Wine is a mixed blessing for Bordeaux. It is the city’s calling card, some would say its raison d’être. And yet the aura cast by Lafite Rothschild or Cheval Blanc obscures the beauty, and the energy, of Bordeaux itself. Surely I’m not the only visitor to have been knocked sideways by the sheer handsomeness of Aquitaine’s regional capital? Why did nobody tell me that it has what is probably France’s best-preserved historic centre? Or that outside of Paris, it’s second only to Lyon as a French culinary destination?
Hugging a wide curve of the Garonne, Bordeaux was a cosmopolitan place in its 18th-century boom years. English, Irish and German wine merchants and growers mingled on the quays with Dutch, Spaniards, Portuguese Jews and members of the city’s 4,000-strong black African community. But the rise of road and rail transport in the 19th and early 20th centuries sent the port into decline; as recently as 15 years ago, most of the historic town – which in 2007 was classified as a Unesco World Heritage site – was a grim and unwelcoming place. It was Alain Juppé, the city’s canny, PR-oriented mayor, who oversaw the clean-up of the soot‑blackened 18th-century façades, reminding the Bordelais that they lived in a city of stunning, honey-coloured sandstone. But to a degree Juppé was just riding the zeitgeist. By the time he took over the reins in the mid-Nineties, the residential tide had begun to flow back towards the centre; hoteliers and restaurateurs too, long seduced by the out-of-town château model, were waking up to Bordeaux’s potential.
A few, it should be said, had gambled on it years before. When Jean-Pierre Xiradakis, the Conran of the Bordeaux bistro scene, opened the now-celebrated La Tupina in 1968 in the working-class St Michel district, pretty Rue de la Porte de la Monnaie was, he tells me, “one of the roughest streets in Bordeaux – there was a bar up the road where people regularly got knifed”. La Tupina, which a few years ago topped the International Herald Tribune chart of the World’s Best Bistros, was ahead of its time in its focus on the peasant food of the French southwest – then revolutionary, now the Slow Food orthodoxy. Today, Xiradakis has more or less colonised the street, adding four more eateries, from fish-and-veg-oriented Kuzina to brasserie-style Café Tupina. He has also opened a five-room B&B, Maison Fredon, done out with an engaging mix of modernist furniture design classics, contemporary artworks and pop-culture objets that he picked up in St Michel’s marché aux puces.
But the poster child of Bordeaux’s accommodation renaissance has to be the Grand Hôtel de Bordeaux & Spa. In central Place de la Comédie, this majestic 18th-century mansion-house-turned-hotel echoes the post-Baroque style of the city’s Grand Théâtre just across the square (by the same architect, Victor Louis). Its belle époque glory days were a distant memory when local entrepreneur Michel Ohayon bought the property and drafted in Jacques Garcia to cast his Hôtel Costes spell on the place. The result, inaugurated in 2007, is playful without betraying the sober opulence that is aristocratic Bordeaux’s default mode. Rooms are a little Rococo and a little Garcia, while common areas like the Orangerie winter garden lounge and the Michelin-starred Le Pressoir d’Argent restaurant give its historical fabric sensitive nips and tucks. Only in the Les Bains de Léa spa, with its referencing of Greek, Roman and Byzantine thermal complexes, does the designer let himself go: it’s the kind of place you expect to be fed grapes by servants between massages.
La Maison Bord’eaux is in a far more informal key. This six‑room luxe B&B is housed in a charming hôtel particulier 10 minutes’ walk north-west of the centre, bought and done up by wine-dynasty scion Brigitte Lurton. It feels like the home of a cultured, design-conscious friend who isn’t around much. The roomy salon and breakfast room are lined with art and photography books, and the bedrooms, each in a chic Pantone shade, are contemporary without coldness.
The striking new-build design hotel, Seeko’o – its white Corian-clad exterior inspired by the shape of an iceberg (the Inuit word for which gives the hotel its name) – is directly on a quay in the redeveloped river-harbour district north of the Chartrons merchants’ quarter. The Seeko’o is more style than substance, but you have to admit that if the aim was to shock this most bourgeois of French towns, it certainly succeeds.
If Bordeaux’s hotels have come on apace, its eating and drinking scene has changed utterly. It’s difficult to credit, but as the British wine writer Jane Anson (a longtime resident) points out, “Fifteen years ago there was not a single decent wine bar in the centre.” Wine was traded, consumed in restaurants and present at the tables of all the best families (often from their own vineyards in Médoc, Pauillac or St-Émilion). But the arcane gravitas of the subject, and its luxury status, was a barrier to enjoyment; there was a sense that the Bordelais viewed the world of the châteaux on their doorstep with a mixture of awe and resentment.Now they’re keener to learn; on my visit, quite a few were tasting along with visitors at Max Bordeaux, a “wine gallery” that opened in 2009. Here a €25 rechargeable tasting card lets you choose from among 48 bottles kept under vacuum-fresh conditions in Enomatic dispensers; you pop in the card, select a 25ml, 50ml or 75ml dose (ranging from €0.50 up to €30, depending on the wine) and retire to a table to sniff, swill and contemplate. Max’s only drawback is its slightly sterile feel; for atmosphere, head instead to the funkily eclectic brasserie L’Autre Petit Bois, in pretty Place du Parlement. The ambience is very nouvelle vague, and the salads and tartines are excellent and good value.
At the other end of the gastronomic spectrum, Bordeaux took a big leap in 2010, when the Michelin guide boosted the number of starred establishments in the city from five to eight. A must is the flavoursome, technically brilliant cuisine of François Adamski at Le Gabriel: he’s equally skilled at producing miracles with foie gras and nori in the elegant main dining room of his Place de la Bourse restaurant as at creative paysan-inspired fare in Le Bistrot downstairs. Jean-Marie Amat, formerly at Le Saint-James in Bouliac, has carved out a restaurant of modernist grace from the Château du Prince Noir, a formerly ruined fortress 10 minutes’ drive north of the centre in the suburb of Lormont. (Go at lunch time – when there’s a €30 menu du marché – for full scenic impact). His cooking is precise, in the best sense of the word: a starter of Arcachon oysters wrapped in grilled spinach and topped with Aquitaine caviar was a perfect, refreshing blend of sea air and country veg. Finally, back at Le Pressoir d’Argent in the Grand Hôtel, Pascal Nibaudeau works wonders with seafood in a romantic setting – and is backed up by the personable Jean-Michel Thomas, a top-notch Bordelaise sommelier.
Much has been made of the redeveloped Bassins à Flot wharf district north of the centre, though the boutiques and art galleries that occupy the waterfront hangars feel a bit like an upscale, open-plan shopping mall. More impressive – and appealing – are the contemporary tweaks to the historic fabric of the city centre: the CAPC contemporary art museum, which makes intelligent use of a 19th-century spice warehouse on the edge of the attractive Chartrons quarter; or the delightful little playground-park that you come on suddenly in Rue Vinet, with its green wall designed by Patrick Blanc.
Of the more conventional visitor attractions, two museums stand out. The Musée d’Aquitaine turns out to be unexpectedly fascinating for a local-history museum. I stayed for a couple of hours, absorbed by the sidelights cast on episodes such as the three centuries of English rule between 1152 and 1453, and Bordeaux’s involvement in the slave trade (only recently included in the city’s official account of itself). The Musée des Arts Décoratifs is perhaps less involving, with its quaint displays of Bordelais interiors through the ages, but worth a visit for the setting – one of the city’s most striking 18th-century hôtels particuliers.
The lanes of the town centre, too, are where you will find the one-off shops that make browsing in Bordeaux such a pleasure. These include places such as the artisanal cheese shop Fromagerie Deruelle; the über-sleek design store L’Inoxerie in the Chartrons district; and the charming Au Sanglier de Russie, founded in 1814, which is the place to come for that hard-to-find badger-hair book brush (€19.50) or angled espresso machine cleaning brush (€8.50). It’s a good stand-in for the city it inhabits, this shop. It doesn’t trumpet itself; it just does what it’s always done in its elegant, cultured, unhurried way.