BORDEAUX - GLOBAL WINE CAPITALAquitaine’s elegant capital offers UNESCO World Heritage, a ravishing facelift – and grapes, as JOY DODDS discovered.
Visitors to Bordeaux come primarily to immerse themselves in its wine culture and to visit famous wine jewels such as St Emilion, the Medoc, Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers. However, once there, the innate history and architectural presence of the city impact as well.
Bordeaux has been an impressive city since Roman times. As early as the 3rd century BC, Bordeaux, or ‘Burdigala’, its Roman name, was known as ‘Little Rome’ – a prosperous Gallo-Roman city. The local Gaul inhabitants planted Biturica vines, the ancestor of today’s Cabernet, on the banks of the Garonne in the C1st AD when the thriving settlement already had temples, an amphitheatre, markets, a port and the Palais Gallien, the ruins of which can be inspected today.
By the Middle Ages Bordeaux was a thriving wine centre, yet under foreign rule, Aquitaine having become part of England, after Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henri Plantagenet in 1152. Bordeaux was the Anglo-Gascon capital for three centuries until 1453. This rich history is omnipresent in the city today, best felt as you walk under La Porte Caihau, the triumphal arch, in Place du Palais, as did French King Charles VIII, leading his troops back into the city after finally defeating the English.
Back under French rule, Bordeaux thrived but its golden era came in the C18th , when trade with the New World, especially the Americas, through its port greatly enriched it. Architecture blossomed, with such jewels as Place de la Bourse, Palais Rohan (now the Town Hall), the Grand Theatre, and many more which sparkle today, thanks to an impressive urban renewal program in the mid-1990s. Under the impetus of mayor and now French Minister, Alain Juppé, Bordeaux underwent an urban renewal and architectural renaissance.
Bordeaux became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007, recognising its unity of architectural style. The quays along the Garonne were developed and where old empty warehouses once stood, “people zones” sprang up. A tram transit system was put in place allowing expansive car-free zones, and buildings were cleaned and showcased. Riverside Place des Quinconces became the largest square in Europe and “Plan Lumiere” floodlit the city’s most beautiful monuments and historic sites. The UNESCO zone boasts more than 350 classified buildings of historic interest. Another impressive precinct, known as “The Triangle”, is Quartier des Grands Hommes which dates back to the French Revolution and includes Place de la Comedie, dominated by the Grand Theatre (1780) with its Corinthian columns and portico.
And Bordeaux has another rich historical thread – over the centuries, the city has sat on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, but also embraced other cultures, in particular a large Jewish quarter, where a medieval synagogue still operates today.
The old quarter contains beautiful squares in St Pierre and St Croix districts, including Place de la Bourse dedicated to Louis XV, facing the river. In Place du Palais, near the victory gate to the old city, La Porte Caihau, (1494) is the St Michel belfry of the former town hall, the Grosse Cloche, part of the original C13th walls and St Croix Abbey, near which is a Roman porch.
The Chartrons district is the former heart of the Bordeaux wine trade and port activity, now sprinkled with cellars, warehouses and impressive residences. Nowadays, the Bordelais sit al fresco along the quays, enjoying a plate of oysters with a crisp glass of white wine. Dining in the Wet Docks restaurants (basins a flot) is very popular with locals and sis a must!
Bordeaux is a great city to explore – on foot, bicycle, on roller blades, or on the little train (cabriolet) or by tram. Allocate enough time to explore its many museums covering everything from prehistory to the history of the French Resistance at the Centre National Jean Moulin.
Don’t miss a visit to the medieval town of St-Emilion, 35 kilometres upstream on the Dordogne, not only famous for its wines and grand crus but also for its historic buildings, including its cathedral, town walls and catacombs, the stunning combination seeing it listed in 1999 as a World Heritage Site.
Do include Bordeaux on your “Lists of Things to Do” in France - it’s a global great – not only for its fine wines but for its re-emergence as one of the world’s great cities.
WINE AND CHATEAUX
The environs of Bordeaux also beckon, including the world’s largest and oldest fine wine producing region – 115,000 hectares of vineyards; 11,000 estates and 60 appellations producing 800 million bottles of wine annually, 89% of which is red wine. While the most famous is Saint-Emilion, other acclaimed areas include the Medoc with its outstanding Grand Crus , Margaux, Graves, with many . themed gourmand tours taking in terroir and chateaux.
The diversity of the soil and the micro-climate produce the finest French wines, with reds and rosés making up 85% of production. Semillon and Sauvignon are produced between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers in a region known as Entre-Deux-Mers , an area of medieval fortified villages, or bastides, and abbeys.
Guided tours of the famous Bordeaux region vineyards, chateaux and terroirs are conducted daily, departing at 1.30pm from the tourist office.
Gastronomic tours are another specialty, with restaurateurs showing the secrets of making such specialties as Bordeaux-style truffles with brandy and grapes and Aquitaine cheese (goat’s milk cheese aged in Sauterne). Gourmet shops include Badiie, one of the city’s oldest wine shops; cheesemonger Jean d’Alos and the fresh market stalls at the Capucins market.
The local cuisine specialises in starters such as foie gras and tripe sausages; white and green asparagus from Landes; Arcachon Bay oysters and crispy baby eels; suckling lamb from Pauillac; entrecõte steak grilled over vine prunings and lamprey in a red wine bordelaise sauce. Sweet offerings include the caramelised cakes called “caneles” ,macaroons from St Emilion and chocolate vine twigs from Medoc.
The international airport is in Merignac with shuttle buses to the city.
Bordeaux is about three hours from Paris (Montparnasse) by TGV, ¾ hour from the Atlantic and less than 3 hours train/drive from Spain. Trains arrive at Saint-Jean station, with shuttle buses to the city centre as well as the tramway. Details: Call International Rail Australasia, 1300 EURAIL (387 245)
Bordeaux is the second most important port of call for Atlantic ships,
docking in the heart of the city, at Port de la Lune.
Regent Grand Hotel de Bordeaux,
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Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media
Telephone: 02 9478 1200
Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media