France’s wine capitol has gotten even better with a face-lift, tram system and hot new restaurants.
As the founder of Bordeaux Excellence, a travel company that organizes trips to southwestern France, Madeleine Marchand has to stay on top of what’s new in the waterfront city, and the longtime resident says that these days that means pretty much everything.
“Bordeaux has undergone a face-lift over the last 15 years, and those changes are being seen now,” she says.
The local government has refurbished the buildings in the 18th-century historical center, built gardens along the waterfront and introduced a high-tech tram system as the major means of transportation. At the same time, new restaurants and attractions have helped amp up the buzz and are giving Bordeaux a reputation as a place with much more to offer than its famous red wine, produced in the surrounding countryside.
Marchand spoke recently about Bordeaux’s transformation and shared tips on what travelers should do when they visit. Following are edited excerpts from a conversation with her.
Q: Much of Bordeaux’s refurbishment is complete. What is the latest new addition?
A: The most notable is La Cité du Vin, an institution dedicated to the history of viticulture around the world which opened June 1. The building is on the banks of the Garonne River and is shaped to resemble the movement of wine in a glass.
Q: Wine is undoubtedly a big reason to visit Bordeaux, but what some other attractions?
A: Bordeaux has much more than wine. The 18th-century architecture in the historical center is something to marvel at, and the opera is very high caliber. Performances run from September through June.
In the countryside around the city, there is notable new architecture to see. A lot of it is at wineries, but going is worthwhile even if you’re a teetotaler. The French architect Jean Nouvel, for example, built a contemporary red winery at Château La Dominique near the village of St.-Émilion. It has a restaurant upstairs with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Pétrus and Château Cheval Blanc, two of Bordeaux’s iconic wineries. And (the French architect and designer) Jean-Michel Wilmotte built a cellar at Château Cos d’Estournel, an estate that looks like an Indian temple.
Also, visiting the seaside is a must. The Dune of Pilat is an hour from the city and is Europe’s tallest sand dune. Around it is a stretch of beautiful beach that’s long and unspoiled. Nearby, there’s a Philippe Starck-designed hotel, La Co(o)rniche, where you can stay the night or at least have a seafood lunch. The oysters and mussels from the area are extraordinary and not to be missed if you like shellfish.
Q: The culinary scene in Bordeaux is booming. Any recommendations?
A: A few years ago, locals would go to the same restaurants, and I would recommend these names as well to my clients, but today, there are so many spots to pick from.
Prolific chefs have opened restaurants in the city recently, including Gordon Ramsay at the InterContinental with Le Pressoir d’Argent, and Philippe Etchebest, a French chef who has two Michelin stars, with Le Quatrième Mur next to the opera house. Then there are several new restaurants serving excellent food but without famous chefs attached to them: Miles, eclectic cuisine with international flavors, and Dan, French food heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine, are two.
Q: If you are an oenophile, what’s the best way to get a perspective of Bordeaux’s wine culture and organize winery visits?
A: The Bordeaux countryside has more than 4,000 wine estates, and advance planning is important in navigating through the bunch. If you want to visit a famous winery such as Mouton Rothschild, you have to make an appointment by email or phone several months in advance. With most other wineries, you still need an appointment but can make one a few days in advance. Also, I advise sticking to three winery visits in a day because they all start to blend together after that. And see a mix — a big label, a lesser-known one and maybe one with a modern new tasting room.
Q: Is there an ideal time to visit Bordeaux?
A: May and June are my favorite months. The weather is mild, the landscape is coming into full bloom, and it’s not too crowded. The liveliest period, however, is the harvest from mid-September to the end of October. You’ll see workers in the fields picking the grapes and can get into cellars to see the different stages of the winemaking process. The city itself is also bustling — the opera season is just starting, and the mood is energized.