Last year I headed to Bordeaux, the world capital of wine upon the invitation of my aunt who is a Marine Biologist by profession and is settled in Paris. In India I had made a trip to the Sula Vineyards in Nashik, one of India’s most famous award-winning vineyards, but nothing compares to the classy vineyards of Bordeaux.
Located in the heart of a region offering countless attractions, Bordeaux combines celebration, great wines, and first class cuisine.
Not many are aware that Bordeaux is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site! According to my aunt who has spent more than a decade domiciled in France, the UNESCO tag recognizes the beauty and unity of style of Bordeaux’s architectural heritage, which has developed harmoniously over the centuries and remained remarkably well preserved.
I was told that the Bordeaux World Heritage site is the largest urban entity to be so honored, from the outer boulevards to the banks of the Garonne River, or half of the city. With over 347 historic monuments in a protected area of 150 hectares, as well as 3 churches that were already listed as World Heritage Sites on the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela, Bordeaux is foremost an 18th century architectural gem.
The city’s successful bid as a World Heritage site also relied on several ambitious urban renewal projects under the impetus of Alain Juppe. These include development of the quays along the shimmering Garonne river, the restoration of many facades, and a light rail transit system.
This incredible city has become more beautiful over the past decade. The tram and multiple public works projects have given Bordeaux a new luster, while in no way detracting from the city’s architectural heritage. Countless monuments and buildings have been restored to their original splendor, squares lit up at night, gardens and promenades built along the quays, streets converted into pedestrianised areas, bicycle lanes laid out, etc…. These new facets have unquestionably enhanced the city’s conviviality and quality of life.
The Vibrant Cultural Scene:
From pre-historic art to modern art and from the history of the French resistance movement to the decorative arts, the museums of Bordeaux feature collections of outstanding quality, including such names as Veronese, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Gilbert & Georges as well as the famous Wills Jeep used during the D-Day invasion (Centre Jean Moulin). The architectural quality of the museum buildings themselves adds an interesting touch.
My well informed aunt seemed to know all the nitty gritty of free passes to museums and after Paris, the city of Bordeaux has become the first major French city to implement the “Entry Free” norm for all visitors to the city’s 7 municipal museums. We had a whale of a time rediscovering the city’s museums at no cost, while also taking advantage to view quality temporary exhibitions.
We hopped in to the “Modern Art Bus” (Le bus de l’art contemporain) that travels throughout the city to promote modern art on the first Sunday of every month. My aunt was of the opinion that this kind of initiative helps to give greater visibility not only to the town’s museums, but also to artists. The best part of the Art Bus trip is that an art expert provides commentary at each location, where passengers are welcomed by artists and gallery owners, who present their works.
The theatre scene in Bordeaux is also very vibrant and café theatres and cabarets offer diverse performances all year round.
We spent some time at the Casino de Bordeaux with an auditorium seating over 500 people, offering a wide variety of performances as well as gaming tables, slot machines, bars and restaurants.
I was particularly touched by the city’s gesture to honor famous literary luminaries of yesteryears who left their mark on Bordeaux’s cultural life. The 3M – Charles Louis de Montesquieu, Michel de Mountain and Francois Mauriac (winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize for literature) whose memories have been perpetuated in street names, statues etc….
If you happen to visit Bordeaux in the autumn season, Bordeaux is the venue for the “Festival International de Film au Feminin” , which honors women in cinema. This is a major occasion for directors, scriptwriters and producers of all nationalities to present their unreleased works.
Bordeaux is a city of magnificent stone buildings that offers incomparable beauty to visitors who take the time to open their eyes and enjoy it. Visitors have much to gain by exploring the city’s old districts, reminiscent of Naples or Palermo. As per my aunt’s desire, we embarked on a walking tour of they city’s protected district. Created in 1967 by the Minister of Culture – Andre Malraux, it covers some 147 hectares right in the heart of the city and includes outstanding architectural facades dating back to the 17th century.
Each district has its own special charm. Saint-Michel is very cosmopolitan, with a colorful market on Saturday morning and a flea market on Sunday. Saint-Pierre also called “Old Bordeaux” has numerous narrow, charming streets. It is presently one of the city’s most “Bourgeois-Boheme” districts. The Grands Hommes, also referred to as “the triangle” is replete with elegant townhouses and luxury boutiques. The Chartons district, we were told, used to be the heart of Bordeaux’s wine trade and the city’s port activity. The “Quais” market livens up the quays on Sunday morning.
As you embark upon the fascinating walking tour of Old Bordeaux, don’t forget to look out for antique shops. They are located not far from the wine merchant’s district, the Rue Notre Dame is renowned for its bric-a-brac and antique shops. The Saint-Michel district likewise has bric-a-brac shops in the Passage Saint-Michel, where you can also enjoy lunch…..However, the one exclusive district for antique shops is Rue Bouffard right in the heart of Bordeaux renowned for objets d’art.
Bordeaux without Cars:
Bordeaux is perhaps the only city in the world where on the first Sunday of every month the city embraces with the notion of – “A Day Without Cars” , which is popularly referred to as “Dimanche a Bordeaux”. This concept has been in vogue since the year 1998. On these days, cars are excluded from the city center between 9 AM to 6 PM. Cultural programs are held and people from all walks of life participate with a spirit of joy-de-verve.
Growing up in metropolitan India, I had never before seen such a phenomenon and this was an occasion when pedestrians, cyclists and roller-bladers are welcome to take over the streets! Cyclists have already had their place in the sun thanks to the initiatives taken by the Bordeaux Town Hall since the year 1997. The city has created a vast network of cycle tracks to encourage this ecological form of transportation. A mind boggling 550 Kms. of lanes are now available for the cycling buffs.
Bordeaux by Night:
Bordeaux comes alive when the sun goes down and the trendy bars and nightclubs open up in every part of the city. We found even the café terraces filled with student community at Place de la Victoire. The quays are famous for their nightclubs and Old Bordeaux has numerous friendly cafes with great ambience.
Bordeaux by Tram:
Being a resident of the City of Joy – Kolkata, I am quite familiar to the site of old rickety trams plying on Kolkata’s meandering streets. But my Tram travel experience in Bordeaux was very special. Completed in 2004, the high tech tramway offers an innovative method of public transport, which not only efficient but also non-polluting and non-invasive to the city’s public spaces. While trams in Kolkata still run on traditional pylon and overhead cable system, the ones at Bordeaux run on underground power supply, invisible to the observer and absolutely eco-friendly.
According to my aunt, the Bordeaux tram system is so meticulously designed and laid out that it has substantially improved the quality of life for the city’s inhabitants by reducing traffic congestion and allowing suburban and city pedestrians to repossess the streets of Bordeaux, many of which happen to be car free zones. The Kolkata Transport Department would do well to take a lesson or two from their counterparts in Bordeaux when it comes to traffic management.
Parks & Gardens:
Bordeaux has numerous public squares and colorful public gardens, a wonderful way to enjoy nature in the city. The 10-hectare British style “Jardine Public”, commissioned by the royal intendant Tourny in the 18th century, is a wonderful place to take a walk or simply relax.
We spent some time relaxing by the side of the façade of Palais Rohan that overlooks the magnificent Jardin de l ‘Hotel de Ville. It is flanked by the two galleries forming the Musee de Beaux Arts (Fine Arts Museum).
We were told by the resident Botanist that the Jardin Botanique was recently laid out in a very unusual setting in the Bastide district on the right bank that is replete with creepers, vines, climbing plants, waterlilies, papyrus and other miscellaneous water plants. Time permitting, a visit to the 1881 established Parc Bordelais in the Cauderan residential district can be a very rewarding experience.
Wine & Vineyards:
Bordeaux is undoubtedly the largest and oldest fine wine-producing region in the world. It has 113,000 hectares of vineyards and 57 appellations producing some 800 million bottles of wines every year – dry white, sweet white, rose, Clairet and Cremant de Bordeaux.
We kept aside a full week that was devoted to just visiting the vineyards. The Bordeaux Tourist Information Office organizes excursions from Bordeaux to various vineyard regions, which is inclusive of wine tasting.
Vineyards are to be found as soon as one leaves the city and the region boasts many great chateaux in several districts. We were told by the commentator that the quality and rich diversity of Bordeaux wines are based on unique ‘terroirs’, unrivalled know-how and expertise in the art of blending.
The world’s best premium grape varieties come from Bordeaux, but they only reach apogee here, thanks to the skilled blending of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes, which produce subtle, well balanced and elegant wines that the whole world envies.
Medoc has outstanding vineyard soil and includes prestigious great growths as well as numerous crus bourgeois. Here the estates often have impressive chateaux, whose architecture is, on occasion, remarkably unusual.
Blaye and Bourg Regions:
We discovered beautiful vine covered slopes overlooking the Gironde estuary and villages with houses of gold colored stone, Romanesque churches, renowned archaeological sites and quaint ports in the Blaye and Bourg regions.
As we traveled along the right bank of the Dordogne, the medieval town of Saint-Emilion appeared on the scene. This place has numerous historic monuments and was declared as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in the year 1999.
We were told that the Entre-Deux-Mers was the largest winegrowing region in Bordeaux and it owes much of its name to the two shimmering rivers that mark its borders – the Garonne and the Dordogne. We found many historic monuments including a few impregnably fortified villages.
Traveller’s Fact File:
Thanks to more than 140 flights per day to 60 cities in France and abroad, and numerous railway links (25 trains to Paris per day), Bordeaux can be easily reached.
With more than 5,300 rooms of all categories in 150 hotels and tourist residences, as well as furnished apartments, bed and breakfasts and other forms of accommodation, Bordeaux receives more than 2.5 million visitors every year from all over the world. They come not only for the famous vineyards but also for the city’s rich 18th century architectural heritage.
Bordeaux Discovery Package:
The Tourist Information Office offers a special package to visitors exploring Bordeaux – 2 Nights in a double room deluxe hotel which is inclusive of two tours – one around the city and the other in the vineyards, including a wine tasting session. There is also a free pass to the main monuments and museums, a free travel card for public transport in the city and a complimentary bottle of wine.
The Tourist Information Office also organizes Gourmet Walking Tour, Cooking workshops etc…. For instance, in the Gourmet Walking Tour, organized in conjunction with a local restaurateur, features several well-known city shops where visitors can taste local produce: Bordeaux chocolate paves, the famous canele cakes with solid coffee which incidentally happens to be the only coffee in the world served upside-down, cheeses from the Dordogne and the Pyrenees and Foie Gras as well as Bordeaux wine.
For further information on the city of Bordeaux, please feel free to contact:
Office de Tourisme de Bordeaux,
12, Cours du XXX Juillet,
Tel: +33 (0)5 56006600