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A Rendezvous

in Bordeaux

By Amy Lively Jensen

The glorious city of Bordeaux, France is the world’s wine capital. Although awe-inspiring wine tasting experiences are the greatest draw for visitors, the city itself is quite remarkable. This picturesque walking city offers captivating museums, architectural treasures, unique shopping and noteworthy food. You’ll find it easy to navigate on the system of modern trams. Bordeaux has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with more than 350 buildings classified as historical monuments.

As you stroll down the Garonne River in Bordeaux, you’ll notice a young vibe in this 18th century city. Along the riverfront is the symbol of Bordeaux, the famous Place de la Bourse adored by the Bordelais and visitors. There’s dignity and harmony to the palace. Out front is the bronze and marble fountain of the Three Graces and overlooks the Miroir d’Eau (water mirror) reflecting pool. Witness the mirror reflection of the palace on the wet tiles where the fountain’s water changes configurations from calm to rippled and an entrancing steam effect. You can actually walk across this 37,000 square foot reflecting pool.

On the left bank of the Garonne River is one of the world’s most resplendent waterfronts. Majestic facades of grand neo-classical buildings line the riverside promenade. A treasured landmark downriver is the tallest vertical lift in Europe, which takes an hour to raise. Come at night to view the captivating light displays on the bridge’s four sky-scraping columns.

The Cité du Vin (City of Wine) which opened in 2016, is the futuristic $92 million dollar museum that is a celebration of all things wine. The seamless, round façade shimmers in gold; it is described as looking like wine being swirled in a glass. Appropriate for the wine enthusiast and beginner, this may be one of the highest tech museums you will ever see. It intrigues adults and children alike. Highly interactive exhibits with intelligent humor explain the history of wine and how it’s produced around the world. You can visit a wine cave, cellars and wine vat, but perhaps the most engaging is the scent display. It is labeled a “buffet of the five senses.” Here you inhale the aromatic components of Bordeaux wines, with nose exercises that will help you later in your wine tastings. The tour concludes with a complimentary tasting on the deck with dazzling views of the city and river.

In the heart of Bordeaux is the Cathedral of Saint Andrew. The Cathedral’s stunning façade has impressive sculptures of the Last Supper and the Ascension. In the summer, the Bordeaux International Organ Festival is held here. Some of Europe’s most talented organists perform in the Cathedral’s heavenly setting.

The Grand Theatre of Bordeaux, built in 1780 is grandly adorned with Corinthian columns and 12 sculptures of the Muses. You’ll marvel at the extravagant interior of blue and gold with a Bohemian-crystal chandelier that hangs from a domed ceiling. Here you can see a performance by the Bordeaux National Opera which features 110 musicians, a choir of 37, 38 dancers from the National Ballet and prestigious guest artists.

An unforgettable Bordeaux wine tour must be on your schedule. There are a wealth of options; the best place to find the perfect tour for yourself is the highly-organized Tourism Center. They provide valuable information and maps of experiences in the countryside.

For a shopping fix, go to the Promenade Sainte-Catherine which is the longest pedestrian mall in Europe. The street thrums with activity at all hours and is the perfect place to shop for treasures. The northern part of this mile-long street is filled with French chain stores, while the southern part has more local shops and restaurants.

A nice place to get the feel of Bordeaux and its bounty of delicacies is Marche des Capucins. This authentic, friendly market is where locals buy regional foods; the presentation is a feast for the eyes. It is known as “the belly of Bordeaux.” Come for lunch or brunch and people-watch at the small cafes.

Bordelaise cuisine is rich and sophisticated with its own identity within France. You can’t leave without trying steak with Bordelaise sauce, made with red wine, of course. For dessert, sample the famous Canelés. These small sand castle-shaped fluted cakes are baked with vanilla, rum and cane sugar. It has been said that these pastries originated in the convents near the wine-making regions of Southern France. Bordeaux is also on the edge of leading oyster-producing areas. 

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Restaurants in Bordeaux can range from the uber-elegant to quaint, tiny cafes. What the city does best is expertly pairing wines to every dish. In addition to French food, they are renowned for the wide variety of international cuisine. Le Noailles, green and white colored bistro is a tradition in Bordeaux since 1832.  Specializing in seafood, they also offer the classics like cassoulet, a rich, slow-cooked casserole containing meat, pork skin and white beans. Symboise is a bar and restaurant that arguably lives up to the standard of that served in a Michelin-starred restaurant, but in a relaxed atmosphere with reasonable prices. After filling up on fresh, local food worth raving about, find the drinking den hidden behind a grandfather clock for hand-crafted cocktails or local wine. The perfect reservation for meat lovers is at La Brasserie Bordelaise. They prepare some of the best steaks in the city, and the wine cellar stocks more than 700 bottles of the region’s top vintage wines. The place has barrels as tables, bottles along every wall and lots of locals tackling great meat and shellfish. If you’re looking for an upscale, exclusive restaurant, go to La Grande Maison de Bernard Magrez. This 2-Michelin star establishment is located in a neoclassical Bordeaux mansion.

After enjoying Bordeaux, plan a trip to the magical, medieval village of St. Emilion. Just 40 minutes by train or car, it is like a film set that’s come to life with a maze of curlicue cobblestone streets, charming storefronts, flower-laden squares, medieval monuments and fabulously well-preserved buildings. It is seriously gorgeous, and it helps if you have mountain goat-like climbing abilities for the steep streets. You’ll experience St. Emilion’s magic particularly when the sun sets over the valley and the limestone buildings glow with golden hues.

 

A most extraordinary site in St. Emilion is the underground Monolithic Church. Carved out of rock by Benedictine monks during the 11th and 12th centuries, it has a maze of tunnels with vast catacombs, frescoes and carvings. Its bell tower sits 174 feet above the village. You’ll see a 360-degree view of the village and surrounding countryside, if you have the energy to climb 196 steps!

With 822 wine producers in St. Emilion, choosing which wineries to visit can be difficult. A stop at the Tourism Office will provide you with a comprehensive catalogue of local chateaux, a great map, whether reservations are needed, how much the bottles run and the cost for tastings. Here are a few that are very enjoyable. Three museums in Bordeaux will definitely be worth your time to visit Three museums in Bordeaux will definitely be worth your time to visit Chateau Laniote gives in-depth, informative tours of their small, charming chateau. It has been in the family for two centuries, producing excellent wines. The owner will entertain you with his knowledge and quick wit, plus a bit of magic thrown in. You may choose a beginners’ winemaking program or a cooking class at Chateau Soutard, followed by lunch with matched wines. On a tour at Chateau Cantenac you will hear humorous explanations of production of Grand Cru from the vine to the glass, punctuated with charming family anecdotes. The prestige tour offers four different wines with cheeses to pair.

So are Bordeaux and St. Emilion worth a visit? Definitely oui! It’s difficult not to find something to love in Bordeaux!

Chicago Wine Press