Bordeaux: A Journey of Wine, Food, French and New Urbanism

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Tram cutting through the heart of historical Bordeaux

I visited Bordeaux, France this past July to practice my French and learn some more about wine. I did not expect to see a classic example of New Urbanism in play. In a way I shouldn’t be too surprised for I always considered visiting the best way to learn about cities and discover their urban plans. It is just that in this case I did not foresee this aspect to be a dominating factor. New Urbanism welcomes you straightaway in Bordeaux and stays with you till the moment you leave. And these are often the best trips: you go for a reason or two, and you end up fulfilling such goals and more.

Bordeaux is a city in the south west of France, the “Sud Ouest” as it is known locally. It is the largest fine wine district on Earth1. Wine appellations include but are not limited to the Medoc, north of the city, Pessac-Leognan to the south and St. Emilion to the east, along the north bank of the Dordogne. Before I reached the city proper, I spent two nights in a charming and quiet chambre d’hote (small hotel) in the Entre Deux Mers appellation (named after its location between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers). There I was to indulge in the best that the Sud Ouest cuisine has to offer, from Foie Gras to Magret de Canard, thanks to the generous hospitality and fine culinary skills of my hosts. During the days I would drive my rented small car to the picturesque village of St. Emilion and get lost in its confusing underground labyrinths, dug back in the day to provide stones for buildings and used nowadays to age wine. After having a formidable glass of a Premier Grand Cru Classe (it was a wintry and wet Sunday so you can imagine the effect of its liquorish and dark berries smooth taste), I bid farewell to St. Emilion and expected nothing less of Bordeaux the city.

Except that there was much more to Bordeaux. It was more of a different type to be fair. I finished with the country side so I gave my rental car back and prepared myself for five days of walking. Bordeaux has the charm of Paris with its river banks and rue Henri Matisse and rue Voltaire, but it lacks its scale (you can actually see the end of its streets) and stately fame. On my first morning, as I was en route to discover La Centre Ville, I stopped at a small bar – literally called so but in French - for a coffee. I heard church bells as soon as I sat outside. It was a lovely spot on the edge of the hustle and bustle of Centre Ville. This place (square) provided for its residential neighborhood a church, bar, mix of stores, sufficient greenery and more. A core New Urbanism course, implemented.

Bordeaux’s Centre Ville reminded me of Barcelona’s old city with its narrow, winding and chaotic streets that follow no particular order. Even though it more or less dies after ten o’clock at night, its energy during the day stands in deep contrast to the residential areas just near it. It is like entering a children’s playground during recess time after leaving the quiet and double insulated Principal’s office. Locals admit that the current mayor, an ex-prime minister of France, has done a lot for the city. Whatever the case may be, the center of Bordeaux is a classic example of what a center of a city should be like: a mixed-use meeting point for its residents and tourists alike, irrespective of degree of wealth.

If you feel overwhelmed by commerce while walking south on rue St. Catherine (which is apparently the longest cobbled stone shopping street in Europe), you simply have to take a right towards La Mairie and the towering Cathedrale Saint-Andre de Bordeaux, or left towards the romantic place Camille Jullian and the busy banks of the Garonne. If you take a left, you will not have to tread too long before you come across a church that was turned into a cinema (named, quite confidently, Utopia). The charming rue du Pas-Saint-Georges is Centre Ville’s artery with its cafes, bars and restaurants (no matter how proud the French are of their cuisine, you will still find an Italian restaurant here and there). By the place Saint Pierre, midway to the river, is what became my favorite bar in the city, Aux quatre coins du vin, with its ingenious method of wine tasting (involving rechargeable debit cards). The establishment has quite a harmonious wine variety (not only from Bordeaux), delectable cheeses (none of which I knew beforehand) and assorted crowd (old and young, locals and tourists).

You have not really seen a European city if you have not seen its river banks and bridges. Here, joggers are added to the crowd, and are witnessed even at the time of day – more accurately, night – when walking in zigzags feels more right. To overcome the awkwardness, just walk a bit more and you will see kids splashing others in the Le Miroir d’eau which, similar to Chicago’s Bean, aims to reflect the Place de la Bourse to its back when its waters are left to rest (except they never do). Walk a bit more and you will reach the location of the Dancons sur les Quais event where a large crowd dances freely to tunes of different genres every night.

If you then lost an appetite or ability to look at a map, simply follow the tram or ride it back into the city center. It will go through the southern edge of the Place des Quinconces (which feels like entering a forest given its high trees), pass by the famous “L’entrecote” restaurant and drop you at the Grand Theatre right back at the starting point of St. Catherine. I remember finding a corner spot on the outside ground-level terrace of a bar and taking a picture of the tram every time it passed by with the majestic Grand Hotel de Bordeaux in the background. Here was another perfect spot or square whose vastness is all-embracing. I wanted to take the picture that features all of Bordeaux’s emblems that can be witnessed in such spot: wine, restaurants, old architecture, modern tram, bicycles, yellow street lights, walkers, and mixed inhabitants and visitors of Centre Ville. I am not sure I captured it, but I sure have seen it.


1. “The Concise World Atlas of Wine” by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson


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