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Arts

Roger’s guide to Bordeaux: fine wine, beautiful architecture and so much more

14 Jul 2023 | Written by By Roger Davies

The Joy Club member and author of ‘Roger’s cruise ship diaries‘ shares details from this recent trip to Bordeaux…


Bordeaux is a delight, from its towering cathedral to the magnificent Monument aux Girondins, via the amazing Miroir d’eau. All the sights are in a very contained city centre that is easily walkable for most people. The mixture of sites – ancient and modern, foreign and familiar, affordable and outrageously expensive – fit together so well in this unmissable city.

Bordeaux sits astride the river Garonne just south of its junction with the Dordogne, together these rivers form the Gironde. (The river that the “Cockleshell Heroes” paddled up to attack the U-boat pens just north of the city.) As this city is the beating heart of one of the world’s greatest wine regions, you will not be surprised when you see the many hectares of vineyards surrounding the city.

How to get there and where to stay

The gateway to Bordeaux is the modern, regional airport at Merignac. This is a well-appointed medium sized airport with all the facilities you would expect: car hire desks, fast food halls and money exchange. It even has it’s own little annex, away from the main terminal, for Easy Jet flights. The last time I picked family up from here (pre Covid) it even had free short term parking for pickups. As you come out of the terminal building the car hire pick up points are right in front of you. From the airport, you are straight out on the A630 ring road system, which circles the city opening up the whole of the Western coast of France. 

However, you cannot fly into South West France and not visit the city itself. Parking in the city centre is available but I would advise parking on the right bank of the river and using the new, modern tram system to get to the sights on the Left bank. 

I have already mentioned the local airport where you can get (could get) cheap EasyJet flights from most major UK airports and hire cars can be easily obtained. You can also come down by train, London to Paris on the cross Chanel services then SNCF, there is a very fast service from Paris to Bordeaux, two to three hours for around £45. Then there are the ferry crossings. I used to travel overnight from Portsmouth, get a good sleep on the ferry, disembarking around 08:00 ready to drive down. It will take around six hours. 

Where to stay is not a problem. Bordeaux, literally has dozens of hotels ranging from the modest to the luxurious; from just over £100 a night to £300 a night and upwards; Air BnB to apart-hotels. My choice however is to rent a Gite outside of the City and self-cater. In the past we have located about 10 miles north east of the City, up the N10 in a rural Gite. A swimming pool during the heat of the day, peace and quiet at night, a BBQ and local wine for food, what more could you want?

Now that we’ve found our way there and settled in, let me tell you more about what there is to see in this beautiful city…

Cathédrale-Primatiale Saint-André de Bordeaux

The place to start is the unmissable Cathédrale-Primatiale Saint-André de Bordeaux with its twin spires pointing to the heavens. This is a Romanesque Catholic Cathedral that is as magnificent inside as it is outsise. You will often find activities taking place in the Pl. Pey Berland surrounding the Cathedral. Take time inside, to just sit in wonder and absorb the atmosphere, from the well over one thousand years of history and worship that this building had seen. 

Basilique Saint-Michel

Next on my list of must-see buildings would have to be the Basilique Saint-Michel. Just head south-east from the cathedral through closely packed side streets and wide open boulevards. This is another ancient church. Though it is 500 years younger than the Cathedral, it was still built before our Henry VIII came to the throne. Its architecture is of the flamboyant gothic style. Like the cathedral, this church has a separate bell tower, called La Fleche. (The Arrow) and when you see it you will realise why. It is possible to climb in side this tower to get a look over the Place Meynard, where on a Saturday you get great views of the traditional French market which is held here. Last time we were there it poured down but it was still a great experience. This area of town is adjacent to the North African area of the City and the market has all the aromas of Algeria and Tunisia. Alongside the stalls selling fresh produce from France are stalls covered in the all spices of the Levant.

The Portes

Now head north for a few hundred meters and you will find one of the main gates to the city, the “Porte de Bourgogne” This stands in grand isolation on a traffic island and though it has the looks and style of a Roman gate way, it in fact dates from 1750. 

You can now wander down the famous Quai Richelieu with the river away on your right and the city buildings to the left. You will soon come to another castle like gateway the “Porte Cailhau”, built in 1495 it was once the main gateway into Bordeaux. Continue travelling north till you reach The Place de la Bourse, a square surrounded by some of the most magnificent buildings in the city.  For me, the best thing here is modern “Miroir d’eau”. This installation is a thin film of water in which the beautiful buildings of the square are reflected. You can walk out into the pool as the water is only millimetres deep. However beware there are nozzles that can emit atmospheric mists or energetic plumes of water depending on the vagaries of the controlling computer. If you can, this is best viewed at night, as you get all the coloured lighting reflected in the water as well as the architecture. 

The Place des Quinconces

Still heading north you will maybe pass a moored cruise ship on your right, if not the river is still alive with ferry craft and tourist boats enjoying time on the river. Here you need to watch out for the myriads of students racing round on their electric scooters. Eventually you will reach another large open space, the Place des Quinconces, there may be a large circus here or an exhibition of some kind or maybe just the open space to promenade in. To the north and south, are areas of greenery to wander in, away from the heat of the midday sun.  At the West end of the area is the “Monument aux Girondins”. This was erected to honour the revolution heroes of the Gironde. It consists of a towering column rising out of ornately sculpted fountains. It really is something to behold. 

The village of Margaux

To the South now heading back toward the city centre. It was here I found evidence of what makes Bordeaux world famous. Near the tourist information bureau is an emporium specialising in the best wines in the area. The most expensive real estate in the world lies just a few miles north of the city, where there is an unassuming little village, called Margaux. Here agricultural land, which, if it were ever to become available, would command prices to make your eyes water. The wines produced in the Medoc are on sale in this shop. It is here, if you have more money than sense then you can buy a bottle of Chateaux Margaux or alternately you can buy some of the superb local wines at moderate price and they will ship them to your home address for you. In this area also you can see the “Opera National de Bordeaux” a building worthy of it’s title. 

***

There is so much to see and do in this small area of the city that I am running out of space to record it all! The solution is to arrive and explore. Every corner turned seems to reveal a new sight to swoon over and it’s not just the buildings that are so impressive, it’s the spaces between them that I enjoy, from the tree-lined boulevards to the formal open spaces like the Jardin Public at the “Museum de Bordeaux – sciences et nature”. However, Bordeaux is not just a city in isolation there is so much more to see and do in this area, from a tour of the vineyards to a visit to the endless Atlantic beaches. There are rivers and lakes, islands and forests to explore. 

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