Monica Pitrelli learns that while the taps may not run with red wine as legend once had it, the architecture, history and cuisine of the Gironde is as much a reason to go as the famed grapes.
The traffic, so I’m told, is worse in Bordeaux than in Paris. But I’m in the city’s famous Old Town, ambling down the centre of the road on foot – and there isn’t a car in sight.
My ability to be this careless is owed largely to the work of the wildly popular mayor, Alain Juppé. Inhaling deep breaths of crisp air amongst architecture born from the Age of Enlightenment, I don’t want to believe that the town wasn’t always this picturesque. Yet, I’m told, centuries of chimney smoke blanketed the city in a perpetual layer of black soot, and modern times brought modern problems, like… well, traffic. So, Juppé transformed the historical section of Bordeaux into a car-free zone with the help of a few regulations, plenty of VCUB (pronounced vay-cube) rental bicycles and a brand new electrical tram (with no unappealing overhead wiring, the first of its kind).
Each morning when I exit my hotel, I am serenaded by the sweet sounds of opera rehearsals emanating from the back of the Grand Théatre. It’s almost as good as the real thing, I tell myself, stepping to the tempo of the thunderous voices within. Passing palatial 16th century homes, I emerge at Sainte Catherine, Bordeaux’s longest shopping street, and the city’s own Champs Elysées, Cours de l’Intendance. Shopping is typically of minimal interest to me on holidays – even in France – but today I’m scouting for a gift for a friend and a good cup of coffee. The search is not a difficult one, to say the least.
My first stop is at Le Comptoir Bordelais for rillettes and Fleur de Merlot, a bottle of Lillet (Bordeaux’s famous aperitif) and an array of fruit compotes, freshly made cookies, and, of course, a bottle of wine for later that evening. The two guys who run the store are very interested in my life in Singapore (“How do you deal with all the rules?” Rather easily, I tell them) and send me off with a little gift – truffes bordelaises – a chocolate thank-you “for being friendly”.
As the morning wears on, the streets gather window-shoppers, their fair share of brooding, cigarette-toting teens, and dogs – tons of dogs, all properly groomed, strutting on leashes gripped by well-dressed owners. I explore the towering Cathédrale Saint André , which was constructed over a period spanning 400 years (1096 to 1442) and Palais Rohan, Bordeaux’s town hall, or hôtel de ville as the French say, which predictably causes many a confused tourist to enter requesting a comfortable bed for the night.
Our mums may have swooned at the advent of all-inclusive supermarkets, but a certain nostalgia has returned for small neighbourhood shops. Bordeaux is rife with these gems. Pastries come from the pâtisserie, and bread is baked at the boulangerie. Honey? It’s got its own shop, too, as do canelés, the tasty little copper-mould pastries that are the specialty of the region. An older local woman, eyeing a band of tourists posing for photos next to a window display of macaroons, explains the rules like this: You buy macaroons in Paris and canelés in Bordeaux. Under her watchful eye, I buy a pair – one soft, one well done – at Baillardran before we part ways. She is pleased with my decision.
At 31 acres, the Place des Quinconces is one of the largest city squares in Europe. Where an old fortress once stood, the open area is now a major transportation hub and home to the famous June Wine Festival. I circle it, unable to return anything but simple pleasantries to affable Bordelaislocals eager to strike up a conversation.
Les Sources de Caudalie
Located half an hour from the city of Bordeaux, this combination spa, dining powerhouse (La Grand Vigne, one of its two restaurants, has a Michelin star) and boutique hotel is situated within the reputable Château Smith Haut Lafitte vineyard. The hotel incorporates the area’s fruit – expect wine baths and grapeseed oil massages at the spa – and a country-luxe experience.
This mid-18th century, five-roomed hotel is a design lover’s dream. The owner, the eccentric Jean-Pierre Xiradakis, uses the space as his personal art gallery, outfitting each room with unique offerings, from an antique chimney in the bathroom of one to an original Marc Chagall lithograph in another. Each room, stick of furniture and piece of art has a story.
Situated one block from the Grand Théatre and two from the river, this is a simple yet adequate hotel with an ample breakfast spread, hospitable staff and clean, comfortable rooms.
Steps from theGaronne River, this restaurant is the type of place you might skip if you didn’t know that The New York Times and Fodor’s were big fans. Known for its country fare and long-standing reputation, this eatery cooks up traditional French favourites alongside cèpes, the specialty mushroom of Bordeaux, and one of the best plates of foie gras in town. latupina.com
The alfresco dining area of this restaurant is located squarely on the Place de la Bourse, combining great food with fountains, statues and neo-classical architecture – the quintessential French experience. The bottom floor houses the bistro, the second storey the Michelin-starred restaurant. Right outside sits Le Miroir d’Eau, the world’s longest reflective pool. bordeaux-gabriel.fr
One of the most famous appellations in the Bordeaux wine region, Saint-Émilion isthe world’s first wine-producing territory to be designated as a UNESCO world heritage site. The area – renowned for its elegant, full-bodied merlots – comprises the town and eight surrounding parishes, just as originally set forth in 1289.
The town itself is a preserved medieval village. There are no electrical wires, no satellite dishes and no signs of architectural modernity. Instead, steep streets paved in the Middle Ages lay a maze that can be explored in a matter of hours. And, an estimated one million visitors travel here each year to do just that.
This is the land of fairytales, to be sure – rolling hills, thick forests, Romanesque churches and trickling streams – but underneath this scene is another world entirely. Beginning in the 9th century, blocks of limestone were slowly extracted from the large limestone plateau underlying the city. Centuries of stone removal left nearly 200 kilometres of snaking underground tunnels that connect the area’s chateaux, churches and cloisters in a complex subterranean labyrinth. The depths of these eerie, multi-layered caves contain everything from 12th century stone carvings to catacombs and Europe’s largest underground medieval church, Saint-Émilion’s Monolithic Church.
So, what has this got to do with wine? Just as the cool limestone proves remarkably suitable for growing grapes – vine roots can tap into saturated stones 1.5 metres below the surface during dry spells – the chilly, waterlogged tunnels form natural wine cellars. And though Bordeaux only recently began courting tourists (the old mentality was that chateaux were in the business of producing world-class wines, not providing free samples to bum-bag-toting tourists from the New World), chateaux across the region are increasingly opening their doors for tours and tastings.
One such chateau is the up-and-coming Château Ambe Tour Pourret. This chateau is a rare breed in Bordeaux – no reservations are needed. Folks accustomed to popping in and out of vineyards in, say, Napa Valley or Margaret River, are often blind-sided by the appointment process in Bordeaux. Owner Françoise Lannoye, a former Parisian real estate investor turned vineyard owner, employs a more informal approach. She guides me from the grape fields to the barrel rooms, explaining the significance of proper planting, picking (by hand, of course), blending and labelling.
Ch â teau Villemaurine, a larger grand cru classé estate, conducts lantern-lit tours of its cavernous wine cellars. With blankets to combat the 12°C temperatures and 80-percent humidity, we descend into the chateau’s six-storey quarry, past chisel marks and sooty remnants from labourers of centuries past, to see the estate’s 200 ageing barrels of wine. Deeper into the caves, we pass the chateau’s sculpture collection and are treated to an unexpected audio presentation on the town’s history. (Some chateaux are really softening to tourists, it seems.) As always, the tour ends with a tasting of the estate’s wine.
With Saint-Émilion’s stock of liquid gold sitting in the plateau’s underbelly, aren’t the chateaux worried about theft? Not really, it seems. Barrels are a little heavy to hoist away on a whim, but places like Les Cordeliers, which produces Bordeaux’s version of sparkling wine called Crémant de Bordeaux, decided to seal its quarry when bottles started to mysteriously disappear. Unfortunately, the ensuing lack of ventilation invited an unwanted layer of mould in the cellars. Yet, visitors still stop by for a glass of bubbly and a glimpse of the mid-14th century Cordeliers Cloister, a town monument that was controversially sold last year by Saint-Émilion’s mayor to pay off skyrocketing city debts.
Bordeaux Wine Basics
Classes range from two hours to three days in duration. bordeaux.com
While St Tropez, Nice and the other cities on the French Riviera attracted hordes of tourists in decades past, Arcachon enjoyed a quiet, contented existence on the southeast coast of France.
And then they came – they being the Parisians, the locals will tell you. The high-speed train was built, and the stresses of big city life could be traded for sand and surf in three hours flat. The 2010 movie, Les Petits Mouchoirs (Little White Lies) starring Marion Cotillard, further sealed this sleepy summer retreat’s fate. The city now swells from 12,000 people in the winter to over 100,000 in the summer.
So the secret’s out, but this cheerful little beach town has held fast to its original charm. I explore each of the town’s four parts, which endearingly correspond to the seasons. The city’s biggest draw, Summer Town, is home to organic markets, the new town square, boutique-lined streets and the coast. Scantily-clad 20-somethings work on the their tans at the water’s edge, while families line up for a pinasse boat tour to snap photos of the pricey villas that line the banks of Cap Ferret.
In 1863, 96 chalets were built in an elevated area said to be consistently one degree cooler than the rest of Arcachon. Thus Winter Town was born, an area of shady streets, soaring pines and white picket fences. It’s tradition to name houses here; if you don’t, you risk bad luck. That’s why names, ranging from surnames to literary tips of the hat, are splashed across front gates and entranceways.
Spring Town is the location of the Sainte Anne des Abatilles spring, which produces the so-called “grand cru” of natural spring waters in the Gironde. Autumn Town is known as the last authentic area of Arcachon, as at the port you’ll find fishermen earning a living the way their fathers and grandfathers did. Arcachon’s only oyster farm, La Cabane de l’Aiguillon,is here, too; fresh oysters pulled straight from the seabed are washed, shucked and served straight to my table. At €6 for a dozen oysters, they don’t come fresher or cheaper than this.
L’Hôtel Ville d’Hiver
The lobby of this relatively new hotel dates back to 1884, and its 12 rooms (six more are in the works) are located in a set of detached three-storey buildings. Run by a husband-and-wife team (he manages the restaurant and she the hotel), this Winter Town property built in the traditional Arcachonnaise style is heavily bent towards art and food. The hotel restaurant is spectacular – tables are packed with locals and guests from other hotels on a nightly basis.
Café de la Plage, Restaurant Chez Pierre
Seafood is the specialty of this waterfront restaurant, which has managed to maintain its reputation for quality despite queues of locals and tourists that snake out the door. The friendly staff handles the front of the house with ease, allowing the back to concentrate on churning out beautifully presented dishes. cafedelaplage.com
Located south of Arcachon in Pyla Sur Mer, this hotel and restaurant sits on a stretch of coastal land that Philippe Stark once referred to as “one of the strongest, most beautiful, most poetic… places in nature.” Maybe that is why he took on the task of designing the hotel himself. The restaurant attracts people from around the region who come for generous portions of lobster, Dublin Bay prawns and a sunset tipple overlooking the Bay of Biscay. lacoorniche-pyla.com
Offering daily direct flights between Singapore and Paris, Air France recently introduced a new Airbus A380 to the route. Flying three times a week, the plane seats an incredible 516 passengers and offers time-zoned ambient lighting, self-serve bars and an upgraded entertainment system with wider screens, USB ports and sockets to recharge your laptops. For a noticeably quieter and smoother ride at the same price as the older fleet, we recommend arranging your schedule to take advantage of the airline’s grand new addition.
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