I thought I was good at history but it came as a huge surprise to me to learn from Bordeaux tour guide Sandrine that the English ruled Bordeaux and a good chunk of French countryside for almost 300 years. Unlike our own English experience, it was a technical invasion by proxy, really. It happened when the French-born Henri Plantagenet became King Henry II of England, thus signing over the region to the English without a shot being fired.
Nobody minded too much because this rule coincided with a period of great prosperity for the city. Wine has been produced here since the 8th century but it was the English who really went to work on it – upping the levels of production and exportation to new heights and leaving many locals content to be “Eenngleesh” for a certain period of time at least.The evidence of the enormous wealth generated by the wine trade is still in evidence today, as are the English, who flock the region with much less hostile intent than their ancestors had. The city’s golden age was an even more prosperous period during the 18th century, during which were constructed many of the most prominent buildings you see in Bordeaux now. Victor Hugo once remarked of the beauty of Bordeaux: “Take Versailles, add Antwerp and you have Bordeaux.”
As its role as an inland port of importance declined in the 20th century, so too did its very appearance. By the 1980s, people began to refer to it as the “sleeping beauty” (“La Belle Endormie”) of French cities, such was the level of grime that turned its finest central buildings to a sombre shadow of the original.
Now, however, all has changed. Warm sandstone now dominates where there was once cold grey. Its beautiful old historical centre is vibrant, with inviting cobbled streets and elegant wide boulevards, earning it a UNESCO World Heritage status. It’s a joy to explore on foot and the old city centre is contained in a reasonably small area.
Best of all, though, is that the renovations have turned the city back towards the River Garonne once more. For years, the city’s quays – neglected former conduits of its wealth – had become dilapidated areas where only the dregs of bordelaise society could feel at home. Now, however, the riverside is where people are drawn to: where there always seems to something going on and which have been transformed so as to invite light and water back into the city.A case in point is the Place de la Bourse. A beautiful crescent of 18th-century buildings that once housed the centre of economic life in Bordeaux, the installation of a kind of infinity pool between it and the quay (known as the Miroir d’Eau or the Water Mirror) has made it picture-postcard material once more. Both day and night, it’s now a place where families and people of all ages gather.
The quays are now open to be enjoyed by pedestrians, cyclists and roller-bladers alike all along the left bank of the Garonne and green parks have sprung up replacing industrial emptiness.
For a first-time visitor to the city, one of the best places to start with is the so-called “Triangle de Luxe” (Luxury Triangle). Seen from above, the triangular area between the squares of Place Gambetta, Place de Tourny and Place de la Comédie bears an eerie resemblance to the Freemason’s symbol; complete with the circle right in the middle of the triangle formed by the Place des Grands Hommes. The latter is a marketplace and shopping centre, where there is also a second-hand book shop every Wednesday.
Here, you at the heart of an area that was the very epicentre of the wealthiest of bordelaise society of the 18th and 19th centuries. The two main theatres of the town were here, as well as many of the finest grand residences belonging to wealthy merchants of the city.
The Grand Théâtre is still a functioning theatre today, housing the Opéra National de Bordeaux. Across the road from it, the luxury Grand Hôtel de Bordeaux is another edifice by the same architect. At any time of the day, they make for a dramatic background to walk past. On the north-east side of the triangle, the Allées de Tourny is a street like a film set – a pretty creation of 18th-century elegance, where brasseries and cafes beckon all day and well into the night.
View Larger Map
For the central luxury experience, it’s hard to beat the Grand Hotel Bordeaux (www.ghbordeaux.com). Rooms will set you back about €300 a night.
At the other end of the scale but just as central is the Regina (www.hotelregina.com), offering good comfort starting at €45/night in an 19th elegant building across from the beautiful Gare St Jean.
– L’Orangerie (+33 5 56 48 24 41): Situated in the public gardens, it’s a haven of pre-revolutionary ambience overlooking greenery – perfect for a lunch stop
– Café Andre Putman (+33 5 56 44 71 61). Another favourite lunch stop with filling fresh menus from €29, it’s one of Bordeaux’s finest.
Bordeaux – La Perle d’Aquitaine