Bordeaux became a World Heritage Site in 2007. The fact is announced everywhere. A unity of the classical and neo-classical architecture and urban development. The Bordelais were naturally delighted and rightly so, for this really is a sublime city-scape. It’s what you go to Bordeaux to experience – then use as a setting for civilised eating and drinking.
Triangle d’Or (Golden Triangle)
Bordeaux’s monumental heart really is a triangle bounded by three fine boulevards (Cours Clemenceau, Cours de l’Intendance, Allées de Tourny). Here, 18th-century grandees used colonial loot to rip out medieval stuff and replace it with stately open space and neo-classical declarations of unshakeable self-belief.
Focal point is the Place de la Comédie, overseen by the Grand Theatre with its magnificent neo-classical façade. The Corinthian columns without announce a blue and gold auditorium as sumptuous as the inside of a courtesan’s jewel box.
Nearby is the Esplanade des Quinconces. As the biggest (almost 30 acres),square in France, a spot at which to honour local philosophers (note the statues of Montaigne and Montesquieu) and the site for the most delirious, symbol-filled fountain you’re ever likely to see - Le Monument aux Girondins.
Nowhere is Bordeaux’s renewal more evident than along the banks of the Garonne river. Fifteen years ago, the detritus of dead port activity – derelict warehouses, littered the quays, driving a wedge between river and town. Subsequent transformation has been profound. What was once abandoned is now tailored open space, gardens and greensward. Old warehouses on the Quai de Bacalan have become shops, jaunty bars and cafés.
Palais de la Bourse
The finest bit of the riverfront is the Place de la Bourse open to the river but enfolded on three sides by the Palais de la Bourse – the most sumptuous expression of Bordeaux’s confidence. This was the business exchange in the days when traders had wigs and standards. It has the harmonious grandeur of Versailles, but shorn of the effeteness. Out front, the miroir d’eau – a great expanse of shallow water – reflects the palace, as if opening up a different dimension. The effect at night, when floodlit, is mesmerising.
St Pierre district
After the broad acres of the Triangle d’Or and, indeed, the Garonne riverfront, this district is where Bordeaux gets in touch with its medieval side. The fine old churches dissipates progressively amid a throbbing warren of narrow streets and comely little squares. The ancient urban tangle has more bars and restaurants than you could get round in a year of excess. It grows progressively funkier as you near the Place de la Victoire.
Running long and arrow-straight through the middle, the Rue Ste Cathérine provides leg-sapping shopping for those not up to the ambitious price-tags in the Triangle d’Or. This, in short, is Bordeaux’s liveliest sector.
Though strictly just outside St Pierre, the Musée d’Aquitaine is close enough to mention here. As you would expect, it covers the history of the region from pre-history onwards – and does so in spritely fashion. Sections on the Romans and, much later, Atlantic commerce and the slave trade, are particularly rewarding. If you are to visit only one museum in Bordeaux, I’d go for this one. Open Tue-Sun, 11am-6pm; closed Mon.
Musée des Beaux Arts
If you are to visit two museums, head slightly further from the St Pierre district to the Musée des Beaux Arts www.bordeaux.fr; permanent collections free, temporary ones €5). There are decent works from the Renaissance onwards.
When the English, Irish and Dutch arrived to dominate the Bordeaux wine trade, local worthies wouldn’t have them in the city centre. So they set up beyond the town boundary – in the Chartrons. Long ago enfolded into the city, the district retains its mixed identity of fine-wine houses and narrow workers’ streets. They are now complemented with a mildly bohemian mix of antique shops – notably on Rue Notre Dame bars and a scurry of artistic endeavour.
Ste Croix and St Michel districts
Here, just to the south of the centre, round two splendid churches, is where artisans and port-associated tradesmen once clustered. The quieter, tight-packed streets still bear the dignity of honest hard work.
Start in front of the lovely 12th-century façade of the Ste Croix abbatial church (where, incidentally, they hold free organ concerts at 6.30pm on Wednesdays in July and August). Then simply stroll back towards the centre, trying in your imagination to people the thoroughfares with the sailors, deckhands and drunks, the barrel-makers, blacksmiths and butchers who once enlivened these quartiers.
Stop at the flamboyant Gothic St Michel church, whose free-standing spire is the tallest and most elegant building in Bordeaux. The views from the top are outstanding. The views from the bottom are pretty interesting, too – notably during the Sunday-morning flea market which fills the surrounding square.
Then keep walking, perhaps to Rue Rousselle, former hub of Bordeaux’s saltfish trade. Sixteenth-century philosopher Michel Montaigne lived at Nos 23-25. His dad was in herring.
This beautiful old wine town, a 40-minute drive west from Bordeaux, is built like an amphitheatre and has some pretty decent wines to sample. If you visit only one wine area, this is the one to consider.
Alternatively, potter out up the Gironde estuary to where the really famous Bordeaux wine châteaux (Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild) rise amid the featureless flatlands like ancien régime seigneurs. One of the most rewarding to visit is the Château Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse-de-Lalande at Pauillac – a manicured spot if ever there was one