Bordeaux reborn: How to spend a weekend in the world's wine capital

Bordeaux's annual wine and flea market festival

Bordeaux ranks as France's second-favorite city, after Paris. Had anyone visited here 20 years ago, they might wonder why. Always prosperous due to the wine trade, it was a city whose beauty was hidden behind blackened buildings and traffic-clogged streets.

Credit Alain Juppe, the mayor and former prime minister, for kick-starting a clean-up campaign in the mid-1990s. With its riverfront promenade, mostly pedestrianized town center, neighborhood markets and neat rows of 18th century wine merchants' homes, the Bordeaux feels a little like Paris, minus the crowds and prices.

New high-speed train service introduced last summer means visitors can travel from Gare Montparnasse in Paris to the world's wine capital in two hours instead of three, incentive enough for my friend, Jen, and I to plan a three-night getaway.

Villa Bordeaux

It was around 11:30 a.m. when we settled into La Villa Bordeaux, a five-room bed and breakfast just outside the gates of the former medieval town center. Hidden behind a wall on a busy street were lush gardens and an open-air terrace, perfect for sipping wine on a sunny afternoon. Owner Sylvain Deon served breakfast buffet style- three or four kinds of cheeses, cured meats, homemade yogurt, fruit, cereals and assorted pastries and croissants. Had it been raining, it would have been easy to stay put. But the sun was out, and it was lunchtime. On Sylvain's advice, we headed into town, passing the booksellers on the Place de la Victoire, and found the art deco-style Cafe des Arts off pedestrianized Rue Sainte-Catherine, Bordeaux's main shopping street.

Cafe des Arts
Fast-food restaurants and chain stores catering to students have mostly replaced classic bistros like this one on Sainte-Catherine. We ordered a cheese plate and salad listed on the menu under "desserts," a choice that drew a puzzled look from our waiter. The French have their mealtime rules, and one is that you sit down for a proper lunch, meaning a starter and "plat" or main dish. Stopping for a snack is doable, but may mean selecting something intended as an appetizer or in our case, cheese, often eaten after the main dish but before actual dessert.

Rue Sainte-Catherine bisects the city north and south. It's a convenient path across town, but not the most interesting route for exploring Bordeaux's backstreets. Detouring a bit after lunch, we walked under the Grosse Cloche bell tower, one of the oldest in France, and the only remaining part of the ramparts that once surrounded the city.

Our destination was the Saint-Pierre district of old Bordeaux, one of the first areas to be renovated and pedestrianized under Juppe's plan. Since 2002, Bordeaux has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tourists generally head straight to the riverfront to see the 17th and 18th century buildings lining the quays. Right behind those buildings is Saint-Pierre, home to dozens of little wine bars and restaurants with outdoor tables set up under strings of colored lights. It was here we discovered one of 16 identical statues placed at various point around town by an English artist. The game is to find them all while wondering around.

From Saint-Pierre, it was an easy walk to the Place de la Bourse, Bordeaux's most photographed 1700s-era monument, fronting on the Garonne River. Refurbished and on one of the city's modern tram lines, its main attraction is Le Mirror d'eau, the Water mirror, an art installation of granite slabs with a thin layer of water and erupts into fog every 15 minutes or so.

Place de la Bourse

Almost everything in the old city is walkable or reachable by a short tram ride. A few stops from the Bourse is the wine merchants' district of Chartrons. We joined the locals at the annual wine and flea market festival, held each October to celebrate the harvest. Here life takes on a village-like atmosphere along Rue Notre Dame and the Eglise Saint Louis. In between browsing for antiques and listening to street musicians, we sampled vin bourru, a fizzy, not fully fermented "new wine," drunk a few weeks after grapes are picked.

Vin bourru

Upriver from Chartrons is the $90 million euro La Cite du Vin wine museum opened in June to mixed reviews. Its stunning riverfront location and 20 euro entry fee promise more than the exhibits deliver. Given the price includes an English audio guide and a free glass of wine on the top floor with views around Bordeaux, it's worth a stop if only for the interior design and techno tricks used to keep visitors entertained.

La Cite du Vin

While Mondays are often the worst times to do or see anything in France (most museums are closed and some shops open late), Sundays are often the best. Next on the city's list of neighborhoods to get a face-lift is working-class Saint Michel district, built around the Gothic-style Saint Michel's basilica. Locals gather here for a huge Sunday flea market, followed by shopping and lunch at the Marche des Capucins covered food market.

Saint Michel's flea market 
I wasn't quite ready for oysters at 10:45 a.m., but how could I pass up the chance to sample six for 9 euros, including a glass of white wine at this charming little bar. Food is really the best part of travel.

Marche des Capucins

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