A Celebration of Bordeaux
By Richard Carroll
Place de la Comedie in the heart of Bordeaux, France, is like an enormous magnet that pulls you in with a welcoming embrace. The square stretches between the majestic neo-classic Grand Theatre Opera House on one side and the Grand Hotel directly opposite it, which has been greeting guests since 1789 and has a history all its own. Encircled by a booming street parade of Bordelais, it's both effortless and exhilarating to stand in the square and draw in the vitality and energy of this city whose heritage has been tinged with the cherished vines of esteemed vineyards and Old World chateaus as far back as the 12th century and beyond.
Lovers, hand in hand, dodge fast-moving bicycles steered by highly skilled riders adorned with high heels, briefcases and fluttering Hermes scarves and in some way evading those with leashed dogs whose tails are twitching at the drifting aroma from enticing sidewalk cafes.
Festive chattering students lounge on the marbled steps of the majestic Grand Theatre Opera House and mingle with visitors and Bordelais alike. The lilt of their French language merges curiously with the English lyrics sung enticingly by a guitarist from Romania whose "thank you cup" hopes for coins.
Old Town street life is thriving in a safe, walkable city where humanity is dwarfed by the incredible collection of historic architecture. Inviting restaurants are tucked in wall to wall, like a movie set with Old World ambience but New World energy. It's not a "Little Paris," as Bordelais are quick to correct. Bordeaux, "The City of Wine," cultured and celebrated, stands alone with its unique eminence in Europe and teeming with distinctive revelations.
The name says it all: Wine rules. Bordeaux is renowned for producing some of the world's finest wines, but beyond that visitors with a pair of first-rate walking shoes can explore St. Catherine Street, the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe with some 250 stores. Momentous squares connected by St. Catherine Street are often lined with places to sit and appreciate the parade of people while sipping a touch of Bordeaux.
Old Town, with nearly 5,000 buildings that date to the 18th century, is the world's largest UNESCO urban World Heritage Site. The honor is well deserved, thanks to imposing 17th-century city gates and Place des Quinconces, laid out in 1820 and noted as the largest square in France, if not all of Europe. The immense monument dominating the square, an elaborate work of art and a photographer's dream, was dismantled by the Germans during World War II but fortunately returned.
Traversing the narrow cobbled streets brings visitors close to alluring buildings, neoclassical squares, busy servers bustling about the countless restaurants, and enormous churches and cathedrals, some dating to medieval times. Sure to provide an impressive challenge for architecture aficionados, the baroque Notre-Dame, the Gothic Saint-Andre Cathedral and the Romanesque Sainte-Croix are all within easy walking distance from one another.
Surprises hover around every corner. Place de la Bourse shows off its 18th-century facade, and the fascinating Water Mirror overlooking the Garonne River creates absorbing sequences of water and mist. Beyond are views of the famed Bordeaux Stone Bridge, the first ever built over the river, commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1810.
An active port city, Bordeaux is 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. The Garonne River has an enormous influence on the city's personality with a pedestrian quay -- or walkway -- that adjoins the river and is admired by avid joggers, cyclists and Bordelais out for an evening stroll with their dogs. In 2017 an incredible 48 ships dropped anchor here in the Garonne, including four super-yachts, along with river-cruise vessels such as Viking's Longboat Forseti, whose home port is Bordeaux.