I love wine. Drinking wine, that is. When I participated in a wine tour in Spain, one man on the tour spoke authoritatively about flavors and tannins and the characteristics of various barrels where wines are aged. I find those discussions interesting, but I don’t think I’ll ever be discussing the intricacies of flavor differences between pinot gris grapes from Spain versus France. Nonetheless, when I was traveling through France, I didn’t want to miss the chance to see Bordeaux, one of the most famous wine cities in the world.
I think I imagined Bordeaux as a series of elegant chateaus connected by cozy French restaurants, tasting rooms and shops selling local art. It’s true that those elements exist in the area, but Bordeaux is much more bustling and urban than I expected. There are wide promenades that, when I visited, were packed with tourists, huge and impressive stone buildings, parks and a lovely walkway alongside the Gargonne river. Bordeaux’s old city is listed among UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites as “an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble” of the 18th Century. The city is known to be expensive, but I stayed in a comfortable hostel near the city and was able to keep my visit budget-friendly by doing a lot of walking and taking advantage of free sites.
I would have splurged on a winery tour and tasting in Bordeaux, but as luck would have it, my visit fell during Vinexpo 2015, the world’s largest wine convention for industry insiders. All of those elegant chateaus were closed to the public while the winemakers participated in the convention. Sigh…
That was disappointing, but I comforted myself by sampling Bordeaux wines purchased at local shops and in the lovely tasting room Bar a Vin in l’ Ecole du Vin. Located in central Bordeaux, Bar a Vin offers a long list of Bordeaux wines from various regions, offered in half-glass tastes as well as full glasses at surprisingly low prices (1.50-3 Euros per glass for tastes). Cheese plates, bruschetta and other accompaniments are available. The atmosphere is casually upscale, and the staff is knowledgeable enough to make recommendations and describe the various wines and regions.
It’s worth noting that many delicious French wines can be purchased by the bottle at grocery and convenience stores for just a few Euros. There’s a benefit to avoiding the import and export fees! While it may not make it onto any Wine Spectator top 50 lists, I thoroughly enjoyed this Bordeaux wine, which cost about 3 Euros off the shelf (and I usually prefer white).
Happily, sampling wine is just one of many enjoyable activities in Bordeaux. I think one of the best ways to get the feel for a city is to explore it on foot, and that’s what I did in Bordeaux, consulting my map only occasionally to make sure I wasn’t missing any important sites as I walked along the riverside, through parks and down retail streets.
The Place des Quinconces is one place that shouldn’t be missed. The large square is situated adjacent to the Gargonne River and features a huge column surrounded by a huge double-sided water feature featuring impressive bronze statues. The monument was constructed in the early 19th Century and honors the Girondists, a small revolutionary group that was based in Bordeaux.
The Place de la Bourse is another focal point of the city. The impressive complex of tan stone buildings faces the Gargonne River. Constructed during the late 18th Century, the architecture is particularly lovely and representative of the style of buildings seen throughout Bordeaux. The Fountain of the Three Graces stands in the center of the historic square.
I really enjoy being able to see an expansive view of the cities I visit. For 5 Euros, I was able to do that in Bordeaux by climbing the stairs inside of the 114-meter Fleche Saint Michel, a bell tower that sits apart from the Saint Michel Basilica. To be truthful, the stairs do not go all the way to the top of the spire, so I cannot claim to have climbed 114 meters. However, there were a lot of narrow steps, and the views from the top were impressive.
The Flèche, which means “arrow,” was built in the late 15th century and is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site in conjunction with the Saint Michel Basilica.
One of my favorite budget tips for exploring Europe is to stop for an expresso when you need a break. For the cost of a cup of tasty espresso (typically 1 Euro or less), you can also rest your feet, people watch, have access to a free restroom and, very often, enjoy free wifi. (As a side note, I did find a few free public restrooms in Bordeaux, but it’s much more common to see pay toilets across Europe.)
The Jardin Public, which was created in 1746, is another lovely place to relax. The beautifully landscaped gardens encompass a pond and a natural history museum. I enjoyed my packed lunch on a park bench and watched as delighted little children fed the ducks.
There are several significant churches visible across the landscape of Bordeaux. The Bordeaux Cathedral, or Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux is one of the most recognized landmarks in the city. Most of its current architecture is from the 14th and 15th Centuries, though the original cathedral was consecrated in 1096. Unfortunately, it was closed when I was walking through the area, but I’ve heard that it is worth a visit.
Built in 1494 to celebrate a military victory by King Charles VIII, Port Cailhau is another key site in Bordeaux. It was one of the city’s original gates, and the most impressive one still standing. Surrounded by structures of a newer construction, Port Cailhau is visually intriguing and looks a bit out of place!
Of course, there are few experiences more charming to me than to just wander around an old European city. Those balconies! That stonework! Those narrow drive lanes and curving paths. These everyday areas offer such an interesting window to the soul and history of a place. And Bordeaux certainly has a beautiful soul.