Right now there’s a major love affair going on between France and America. The French President just pinned the legion d'honneur, France’s highest honor, on three young Americans who acted to stop a terrorist act on a train bound for Paris.So, in honor of all this, it’s a great time to head for France, one of the most beautiful countries on earth. Specifically, head for Bordeaux, which with 350,000 souls, has everything on a human scale: food, art, history, location, and, of course, wine.
What’s more, the dollar is up, the euro is down, and you will find a big welcome. And in the coming weeks the harvest will begin and there’s no better time to visit. Bien sur.
So have a glass of wine and check out these 10 reasons to go to Bordeaux right now.
1. It’s Clean
Now I know that cleanliness does not rate high on the list of great reasons to go to France. Non non non! You go for food, wine, for charm, for the je ne sais quoi. But in Bordeaux, the locals keep telling you about this clean thing, about how their fine city was, not so long ago, obscured by centuries of grime, soot, and pollution. About a decade back, the clean-up began. Now the city shimmers. Alongside the wide Garonne River, it sparkles, it glows. On a recent visit, under pristine blue skies, I strolled around town, looking at the houses, the monuments, the extraordinary theater in the main square.
The 18th century buildings, reflected in pools and fountains all over town, were the exquisite models for Paris. Baron Haussmann who, in the early 19th century made the Paris we know from a still medieval city, was a Bordeaux prefect. The Bordelaise take enormous pride in the new shine on their town, and so they are passionate about it and very welcoming. You can walk everywhere or take the trams that purr like contented cats all through the town, which was built on a very human scale.
2. Du Vin: the Wine
Once upon a time, Bordeaux was almost synonymous with wine. It is still among the biggest and most famous of all the old-world wine regions, and when new wine drinkers like the Chinese go shopping for the really great stuff, they buy Bordeaux’s Grand Crus — Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Margaux, and a few others found mainly in the Medoc region just outside the city. And if you have a hankering to taste this very very pricey if delicious stuff, you can do it. The big chateaux open their doors, and there are plenty of wine tours that last a day or more (every hotel in town will get you signed up). None of the hundreds of vineyards is more than a couple of hours out of town.
3. MY Favorite Vineyards
Let me own up here: I haven’t got much of a palate. Sure, I can tell if something is bad or good — or maybe very very good — but the Grands Crus are wasted on me. The wine that changed my life comes from Bordeaux, from the Chateau du Taillan, which is located about a 20-minute drive (you can take a taxi) from the city.
Owned by five sisters, the gorgeous 18th century chateau sits alongside its vineyards inside a lush green park. Its warm old stone glows as the sun sets. There is a tasting room and a shop. Chateau du Taillan produces Cru Bourgeois, usually listed as a rank below the biggies, but much much less expensive and, for me, much more knowable.
When I was last there I tried the 2009 and 2010 (as well as the Dame Blanche, a terrific white made from 100 percent Sauvignon), and I fell for it. This is a wine that leapt into my mouth and said, “Hello! Bonjour! Have a good time. Get some bread and cheese, a steak frites, a slice of pate, and drink me!”
And then there are my winemaker friends. The best and most original vintner within the city of Bordeaux is Clos Ganda, a garden vineyard.
4. Wines By the Glass
If you want to taste a lot of stuff, you can do it, especially in Bordeaux itself. Wine bars, cafes, restaurants — everywhere you look are venues where you can sample and drink and wallow in this liquid of the gods that has been made around here since Roman times.
5. The Food and Drink
The Bordelaise love their wine and they love good food. And this is, most of all, a meat eater’s paradise, with local lamb and beef, foie gras, and duck confit at their best. But there are also oysters from the nearby Arcachon, fantastic asparagus, great escargots.
Through my friends who live in Bordeaux I’ve developed a few favorites: Au Bonheur du Palais (a terrific Chinese restaurant in case you want a change from French), the oyster bar at the Capucins Market (a traditional food market in the old student quarter); and the Café des Arts. Plenty of locals and visitors also love La Tupina, with its southwestern cooking and family atmosphere. In the big central fireplace a Bordeaux specialty of grilled tripes or pork called tricandilles is cooked.
6. Le Boutique Hotel
Le Boutique Hotel
Bordeaux has a reasonable assortment of places to sleep off your wine binge, and they include the formidable Grand Hotel on the main square, but I got lucky. I found, almost by chance, the delicious one-of-a-kind Le Boutique Hotel tucked away in a tree-filled courtyard about 10 minutes away from the center of town.
The hotel manager greeted me and upgraded me to a fabulous junior suite named “Le Margaux,” for the great Bordeaux wine. All 12 rooms and suites are, in fact, named for famous wines, and all have been carved out of a couple of old town houses. Mine, a kind of kitsch but hugely comfy toast to the 1960s, looked out over the courtyard, had a balcony where I ate breakfast, a huge bed, white leather sofas, a great bathroom, a separate alcove with an enormous Jacuzzi, and vintage photographs of Marilyn Monroe on the walls.
Downstairs is a bar (more wine!) and a breakfast room. This place is sensational. Grab a room here before everyone finds out about it.
7. Around Town
For shopping, head for the Rue Sainte-Catherine, a pedestrian street with three quarters of a mile of shops, restaurants, and cafes where there are high-end stores and some one-of-a-kind boutiques.
Walk, stroll, get a bike, ride the trams — Bordeaux is made for the accidental tourist, the visitor who, like me, wants to discover stuff on the hoof. There are the 5,000 (literally) gorgeous 18th century buildings; the great museums that include the fine arts (the Musée des Beaux-Arts has very good pictures of Veronese, Rubens, Delacroix, Renoir, Matisse, and Picasso); Goya’s house (where he lived after he was thrown out of Spain); and the phenomenal Place de la Bourse. The student quarter is filled with cafes and bars and narrow streets, as well as the Cathedral of Saint André. An enormous Romanesque structure, it’s a must-see, where Eleanor of Aquitaine was first married.
8. History (a.k.a. My Favorite Queen)
Avco Embassy / The Kobal Collection
History. This place reeks of it. If you’re even the most casual buff, you’ll adore Bordeaux, where the old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and which was an important outpost for imperial Rome. Flash forward to around the 12th century, it was known as La Perle de l’Aquitaine (the pearl of the Aquitaine, the old name for the region where it’s located).
Eleanor, one of Europe’s most powerful, intelligent, highly educated women — and my favorite of all monarchs — spent much of her childhood in and around Bordeaux. She was born in 1122 (and died in 1204, an enormous age for the times) and was variously married to the King of France and the King of England, and saw several of her sons reign. All this plays in my head as I wander Bordeaux because of The Lion in Winter, a fabulous movie in which Eleanor was played by Katherine Hepburn to absolute perfection. To view before your trip!
9. The River
The Garonne is long and wide, and the Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas — opened in 2013 — is the longest span vertical lift bridge in Europe. Bordeaux was a great port, and still is, but the life of the port (part of what made the city so polluted) has been moved away from the center, leaving the water cleaner and much much nicer for the sailors who take their boats out here. There is every kind of water activity on the Garonne: dinner cruises; sailing; boats that will take you to various vineyards that line the banks of the river. Alongside the water is a long green park for lounging, sun-bathing, or just plain chilling.
10. Location, location…
Bordeaux is wonderfully located. It’s a couple of hours from here to the south of France. It’s four hours by fast train to Paris. North of Bordeaux is the Charentes region, with cities like Poitiers, Cognac, and La Rochelle. Off the coast is the fabulous, fashionable Il de Re.
Just outside of town, you can take tours of the vineyards; some have rooms that can be booked overnight, some are within easy reach of local inns.
Saint-Émilion is a perfectly preserved medieval town. There are pine forests for hiking. There is a beach, too.
It’s only a 45 minute drive to Arcachon, a seaside town with some of biggest dunes in Europe, Atlantic ocean swimming, and a laid-back atmosphere.