Updated September 2012
To many people, Bordeaux summons up images of one thing - wine. No doubt that the wine trade is key to understanding the city and its past and future economic prosperity. However, there is much more to Bordeaux than the red stuff.
Location, Location, Location
Bordeaux can be found on the banks of the Garonne, about half-way down France and just in from the Atlantic coast. Even by the standards of France, a country which is spoilt for choice in terms of geographical diversity, the city is fantastically well situated. It has a population of about 730,000 with the suburbs included.
An hour's drive to the west and you are at the seaside. From the pounding surf of Lacanau, the fishing ports in the Bassin d'Arcachon, the highest sand dune in Europe at Pyla or the chic of Cap Ferret1, there is probably something for most tastes. You can stop off in the Medoc, home of the some of the best wine...
South takes you through the sprawling pine forests of the Landes to the Basque country and the Pyrenees. In three-and-a-half hours you can be skiing in the winter or walking in the summer.
East takes you into the Dordogne, home of superb castles, prehistoric dwellings and cave paintings, and fantastic food. Bits of it are somewhat overrun with escapees from the Home Counties2, but are still well worth a visit.
North takes you to the Charentes, to the fortified city of La Rochelle and the beaches of Royan.
Bordeaux may be half-way up France geographically, but it has a distinctly 'southern France' atmosphere and attitude. The pace of life is relaxed, people stop at cafés to chat, take proper lunch breaks and generally enjoy life. As with many other cities, the visitor should be aware that this civilised attitude often stops at the car door, as some of the locals drive quickly and aggressively. Part of the southern atmosphere of the city may well come from the significant Spanish and Basque influence - a number of the refugees fleeing the The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s came to Bordeaux to settle and Spanish can often be heard spoken, particularly in the St Michel district. In addition to this, there is also a substantial North African population and the university attracts students from all over the south west of France. Visitors should take their time and profit from the café society.
The centre of Bordeaux is compact and easy to get around on foot. It is also flat and so is easy to get around on a bicycle. It is not, however, easy to navigate in a car. Many of the roads are very narrow and winding3, there is a complex one-way system and finding a parking space is an absolute nightmare. Since the tramway has been put into place, public transport has become much more efficient in Bordeaux, and the creation of more car free streets has encouraged cycling. The tram goes to virtually all the places a tourist might want to go. There is an airport, with a coach link to the centre, and it's on the TGV network.
Dining and Nightlife
There are good restaurants all over town, but the area around the Place de Parlement has a particularly high density. Traditional French restaurant brasseries are particularly good, with seafood featuring strongly on the menu (as you would expect being so close to the sea) along with simple, but good quality, meat dishes. Chinese and Indian food is available, but is generally more expensive than the UK equivalent.
Some of the busiest bars are on the Place Victoire (where most of the buses stop). There used to be a bit of a problem with drug dealers there but this seems to have cleared up now. The bars stay open until two. If you're in a group, a good option to save cash and waiting time at the bar, is to order a pichet (jug) of beer, sangria or margarita. On a Thursday night in term-time, every bar in the place will be packed with students singing, drinking, dancing and engaging in other social activities. If this isn't your scene, not far from the centre are a number of Irish/British pubs. Here you can get bitter and Guinness at an outrageous price (by UK standards). The Connemara is the main hangout for expats, and there's always a good atmosphere when a big football or rugby game is on.
Most of the clubs are down by the docks. Irritatingly this is a good 20-minute walk from the bars. You will need to look sort of smart to get in, and an all male group is likely to find it difficult to get through the door. If you don't fancy dance/europop and rock4 music than a good club option is the 'Lune dans le Caniveau', near the fish market in the Capucin district. The other advantage of this area is that there is a 24-hour bakery just opposite, so you can come out of the club at four and have a pain au raisin5 to finish off the night. You should be a little bit careful in both the docks and the Capucin area at night.
With a few exceptions, Bordeaux has a bit of a tradition of political6, economic and cultural conservatism and this is reflected in certain segments of the local population. Good spots for observation include the cafés near the Porte Dijeaux or on Pey Berland, the Parc Bordelais or the Cauderan district. A particular marvel are the couples who arrive on a scooter with matching helmets and clothes that are co-ordinated both with each other and with the scooter. In extreme cases this is extended to the children, who often seem to be dressed in a style that can only be described as 'English 1950s public school'. Perhaps this is a hangover from the English colonisation of Aquitaine in the medieval period...
The Jardin Public or park is very nice on a sunny day, and another good spot for people-watching. If you're feeling more energetic, there's quite often a game of frisbee or park football going on and often it is possible to join in. Some of the best 18th Century architecture is in this area as well.
To see how the other half live, why not attend a football match at the Parc Lescure7? Les Girondins de Bordeaux have had a strong team for several years now, winning several championships and cups. Several luminaries of the 1998 French World Cup winning squad came through the team, including Christophe Dugarry, Sylvain Wiltord and Zinedine Zidane. Best of all, you can still stand behind the goal for about ten Euros. With the money you've saved, you could buy a tasty merguez (spicy sausage) sandwich on the way home. Bordeaux also has a strong rugby team, Bordeaux-Begles.
Bordeaux as a Tourist
Right in the centre of the town is the cathedral St André and its standalone bell tower, both of which are built in the distinctive warm yellow limestone of the region. Worryingly, the whole structure rests on wooden stilts, resting on the damp clay foundation. Great care has to be taken with building works in this area so as not disturb the water table and cause the wooden foundations to dry out. You can climb the bell tower and the view is certainly worth the effort.
Another good area to visit is the old docks. The derelict warehouses that used to give this area a somewhat neglected feel are now mostly gone, replaced by shops, a cycle path and open spaces used by a weekly market. The most recent innovation is a flat fountain called the 'Miroir' - very popular with locals and tourists alike on a hot day, as you can walk onto it and cool off! It is possible to hire bikes from a little building next to the Place des Quinconces and this would allow you to easily see the whole waterfront. Other things to see by the river include:
The Pont de Pierre ('the stone bridge') is the original bridge across the Garonne in Bordeaux and very elegant it is too. Walking across it will allow you to have the ideal view back onto the harmonious waterfront around the Place de la Bourse. There isn't a great deal for the sightseer to do over on the left bank8, so you might as well cross back afterwards.
You used to be able to visit the Colbert. it was a French Navy Cruiser, but not all of the locals were ecstatic about its permanent mooring in Bordeaux - a few years back some of them formed an electoral list called 'Sink the Colbert' for the local elections. They didn't win the election battle, but they won the war, and the Colbert has gone to Brest to be dismantled. Cruise ships often moor up now.
The Chartrons is another old area of Bordeaux which merits a wander round. There are some interesting churches and antique shops, in particular, and the modern art museum is based here. There is also a customs museum which is apparently not bad, and in the centre of town the Musée d'Aquitaine will give you a good overview of the history of the area.
The Bordeaux tourist board has a very flashy website with pictures and things that slide around the screen (and some useful information).
The area around Bordeaux has a rich tradition of quality wine growing. Names such as Margaux, Pauillac, St Emilion, Sauternes or Graves should awaken the taste buds of any oenophile (wine enthusiast). Although the Bordeaux region is famous for its reds, there are also some fantastic white wines grown in the area, both dry and sweet, and a sparkling wine or crémant.
If you're visiting the area, don't miss the chance to go out to the vineyards. One of the best ways to see a few chateaux9 is to go to a journée portes ouvertes or open-door day. This means that all the wine houses in a specific area organise visits and tastings, and it is possible to go from one to other, comparing and contrasting. Some of the smaller operators are extremely friendly and will lay on some bread and cheese to go with the alcohol. Due to the rural nature of the wine areas, someone will need to drive and thus should spit after sampling the wares!
Even if there is nothing on at the time you visit, it is often still possible to turn up and visit the larger wine houses. You may have to pay if you want to go to some of the very famous names. Good places to combine wine stuff with a walk or sightseeing include the Medoc, with its beautiful vistas of vines leading down to the estuary, or St Emilion, a historic town that is worth a trip on its own. There is a wine festival in the summer, here is one researcher's description of that experience.
One important point to note is that the best wine doesn't necessarily have Bordeaux on the label, and that Bordeaux Supérieur is not always better than Bordeaux! It's a geographical indication, upper Bordeaux, if you like... The really expensive stuff comes from smaller areas like Pomerol, or St Emilion.
In the summer every other year there is the Bordeaux Wine Festival, with all the major vineyards of the region represented. For comparatively few Euros you can buy a tasting kit at the kiosk. The kit comprised of a wine glass with the festival logo on it, in a holder with a strap that went around my neck and a book of vouchers. There is also a food fair which provides nourishment for the weary drinker with a wide range of cuisines from around the world and luckily very few fast-food offerings. Each booth from each of the vineyards gives away samples of their wares. They do this by pouring a taste into your wine glass which may or may not have been hanging round your neck. Dotted along the pathway are water fountains where you can wash your glass so that you don't contaminate one wine with another. One researcher has found a crafty stunt to maximise the experience:
My brother-and-sister-in-law were both regulars and introduced me to some of the tricks that people use to get to have more booze that you are supposed to be entitled to. The festival takes place on the riverbank. At each booth you should hand in a voucher with their name on it so that you only get one sample from each place. "Don't tear out the voucher," said my brother-in-law. "Hand them the whole book". Sure enough when handed the whole book many busy vintners didn't want to flick through to find their own voucher and tear it out and you ended up leaving with a sample in your glass and the voucher still intact. By the end of the day we needed physical support to stop us falling in the river.
You can read more about the Bordeaux wine region here.
Little Bits of History
Bordeaux began as the Roman town of Burdigala. It still has some Roman ruins, but Cardinal Richelieu (the bad guy in the Four Musketeers franchise) destroyed a lot of them as punishment for the town's Protestant links. It then became one of the major centres of the English possessions in Aquitaine, and became rather prosperous as a port trading mainly with England, notably in booze.
The 17th Century saw the birth of two Bordelais10 who had a significant impact on their society in the areas of literature and law, and whose legacy still stands up to examination today. Michel de Montaigne and Montesquieu may not have written that much in terms of quantity, but they certainly made up for it in quality.
The 18th Century marked a renaissance in Bordeaux's fortunes, and the elegant squares and buildings alongside the river date from this period. Bordeaux and its surrounding area also played an important role in the French Revolution. The Girondins11 were an important group in the development of the French Revolution from June 1792 to September 1793. As the revolution became more radical, they defended a more moderate position, arguing against the trial of Louis XVI. They were eventually arrested under pressure from the Paris mob and were finally guillotined.
The wars of the 19th and 20th Centuries generally spared Bordeaux. When Paris was threatened from the north and east, Bordeaux became the capital of France as it was as far south and west as you could get whilst still being a big city. This happened on three occasions: 1870 (Franco-Prussian war), 1914 and 1940.