We left our housesitting assignment in St Gaudens here in France on my birthday last Monday, said our goodbyes to Paul and Nicola who owned the holiday gîte we were looking after, and took off on our road trip for the day to Bordeaux via Auch and Toulouse.
One thing we’ve noticed after spending time in southwestern France is the beautiful countryside. Rural France in the Midi-Pyrenees is absolutely stunning, and driving from town to town and city to city is a real treat. Often the drive is better than the destination, and I’m afraid to say our visit to Auch was one of those occasions.
Auch is overrated
Auch is a lovely ancient town, it’s history dating back to Roman occupation at around 50BC. It’s just an hour west of Toulouse so easily accessible, and home to D’Artagnan of Three Musketeers fame, but despite being highlighted as a must see on the Midi-Pyrenees website, I don’t recommend you go out of your way to get there. If you’re in the area then by all means drop by for a few hours, enjoy a bite to eat and wander the streets, but there are hundreds of towns and villages at least the equal of Auch to visit during your stay in France. If you do drop by, check out the Cathedral of Sainte-Marie, and head into the Tourist Office next door and grab a map featuring a couple of 45-minute walking trails.
We jumped in the car and made the mad dash to Toulouse so we could drop off our hire car at the airport, jump on a bus into Gare Matabiau, the main train station, and connect with our 6.02pm train to Bordeaux. Needless to say we didn’t make it. Trying to find the entrance into the airport where we had to return the hire car proved our downfall, and we missed the connecting bus by about five minutes. As such we missed our bus and had to catch the next train to Bordeaux which left an hour later. It didn’t really matter, it just meant we checked into the Ibis Bordeaux Hotel a little later than expected, but c’est la vie!
Bordeaux is magnifique
We were told how beautiful Bordeaux is before we decided to visit, how very Parisian it is and different to the rest of southern France. We were really looking forward to our visit for these reasons, and as soon as we started to make our way into town the following morning we weren’t disappointed. However, don’t compare Bordeaux to Paris in front of a local, there’s an intense rivalry between the two cities and it could spark an argument you don’t wish to be part of!
For a long time Bordeaux was known as Belle au Bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty), but the city has undergone a massive cleanup operation in recent years to restore it to its past glories, and I must say they’ve done a superb job. The once derelict wet docks have been transformed into a hive of activity with cafes, gardens and museums opening all the time. The one million inhabitants comprises 60,000 university students making it a lively, happening city as well.
Bordeaux is also famous for its wine, however given neither Sarah or I drink, many people (in jest) told us the city would be wasted on us. But whether you’re a wine connoisseur or not, a trip to Bordeaux is an absolute must for any visitor to France. It’s well known for welcoming people regardless of background or beliefs, and the music and art scene make for a vibrant social setting too.
For those wanting to do a spot of shopping, Rue Sainte Catherine is for you. It’s the longest pedestrianised street in France, and is lined from one end to the other with a combination of well known brands and boutique shops. We wandered up and down a few times during our stay, mostly because it’s very beautiful and Sarah wanted to buy some shoes, but also because it was an easy way to get from our hotel near the train station and the city centre.
At one end of Rue Sainte Catherine is Place de la Victoire which has loads of bars and is a hive of activity for local students. It also has Victory Arch, a great example of the city’s Roman history, and has many of the less expensive retail outlets if you’re looking for a bargain.
The other end of Rue Sainte Catherine opens up into the magnificent Place de la Comédie, flanked on one side by the spectacular Grand Théâtre with its 12 Corinthian columns and 12 statues on the roof, and on the other by the equally beautiful Grand Hotel de Bordeaux. This end of the pedestrianised shopping street is where you’ll find many of the more well-known shops and some of the pricier boutique stores.
Exploring the Old Town
After former France Prime Minister Alain Juppé took over as Mayor, the city underwent a massive cleanup operation, uncovering neoclassical architecture hidden under years of dirt and neglect, pedestrianising many of its boulevards and implementing a modern public transportation system. In 2007, 18 sq. km’s were UNESCO-listed as a World Heritage Site, and I for one am very thankful they went to all of the work. It’s a lovely experience just walking around the streets admiring the quality of the city. While Toulouse is a vibrant city with plenty happening on the streets, such as events and buskers, making for a great atmosphere, Bordeaux has a touch of class about it reflected in the internal design of stores, cafes, restaurants and other retail outlets, as well as the striking architecture outside.
One place not to miss as you explore this area is Cathedrale Saint-Andre. It’s the most beautiful religious monument in Bordeaux and well worth a look, particularly to see the brilliant freestanding bell tower. You can climb the stairs to the top for great views across Bordeaux for €5.50. Right next door is the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) and the square is surrounded by lots of cafes and restaurants.
Take a stroll along the river – La Garonne and Les Quais
From our hotel on the banks of La Garonne (it was the Ibis Bordeaux, nothing fancy), we could walk along Les Quais, a great place to take a relaxing walk along the river bank and admire the beauty of the buildings lining the boulevard. There are plenty of places to check out along the way.
- Situated in an off-street is the magnificent Basilica of St Michael, built between the 14th and 16th centuries, with it’s separate bell tower built in the 15th century.
- The Pont de pierre, or Stone Bridge in English, was built under orders from Napoleon Bonaparte. It is almost 500 metres long, has 17 arches, one for every letter in his name, and each pylon is capped with a white medallion in his honour.
- Opposite the bridge is Porte de Bourgogne, a large beautiful gate to the city at the end of Cours Victor Hugo. A little further along this avenue you can see Grosee Cloche (Great Bell), formerly the bell of the Town Hall’s belfry, but that’s a little inland so let’s get back to the river’s edge.
- The elegant Place de la Bourse, an entrance point into the Old Town and a great place to stop, relax, enjoy some lunch and admire the beautiful architecture.
Other places of interest in Bordeaux
Just to the north of the Old Town is the Monument aux Girondins, one of the tallest monuments in Bordeaux. It was built at the end of the 19th century in honour of the deputies of the revolution. At the base are two fountains with quite amazing statues in the centre.
On the northwestern tip of the Old Town is Place Gambetta and Porte Dijeaux. Place Gambetta is a stylish shopping area of town with a lovely garden in the centre of the roundabout. Major brands and delightful boutique stores can be found on the streets running off Place Gambetta such as Cours Georges Clemenceau, Cours de l’intendancy which leads to the Grand Théâtre, and Rue de la Porte Dijeaux which leads to Rue Sainte Catherine.
Along the beautiful narrow Rue Montesquieu from Place Gambetta you’ll reach arguably Bordeaux’s most famous market, Marché des Grands Hommes, where you can find quality food to accompany your wine. On the first floor are vegetables, fruit, fish and flower stalls, and on the second floor are sophisticated shops.
Just the tip of the iceberg
There is so much more to see and do in Bordeaux, both within the city and exploring further afield, but this should keep you going for a day or two. You can visit many museums and art galleries, enjoy wine tasting and culinary delights, or explore the botanical gardens and all they have to offer. There’s also many squares to sit, relax, enjoy a bite to eat or do a spot of people watching such as Place Camille Jullian and Place du Parliament. We’d be happy to set up camp here for a while, and easily passes our ‘would we live here’ test.
Bordeaux is a very flat city, and most of the city centre is pedestrianised, so exploring by foot is very easy and convenient. While we didn’t push Jack around in his pram here, it seems to be very child friendly with flat streets, good footpaths and cobblestone streets that aren’t as harsh as some we’ve seen around Europe. Alternatively, there’s over 580km of cycling tracks in the city, so hire a pushbike and explore the city that way if you can. It’s easy to get around and as you can see, there’s plenty to see and do.
Finally, to borrow the famous words of Ron Burgundy, “stay classy Bordeaux”!