The children, along with a good number of their elders, frolic in one of the most impressive urban lakes you’ll ever see. OK, maybe “lake” isn’t the right word; it’s only 2 centimeters deep, less than an inch, and only appears part of the time.
Le Miroir d’eau, it’s called, the water mirror (which sounds a lot better than “impressive French urban puddle”). Built of granite slabs just a decade ago, it’s 3,450 square meters in area. The Bordeaux tourist authorities say it’s the world’s largest reflecting pool; who am I to argue? Every few minutes underground jets spray mist over the waters, and you’d have to go a long way to find anything as atmospheric as that sight, framed by the graceful buildings of the Place de la Bourse. Not that it matters to the kids running through it, kicking up their feet and shouting, or the adults who shed their shoes and stroll around in the Miroir, cooling off in the summer heat.
When my fiancée and I visited Bordeaux last summer (my first visit, not hers), we found a city seemingly built on the continuing quest for satisfaction of 500 temptations. Calling it the anti-Paris is probably going too far, but there’s no denying that the hub of the Gironde region in Southwest France provides Gallic pleasure-seeking aplenty without having to contend with overwhelming hordes of tourists or snobbish local attitudes. The city center is relatively compact, too. At sunset, when the Bordelais promenade along the riverfront, it feels close to the Mediterranean lifestyle, though the city is much nearer the Bay of Biscay in Atlantic coastal waters.
Bordeaux is, of course, is a famed mecca for wine lovers, but so much more. Besides the wine country safaris to the thousands of vineyards to the north, south and east, not to mention the scads of wine shops in town, tourists and locals alike gobble up chocolates and pastries, visit outstanding restaurants (the previously low-key food scene is now considered more than merely something to accompany the wine) and push their way through crowded street markets.
Higher culture is not ignored. At 5 euros a ticket, the Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux Arts, musba-bordeaux.fr/en) is one of the city’s best bargains. Expect to spend several hours marveling at top-quality European paintings and sculpture from the 15th century on; the museum also hosts several temporary exhibitions, one of which may even be staged outside the building in the attractive surrounding park.
Somehow, in Bordeaux you always wind up at the quays. During high summer, from mid-July to mid-August, the city holds free dances on a raised wooden deck by the Garonne that doubles as stage and dance floor, with various live bands and dance styles, from country to African to samba, tango, rumba, Zumba, hip-hop, Latin jazz and rock, going from 10 a.m. to midnight every day except Tuesday. It’s unpretentious and local as it comes, and you may well find whimsical touches like robots (advertising something or other) just off to the side.
The restaurant scene doesn’t disappoint. My companion and I dined at several memorable places, like the Brasserie Le Noailles, a bustling, traditional and welcoming spot that’s been in business since 1932. As waiters in white aprons and green vests bustle about serving appealing regional meals at reasonable prices, in the shadow of the Opera House and near an impeccably restored antique carousel, you might feel you’ve been transported to a mid-20th-century musical comedy.
Other reliable eateries include Palatium, an urban-safari spot on cours Pasteur; Les Canailles, a friendly downtown bistro/wine bar; and best of all, Racines on rue Georges Bonnac, an unglamorous street a bit away from the center, where Scottish chef Daniel Gallacher prepares extraordinary dishes from a limited daily set menu that changes frequently. (To give you an idea of what’s on offer, when we visited Racines for lunch, the blackboard listed an appetizer of whisky-cured duck ham, potatoes and turnips with thyme and red currants, haggis crumble and savona mayo; a main course of Iberic pork with caper butter, broccolini, cauliflower and lemon; and a dessert of cherries, kirsch and white chocolate cream and a lime sable biscuit. We weren’t disappointed.)
There are also any number of hip wine bars and seafood restaurants lining quai Richelieu (we liked La Ligne Rouge, or the Red Line, by Porte Cailhau). If you’re feeling like a seafood splurge, Le Cabanon Marin is the place to go — pricey, but extraordinary.
As for wine tours, you can find them at every level of cost and time from three-hour trips to multiple-day excursions. The great chateaux, like Margaux and Latour, are geared more toward high-end spenders (though self-touring is possible if you arrange far enough in advance and are persistent), but bus tours through the Bordeaux tourist office start at around 42 euros. Tours for six, done via van, cost considerably more per person than bus tours for 40.
We took the latter option for a half-day wine tour to the Graves and Sauternes vineyards just south of the city. The two vineyards we visited provided starkly differing examples of modern French viticulture. Michel Gonet, who owns several different vineyards and wine brands, walked us through some vines and then into a modern, rather antiseptic tasting room with some unmemorable wines produced from a variety of blended grapes.
On the other hand, Chateau de Cérons, on the Graves-Sauternes border, was more on the order of what we’d come for. Tastings were held in a 17th-century manor house managed by Xavier and Caroline Perromat, who’d taken over the estate from other members of Xavier’s family in 2012. With only 26 hectares to work with, the chateau remains out of the spotlight, but it produces appealing reds and sweet whites at affordable prices.
Tasting the chateau’s offerings along with our temporary bus-tour family, we counted our good fortune and remembered that good things, and unforgettable places, aren’t always the most renowned.
Tips if you make the trip
• Traditional regional foods of Bordeaux include shellfish (both oysters and crustaceans), entrecote of beef (rib-eye steak cooked in Bordelaise sauce, made with red wine, bone marrow, shallots and other ingredients) and Pauillac lamb. The Bordelais regularly indulge their sweet tooth at fabulous pastry and ice cream shops. Don’t miss trying the local signature pastry, the canelé; these are small cylindrical delights with a caramelized crust and soft center flavored with rum and vanilla, baked in small fluted copper molds. Canelés are cheaper in local supermarkets, a short tram ride outside the center, but I found better versions in tourist-oriented shops like Canelés Baillardran for about 1 euro apiece, and well worth it. Multicolored macarons are also ubiquitous, not to mention Italian-style gelato. (The supermarkets are, however, better options for purchasing items like fleur de sel and French cheese at far lower prices than the tourist shops, not to mention back home.) Oh, and the wine is decent, too.
• Bordeaux offers CityPass options for 24, 48 and 72 hours, priced from 29 to 43 euros. The card allows access to free public transport on the efficient local tram and bus system, free admission to 20 museums and monuments, a walking tour, a city tour and assorted discounts.
• Much of central Bordeaux is given over to pedestrian zones. It’s very hard to get a cab in the city, but between the convenient public trams and hoofing it, it’s easy enough to get around.