Sunday Express, August 29, 2010

BORDEAUX’S FINE VINTAGE

Long overshadowed by its famous winelands, the city has undergone a stunning renaissance, as DUNCAN CRAIG discovers

BRITISH boozing is the scourge of many a continental city centre. For Bordeaux, it was the making of it.

Our love of a glass or three of wine led to a near-monopoly on exports of the region’s esteemed vintages for more than six centuries.

Ship-loads of the peerless plonk flowed out of the Gironde estuary and across the Channel. In the other direction came unfettered prosperity, culminating in an 18th-century construction programme so grand that World Heritage site status was bestowed on the entire city centre in 2007.

A glass or three was what I found in my hand within hours of arriving at the Port de la Lune, so called because of the city’s setting on a crescent moon-like curve of the cloudy Garonne. The Bar à Vin, adjacent to the imposing Grand Théatre, specialises in the “discovery of wine”, a priority for a couple of viticultural simpletons such as my wife and I.

Shaped like the prow of a ship, with thousands of bottles studding its contemporary interior, the bar has a quasi-religious vibe entirely in keeping with the reverence shown to the ever-changing wines.

We learned about the intricacies of tasting. We tested for clarity. We scrutinised colour. We “nosed” and we “agitated” (at one stage, the sommelier, with my increasingly ludicrous adjectives such as “plump” and “devious”).

By the end we had 10 partially filled glasses in front of us, three half-eaten plates of cheese and a clear winner, a “structured” Pomerol favoured by no less than North Korean despot Kim Jong-il.

Light of head, we set out to explore the city. On a dazzling late summer day it was at its best, the golden limestone facades of the elegant Neoclassical terraces contrasting vividly with the leafy squares.

Ultra-modern trams, the pièce de résistance of Mayor Alain Juppé’s 15-year revitalisation programme, slid through broad pedestrianised boulevards. The pedestrian is king in Bordeaux, followed by the cyclist. Motorists are a distant third (cars are banned altogether on the first Sunday of every month).

More than 1,500 bicycles are stationed across the city as part of the VCub system exported from Paris and mimicked by London. A single euro each and we were off.

The grand demi-square of the 18th-century Place de la Bourse reflected in the Miroir d’Eau, a football pitch-sized ‘dynamic water feature’

First stop was the Place des Quinconces. This is the largest square in Europe, its dappled expanse providing the epicentre of the biennial La Fte du Vin.

From here, a flowing wooden walkway provides access to Le Quai, the linear focal point for the Bordelais people enjoying their trademark Sunday strolls.

Nearby is a spot that neatly encapsulates the convergence of elegant Vieux Bordeaux and the city’s funky new face: the grand demi-square of the 18th-century Place de la Bourse reflected in the Miroir d’Eau, a football pitch-sized “dynamic water feature”. With the temperature touching 30C, we joined many others for a paddle.

Restaurant Gravelier, a street-side extension to a handsome terrace, with open stonework and kitchen, and buzzy La Brasserie Bordelaise, tucked away on Rue Saint Rémi.

Barrels and wine boxes litter its homely interior: there are more than 400 wines on offer. We chose a crisp white Entre-Deux-Mers which went beautifully with soft asparagus from nearby Blaye and oysters from Arcachon, Bordeaux’s Atlantic playground.

To the latter we drove the following morning for an invigorating 24 hours. The town, 30 miles from Bordeaux, sprung up 150 years ago on an emerging trend among high society for harnessing coastal health benefits.

Arcachon sits at the south-western point of a tidal basin with tranquil beaches. Oysters are the primary industry, with 400 farmers producing 12,000 tons a year. You can tour the oyster parks, with their ranks of rickety wooden poles like submerged medieval armies and even take a ride on a farmer’s pinasse, or traditional boat (not a request to attempt in Franglais).

Arcachon is a town high on charm, low on homogeneity. Our base was the Hôtel Ville d’Hiver, a magical retreat of pagoda-like chalets set around a converted former pumping station.

It needed something spectacula r to coax us from its seclusion. La Dune du Pyla, a five-mile coastal cycle from the town, is the biggest sand dune in Europe, a creamy, silken behemoth two miles long and 340ft at its highest point.

At dawn and dusk, the steps at its northern end throng with would-be Lawrences of Arabia.

Set off in the direction of the far, highest peak, however, and you’ll quickly find yourself enveloped in graceful desolation. With the dipping sun inflaming the Atlantic to one side and the dune throwing an ever-lengthening shadow across the seemingly infinite pine forest to the other, we sat and uncorked a cheeky demi-bouteille.

Some things never change.

* GETTING THERE: BA (0844 493 0787/www.ba.com) offers return flights from Gatwick to Bordeaux from £98 return. Hôtel Continental (dialling from the UK: 0033 5 5652 6600/www.hotel-le-continental.com) offers doubles from €105
(two sharing), B&B. Hôtel Ville d’Hiver (5666 1036/www.hotelvilledhiver.com) offers doubles from €175 (two sharing), room only.
Bordeaux Tourist Office: 5600 6600/www.bordeaux-tourisme.com
Aquitaine tourism: 5601 7000/www.tourisme-aquitaine.fr