11 June 2011
Arriving on a flight from Edinburgh, France’s 5th largest city is similar in size and as rich in history. Leaving Bordeaux’s newish Billi low-cost airport terminal to take the shuttle bus into town, Met with a change to the normal route, was caused by my arrival on Gay Pride Day and required an unexpected detour to my centrally located hotel. This was not a problem on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning in Southern France. In France, each town or city tends to have a Hotel de France which is usually a 2/3 star central and affordable hotel. This was my choice for my first visit to Bordeaux. Having previously travelled extensively throughout France, I had no real difficulty finding my way around. Just off the Cours de l’ Intendance, on the small Rue Franklin was my stay for for three nights. It just so happens that international Vinexpo was also only a week away. So Bordeaux was a very busy place. After finding my way around, it was obvious that Gay Pride had taken over the city. Following the rainbow flags, music beats and colourful outfits I followed the crowd through the Place de la Comédie and the throng of people to the Esplandes des Quinconces one of the largest public squares in Europe.
So here on my first trip to Bordeaux, I had walked straight into a party but I quickly felt at home in the bustle. Boutiques, bakeries, chocolatiers, wine merchants and cafes all seemed my kind of thing. Modern trams, old stone streets, boulevards and grand old buildings all reminded me of other southern French cities like Montpellier. As the sunny afternoon cooled, the top brand shops on the Cours de l’ Intendance and Rue Sainte-Catherine started to close and the main streets quietened a little as the evening approached. Bordeaux is a beautiful city that sits on the wide muddy coloured Garonne river. The city centre is on the left-bank and has a rich and colourful history. The architecture here is breathtaking. There are many districts to discover and a weekend isn’t really enough, I knew a return visit would be required. But in the meantime I explored what I could. Near my hotel on the Place des Grand Hommes is a fantastic shopping centre Les Grand Hommes with many boutiques and hosts Saturday market stalls surrounding this large glass & metal rotunda gallery. On the lower floors are food stalls with fresh fish, bakery, cheeses, meats and vegetables. The surrounding area is cosmopolitan with top boutiques and wine merchants which leads to Allée de Tourny (a mini Bordeaux version of the Champs-Elysees). Here is where Christmas markets and fairs are hosted. Bordeaux is a small city but has fantastic shopping, however I was here predominately for its legendary wines.
Before arriving, I had arranged by email a tour of Château la Mission Haut-Brion. This would be a highlight but first were nights out in Bordeaux. Chilled Lillet Blanc with orange peel is the local aperitif which I sipped at the Cafe de la Comédie before starting a stroll through old Bordeaux and I instantly knew I was going to enjoy this trip. Discovering new eateries and experiences awaited. I stumbled upon Le Tio Pepe restaurant on Rue Remparts, a lovely little find on the walk down from Cours de l’ Intendance to the Saint-Andre Catherdral and Palais de Justice. A tasty 14.90 Euro menu and glass of wine later, I felt I lived in this wonderful city. My cousin who stays in Versailles had suggested Bar a Vin to drink some of the famous local wines. Situated in the Pace de Comedie corner building (pictured), opposite the tourist information. The beautiful bar with huge stained glass windows showcases local producers and is subsidised by the wine makers. This makes for a must-do wine tasting experience on any trip here and I spent each night trying some fabulous Medoc’s, Graves, Pomerol and Saint-Émilion wines. For 2 or 3 Euro’s a glass this gives a very good insight to the incredible wines produced here and a full range of fizz, white, red and dessert wines.
A Sunday morning 302 bus outside the main tourist information took me to Saint-Émilion on the right bank, one of the most beautiful examples of a French medieval village, it dates back to pre-historic times and is a world heritage site. En-route is the wine making right bank capital town of Libourne, with Pomerol and Saint-Émilion nearby. The 50 minute journey passes miles of vineyards and the bus stops at many local villages on the way. Arriving just outside Saint-Émilion, a short walk up past some grand cru classé vineyards sets the scene for a beautiful stone village. The afternoon was spent like many other tourists following the narrow stone streets passing by wine caves and merchants, stopping to taste and have a leisurely lunch in the church square overlooking the high walls of the Monolithic church. Underneath the village are a series of underground caves which are used to hold the many thousands of bottles of wine produced. Here is a great place to get a sense of the history of wine making and I found a great understanding while speaking with local producers and wine merchants. I picked up goodies like Canelé cakes from a local patisserie rather than one of many Baillardran Canelé chain shops in Bordeaux. Many of the producers here are owned by families and they have a more intimate feel than some other wine regions. On the meander out of this quaint medieval village I toured and tasted at Château La Gaffelière, from the Premiers grand cru classé B of the Saint-Émilion wine appellation, trying their first & second wines. Five minutes walk from there is the train station. I waited in the late afternoon sun with other day trippers and boarded the train for Bordeaux’s Gare Saint-Jean. A great day trip and a late siesta on the train refreshed the evening ahead.
Passing through town on the tram, we stop off for aperitifs on the riverside before heading to l’Entrecôte steakhouse, nestled between the tourist info and the city’s Opera House. This unique steak frites place doesn’t take bookings and early evening queues are frequent. A simple set menu of walnut salad proceeds the steak frites for 17 Euros is better here than in some other French cities for the descendants of Paul Gineste de Saurs chain restaurants. More tastes of this regions fine wines then follow at Bar a Vin across the road.
A bright sunny morning greeted my hazy head and after breakfast, it was off to my premier visit for this trip, a pre-arranged tour of Château La Mission Haut-Brion. I had tried to book its more famous neighbour, Château Haut-Brion (the only first growth 1855 classification outside the Haut-Médoc and owned by the same people) but its buildings closed for renovated during my stay. Having consulted locals the previous day, a bus from Place Gambetta was the best way to reach this Pessac-Léognan appellation Grand Cru vineyard. The bus journey was only 20 minutes south-east towards Pessac and the city suburbs. We stopped off at Avenue Jean Jaurès, where imposing high gates and a long majestic driveway awaited. This led to a beautifully kept Chateau, gardens and courtyard. I was greeted by our tour guide and other visitors. An informative tour of this historic Chateau which was set up by missionary monks in medieval times. A tour of the cellar and grounds was followed by a tasting of their top and second wines from the 2007 vintage. A truly memorable experience and I would highly recommend a visit and their exquisite wines. Strolling back down the driveway in the now hazy afternoon sunshine, we wandered back into town after only a short wait for a bus. Not a grand entrance or exit but car or taxi isn’t really needed for this trip.
An evening in the old town with strolls around this enchanting and vibrant city, led me to unwanted thoughts of leaving the next morning. Sitting at the Cafe de la Comédie for the last time, I stretched my budget after chatting about Armagnac with the waiter, opting for an 1984 Laberdolive Bas Armagnac that blew my mind. The following morning I still had the Armagnac on my mind. But I only had the morning before having to head for the airport. So after breakfast my last wine adventure would be to Max Bordeaux, halfway along the Cours de l’ Intendance. This modern wine tasting gallery gives you the opportunity to try some of the top wines from this area by the measure. Walking through the Imperial sized famous named wine bottle corridor leads to a ceiling of hanging wine glasses and modern space. I bought a plastic card topped up with credit and set about trying some incredible and expensive wines:
2004 Clos Floridène Blanc from Graves
2006 Cos d’Estournel a super second from Saint Estèphe,
2004 Cheval Blanc from Saint-Émilion
2004 D’Yquem from Sauternes
A perfect way to finish my first wine adventure in Bordeaux. I can’t believe how long it took for me to get there, what an incredible place, so rich in history, culture and artisan ways but also young at heart.
As always, I like to hear your thoughts, so please feel free: