Why Bordeaux is becoming so popular

Now halfway through a massive development project, the sleeping beauty at the heart of France’s wine-growing region is waking up

At a table on a small terrace overlooking the Garonne River, I’ve just finished a classic southern French dish of scallops and shellfish. The restaurant seems to be one of the last on the block to cater to more locals than tourists. I sip from a glass of cognac with my coffee and wait for the moment when the bright sky reaches that post-sunset shade of dark blue that’s perfect for evening photography. As it nears, I finish my glass and walk 650ft to join a throng of photographers on the boulevard, across from the Place de la Bourse.

We gather at the edge of the miroir d’eau (“water mirror”). It’s a shallow pool the size of a sports field that goes through an eternal 15-minute cycle of filling with about an inch of water, then emptying out. I place my camera on a small tripod and wait.

After a couple of minutes, the water has drained away, leaving a field of flat, wet stones to create a perfect reflection of the magnificent 18th-century buildings framing this elegant square. At precisely that moment, the floodlights at the foot of the building facades switch on, creating an image of instant beauty that’s received with a mix of “wows” and “ohs” and the clicking of cameras.

It’s the ultimate iconic image of the city of Bordeaux. The whole thing lasts a minute or two, then it’s gone. The sky turns black and the tiny holes between the water mirror’s tiles start spewing a thin vapour of droplets at the beginning of its next “fill cycle”.

 

Satisfied, I pack up my camera and cross the street to reacquaint myself with the Old City

I last visited ten years ago, before the water mirror was built. I have fond memories of its limestone buildings and laid-back atmosphere. Although Bordeaux is some 2,000 years old, the entire Old City, with few exceptions, is made up of these limestone buildings, the result of a radical city modernisation around 1750 directed by the Marquis de Tourny, at the time the king’s governor, whose name graces a square and some shops.

The Place de la Bours

I pass the imposing structures along the quai and stroll the narrow streets behind it, which are lined with restaurants, wine bars, and shops. This contrast is what I always liked so much about this city, the capital of the southwestern region of Nouvelle Aquitaine. The architecture of the Grand-Théâtre, the museums, and the town hall underlines the fact that the word grandeur is truly French.

At the same time, Bordeaux has these narrow streets that breathe a provincial—almost parochial—air that many major European cities lost decades ago. 

But the city known in France as La Belle Endormie (“the sleeping beauty”) is waking up. A massive restoration and development project are in progress. Bordeaux is now more than halfway through implementing the plan, which will continue until 2030.

One of the most visible features of this massive undertaking is at the waterfront, along the crescent-shaped curve in the Garonne River that gave its name to this Atlantic port city’s Moon Harbour. Once occupied by derelict warehouses and parking lots, the riverside Quai Richelieu boasts a new tramline, bicycle lanes, and a wide boulevard. The quai is the scene of a daily parade of strollers, runners, cyclists and playing children.

A newly opened hub for high-speed trains is surrounded by a huge modern building project called Bordeaux-Euroatlantique, intended to spearhead a new economic and population boom that will ultimately spur growth from the current 750,000 inhabitants to more than a million.

The restoration of the Old City, as part of this multi-faceted project, has already led to the city’s recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site. But will Bordeaux lose its old world charm in the process? “That’s a very important issue,” says Bordeaux’s deputy mayor Stephan Delaux when I pose the question to him the next morning.

“We have a group here in town hall that acts as a sounding board in discussions on how we can maintain the spirit of Bordeaux,” he says. Then he points out the window overlooking the square with the massive limestone St. André Cathedral, which is being restored, and says, “But have you looked at the splendid view out my window? When Alain Juppé started in 1995, this square had five traffic lanes, full of trucks.

“Now there’s a tram, the traffic is pushed to one side, and the square is for pedestrians. This is how we approach all aspects of the project.” Juppé is the driving force behind the plan for the revival of Bordeaux. His name is on the lips of everybody I speak with. The former French prime minister and mayor since 1995 may well go down in history as the prince who kissed Aurora back to life. And his name will undoubtedly be attached to one of the grands œuvres, the huge structural works that will be finished after his retirement.    

 

That afternoon I meet Veronique Baggio,

a city guide who takes me on a two-hour walk to show me what’s new and what’s restored. When I was here last, much of Tourny’s Bordeaux was covered with soot. 

“The property owners were told to clean the facades,” she explains. “That was an expensive operation, but worth it. Now you can see the mascarons.”

“The property owners were told to clean the facades,” she explains. “That was an expensive operation, but worth it. Now you can see the mascarons.” Last time I had barely noticed the intricately carved limestone heads on the keystones over the porches and windows. This was never a town that invited you to look up. But there they are: some 3,000 fascinating portraits found throughout the city. 

“Is it known who they were?” I ask Baggio. She says, “They were probably local characters, but there are also mythological figures. Some of the portraits symbolise products that were sold here.” 

Wine is represented, of course, and wheat, but also humans. Baggio explains that Bordelais traders in the 18th and 19th centuries took part in the European slave trade from Africa to the Americas. She tells me about a permanent exposition dedicated to the slave trade in the municipal Aquitaine Museum.  

At the museum I meet former director François Hubert, author of the book that accompanies the exposition. Mayor Juppé wrote the preface, in which he calls the exposition “a crucial step in the remembrance process the city of Bordeaux has embarked on.” It’s to Juppé’s credit again that coming to terms with the past is an integral 
part of the plans for the future of Bordeaux.

Hubert leads me through rooms filled with ship models, paintings, and the paraphernalia of suppression. We are surrounded by a group of 12-year-olds, brought here to learn of this dark history. More than 11 million enslaved Africans were traded like cattle by the British, French, Dutch, and others. “For too long we have hidden behind the notion that slavery was an American issue,” says Hubert. “It was not. It was very European.”

The exhibition lends a degree of honesty to the way Bordeaux wants to present itself. But there’s still a long way to go. Since I met Veronique Baggio, I’ve asked several other locals about the slave trade and found that the subject is as sensitive here as it is in my own hometown, Amsterdam. We don’t like to be reminded of the crimes of our forefathers.

A popular myth among locals has it that the Bordeaux traders were forced by law to ship slaves to America, as a result of a deal between the king and the Americans. It’s an excuse that places responsibility with the regime that was overthrown in the French Revolution. Hubert laughs out loud when I tell him this: “There was no such contract. Absolutely not.”  

 

As I leave the museum

I’m just in time for my reservation at Racines, a small restaurant nearby, owned and run by 36-year-old Scottish chef Daniel Gallacher. He left Scotland to work with and learn from France’s most famous chefs. Racines is his first restaurant. “I don’t 
have a Michelin star yet,” he tells me, “but we do have a Bib Gourmand.” For tout Bordeaux that’s a good omen of stars to come. “I want a star of course,” says Gallacher after serving an elegant, modern lunch. “It would allow me to work with more exclusive ingredients. But right now, it’s also quite challenging to serve surprising menus using more common ingredients.”

After lunch I board the modern B-line tram to be taken a couple of stops north, where I get off and rent, for €1.60 per hour, a V3 public bicycle from a station on the river bank. V3 stations are found on squares around the city. I head off through the Chartrons area, a former working-class neighbourhood that has gone through a process of rapid gentrification in the wake of the restoration of the city centre. In the narrow streets, I pass antique shops, curiosity shops and small, single-story worker’s houses called échoppe that sell for record prices.

This mascaron with puffed-out cheeks may represent the wind 

Through a shop window, my eye is caught by a clockmaker, bent over his workbench, peering through a jeweller’s magnifying glass at an antique brass clock. I ask him if I may look around. Master clockmaker Peter Peschel looks up and smiles. “Of course,” he says.

Peschel tells me he opened his shop 12 years ago. With so many antique shops around, he’s perfectly situated. We find common ground in our love for craftsmanship when he recognises the classic, handmade lens on my camera. He’s pleasantly surprised at how it blends with digital technology.

Back on my bicycle, I head to the edge of the Old City, to the futuristic vertical lift bridge named after former mayor Jacques Chaban Delmas. This is the former docks district where Bordeaux is now rapidly building exciting modern housing projects as well as luxury apartment buildings.

The eye-catcher, besides the bridge, is the Cité du Vin, the brand new international wine museum in a building shaped to symbolise the swirl of wine in a glass, although a rubber duck also may come to the more sober mind.

Bordeaux, whose name is synonymous with wine, has placed itself above the market with its Cité du Vin and its biennial international wine festival. People come to the Cité du Vin for wine-tasting workshops, wine-themed special expositions and the splendidly designed multimedia presentations about wine from around the globe. The spectacular round shop in the heart of the building displays wines from around the world. At the top floor bar, many of these can be tasted.

 

On the last day of my visit,

I decide to check out a more folksy part of the city that I fondly remembered. I walk south on the Rue Sainte-Catherine shopping street. The Apple Store, Galeries Lafayette, and luxury brand shops gradually make way for T-shirt shops, fast-food and tattoo parlours. At the end of the street, I turn towards the flea market around St. Michel Basilica, where standard French gives way to West African dialects and Arabic.

This is no longer the polished and shiny city of the tourist brochures, but a typical lively and colourful southern French city. Men in djellabas and women in high heels share the sidewalks. But I see early signs of gentrification. Young professionals are beginning to make their mark here, as I saw in Chartrons. Outside a corner café, children play on a small playground as their young parents enjoy their lattes, some bent over their laptops.

The Rue de Fessets, a pedestrian zone in the Old City, has an old-world charm

But I am pleased to see that the Marché des Capucins food market still offers its splendid mix of North African herbs, tropical fruits, and French specialities, and that French, Arabic, and African dealers still peddle everything from second-hand shoes to antiques in the St. Michel flea market. As I watch two women haggling with an old man over some second-hand clothes, it strikes me that this scene could well disappear from Bordeaux as gentrification intensifies and real estate prices rise.

That would be a tremendous loss for them and for the city. I suppose I will just have to come back in ten years to check.