As I crossed the bustling square, I heard my name and looked up to see two smiling faces framed in the wooden shutters adorning an old stone building, now an airbnb apartment. My father and brother leaned over the iron rail, waving with one hand, a glass of wine in the other in an official welcome to Bordeaux. As I joined my family at the window and took in the scene on the crowded pedestrian avenue below, it was hard to believe that despite being one of the world’s major wine capitals, Bordeaux was known for years as “La Belle Endormie”, or Sleeping Beauty, as much for its smoke-blackened walls as for being overlooked by tourists.
But over the past 20 years, the longstanding mayor and former prime minister, Alain Juppé, has put an ambitious revitalization campaign in place that has razed the abandoned warehouses along the waterfront and transformed over 7,500,000 square feet of former docklands into a pedestrian walkway, bike paths, landscaped gardens, and public waterside attractions like markets and zumba classes. It cleaned the soot from the limestone façades of the Bourse, the Grand Théâtre, and the main cathedral, then insisted other property owners do the same. It installed a 41-mile tram system and banned cars from much of the city center. In 2007, half of the restored neo-Classical city was designated as UNESCO’s largest urban World Heritage site. And since last year, a new high-speed train line shoots tourists from Bordeaux to Gare Montparnasse in Paris in just over two hours. Now, over 5.5 million visitors a year come to Bordeaux to stroll some of the most graceful streets in France, eat well, and drink better. And when searching for a family vacation destination last summer, it seemed an obvious choice.
We soon joined the diverse crowd below us, some riding by on public share bikes, some sipping espresso at cafes along the square’s edges, and walked down to admire the city lights in the Miroir d’eau, the world’s largest reflecting pool. On the riverbank, the cool evening air simmered with the buzz of excited tourists getting ready for days of wine tasting and gourmet meals.
Bordeaux has long been known for its wine, which is inextricably linked to the history, economy, and culture of the city. The birth of the first Bordeaux winery is said to have occurred between AD 37 and 68. Yet these days, it’s the food scene that takes center stage. Bordeaux’s produce is world-famous: oysters from the Bay of Arcachon, milk-fed Pauillac lamb grazed on the Médoc marshes, cèpes de Bordeaux, local raspberries, farm raised ducks and homemade foie gras, and asparagus, not to mention the excellent fromageries and boulangeries that are a staple institution of all French towns. In recent years, the honey-colored heart of Bordeaux’s left bank has become filled with interesting new offerings like experimental modern bistros and cozy gastrobars, along with restaurants serving more traditional hearty Bourdelais cooking. We were intent on trying as much of it as we could.
The next morning began with an exploration of the empty stone streets in search of a good bakery, successfully returning home with an armload of bread, beignets, and croissants with various fillings. We dutifully padded our stomachs before departing for the rest of the day to explore some of the 6,500 wineries in the region. The Bordeaux Tourism Office offers a fantastic selection of wine tours catering to all desires and budgets, and we had reserved five places on a day-long Médoc Art and Wine Tour. When we met our driver, a reserved Frenchman, in front of the Tourism office we discovered that we were the only ones to sign up for that day’s tour, leaving us with a private minivan and chauffeur.
Our first stop was the cozy Château Paloumey, producing a well-known Cru Bourgeois. We were greeted by a young woman who toured us around the vines and explained the wine classification system, which hasn’t changed since the days of Emperor Napoleon III. Then she took us through the wine cellar, reviewing the fermentation process, before walking us out to the tasting room. We tasted six of the Estate wines, choosing a few to take home. By the time we emerged, we had to be escorted to the car under a line of black umbrellas to avoid a sudden downpour, which we interpreted as a good opportunity for lunch. We were soon seated at a wooden table in a small ancient stone house swirling glasses of wine while enjoying the various dishes placed in front of us, including an Iberian pork steak so tender it seemed almost raw.
After lunch we explored the grounds of the famous Château Margaux, whose wines our guide firmly believed are overrated, with a standard-sized bottle of the Château Margaux grand vin retailing at an average price of $639. Our final visit was to Chateau d’Arsac, an estate with a vineyard in which half of the vines have been classified as Margaux – the other half are Haut-Médoc. In addition to creating serious and complex wines, owner and art collector Philippe Raoux has tried to express the concept of integrating wine, vines and living art by renovating Château using modern architecture of stainless steel, wood, glass, and by painting the winery electric blue and installing a colorful sculpture garden surrounding the property. We bookended our tour of the sculptures and cellar with blind taste tests of the estate’s wines, testing our skills from earlier in the day by quizzing us on specific grape varietals and blends.
We arrived back in Bordeaux just in time for a late dinner at Jean-Pierre Xiradadis’s warm and friendly La Tupiña, a traditional bistro serving dishes from the south-west of France. A huge roaring hearth and spits roasting chickens and racks of lamb greeted us as we stepped through the door. The menu was a carnivore’s dream, consisting of a long list of meats and a few other regional specialities like roasted lamprey, all served with a pile of fries cooked in duck fat. We ordered the foie gras, duck, lamb shoulder, and steak, which turned out to be some of the best meat dishes we’d ever had. However, we still couldn’t finish it all and, feeling nearly catatonic, we asked to take some of the dishes home. Our waiter agreed to the duck and fries, but nearly kicked us out on the street when we tried to add the fois gras. Eventually he relented, but his face made it clear that we were going against sacred cultural norms, so we quickly made our exit.
In the morning we took a day trip to the medieval town of St-Émilion, a worthy destination of its own just a 30-minute train ride from Bordeaux. Out the window, the sun-fired flatlands of Pomerol suddenly rose into hills, with St-Émilion tucked away in their midst. This stunning hill-town is made of golden stone, with sloping vineyards creeping in on all sides. Named after Émilion, a miracle-working Benedictine monk who lived in a cave here between AD 750 and 767, it soon became a stop on pilgrimage routes and its wine was discovered. The village and its vineyards are now a UNESCO world heritage site, with some of the churches dating back as far as the 12th century. Even if you’re not a wine drinker, like my mom, and even if you find yourself traveling at peak tourist season, it’s still worth a visit. We wandered the steep cobbled streets filled with craft shops, bakeries, cafés, restaurants, and—of course—wine stores (St-Émilion reaches maturity earlier than other Bordeaux reds and is often better value for the money than Médoc or Graves), sampling French macarons, whose origins date back to St-Émilion, and having a sip of wine here and there, selecting a few more bottles to add to the cave. When Nathaniel’s arms could no longer carry any more wine, we got back on the train.
We had dinner reservations at Côté Rue, billed as one of the hottest seats in town, where stylish locals regularly come for the innovative dishes. It was hard to imagine a meal better than the one we’d had the previous night at La Tupina, and after wandering down what seemed like a deserted alley lit by neon signs, we entered Côté Rue with some trepidation. Except for our family, the restaurant was empty. We took a seat and looked around the open-kitchen dining room, decorated with 18th-century crown molding and bold abstract oil paintings, as the waiter explained how the meal would work. With a set rotating multicourse tasting menu, the only choice we had to make was which wine to order. We made a bold decision to let the sommelier choose our wines to match the dishes, and sat back in anticipation. The five tables around us slowly up, but it didn’t take long to realize that seating times were staggered because the amount of work that went into creating each dish was astounding, and it would be impossible to serve more than a few tables at once. Each dish was an exquisite work of art, both in the creative presentation and the unique combinations of unlikely textures and flavors. For example, a small bowl of large white bubbles that eventually popped to reveal a tomato gazpacho with sheep cheese cream underneath. We savored every morsel, all paired with the perfect wine, and even though it had been four hours and we couldn’t imagine taking another bite, it took all the strength we had to leave the restaurant.
We had one final morning before our 3pm train to Paris, and set out for the banks of the Chartrons, where every Sunday more than seventy stands gather to showcase the specialties of Bordeaux at the Chartrons Market. As one of Bordeaux’s most important markets, it attracts both tourists and locals seeking culinary inspiration. And as with all French markets, the atmosphere and good humor are in perfect harmony with the multitude of colors and products on display. We tasted and admired, then each bought half a dozen oysters and a glass of white wine and sat watching strollers, cyclists, runners and roller bladers taking full advantage of the promenade. Then, bellies full and thirst quenched, we joined them for one last stroll.