Bordeaux is a bit worried that nobody looks beyond its wines. It is not complaining, mind you, just fretting. After all, the city did not win the title of ‘best European destination of the year’ on the strength of its luscious reds alone.
Just a decade ago, Bordeaux had slipped into near obscurity, become Europe’s Sleeping Beauty (La Belle Endormie, for the linguists among us).
I was unable to associate that name with the youthful, vibrant city I was seeing around me. Every café was bursting at the seams with locals chugging beer and enjoying the spring sunshine. All the premium stores and boutiques on Rue Sainte Catherine – the longest shopping street in Europe – were doing brisk business, even in the absence of “Sale Sale” signs.
It seemed far removed from a time when the city suffered from congested roads, buildings covered in soot and derelict warehouses near the river. One man, the mayor and former Prime Minister, Alain Juppé is responsible for Bordeaux’s transformation into its current avatar. Over a decade ago, he set about the process of injecting life into his city, pedestrianising the elegant boulevards in the heart of Bordeaux, cleaning up the neglected 18th century buildings and introducing spiffy trams. And the trams themselves: silent and futuristic, using power from underground cables so that ungainly electric wires do not crisscross overhead, marring the gorgeous skyline.
The makeover, which started in the late 1990s, really took an upswing around the turn of the millennium. In that sense, the city was not a Sleeping Beauty but a Cinderella, only in reverse. In a few years, the city was so spruced up that more than half of Bordeaux found its way into the UNESCO list, making it the largest urban heritage site in the world.
I was staying at the Grand Hotel, right opposite the Opera House, known as the Grand Theatre. And there really was no point feeling sceptical about the recurrence of the word grand, for these buildings are nothing but. The first thing that struck me when drove into the city was the magnificence of the neoclassical buildings – somewhat like Paris but on a smaller, more intimate scale. In fact, it is said that the stately buildings of Paris had derived inspiration from Bordeaux’s.
Bordeaux is extremely charming, unpredictable; as I stepped out of the hotel, right in the middle of the bustling Place de la Comedie, I came face to face with The Face, a contemporary street installation by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa. This uber-modern artwork looked on to the streets passively, an antithesis to all the grandeur surrounding it, and completely unperturbed by that fact. Yet it did not strike a jarring note on the old-world allure of the square. That is the soul of Bordeaux, the new in harmony with the old, making it easy for locals (and visitors) to embrace both.
On an exploratory walk, I found Bordeaux a classic European town: cobblestoned streets, al fresco cafés and wrought iron balconies jutting out of buildings like curious children. The limestone facades in the old town glowed a burnished gold in the early evening sunshine. And everyone on the streets seemed young, carefree and just happy to be there. So was I – happy to be in Bordeaux, I mean.
And like all great cities, a river ran right through its centre – the Garonne – inviting people to rendezvous there at all times of the day. The riverside also owes its facelift to Juppé, who made it a welcoming place, perfect for both solitary walks and social chatter. The avant-garde water mirror there – le miroir d’eau – is a shallow pool on a granite square on the broad pavement.
Initially it stayed perfectly still, reflecting the splendid, symmetrical buildings of the Place de la Bourse, the royal square dating back to the 18th century. Fittingly, the water mirror has been called the most beautiful puddle in Europe. It is the kind of puddle that makes you want to roll up your trousers and wade right in, and later blame it on your inner child.
It had just stopped drizzling, the sun still playing hide and seek with the clouds. A couple with bright red umbrellas walked on the water (no Jesuvian miracle here; this pool is just a flat strip of water, designed to be a mirror), breaking the general air of greyness, especially in the reflections.
The fountain jets in the middle of the pool suddenly sent up fine, cooling mists, making it seem like the clouds had descended upon us that afternoon. These sprays were created with summer days in mind; other cities have public swimming pools, Bordeaux has a set of fountains. This was possibly my favourite place in the city, a spot I returned to at different times in the day to see the magic of sunlight upon it.
Sitting there, watching children and adults splash about in the water, I thought back to something I heard earlier in the day. Nathalie Escuredo, an expert wine grower (one of the emerging women champions in the region) had said, “Here in Bordeaux, many of life’s problems are solved over lunch and dinner. When we meet friends, we drink coffee for two minutes and talk for two hours.”
Truly, in Bordeaux, there was a pleasant sense that time is but a wispy concept and not to be given much importance. And I believe that is just how things ought to be everywhere.
Oh, and all that I said in the beginning about Bordeaux being more than just wine? That does not mean that the city does not take its wines seriously. After all, the Aquitaine region of France, where Bordeaux is located, has close to 8000 chateaux producing world-class wine.
Nor does it mean that I went away without tasting them. I spent an entire morning at the Ecole du Vin (wine school) sipping, swirling and spitting with a small group of wine novices, as Escuredo introduced us to the wonder that is Bordeaux wine. And on the ground floor of the school was the Maison du Vin bar, serving the best local wines, along with nibbles.
When Her Majesty, the Queen of England visited Bordeaux, she described it as “the very essence of elegance.” This was way back in 1992, before Bordeaux assumed a fresh lease of life. I can only wonder what she would call it, if she were to visit again today.
Fly to Paris direct from Mumbai or connecting via Mumbai from Delhi on Jet Airways (Rs. 41,000) and take a fast train to Bordeaux, a journey of just over three hours.
Where to stay
The Grand Hotel De Bordeaux and Spa guarantees a luxury stay in a heritage hotel, whose neoclassical façade was originally created by architect Victor Louis in 1776 (Superior Room with Breakfast from €375 / Rs. 26,000). For a mid-range budget option, stay at the Quality Hotel Bordeaux Centre, a no-frills but popular hotel (Classic double rooms from €99 / Rs. 7000).
What to see and do
Take a walk in Bordeaux’s Golden Triangle, an area littered with beautiful neoclassical buildings and bounded by three fine boulevards, Cours Clemenceau, Cours de l’Intendance, Allées de Tourny. And then head to Place de Bourse, opposite the river and the water mirror, for more majestic buildings. Back at the Place de la Comedie, catch a concert or ballet at the Grand Theatre.
Join one of the beginner or advanced wine appreciation workshops at the L’Ecole Du Vin.
A slightly edited version of this was published in Outlook Traveller, August 2015 issue.