France Special: 48 hours in Bordeaux

After a spell in the elegant, historic heart of the Médoc, Simon Calder is in epicurean ecstasy

The former English city and French capital is a wealthy maritime centre and has an abundance of history within easy reach.

WHY GO NOW?

The former English city and French capital is a wealthy maritime centre and has an abundance of history within easy reach.

BEAM DOWN

British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) flies from Gatwick; Buzz (0870 240 7070, buzzaway.com) from Stansted. From the airport at Mérignac, the Jet'Bus runs every half-hour from Monday to Friday (hourly in the evenings) and every 45 minutes or so at weekends. The fare is €5.80 (£3.60) single, €9.40 (£6) return. The trip should take around 30 minutes to the main stop for the city centre, Place Gambetta (1), where the city's guillotine used to be. By train from London Waterloo and Ashford, Eurostar (08705 186 186, www.eurostar.com) offers an easy transfer at Lille to Bordeaux, with fares costing £114 return for a journey of around eight hours.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Place Gambetta anchors the western edge of the city centre, the Place de la Bourse the east ­ but the latter is a huge hole in the ground while a new tram system is installed. The river, beyond here, has been woefully neglected for the past century, and most of the city centre turns its back on the Garonne. Perhaps the Romans are to blame ­ they established the original settlement around what is now Place Camille Jullian. The Place de la Victoire marks the southern extent of the city centre, while the Place de la Comèdie does the same in the north. The main tourist office (00 33 5 56 00 66 00, www.bordeaux-tourisme.com) is located just north of here on Cours 30 Juillet. A branch office at the station (near the taxis) keeps shorter hours.

CHECK IN

A good, three-star central option is the Hôtel de la Presse at 6 Rue Porte Dijeaux (00 33 5 56 48 53 88) with double rooms and breakfast from €91 (£58). The Hôtel de Sèze Royal Médoc at 3 Rue de Sèze (00 33 5 56 81 72 42) charges €53 (£33) for a double and breakfast; it has seen better days, but still has plenty of atmosphere. The two-star Acanthe at 12 Rue St-Remi (00 33 5 56 81 66 59) is good value at €50 (£31) for a double with breakfast. The Hotel Boulan (00 33 5 56 52 23 62) deserves special mention because it is unbelievably cheap for a tolerable place in the centre of a city: €20.40 (£12) buys a double, easily undercutting the youth hostel.

The cathedral looks more impressive from outside than in. Directly north from here, across a small square, is the Centre Jean Moulin. This focuses on the life and death of a Second World War resistance fighter who was betrayed. The centre (open 10am-6pm, Tuesday to Friday, 2-6pm at weekends, admission free) uses his story to cover the uneasy issues of Vichy and the Occupation. Just west of here, you can admire the Hotel de Ville (town hall), and call in at the Musée des Beaux Arts occupying its north wing (open 11am-6pm daily except Tuesday; €4/£2.50). Walk north on Rue des Remparts past the designer shops and you arrive at Porte Dijeaux in the south-east corner of Place Gambetta. Here, you can pause for a citron pressé (€3.20/£2) at the busy Café Dijeaux. A right turn along the Rue de la Porte du Dijeaux leads to the ancient crossroads of Rue Sainte-Catherine, now marked by a McDonald's. Continue along Rue St-Remi to the Place de la Bourse, built in the style of Paris's Place Vendome to hide the disorganised medieval city from visiting dignitaries.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Go south to Place General Serrail, a triangle full of cafes that extend outdoors whenever the weather is fine.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

A few minutes from the lunch venue is a place that helps you to understand Bordeaux ­ the Musée d'Aquitaine at 20 Cours Pasteur (00 33 5 56 01 51 00). Exhibits tracing 30,000 years of history are superbly displayed. Borrow an English guidebook to the museum at the ticket desk. The most intriguing sight is the Vénus de Laussel ­ a prehistoric relief of a pregnant woman. The museum opens 11am-6pm daily except Monday. At the other end of town, and the opposite extreme, is the Musée d'Art Contemporain, a collection housed in a beautiful old warehouse complex at 7 Rue Ferrere (00 33 5 56 00 81 50). It opens 11am-6pm daily except Monday (until 8pm on Wednesdays). Admission to each is €4 (£2.50) for the permanent collection, €5.50 (£3.50) to include special exhibitions.

WINDOW SHOPPING

The Bordelais were born to shop. Rue Sainte-Catherine has all the usual French retail suspects, including Galeries Lafayette. Wine specialists abound, but you can make do with the excellent range of vintages on offer at the Champion supermarket, in the basement of the Place des Hommes market.

AN APERITIF

Relatively few bars feature a good selection of local wines. At the Cafe Crème, at the top of the Rue des Remparts, you can buy decent Bordeaux by the glass.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

From the east, foie gras and duck; from the west, seafood. These components appear on many menus throughout the city, including the septet of restaurants in Place du Parlement. The €21 (£12) menu at Le Bistrot d'Edouard (00 33 5 56 81 48 87) is good value, as are its competitors. In the unlikely event that you wish to use your visit to Bordeaux to expand your experience of Latin American cuisine, by all means visit Amazonia, where you can enjoy a mixed hors d'oeuvres called Plancha Piranhas as the first course in a €15 (£9.40) menu.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

St-Simeon is the church on the north side of the Place Camille Jullian ­ which has become a trendy cafe-bar-cinema called Utopia (00 33 5 56 52 00 03), which opens for coffee at 11am. Inside or out, the setting is inspirational for profound thinking ­ or simply postcard writing.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Sundays are tricky in Bordeaux, but the Utopia chefs start serving a wide range of good food at noon.

TAKE A RIDE

The vineyards of Médoc start just beyond the city at Blanquefort, but to immerse yourself in viticulture, aim for Margaux. Except on Sundays, you can catch a train from Bordeaux's St Louis station (25 minutes, €3.80); on Sundays, take bus 706 (one hour, €5.40). The bus drops you close to the imposing Chateau Margaux. Visitors may be made more welcome at the town's wine information centre (open 10am-1pm and 2-7pm) or Chateau Palmer, 500m south of the town.

A WALK IN THE PARK

At weekends, Bordeaux congregates in the Jardin Public, a superbly designed and tended park, complete with a chunky botanical garden and a Musée d'Histoire Naturelle.

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