BordeauxWords Joanna Simon
Photography Matt Munro
Spend a night in a treehouse, travel by rickshaw, stop off at a wine bar, paddle in the Miroir d’Eau, take a cookery class, hop on a tram, pick up some tips at a wine school, visit markets – food, flea, indoor, outdoor – drop in on a museum or gallery, hire an electric bike, and shop, shop, shop.
Shop for vintage clothes, chocolate, macaroons, wine, cheese, olive oil, antiques, bric-a-brac, foie gras, confit de canard, caviar, canelés (Bordeaux’s signature madeleines, with chewy custard centres and caramelised crusts) and the moulds to make them with. Or just sit at a pavement café and watch the world go by.
Bordeaux is not the city I once knew and loved. It’s so much more exciting, so much more stylish. I used to be charmed by its slightly dilapidated air, its feeling of faded grandeur. It was stately, with its majestic 18th-century residences, public buildings and wide allées, but, blackened by the grime of years, there was a gloom about it all, something almost Eeyoreish. There was no denying a quiet confidence underneath, born of centuries of producing and trading the world’s most famous wines from vineyards stretching out from the city in all directions, but it was as if Bordeaux itself was determined never to shout, never to show off. The wines and the châteaux could do that.
I liked it because it was a contrast to the often stultifying formality and glamour of the famous wine chateaux of the Médoc. After a few days being wined and dined there (work, I assure you), I felt a sense of relief in retreating to Bordeaux for a night. Once there, I could sit outside at Le Noailles on the allées de Tourny, a brasserie decorated in Parisian belle-époque style and sometimes with Parisian-style off-hand service. Located on one side of Bordeaux’s so-called Golden Triangle (since the buildings have been cleaned), and with the place de la Comédie and the imposing classical Grand Théâtre (opera house) barely a minute away, this is prime people-watching territory.
Like everyone, I retreated to Le Noailles, not just because it was – and still is – an institution, but because there wasn’t much choice. People said it was because so much entertaining was done at the wine châteaux. Perhaps, but how things have changed. Now you can’t move for places to eat, drink and be seen – some so trendy I’d think twice about darkening their doors, except in the name of research.
There’s been a corresponding scene-change of hotels. They used to be stolidly reliable – functional and comfortable enough, but fashionable, lavish or lively, no. Now you can have spectacular, American-style luxury with the kind of gracious service that makes you feel expensively dressed, even when you aren’t. It comes thickly spread at the newly opened Regent, bang opposite Le Grand Théâtre, and just as magisterial.
If you want to be stylish, but discreet, La Maison Bord’eaux is a modern boutique hotel (B&B, but other meals can be ordered) behind an austere 18th-century façade, 10 minutes’ walk from the centre. Walking to and from La Maison Bord’eaux gives you the opportunity to take a short detour to the lovely Jardin Public, fortifying yourself as appropriate with breakfast, lunch or tea at the 18th-century L’Orangerie. This is one of several establishments operated by Colum Crichton-Stuart, a quietly spoken Scottish fixer.
Others not to be missed include the café-restaurant in the Cinéma Utopia Saint Siméon, housed in a former church in a part of town with narrow old streets and a bohemian atmosphere. Or, for posher dining and a modern menu featuring more fresh herbs, spices and vegetables than the Bordelais are used to, Crichton-Stuart has recently transformed the Café Opéra at Le Grand Théâtre.
For contemporary architecture and design, nothing comes close to the ice-white Seeko’o Hotel (apostrophes in names are in vogue in Bordeaux). The satiny-smooth walls of the Seeko’o contain a dazzling cocktail bar, a sauna, double baths and, in some rooms, circular beds. Do drop into the bar for an apéro, if nothing else. The Seeko’o overlooks the left bank of the river Garonne, north of the centre, in the now chic Quai des Chartrons quarter, where wine merchants once lived and worked. Today it’s all cafés, bars, antique shops, artisan food shops and a thriving Sunday market.
You can take a tram along the waterfront between the Chartrons and the city centre, or walk, passing the historic place de la Bourse, with its towering fountain reflected in the Miroir d’Eau. Stop to dip your toes in this shallow pool if it’s hot, or head for a café or bar if it’s not. Which to choose? Perhaps the Grand Bar Castan, with its 1900s rock-grotto effect interior, like the one at the legendary Chapon Fin restaurant in the centre of Bordeaux, where Toulouse-Lautrec and Sarah Bernhardt were customers (and where there is now a talented young chef, a €36 lunch menu and twice-weekly cooking demos). Or perhaps La Robe, a bar with 120 wines, all produced by women?
Alternatively, wait until you get back to the Golden Triangle and choose from 25 red, white and rosé bordeaux with a plate of cheese and charcuterie at the Bar à Vin of the CIVB (the Bordeaux wine authority). While there, admire the huge stained-glass window and consider booking yourself in for a two-hour express wine course at the École du Vin on the floor above.
Once revived, it’s time to do some serious shopping – not that the Bordelais take themselves too seriously these days. Chocolaterie Larnicol/Hôtel Lulu (aka Mode et Chocolat) opened opposite Le Grand Théâtre in time for Easter this year and within days customers were queuing outside for Meilleur Ouvrier Georges Larnicol’s chocolate shoes, chocolate table centrepieces, adult sucettes (lollipops), biscuits, macaroons and much more besides. Upstairs, you’ll find actual shoes and clothes: vintage 1940s-1980s, sourced by Lulu Larnicol in her home town of Seattle.
The Bordelais are nearly as passionate about chocolate as they are about wine, and it has become as de rigueur for chocolate shops and pâtissiers to sell colourful macarons (macaroons) as it has for them to sell canelés, but for the ultimate macaroons you must go to M le Macaron on rue des Remparts (shopping heaven, incidentally). This tiny shop makes and sells 22 different flavours, from fleur d’oranger, to the owner’s favourite – coquelicot (poppy), as well as the savoury pipérade and foie gras chocolat. You can buy them in twos; they come beautifully packaged.
For canelés, visit Baillardran in the Marché des Grands Hommes (indoor market), where you can see them coming out of the oven. You can stock up on just about every desirable edible in the Grands Hommes, but for cheese don’t miss fromager-affineur Jean d’Alos. It’s opposite Le Chapon Fin on rue Montesquieu, which is north off the rue des Remparts, but just follow your nose. Quite a good motto for all Bordeaux, actually.
EAT & DRINK
Le Noailles 12 allées de Tourny; +33 5 56 81 94 45. This brasserie is a Bordeaux institution.
L’Orangerie du Jardin Public cours de Verdun; +33 5 56 48 24 41. Coffee and croissants in the lovely gardens.
Café Opéra place de la Comédie; +33 5 56 44 07 00. High-end eating at this recently transformed restaurant.
Le Chapon Fin 5 rue Montesquieu; +33 5 56 79 10 10. The young gun in the kitchen offers cooking classes and a good-value fixed-price lunch.
La Robe 3 quai Louis XVIII; +33 5 56 69 04 80 . A bar stocking wines made by women.
La Tupina 6 rue Porte de la Monnaie; +33 5 56 91 56 37. For meat cooked on a spit over an open fire.
L’Estacade Quai de Queyries; +33 5 57 54 02 50. Modern fish restaurant on stilts over the river.
Chez Greg at Le Grand Théâtre 29 rue Esprit des Lois; +33 5 56 31 30 30. Chic and trendy brasserie with garden.
La Brasserie Bordelaise 50 rue Saint Remi; +33 5 57 87 11 91. You can’t
come here and not order a steak.
Le Petit Commerce 22 rue du Parlement Saint-Pierre; +33 5 56 79 76 58. Fresh fish in the hip bohemian quarter.
Gravelier 114 cours de Verdun; +33 5 56 48 17 15. Excellent modern restaurant, spices up local ingredients.
Most ship to Britain, but check the charges carefully before you buy.
L’Intendant 2 allées de Tourny; +33 5 56 48 01 29. Four floors of wine, linked by a spiral staircase.
La Vinothèque 8 cours du XXX Juillet; +33 5 56 52 32 05. Regional wines, and everything you need to store and enjoy them.
CHOCOLATE & MORE
La Maison Darricau 7 place Gambetta, +33 5 56 44 21 49. Sells gift packs that match chocolate with specific Bordeaux wines.
Chocolaterie Larnicol/Hôtel Lulu Place de la Comédie; +33 5 56 58 78 29. Fashion and chocolate, together at last.
Saunion 56 cours Georges Clemenceau, + 33 5 56 48 05 75. Look for the Mademoiselle de Margaux brand and its Sarments du Médoc chocolates.
M le Macaron 38 rue des Remparts; +33 9 64 23 64 65. Pretty confections in 22 flavours.
Baillardran Galerie des Grands-Hommes; + 33 5 56 79 05 89. For the city’s favourite canelés.
Dubernet-Bordeaux 9 rue Michel Montaigne; + 33 5 56 48 06 05. Foie gras and other duck and goose goods.
Droguerie Bejottes 1 place des Grands-Hommes; +33 5 56 48 09 30. Brilliantly cluttered, long-established kitchen shop.
Librairie Mollat 15 rue Vital-Carles; +33 5 56 56 40 40. France’s biggest privately-owned bookshop with books in English.
Jean d’Alos Fromager-Affineur 4 rue Montesquieu; +33 5 56 44 29 66. The place for cheese.
COOKERY & WINE SCHOOLS
L’Atelier des Chefs 25 rue Judaïque; +33 5 56 00 72 70. Cookery classes, ranging from 30 minutes to four hours. One chef is bilingual, and no previous cooking experience is necessary.
L’Ecole du Vin 1 cours de XXX Juillet; +33 5 56 00 22 85. Wine school. Daily two-hour express courses in summer.
La Winery Rond-point des Vendageurs D1, Arsac-en-Médoc (40 minutes’ drive north of Bordeaux); +33 5 56 39 04 90. Restaurant, wine bar, tastings, shop and art.
La Maison Bord’eaux 113 rue Albert Barraud; +33 5 56 44 00 45. Chic and discreet, a walk from the city centre.
The Regent 2–5 place de la Comédie; +33 5 57 30 44 44. Central hotel, grand, luxurious and, unsurprisingly, expensive.
Hôtel de Normandie 7 Cours du XXX Juillet; +33 5 56 52 16 80. Reasonably priced rooms; comfortable and central.
Le Seeko’o 5 quai de Bacalan; +33 5 56 39 07 07. Contemporary design in a stylish area.
Natura Cabana 75 rue la Fontaine, Le Pian Médoc; + 33 5 56 96 85 41. Five charming treehouses (each sleeping three to four) belonging to Château Malleret in Le Pian Médoc, 15km from Bordeaux. There’s no running water, but there is winter heating. You have to take your own picnic supper, but breakfast is left for you in a basket at the bottom of your tree, so you simply haul it up when you’re ready to start your day.
'Chambres d’hôte' at wine châteaux were once a rarity. Not any more. You can find them at Château Giscours (Labarde, Margaux; +33 5 57 97 09 09); Château de la Rivière (Fronsac; +33 5 57 55 56 51); Château Ormes de Pez (Saint-Estèphe; +33 5 56 79 35 47); Château Pitray (Côtes de Castillon; +33 5 57 40 63 35); Château du Grand Mouëys (242, route de Créon, Entre-deux-Mers; +33 5 57 97 04 49); Relais du Château d’Arche (Sauternes; +33 5 56 76 67 67). Or try Chateau des Amis (+1 707 968 5031), a luxury villa, with gardens, in Saint-Emilion that sleeps eight people.
Office de Tourisme 12 Cours du XXX Juillet; +33 5 56 00 66 00. Excellent service, with a dedicated vineyard desk.