either side of the river, crossing back and forth over several of the bridges. This was the path that would return us to the foot of the bridge.
After an hour of walking (always a good idea after eating pizza for lunch!) we began to see the bridge and in another few minutes we were staring straight up at the gleaming towers shooting 253 feet into the clear blue sky.
The word stunned would not be an exaggeration.
Walking the nearly half mile length of the bridge would normally not take long. However, once on the bridge it is hard to stop gawking upward at the towers and outward to the great views of the river and the skyline of Bordeaux. It is an exhilarating experience and a photographers dream.
Once on the other side we caught a tram back to the city then connected with another tram to head home for the day.
And what a day it was!
After a night of rain we woke to another bright January day anxious to get out and see more of the city. Once again we caught the tram to the river front and began our day along the quays and parks that lead to the city.
We spent the morning strolling through the city’s streets and alleyways. With no clear agenda or “must see” list we simply relaxed and enjoyed being in the center of Bordeaux with very few tourists (this is January after all). Late in the morning we returned to the riverfront and walked to the Cité du Vin museum to spend the remainder of our day immersed in the universe of wine.
Approaching this incredibly fluid building we were astonished by the textures, reflections and sense of movement. It is a remarkable architectural achievement and a one-of-a-kind temple to wine and the importance that viticulture plays throughout the world.
Once inside we were essentially in a time capsule of sorts that traces the history of wine and winemaking through the ages. It is a superb introduction to the art of viticulture in a setting that we found to be very relaxing and informal.
Midway through our visit we stopped in Latitude20, the museums brasserie and winebar for a relaxing lunch over a couple glasses of wine. The quality of the food was fantastic, which is not always the case with museum restaurants and cafes. It is obvious from the outset that much thought and care has gone into making this museum world class in every respect.
After lunch we spent another hour or so ambling around the various exhibits before ending our visit on the 8th. floor in the Belvedere, the museums wine tasting space set high above the river with 360 ° views of Bordeaux and its surroundings. It was a fitting end to a relaxing and informative afternoon.
Visiting museums can often be a very tiring experience. Not so with the Cité du Vin. Each of the numerous exhibits are expertly and thoughtfully curated and we came away from our time spent there feeling enlightened and energized.
We caught a dockside-at-the-museum water taxi back to the city and spent the later part of our afternoon ambling around in search of somewhere to have dinner. There are so may restaurants, bistros and corner cafes in Bordeaux that choosing one can be an epicurean’s challenge.
Once again lady luck was on our side as we discovered Le Comptoir Fromager owned by Valentin Gérant along with his chef/partner/girlfriend, Faustine. It was still early and Valentine told us to come back at 7 o’clock and he would have a table ready for us. The restaurant is located in the heart of Bordeaux and seats no more that 20 people inside along with four sidewalk tables near the entrance.
The compact restaurant had a smaller kitchen than you might see in most flats in Bordeaux yet Faustine turns out some of the most delicate and sublime food we have ever tasted. To start, the pumpkin soup with goat cheese and micro greens drizzled in the freshest olive oil was absolutely flawless. That was followed by raviolis sprinkled with flakes of speck that had been slowly baked to a crisp, then topped with a silky soft egg yolk. Each dish was accompanied by a glass of wine that Val personally selected. It was clear to us why this intimate restaurant, with its exquisite food, required reservations and can rarely accept walk-in patrons.
Le Comptoir Fromager is very French yet Val and Faustine were completely lacking in pretension, which made our experience all the more pleasant. Had we been staying in Bordeaux longer this would have been our regular go to place.
Today marked the end of our visit to Bordeaux as we continue our journey on to Biarritz, the seaside surf capital and home to some of the most delicious oysters in France.
We took the tram to the train station and after some language barrier induced confusion we were able to locate the correct train and were off on another adventure!
Au revoir Bordeaux. Bonjour Biarritz.