Believe it or not, Bordeaux is about much more than wine. Yes, the capital of southwest France is renown for chateaux that produce award-winning vintages, but Bordeaux offers much more than finely fermented grapes, particularly for those arriving by cruise ships.
Bordeaux is situated 60 miles from the sea, and the transit into the city, at the head of the Gironde Estuary, is worthwhile to watch if you’re an early riser. Your first sight upon entering the city will be the fine 18th-century facade along the quayside where your ship will dock.
For travelers interested in cultural and natural heritage, the region is robust in UNESCO World Heritage sites and attractions. Maybe you prefer instead to relax and absorb the French joie de vivre. No problem. Bordeaux extends an open embrace with an easy lifestyle right in the city center. Sophisticates will find Bordeaux offers some of the finest dining in France, while those who want to lighten their wallets will discover shopping that rivals Paris, at boutiques ranging from Louis Vuitton to Yves Saint Laurent.
Smaller ships, such as Oceania’s Regatta, are able to dock in the city center. Step off the gangway and into the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage City. For more than two centuries, Bordeaux’s old town has been able to maintain its distinct classical and neoclassical architecture. Fantastic buildings form the backdrop to a vibrant and charming city, within easy access of the city center dock.
Stroll along the picturesque quayside or hop on a modern tram, within steps of the docks, into an 18th-century old town free of cars. Walk the cobblestone streets, stop for a break at one of the many sidewalk cafes or visit the myriad museums, including the Musée d’Art Contemporain (Contemporary Art Museum), housed in a 19th-century spice warehouse, and the Musée d’Aquitaine, featuring exhibits that quickly familiarize you with Bordeaux’s history. One guidebook claims that the museum’s detailed prehistoric section could save you a trip to Lascaux. Lascaux’s Paleolithic cave paintings are reproduced in convincing detail at the museum.
Still in the city center, stop in at Maison du Vin to learn a lot about wine before heading the vineyards. Maison du Vin is run by the CIVB (Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bordeaux), the authority on the Bordeaux wine trade. Tastings that a typically offered at Maison du Vin’s Wine Bar can help you decide which of the seven wine regions you want to visit.
Oenophiles can point their well-trained noses in any direction and find a vintage worthy of uncorking. One of the easiest regions to reach from the city center is Saint-Émilion, a stunningly gorgeous medieval village surrounded by vineyards.
“People here believed that the wine alone was enough to make the village famous,” says guide Isabelle Auzely. “They took it for granted that their village was also very beautiful, and so the message hasn’t been widely communicated.” Saint-Émilion has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999.
The Romans established vineyards in Saint Émilion, but it was during the period that Bordeaux belonged to the British, 1152-1453, that red Bordeaux was taken by traders to ports around the world, thanks to the region’s access to the sea.
The towns Bourg and Blaye are situated along the Gironde Estuary. Here too, you will find great wines and UNESCO World Heritage sites: The Citadel de Blaye, built as fortress during Louis XIV’s day; and the Cordouan lighthouse, classified as a historical monument in 1862, along with Paris’s Cathedral of Notre Dame.
The Chateaux Road boasts the best-known names of the Médoc Wine Route. Here, you’ll find some of the wine world’s most iconic names: Chateau Margaux, situated in a beautiful neoclassical building dating from 1802; and Mouton-Rothschild, with its eponymous world-renowned wine.
The Dordogne Valley features treasures of another sort, the cave paintings of Lascaux, dating back 1,600 years, and yes you guessed it, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You’ll certainly want to make an excursion to one or more of these regions, and if you’re lucky enough to overnight in Bordeaux, as some ships do, you can accomplish quite a lot in two days.
Speaking in terms that any vintner would appreciate, “the perfect blend” is to mix city and chateaux. You could do both in a single day, but if you’re overnighting, two days allows for an adequate immersion.
Start with a tour of the city, visiting the WWII German submarine base; the Chartrons river front, where the wine trade started; the Esplanade des Quinconces, one of Europe’s largest squares; the 18th-century Place de la Bourse, with the Miroir d’eau reflecting the palace.
You’ll no doubt want to see the 13th-century Cathedral of St. André, where you can climb the tower, Tour Pey-Berland for stunning views of the city, and the Grand Théatre, built between 1773 and 1780. Step inside to admire the frescoed ceiling and the 14,000 Bohemian crystals that make up the large chandelier.
Half an hour from the city center, you can reach Saint-Emilion. One hour from the city center is the Médoc region. You should note that big ships often dock at Le Verdon, just 30 minutes away from Médoc.
For a true Bordeaux experience, consider booking yourself on a small ship that docks in the city center and overnights. Seabourn Cruise Line’s new Sojourn will offer such an experience in the fall of 2010.
Bordeaux’s charms conspire to create a vow-I’ll-come-back impression, and although ships do overnight in Bordeaux, many travelers find two days not quite enough. You should know that you’re always welcome back to Bordeaux.
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