I’ll be honest – Bordeaux was never on my travel wishlist. It’s not that I had anything against it, it’s just that I didn’t know anything about the place. But when it appeared as a destination in a Ryanair sale, we thought ‘why not?’ and off we went. And I’m really glad we did.
Bordeaux has changed a lot in recent years. If you read old travel articles, they suggest that Bordeaux was a boring, tired place, only worthy visiting because of the wineries nearby. However, nowadays thanks to the vision of their mayor, Bordeaux is a vibrant, forward-thinking city with great transport, fantastic food and wine, and interesting places to visit.
We arrived early on a Thursday morning, picked up our rental car and headed to the airbnb, which was just outside the main ringroad. Driving through the outskirts of Bordeaux, you forget you’re driving into a city – the streets were quiet and people were moving at a calm pace – very different to Naples in the morning! And unless you’re planning on driving to other towns outside Bordeaux like we were, you really wouldn’t need a car. The transport links in the city are excellent, making good use of modern trams and buses which run regularly and reliably until the early hours.
After brunch, we began a self-guided walking tour that I’d found at Invisible Bordeaux. This was a great alternative to the walking tours we’d done elsewhere because we could stop and start the tour as we pleased (which we did many times!). The tour took us around most of the main sights such as Port Cailhou, one of the old gates into the city, and the adjacent Saint Andre Cathedral and Pey-Berland Tower, which we were able to climb up to see the beautiful views from the top. Be warned though – it’s a steep and narrow climb, but well worth it!
Wine is a big thing in Bordeaux. There are wineries around the city, references to wine everywhere and, of course, lovely wines to sample. So, a trip to La Cite du Vin, the modern museum of wine which opened relatively recently, was next. It’s an impressive building set in the newly renovated docklands area, and is worth the short trip on the tram to see the building alone. The ticket includes entry to the main exhibit, an interactive headset guide and a glass of wine of your choice from the wine bar on the top floor – more wonderful views too! I wasn’t expecting much from the exhibit if I’m honest, but I was very pleasently surprised – it’s really interactive, allowing you to personalise your museum experience by smelling, hearing and seeing what you choose. We could have spent hours in this part of the museum alone.
A glass of wine and a peek at the sunset later, we carried on our walking tour via a lovely cheese and wine bar (more on that in my ‘Where to eat and drink’ guide), and the Bar a Vin, an elegant tasting bar set on the ground floor of the Maison du Vin, where you can sample many different types of wines for very reasonable prices. It’s located in the centre of Bordeaux, a stone’s throw away from the main sights, so it’s a good place to come for a rest too.
Bordeaux is a pretty romantic city, sympathetically lit and lively in the evening. Even at the start of March, lots of people were sitting in the squares, chatting and laughing, and restaurants were serving food late into the night. That first night we ate at the best restaurant I have ever eaten at, the appropriately named Tante Charlotte, a beautiful and unique boutique restaurant on a backstreet of central Bordeaux. An incredible (and hazy) end to a wonderful first day.
Day two was a trip to Saint-Emilion, a small UNESCO town to the east of Bordeaux. The town is famous for its wine, being surrounded by rich, fertile land perfect for grape production. There are literally hundreds of wine-producing chateaux in and around the town, it was difficult to choose which to visit. Luckily, the Saint-Emilion tourist office provides a list and downloadable brochures on their website, and even features two ‘chateaux du jour’ that will welcome visitors on pre-arranged visits on specific days. So, with that in mind, we’d booked two tours at two very different chateaux to sample a taste of Saint-Emilion.
The first visit was to a chateaux in the centre of town, a small family-run chateaux, producing high-quality wine which was a tad above our usual price range. Nevertheless, we were taken on an interesting tour of the production and storage areas, which included a climb down into the tunnel-like cellars, before being guided through a tasting of three of their wines. As a wine novice, I certainly felt more informed about wine afterwards – who knew the smell of wine was different before and after swirling the glass? Visit number 2 was to a less grand-looking chateaux out of town, run by a brother and sister team who could only speak French but accommodated us anyway with our shamefully limited knowledge of the language. The focus here was on the tasting of the ‘more-within-our-price-range’ wine, less ‘show-and-tell’, more ‘do’. Both visits were great though and it was fascinating to get an insight into the main industry in the area.
Apart from the obvious draw of wine-tasting, Saint-Emilion is a lovely little town with a handful of non-wine related sights, such as the monolithic church and bell tower (which is considerably easier to climb than the tower in Bordeaux and offers stunning views of the town and countryside). The food here is great too – we ate at a wonderful restaurant, L’Huitrier Pie – before returning back to Bordeaux for some much-needed sleep.
Day three was a much more relaxed affair. Having experienced the Saint-Emilion wines, we decided to visit the Medoc region to sample some wines from the so called ‘East-Bank’, and so we set off for one of the well-known chateaux in the area, Chateau du Taillan. Many chateaux are closed at the weekend, particularly off-season, but we were fortunate enough to be able to try some of the wines from Chateau du Taillan in their on-site shop, before buying some including two cute 100ml wine tubes suitable for taking in carry-on luggage – they know their audience!
After a quiet picnic lunch of bread, cheese, more wine and napping back at the apartment, we went back into Bordeaux to finish the walking tour and get dinner. On day one, we’d attempted to see the Miroir d’eau, an installation-like sight fountain in front of the Place de la Bourse which, when you look across it, reflects the whole building in the water. Unfortunately though, the fountain had been switched off so, beautiful as it was, we didn’t see the full effect on the first attempt. Day three had been a rainy day though, and that imitated the effect of the fountain – a simply lovely picture-postcard view. A wander around the bustling Saturday-night streets, and yet more amazing and innovative food from Belle Campagne concluded our last night in Bordeaux.
Bordeaux gave us so much more than I expected. It’s a beautiful, friendly place with enough of a balance between tranquillity and liveliness to keep most travellers satisfied. I’d go back there again in a heartbeat.