If you are a wine lover, you can’t say “Bordeaux” and not think about some of the world’s finest wines like Margaux, Médoc, Pauillac, Sauternes and Saint-Emilion. The huge wine region has 62 different appellations and more than 7300 châteaux on both banks of the Garonne River in southwest France.
For now though, I’m not referring to the great wine or the largest wine region in France but to its capital, the City of Bordeaux, a UNESCO World Heritage City. With broad boulevards, beautiful 18th century architecture and delightful squares lined with cafés and bars, the city will remind you of Paris but on a much smaller scale.
Bordeaux is a port city on the Garonne river and was a two day port of call during a cruise aboard the Seven Seas Explorer. The ship, which only carries 750 passengers, was small enough to dock right at the quayside in the city center. With its historic buildings and gardens, it is probably one of the most beautiful waterfronts I’ve seen. All my husband and I had to do was step off the gangway and much of the city was within easy walking distance. Instead of browsing this vibrant and charming city on our own, we decided to take a guided tour of Bordeaux on one day and nearby Saint-Emilion and the surrounding wine country on the other day.
Bordeaux is a compact and very walkable city. Take a leisurely stroll along the riverfront quay where the wine trade started, through narrow streets and beautiful squares of historic Bordeaux and you will pass remnants of the old city such the Grosse Cloche or the Big Bell of Bordeaux. It used to be the gateway into the medieval city, an area now full of boutiques and cafés. In stark contrast to the old gate, the ultra modern Bordeaux law courts are a striking and unusual complex.
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Nearby on the main square of Pey Berland is the Cathedral of Saint André. In the 15th century a separate bell tower was built next to the cathedral. You can climb to the top of the bell tower for a wonderful view of the city.
Opposite the cathedral is the Palais Rohan which was originally built for the bishop of Bordeaux, now it is the city hall. Nearby is the Museum of Beaux Arts, one of the largest fine art galleries in France outside Paris.
Porte Dijeaux is a decorative gate into the heart of the old city that was built in 1748 on the spot where one of the Roman gates once stood. Not far away is the Place de la Comédie with the Grand Theater and the Grand Hotel. The theater, built in 1780, it is one of the older opera houses in Europe. The square itself is where the main streets of Bordeaux converge, including the busy shopping street Rue Sainte Catherine, the longest pedestrian shopping street in France.
La Place du Parlement, ringed with pretty buildings, cafés and a central fountain was once the seat of Bordeaux’s medieval government. The beautiful square was turned into an elegant market square in 1754 and today it is a lively place in the heart of the city with charming streets leading off in all directions.
The showcase of Bordeaux is Place de la Bourse. In front of it is the Miroir d’Eau, the Water Mirror, which is the world’s largest reflecting pool. Large slabs of blue granite are covered in water and reflect the 18th century Place de la Bourse. The shallow water is timed to slowly empty then becomes a fog before the reflection pool fills again. The Bourse and its reflection pool has now become the new symbol of this elegant city.
Only 30 minutes from the center of Bordeaux, Saint-Emilion is a charming medieval village located in the heart of the famous Bordeaux wine region. The hilltop village is surrounded by vineyards growing right up to its village walls.
Since the 9th century, blocks of local stone were excavated for buildings in the village as well as for châteaux in the area and buildings in the surrounding region. The quarrying created underground humid, dark caves that were the perfect environment for wine storage. The village as well as the vineyards of Saint-Emilion are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With its 12th century ramparts, a maze of steep winding alleyways, charming storefronts, a 14th century cloister and views over terra cotta rooftops, this tiny village is so picturesque that it reminds you of an illustration from a child’s storybook. Wander through the streets and squares of the village and you will soon discover the Eglise Monolithe, the largest underground church in Europe which was carved out of solid limestone rock in the 11th century. Its separate bell tower rises high above everything else in the village.
There are four narrow and very steep cobblestone streets known as tertres that connect the upper and lower parts of the village. While the tertres can be daunting, they are the way to get to many of the cafés, wine bars and other attractions in the village.
There are a number of shops in both the lower and upper part of the village that sell macaroons, a specialty from a 1600’s recipe from the nuns of the Les Ursulines order.
We had walked down one of the tertres earlier on our visit to see the underground church and ventured up an even steeper one while exploring. I can tell you that two of the tertres were enough for us. Even though there is an iron handrail down the middle of the cobblestone street for pedestrians to hold on to, I can’t imagine how hard it would be to walk up or down one of them on a rainy day. What we learned while walking the steep streets of Saint-Emilion is an appreciation of the life of local villagers. While it may be a harder life than many of us are used to, they are rewarded with many sweet pleasures.
Our visit to Bordeaux quickly came to an end and it was time to continue on our cruise. The ship had to leave at a specific time when the water level was low enough for the Explorer to pass under the Pont Chaban Delmas bridge, the largest lift bridge built in Europe. The 384 foot middle section is raised whenever tall ships need to pass safely underneath.
This southwestern region of France has lots to keep a visitor happy and Bordeaux is a city that I would definitely return to for a longer stay. I would use it as a base and venture out into the wine region on day trips. Historical towns, châteaux and wine tastings, yes that sounds like a lovely holiday.