Worldwide: 48 hours in ... Bordeaux

It may be the viticultural capital of the world, but Cathy Packe suggests you don't ask for a glass of Bordeaux in a city which has much to offer the visitor
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The Independent Culture
Why go now?

With the exchange rate still within sight of Fr10 to the pound, this is a good time either for an indulgent but relatively cheap weekend, or for stocking up on a few early Christmas presents and a tin or two of the local foie gras. And, of course, just down the road they produce some of the best wines in the world - if you can't carry it back, you can always get a few cases shipped.

Beam down

British Airways (0345 222111) flies from Gatwick to Bordeaux three times a day for pounds 169.30, as long as you stay over a Saturday night. Merignac airport is about half an hour by bus from the city centre: a one-way trip costs Fr34, and the bus leaves every 30 to 45 minutes to go via the city centre to the train station. The eight-hour rail journey from Waterloo to Bordeaux on Eurostar (0990 848848), changing to a TGV in Paris or Lille, will cost you pounds 119 if you book seven days in advance and stay over a Saturday night. Bus number 7 or 8 goes from the station into the city centre.

Get your bearings

The River Garonne doesn't exactly divide Bordeaux so much as run down the side of it, cutting off a tenth of the city from the rest. The most interesting nine-tenths are on the rive gauche, the western bank. The main part of the city is enclosed by a series of boulevards, or cours, which connect up in a kind of semi-circle. The tourist office is on the Cours du 30 Juillet (00 335 56 00 66 00).

Check in

Bordeaux has a good range of hotels. The three-star Hotel de Normandie, at 7 Cours du 30 Juillet (00 335 5652 1680), is the wine merchants' favourite, and it is in the most elegant part of the city, between the Allees de Tourny and the Place des Quinconces. Double rooms start at Fr590 with an extra Fr49 for breakfast. Ask for a room on one of the higher floors, which have a lovely view over the Garonne.

Less extravagant, but good value for money given their central location, are the Hotel de Seze (00 335 5652 6554), which claims to be the oldest hotel in the city, and the slightly cheaper Hotel Royal Medoc (00 335 5681 7242) next door: both are on the Rue de Seze, which is a quiet street between the Allees de Tourny and the Esplanade des Quinconces. Double rooms start at around Fr280.

Take a hike

The old part of Bordeaux is the area which stretches back from the river between the Place de la Bourse and the Pont de Pierre. The Place de la Bourse is a former royal square built in 1755 in honour of Louis XV, and the whole area is a museum of 18th-century elegance. At the northern end of this quarter is the Cours du Chapeau Rouge, the boundary of Bordeaux's grandest area. Here, everything is more spacious than anywhere else in the city. Beyond the splendid Grand Theatre is the Place des Quinconces, the largest square in Europe, though now rather unimaginatively used as a car park. At the entrance to the square is the Girondins Monument, put up at the end of the 19th century to the group of conspirators who were executed at the time of the French Revolution.

One of the city's newest buildings is currently attracting a lot of negative attention. The new law courts were designed by Britain's own Richard Rogers, and they resemble a series of wooden cones joined with undulating glass - the building is already falling apart, unfortunately.

Lunch on the run

Many of the restaurants and brasseries around the old part of the city are good value at lunchtime, when you can usually get a three-course set menu for under pounds 10. La Guimbarde, on the Rue des Remparts, which leads up from the cathedral, does two courses for Fr49, and is well worth a detour.

Cultural afternoon

For a city with such a flourishing cultural life, Bordeaux is not over- stocked with great museums, but there are some interesting paintings in the Musee des Beaux-Arts. The "CAPC", the modern art museum, is in an old warehouse. It is worth a visit, if only for the great view of the city from the top floor.

Window shopping

The mile-long rue Sainte-Catherine is reckoned to be the longest pedestrianised shopping street in Europe, although most of it - apart from Galeries Lafayette and Nouvelles Galeries - is pretty tacky. The more elegant boutiques are on the Cours de l'Intendance. And there is a great cheese stall downstairs in the shopping mall at the Place des Grands Hommes. But there is, of course, only one thing to buy in Bordeaux, and you will find it by the caseload at the Vinotheque de Bordeaux at 8 Cours du 30th Juillet. It is closed on Sunday.

An aperitif

In a city which might claim to be the viticultural capital of the world, you might think there is only one aperitif. Unfortunately, asking for a glass of Bordeaux here is like going to Oporto and asking for a glass of port: you are likely to be presented with a resigned smile and a very long list of variations. So save the wine for dinner and ask for a Pineau des Charentes, a fortified wine which combines old wine and young brandy and comes from the Cognac region just north of Bordeaux.

Demure dinner

The Chapon Fin, in Rue Montesquieu (00 335 5679 1010), with its Michelin star, is the place to go to indulge yourself. A restaurant was first built on this site in 1824, and this one has existed in its current form since 1901. It is decorated in extravagant belle epoque style, and Edward VII and Toulouse-Lautrec were once among its fans. The set lunch at Fr160 is good value, but in the evening they really pull out all the culinary stops, although the bill will be about three times higher; and as you might expect, there is an impressive local wine list.

A cheaper option is Le Noailles, at 12 Allees de Tourny (00 335 5681 9445), an old-style brasserie complete with great food and surly waiters.

Sunday morning: go to church

The cathedral of Saint-Andre is almost as big as Notre-Dame in Paris. First built at the end of the 11th century, it was rebuilt two centuries later. It has an attractive gothic transept and choir, and two beautifully carved doorways on the north side, one of which, the Porte Royale, has just been restored. A serious cleaning operation is in progress, which is having an amazing effect on the colour of the stone.

Old-fashioned lunch

In a city which sets so much store by eating and drinking, it can be difficult to find anywhere open for a decent Sunday lunch. A popular spot is the Brasserie du Passage (00 335 56 91 20 30) at 14 Place Cantaloup, just under the spire of Saint Michel - the one they call La Fleche (the arrow).

A walk in the park

The Jardin Publique, to the north of Place Tourny, was laid out in the 18th century. Every Sunday afternoon there is a Bordelais version of Punch and Judy, not far from the Cours de Verdun.

The icing on the cake

Now that the grape harvest has finished, the wine houses have opened their doors to visitors once again. Many of them are within easy reach of the city, and they will show you around, and let you taste the wines.