My last stop in southern France was Bordeaux, which I had not visited before. I found it a charming smaller city, somewhat resembling Boston in its vibe, although of course with a much longer history and richer built environment.
Bordeaux bills itself as Le Petit Paris. The petit part is certainly true but it doesn’t really rival Paris as far as I could see. The most dramatic difference is in their museums. As the unrivaled center of France Paris has hoovered up the best stuff, leaving not much for a smaller city like Bordeaux.
I was lucky to have a resident as guide and companion for two of my afternoons, Grégory, who Zhizhong and I had met the previous year, when we crashed a Parisian Gentleman party in Paris.
Grégory and me in Bordeaux.
Grégory is currently working with Stephane Jiminez, a French bespoke shoemaker. Follow the link if you want — and can afford — a personalized shoe that fits your foot like a glove.
We first met up at a striking sculpture in one of the central squares, the Place de la Comédie. Check out this video to see the sculpture, and the square, from all angles.
He showed me the oldest part of the city on our first afternoon together, including the gothic church, Saint-Louis des Chartrons.
Saint-Louis des Chartrons, Bordeaux.
Nave of Saint-Louis des Chartrons, Bordeaux.
One of the stained glass windows of Saint-Louis des Chartrons, Bordeaux.
On the second afternoon we started at the contemporary art museum. The Judy Chicago exhibition was quite good, and well curated, but (as often happens) I was also impressed by the architecture of the building, a former wine storage facility.
Hallway in the CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux.
We strolled back into the city center, including a look at rue Sainte-Catherine, billed as the longest shopping street in Europe.
rue Sainte-Catherine, billed as the longest shopping street in Europe
We ended up having a drink at a cafe near one of the gates from the former medieval city wall.
Porte Cailhau, Bordeaux.
I returned later that evening. Looks like Hogwarts to me!
Porte Cailhau, Bordeaux, at night.
Government buildings in a newly-opened reflecting pool which is a magnet in the evenings.
The stone bridge (pont de pierre).
rue Denise, the tiny street in the Chartrons neighborhood where my b&b was located.
I stayed four nights at La Grenadine, a charming, comfortable b&b that has recently been carved out of an old warehouse along a cute little street. The owners are a lively and friendly young couple who have known each other since childhood. They have a clever system for avoiding burnout: they take weekends off and rent the entire place to groups on Airbnb. So most likely you will only be able to reserve a b&b room during the week.
La Grenadine is in the Chartrons quarter, a trendy neighborhood about a mile north of the city center. This might have been an inconvenience except for the wonderfully convenient tram system. I bought a seven-day pass on my arrival — less than 13 euros! — so I was able to jump on and off at my convenience. (The only mistake I made was not adding a euro to include the public bicycle system.) There was a tram stop on the river bank at the end of my street and with one easy change I could get back and forth from the city center or the railroad station in about 20 minutes. The trams are powered by a middle rail in the historic city center but by overhead wires elsewhere. To enable people to walk freely across the tracks without being electrocuted power is applied to the central rail only when a tram is directly overhead. (If you got run over I guess you would be killed twice but otherwise it’s a brilliant arrangement.)
One of the places where the trams switch from being powered by overhead wires to being powered by a middle rail.
Another modern feature of Bordeaux is the largest drawbridge in Europe, which opened in 2014. It’s needed to allow cruise ships to dock near the city center.
Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, bridging the Garonne river in Bordeaux.
An enormous cruise ship, aptly named The World, looms over the old city.
To really see the city, you have to get up high.
A panoramic terrace!
Actually, an even better view point is a 15th century bell tower built adjacent to the cathedral to protect the main building from damage by vibration. At certain hours in the day you can climb its tiny circular stairway and get a truly panoramic view of the city.
La tour Pey-Berland, next to the Bordeaux Cathedral.
The tower is so close to the cathedral that you can’t fit the latter into a single picture, but I came up with the idea of using my iPhone for a vertical panorama. This came out great!
Vertical panorama of the Bordeaux Cathedral from the adjacent bell tower.
My last day I joined a guided tour of the wine town of Saint-Emilion, including a winery tasting.
Vineyard in Saint-Emilion.
View over the rooftops of Saint-Emilion.
Gate in the former city wall of Saint-Emilion.
I had several good meals in Bordeaux, and just one dud. The good ones were at places that I had scoped out myself, or places recommended by my b&b. The dud was when I got a discount deal through The Fork, an app for European restaurants similar to Open Table in the U.S. I should have learned my lesson by now: when there’s a big discount offered through The Fork there’s a reason, usually that the place isn’t much good. Good ratings on the app (now owned by TripAdvisor) are suggestive, but they can be gamed and in any case they represent the relatively unsophisticated opinions of (mostly) American tourists. I still use the app to reserve because its so easy, and offers points worth $1 per reservation when you accumulate ten. The best meal I had in Bordeaux was recommended by the b&b (and also well rated on The Fork): Au Bouchon des Chartrons, not far from the b&b. It was really a lovely experience: lively and amusing waiter, cozy and arty decor, great food, reasonable price, interesting clientele.
Interior at Au Bouchon des Chartrons, Bordeaux.
Me at Au Bouchon des Chartrons, Bordeaux
Haricot vert appetizer at Au Bouchon des Chartrons, Bordeaux
Salmon with salad and tomato tart at Au Bouchon des Chartrons, Bordeaux
Creme brulée at Au Bouchon des Chartrons, Bordeaux.
While I didn’t find Bordeaux wildly stimulating I thoroughly enjoyed my stay, and I would recommend it to others for a couple of days.