A short break in: Bordeaux

Dominic Hamilton discovers a city in south-west France with grand architecture, great museums and gourmet restaurants - and the wine's not bad either

If Paris has been seen and done, the Cote d'Azur's too far, the skiing season's over and you fancy a tipple or two, Bordeaux may be just the city you've been looking for.

Wrapping itself in a crescent around the Garonne, Bordeaux is surrounded by vine-swathed countryside. Despite being a large, modern metropolis, its architecture has been meticulously guarded and restored over the years - Bordeaux has more listed buildings than any other French city.

If Paris is France's brain, then Bordeaux is its heart, pumping Mouton- Rothschilds and Chateau Lafites to the four corners of this nation of bon-buveurs. Bordeaux is also synonymous with the bourgeoisie - there are more Hermes scarves per square kilometre than you can wave a Lacroix handbag at.

The Bordelais are a proud bunch, with a distinct regional history, culture and cuisine, and a big frite on their shoulders - Paris should only ever be mentioned a voix basse in Bordeaux. After a weekend of indulgent degustation, 18th-century architecture and clement weather, it's hard to understand why.

When to go

In the summer, the city and its surrounding wine-making villages are bustling with tourists, making spring or early autumn (for the wine harvest) the best options. Over the last weekend in May, restaurants spill out onto the streets for La Fete de la Cuisine, while on 21 June, the city erupts for the annual Fete de la Musique. In September, the Rugby World Cup comes to town.

Getting there

By air: British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) flies from Gatwick to Bordeaux three times a day. World Offers until 27 May cost pounds 198 return (including tax). A cab from the airport to the city centre takes 20 minutes and costs around pounds 10. There are also regular shuttle buses.

By train: contact RailEurope (tel: 0990 848848). Returns from London to Bordeaux, via Paris or Lille, booked seven days in advance and including a Saturday night, cost pounds 119. Alternatively, the Eurodomino pass allows for three, five or 10 days of travel for a month and costs from pounds 105. Discounts on both tickets for the under-26s and children. Taxis from the station cost pounds 5 to the city centre.

By coach: Best option is the Eurolines pass (tel: 0870 5808080) which allows 30 days travel for pounds 199 before 15 June (pounds 159 for those aged 25 and under or 60 and over). Bordeaux's bus station is very central.

Where to stay

Hotel de Normandie (tel: 0556 521680; fax: 0556 516891). Superbly situated slap-bang on Bordeaux's centrepiece Esplanade des Quinconces, the Normandie offers great views of the huge square and the Garonne beyond. Balconies on the second and fifth floors provide excellent dog-walker-spotting opportunities. Doubles start at pounds 50, breakfast included.

Hotel de la Tour (tel:0556 814627; fax: 0556 816090). Hidden away behind the busy Place Gambetta, with restaurants, cinemas and museums close at hand. Decent doubles start at pounds 27, without breakfast. The hotel has a private carpark for pounds 4 a night, but no taste in wallpaper.

Hotel Notre Dame (tel: 0556 528824; fax: 0556 791267). A refurbished 19th-century townhouse in the heart of the quiet and unassuming Quartier des Chartrons. Doubles start at pounds 28 a night, and there's a car park nearby. No views or balconies, but civilised nonetheless.

Hotel St-Remi (tel: 0556 784378). A centrally located, small and clean hotel in the heart of the shopping and dining area, near the Place de la Comedie. Doubles start at pounds 16.

Centre d'Hebergement Jean Marquaux (tel: 0556 945166). Situated just off the Place de la Victoire, so ideal for bars. They have dorms, singles and triples all at pounds 7 for the first night, breakfast included, and pounds 6 thereafter. Sheet hire is pounds 1.80 per night.

Getting around

Despite its size, Bordeaux is an approachable city and agreeable to explore on foot. The Garonne provides a constant bearing, and the city centre has been spared any modernist follies, making orientation with the aid of church spires or republican monuments never less than straightforward.

What to see

Bordeaux's city centre is a jewel of protected and restored architecture, with over 4,000 listed buildings. The city's mayor, Alain Juppe, has taken facade-lifting urban surgery to new heights. Not to be outdone by Paris's floodlighting of the Seine, the city's most impressive monuments now glow day and night.

Bordeaux retains some of its medieval character in the form of several imposing gateways in the southern crescent, where the streets are noticeably narrower and their names reflect the city's artisanal past. The square around the Basilique St-Michel and its separate spire is completely taken over by the fleamarket most mornings, while the church's modern stained- glass windows are stunning.

The Palais de la Bourse was originally the royal palace and is suitably ostentatious, although its graceful arc lends it more subtlety than you'd expect from a Louis-inspired edifice. From the Palais, 18th-century townhouses radiate eastwards towards the elegant Place du Parlement, where the stone faces of dozens of carved mascarons spy on the winers and diners below.

Further north, the influence of the city's intendants is more keenly felt, reflecting the city's golden age of grandiose urban planning. Bordeaux claims the longest pedestrianised shopping street in Europe, the rue St- Catherine, and shoppers can happily lose themselves within the "Bordeaux Triangle" of chichi vitrines to the west of the Place de la Comedie.

There are also several museums, notably the quirky Musee des Arts Decoratifs (tel: 0556 007250) and the excellent Musee d'Aquitaine (tel:0556 015100). Moving north past the allegorical Monument aux Girondins, the Jardin Public is refreshingly English, replete with a small lake, fountains and its very own Musee d'Histoire Naturelle (tel: 0556 482986), not to mention grass you can actually walk on - a novelty in France.

Beyond the park lies an imposing 19th-century warehouse, home to the Musee d'Art Contemporain (tel: 0556 008150), whose summer programme includes a large Mir show and works from the Pompidou Centre.

Along the quayside sulks the grey hulk of the Colbert battleship - Bordeaux's answer to HMS Belfast, and about as attractive. The market here on Sunday mornings overflows with regional produce, not to mention brogues, bouffant hairdos and designer dogs.

Up from the quayside, the Quartier des Chartrons is a charming quarter with many working artisans, a wealth of antique shops and the best wine museum in town, the Musee des Chartrons (tel: 0557 875060).

Food and drink

Paris and Piaf. Provence and Van Gogh. Bordeaux and wine. The two go together like a rhyming couplet. Wine is the city's life-blood with viti- emporia the size of Harrods and wine lists in restaurants longer than the Maginot Line.

Bordeaux's cuisine, on the other hand, is not hugely rated (though locals will argue that the oysters of the Bassin d'Arcachon are the finest in the world, and that nothing tastes as good as sanguette - fried chicken's blood - a prune from Agen, or the regional canele cakes). But what it lacks in cuisine it makes up for in places to eat.

La Tupina, 6 rue Porte de la Monnaie (tel: 0556 915637), is the authentic Sud-Ouest gastronomic experience. Jean Pierre Xiradakis, the owner and Bordeaux culinary celeb, takes his wine-tasting seriously, claiming that for every wine listed, 200 haven't passed muster. Only at La Tupina can you find the traditional sanguette, and foie gras as silky smooth as the service. With desserts a la grandmere, nouvelle cuisine it certainly ain't. There are pounds 10 lunchtime specials and an pounds 18 Sunday lunch special.

L'Estaquade, Quai de Queyries (tel: 0557 540250). Situated on the eastern bank of the Garonne's Bastide quarter, L'Estaquade is Bordeaux's newest and most feted restaurant. The sleek design shouts "Sydney!", despite being conceived by local architects, and the view of Bordeaux's spruce quayside is unbeatable day or night. The young chef Frederique Montremont's tastes are firmly Mediterranean, combining both regional, Moroccan and Basque influences in his fish dishes. Excellent value at pounds 9 for three courses at lunch, and though you'll pay more for the evening menu, the floodlit view is priceless.

Chez Philippe, 1 Place du Parlement (tel: 0556 818315), remains one of the city's most established and discreet restaurants. An institution with well-heeled Bordelais, but it isn't averse to producing fantastic lunchtime food at pounds 10 for two courses and a glass of wine. The assiette du mareyeur offers a selection of deliciously grilled mullet, monkfish and cod, while to miss out on Bordeaux's creamiest, most flavoursome creme brulee would be criminal.

Cafe du Musee, 7 rue Ferrere (tel: 0556 447060). If only the plates weren't battleship grey, this stylish, ultra design-conscious restaurant would be faultless. Located above the Contemporary Arts Museum, the interior is dominated by two immense Richard Long canvases. Outside, sleek slatted benches, white canvas awnings and sculpted hedges complete the cool, sophisticated feel. The food is beautifully presented - as you would expect - with occasional collaborations between artists and chefs, and delicious to boot. Lunch menu at pounds 10 for three courses and an evening menu at pounds 16.

Le Bistro du Sommelier, 163 rue Georges Bonnac (tel: 0556 967178). For those who like their wine lists exhaustive and exhausting, this bistro, somewhat out on a limb geographically, is a must. The food is good traditional fare and the service friendly, though the decor is a bit cold. Lunchtime menu at pounds 9.

Nightlife

Though Toulouse or Montpellier outdo Bordeaux in number of students and bars, it is by no means a slouch when it comes to partying. Rue des Pilliers de la Tutelle, off the Place de la Comedie, draws the jeunesse doree most nights with its Spanish and Latino bars. The Place de la Victoire is the student place-to-be from around 10pm, with dozens of bars spilling out on to the pavements. From there, the action moves to the Quai de Paludate after 2am, where late-night bars keep the party going till dawn. In the summer, the best fun, and most of Bordeaux, are to be found in the towns on the Atlantic coast north of the Bassin d'Arcachon.

Lovers of jazz and spit'n'sawdust should seek out L'Avant Scene (tel: 0557 875588) on rue de la Borie in the Chartrons quarter. It's a traditional jazz bar but it serves its demis from the only beer-dispensing piano in the world.

The gold-leaf interior of the recently renovated Grand Theatre has to be seen to be believed. The theatre's programme includes productions of France's dramatic heavyweights, as well as concerts, readings and opera. Indeed, Bordeaux's theatre scene seems in good health, with Le Port de la Lune (tel: 0556 919800) drawing in the crowds, and L'Onyx (tel: 0556 442612) catering for fringe productions. The city also hosts a comprehensive programme of classical concerts and opera.

Out of town

There are over 10,000 wine chateaux in the Gironde department. Some of their names ring out like church bells in the hearts of wine-lovers the world over. Only an hour or two from the city, you can kiss the hallowed vines of Lafite, Mouton-Rothschild, Petrus and Pomerol - snap up the '95 and '96 vintages now, if you like your wine to gain in value as well as taste. St Emilion is the most visited village in the region, both for its wines and its historical charm.

In fact the department is awash with history. The medieval bastide (walled) market towns and Benedictine abbeys of the Entre-Deux-Mers region are fascinating, and Henry of Navarre's castles remain as imposing as ever. To the north, the Garonne estuary is Europe's largest, dotted with charming towns such as Blaye, with its medieval citadel, or Bourg-sur-Gironde, and great fishing (and eating) spots.

Nature-lovers will also find plenty to write home about. The coasts of the Medoc and the Bassin d'Arcachon provide mile upon mile of sandy beaches, where finding a secluded spot to enjoy your recent purchases of wine, oysters, foie gras and cheese won't be a problem. Getting home afterwards might be.

Further information

The tourist office in Bordeaux (tel: 0556 006600; www.bordeaux-tourisme.com) has a programme of tours of the city, day-tours of the wine regions, and lots of wine-tasting opportunities. The "Bordeaux Decouverte" card provides discounts on all museums and some cultural attractions, and there are also discounts on short-stay hotel rooms. "Le Passeport Gourmand" (tel: 0556 773239) costs pounds 30 and offers discounts on restaurants and cultural activities.

The Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (tel: 0556 002266; fax: 0556 002282; e-mail:ecole@ vins-bordeaux.fr) runs an extensive range of wine-tasting courses.

The Maison du Tourisme de la Gironde (tel: 0556 526140; fax: 0556 810999; www.tourisme-gironde.cg33.fr) provides information on activities and attractions in the area. The French Tourist Office (tel: 0891 244 123) in London does too, but charges you 50p per minute for the privilege.

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