The city of Bordeaux: a place of wonder

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From the waterways of Bordeaux to the longest shopping street in Europe, Hannah Bills explores France's fifth largest city

Strolling along the riverbank and watching the mirage of palatial upside down buildings dancing in the water, you could almost be forgiven for thinking you were in St. Petersburg, the ‘Grand Dame,’ of cities in the far western tip of Mother Russia.

An ocean liner gently slides into her berth in the calm of early morning. But the ship does not partake in the weekly jaunt across the icy Scandinavian waters, like the Russian liners, for this is not the famous Neva river.

Instead, it is the Garonne, a historic stretch of water that flows out into the Atlantic at its most westerly point. One difference you ponder whilst admiring the magnificently regal riverside abodes, is that a chap named Grigori Rasputin was never thrown into the river to have his lungs filled with ‘L’eau de Garonne.’

Still the waterway tells the French story of time for all of the grand city’s residents, who, as we stroll into the early years of the 21st Century, comprise Frenchmen, Spaniards, Portuguese, Germans and North Africans. The city bubbles with vivacity; a prime location on the French Atlantic coast, Bordeaux has been a trading port for well over a millennia, and can boast about being the second largest in France after Marseille.

The fifth largest city in France is resplendent in its grandeur; classical 18th century architectural facades, restaurant and bar lined banks, manicured trees and subtle floral accents. Bordeaux women can boast of their city’s incorporation of the longest shopping street in Europe; the ‘Rue St. Catherine’ is no less than 1.2km in length.

Downtown and away from the riverbank, the heady whiffs of lamb kebabs, burgers and fries from the take out joints waft out into the narrow streets to mingle with the fine local cuisines of seafood, sausage and duck, all, of course, washed down with one of the famous local reds. The vines in the Aquitaine region have flourished over the years to bestow the region with a reputation for class and quality winemaking.

There are, in the ‘terroir’ around Bordeaux, nearly 120,000 hectares of grapes grown, and it is the area in France that produces the largest volume of fine red wine- over forty-four million cases per annum, to be precise.

There’s no doubt that Bordeaux’s wealth stems from its historically profitable wine trade, which gave the city and surrounding region a status to uphold. An interesting fact is that many of the first classical facades along the Quai were built in order to conceal the grim medieval slums that lay concealed behind.

The slums have long gone now, but the modern blight on the city, with even the most patient of citizens undoubtedly affected, are its traffic lights, which occur along ‘les rues’ practically every 50 metres. Perhaps the plethora of lights was put in place so that folk would be able to admire the city’s splendour. After all, enforced sight-seeing from one’s vehicle makes the agony of viewing a continuous bombardment of ‘les hommes en rouge’ perhaps a little less acute.

Driving around Bordeaux, you could very feasibly feel like a foreign rabbit lost in a French warren. There are more streets with ‘Chartrons’ somewhere in their title than I’d care to mention, but not to worry, with all the traffic lights, you have plenty of time to read your map. Perhaps you really are wise and decide to leave your car at home; this is by far the best choice, as aside from other road problems, there is hardly anywhere to park in the city centre.

The 2007 UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprising the entire City of Bordeaux, delights with its ‘green’ credentials, most obviously, its modern tram system. In a day and age when it is seen as desirable to have as tiny a carbon footprint as humanly possible, it is possible to have a perfectly sumptuous weekend away without even setting foot on a flying sardine can, such as those services offered by certain airlines I won’t mention.

A trip to the Bordeaux region is, like almost all of France, highly recommended for food and wine devotees, but there are other gems to enjoy here too, so take a long weekend off to let Bordeaux surprise you.

If you book in advance, you can travel in style by Eurostar to Paris or Lille from London, then take the TGV to Bordeaux. Seen through the eyes of a would-be tourist, Bordeaux certainly has a lot to offer.

But if you are searching for a different experience, then you might try a pleasant day’s trip to St. Emilion, less than 50km away, in the middle of Bordeaux red wine country. Much of St. Emilion is medieval, and the village is surrounded by vineyards where you can buy and taste the wine whilst admiring St. Emilions’ ancient rooftops from the vines below. Inside the village itself you can find the omnipresent wine sellers, tapestry galleries, and an array of stunning restaurants.

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