On May 31, the president of France and the mayor of Bordeaux, who may well be the next French leader, clinked champagne glasses at the top of a spectacular new museum: the Cité du Vin (“wine town”).
Set beside the River Garonne, its wildly curving carapace of aluminium gleaming in the sun, the Cité du Vin is an iconic motif of Bordeaux’s drive to reinvent itself, and the two politicians were there to open it, setting aside any rivalry for the day.
Like a string of cities throughout the world, Bordeaux is hoping to “do a Bilbao” and emulate that Spanish Basque city, which nobody had ever heard of until suddenly, in 1997, its Guggenheim Museum burst forth, a riverside explosion in sheet metal designed by Frank Gehry. We all know Bilbao now.
And we all know Bordeaux, too, but for what?
Bordeaux is known for wine, but the name also represents a port city of ancient origin that saw immense prosperity in the 18th century.
Slavery and empire built the city. Bordeaux was the principal French port for Atlantic trade in imperial times, the fulcrum of France’s triangular trade with Africa and the Americas. The immense profits from this evil commerce, along with the rather more benign profits of the wine trade, brought huge wealth to the city, which was translated into architecture the grandeur of which is surpassed in France only by that in Paris, an ensemble acclaimed as a World Heritage site in 2007.
The Place de la Comédie (“theatre square”) is the epitome of this grandeur, a theatrical piece of cityscape if ever there were one. In a set piece of neoclassical splendour, the palatial Grand Hotel – once the mansion of a powerful merchant – faces the colossal Grand-Theatre opera house, the one tipping its tricorn hat to the other. Boulevards lined with stately edifices fan out on both sides in this so-called “great men’s district”, and all is historically homogeneous.
But order a glass of Graves at the Grand Hotel’s terrace cafe and before it arrives the view will have updated dramatically. Almost unheard, a tram as sleek as a TGV high-speed train will swish across the scene.
Trams have been a big hit with the Bordelais since they started rolling in 2003, with three lines running and a fourth being laid out, and it’s not hard to see why. The downtown area is now accessible with ease and what was once choked with traffic is today a large pedestrianised district.
A city centre constructed with Enlightenment grace is now devoted to lightening up. When the Chanel and Apple stores shut in the historic St Pierre district, the bars and restaurants open in its narrow streets, and few other European cities can offer such a tantalising choice of good food in so tight an area. Mostly French food, but who’s going to complain about that?
There’s no doubt the Sleeping Beauty, as Bordeaux was long called, is waking up. Staid by nature, grime-covered in the 20th century, the city was nobody’s idea of a fun town. But ever since mayor Alain Juppé began his modernisation drive two decades ago, the city has found a new energy.
The limestone of which the entire city centre is constructed has been scrubbed clean and the riverside – once walled off as the port – has been opened up with a broad esplanade.
Romantically called the Port of the Moon, on account of the river’s new-moon curve, it is no longer bustling with ships, but the port’s glory lives on in Bordeaux’s pièce de résistance, the Place de la Bourse (“stock exchange square”). Unquestionably the city’s greatest spectacle, recalling the magnificence of Versailles, the square’s monumental structures once housed the city’s trading authorities, facing the Garonne with a boundless confidence.
Symbolic of Bordeaux at its 18th-century zenith, the Place de la Bourse in the 21st century doubles in size when its majestic profile is reflected in the vast “water mirror” that was laid out along the riverside in 2006. Its inch of water resting on a 130-metre-wide swathe of granite, the mirror’s serene stillness billows into mist in rhythmic changes, creating a magical spectacle.
From this grand stage, the esplanade stretches northwards for 2km, pounded by joggers, cyclists and skateboarders, as far as the soaring pylons of the Chaban-Delmas Bridge, a hi-tech monument with a central section that rises like an elevator to allow cruise liners – the only visiting ships these days – into the old port.
Beyond are the Bassins à Flot (“tidal basins”), disused industrial docks transitioning from rusty dereliction to trendy destination, a process signalled to the world by the opening there of La Cité du Vin – already dubbed “the Guggenheim of wine”.
A swirl of gold and silver metal topped by a leaning tower, the building’s weird asymmetry purportedly symbolises local identity – “the knotted vine stocks, wine turning in the glass, the swirls and eddies of the Garonne” – but many locals have not swallowed this official spin, seeing it as a “tin boot”, or even damning it as a “chromium turd” or a “platinum dropping”.
But the proof of the dropping, as it were, is in the visiting, and surely even those scatologically inclined critics will be charmed once they get inside. For La Cité du Vin is, as its promoters stress, not an old-school museum of curated objects but an immersive and interactive experience involving all of the senses, designed to bring alive the world of wine.
Inside, a guessing game involves sticking your nose into little funnels, pressing a squeezer, and getting a scented blast of – what? – blackcurrant, honey, peach? In the “dining room”, dishes are projected onto the tables as holograms and a virtual chef invites you to pair wines with them. Get it wrong and your virtual wine glass gets smashed. In the “chair of despair”, you listen to famous people describing their hangovers.
Atop the tower is a tasting room, offering wines from throughout the world and a 360-degree panorama that includes the broad sweep of the muddy-brown Garonne and vineyards stretching into the distance.
If the Bassins à Flot is a regeneration in progress, halfway back to the city centre on tramline B stands an old district that has already been recharged. Once the centre of the wine trade, with barrels rolling from its warehouses to its quays and wealthy merchants occupying its sumptuous town houses, Chartrons fell on hard times in the 20th century. Revived first by antique dealers, the district now buzzes with quirky boutiques and lively bar-restaurants. Its leitmotif is the CAPC, a cathedral-like warehouse turned into a contemporary art centre, where the work of American feminist artist Judy Chicago is vibrating the walls all this summer.
“Bordeaux Nouveau” should be fully matured in the 2020s, but it’s already worth uncorking. That’s how this once-fusty city got voted No 1 in an online 2015 European Best Destinations poll.