Discovering Bordeaux, My Closest Big City
My vacation in southwest France started in Bordeaux, a city that just seven weeks ago I knew only from its train station, which I had passed through last year. Since moving to this area, Bordeaux has become one of my favorite cities—for its beauty, accessibility, and wine culture and, most practically: it is the closest big city to my town.
Several people who are from these parts have told me that Bordeaux has changed enormously over the last 20 years. It has built a premiere wine museum, cleaned once dirty buildings to a regal yellow-white, created a bike and pedestrian friendly river path, and sprouted hipster cafés, bars and contemporary art spaces. With all of these changes, it has predictably become more expensive, people say, especially since a high-speed rail train between Paris opened last summer, which travels 360 miles over two hours. (The only challenge, as one Independent writer said, is you have to leave from Paris’s Gare Montparnasse train station, “a subterranean labyrinth designed, I speculate, by Franz Kafka’s French cousin”).
During my first visit to Bordeaux, on a day trip with some of the other teaching assistants, I was ecstatic as we wandered around the city peaking into stores on Rue Saint Catherine, the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe, and taking photos in front of sites like the Place de la Bourse and the reflection pool that mirrors it, Miroir d’Eau. At that point, I had lived in the coastal town of Biscarrosse for two weeks, and as beautiful as it is, I had missed being in an urban environment with stores, café patios, narrow streets and wide boulevards, a comprehensive public transportation system, a diversity of people, and charming storefronts like those above.
I stayed in Central Hostel, one among a new wave of trendy hostels with a chicly decorated café and bar and modern facilities. The shared, podlike dorms remind me of the episode of “Seinfeld” where Kramer uses a large dresser drawer unit in his apartment to provide accommodation to three Japanese businessmen visiting New York City.
As I was settling into my room the first night, I started talking with another guest who turned out also to be a teaching assistant in the same program as me, she from Austria. We got along right away, and I invited her with me to meet a few American teaching assistants at a restaurant called Le Brasserie Bordelaise. The group of us shared duck, steak frites, foie gras pasta, and salad and compared our teaching experiences so far, relating over our towns’ quiet and infrequent public transportation.
The next day, I headed to the Cité du Vin, the largest and supposedly most authoritative wine museum in the world, built only in 2016. After spending several hours there, I walked back through Chartrons, a well-heeled neighborhood that was once a hub of wine merchants. I entered the Jardin Public, a meticulously manicured public park with ample benches and lawn to relax on.
After, I headed to the Port Cailhau area, a large place with several patio cafés that is popular for happy hour, to meet up with the group of teaching assistants from the night before, plus a few more. Then we went to Bar à Vin, a popular wine bar with Roman style columns and stained glass windows that nonetheless sells cheap glasses of good local wine, starting at 2 Euros. It is run by the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bordeaux, an association that represents Bordeaux wine producers and merchants and promotes the regional wine. There is often a line in the evening to get in, and we probably waited around 20 minutes. They sat us outside, where we shivered and marveled at the long line at the single-menu steak frites restaurant L’Entrecôte across the street while drinking our wines and eating a cheese plate.
I started the next day at a narrow coffee shop called Black List located at the Place de Hôtel de Ville, or city hall, which serves something I’ve missed a lot in France: pourover coffee (as well as delicious looking pastries like carrot cakes and French cinnamon rolls). I planned the next few days of my trip, deciding to stay another night in Bordeaux and then go to Montpellier, a university city in the south central area of France near the Mediterranean. I booked a train ticket and a hotel for three nights with credit card points, and then I headed on over to a wine tasting room called Max Bordeaux, where you can put any amount of one euro or more on a debit card to dispense tastes of wines. My favorites were the clairet from Château Masserau, a dry white from Pessac-Léognan in the Graves area, and a red Château Laujac from the Médoc area. You can easily burn through euros here, but it is a nice option for sampling higher quality wines that might cost 50 or 100 euros a bottle, or even more.
At this point I was sleepy and eager to take advantage of the beautiful, sunny weather so I walked to the Jardin du Public. It was the perfect park day, with kids playing soccer and friends and families sharing park benches and picnicking. I found a place to lie down and read a book of “parallel text” stories in French and English until dozing off for a bit.
After waking up from a peaceful nap, I walked up to Rue Notre Dame in Chartrons, which is known for its antique stores and other boutiques, and browsed a little before walking back down to the center city, ending on Rue Saint James, a hip street with many boutiques and bars. I did the happy hour at a Spanish bar called El Sitio, a drink with choice of a tapas option like a sandwich with Spanish ham or a potato dish called patatas bravas for a little under 8 U.S. dollars. My new Austrian teaching assistant friend met me, and we talked about whether we could see ourselves living in Bordeaux (me: yes; her: somewhere a little quieter), our coming travel plans, and our countries’ current political situations. We walked back to our hostel and went to sleep early, both satisfied with our trips to this elegant city.
The next day, I walked about a mile from my hostel to the train station, stopping at the Marché du Capucins, a daily, covered market with seafood, charcuterie, cheese, produce, and all of the other usual suspects of a covered French market, including several little cafés where you can sit and enjoy your food with a glass of wine or a post-meal espresso.
I came back to Bordeaux for my final two days of my southwest trip, after seeing Montpellier, Toulouse, Bayonne, and Biarritz. On this go-round I went to the city’s smaller wine museum, the Musée du Vin et Négoce, or Museum of Wine and Trade, typically a 10 euro ticket that I got for 8 euros because of a booking.com deal. When I arrived, the museum’s coupon reader didn’t work, so they kindly let me go in and see the museum and had me pay on the way out.
Unlike the Cité du Vin’s broad scope, the Musée du Vin et Négoce takes a narrow focus on the history of the Bordeaux wine trade (which is what négoce means). It ends with a tasting of two area wines and an explanation of the key Bordeaux regions. We learned as I’d heard also at the Cité du Vin that there is a stark difference in soil between the left bank of the Garonne River from the right bank, which leads to more powerful wines on the left bank and interesting options like a darker rosé called clairet.
That night I met up with some assistants for Halloween but called it a night pretty early.
The next day was All Saints’ Day or Toussaint, which meant more stores and restaurants than usual for a Thursday were closed, but fortunately Black List was open, and so I did some work there before heading over to Darwin Eco-systèm on the other side of the river, a former army barracks turned hipster hangout that refers to itself (unfortunately) as “a full-scale innovation crucible” but is still worth visiting. It includes big art installations and graffiti that warn of our impending environmental disaster and the importance of fighting climate change. There is also an indoor skate park, a store with gifts and books, and the biggest organic restaurant in France, where I had a salad and glass of wine.
After leaving, I walked the Parc aux Angéliques along the river, stealing many views across to the left bank of Bordeaux.
That night, I met up with expats and locals alike who are looking to practice their French or English in a group called TripMeeters. I met people from all over the city and even ended up going bowling with them and to a falafel spot. It was one of my most local-feeling nights in France, and that night I fell asleep satisfied that the trip had come to a good end.