We set off for Bordeaux from Lyon early in the morning, and prepared ourselves for a 5-hour road trip. We grabbed a couple of sandwiches for the trip from Boulangerie Saint Vincent just around the corner from the apartment. These neighborhood bakeries not only sell fresh breads and pastries, but also make wonderful to-go sandwiches on baguette with your choice of meats and cheeses. As I drove toward the highway, exiting Lyon for the last time, the traffic was again heavy, and congested. But once on the open road, I was able to drive at whatever speed I was comfortable. I had the Waze application running to help identify “safety camera” zones en route to Bordeaux.
We spent the next 5 hours westbound on Route A89. With no major cities in between, and traffic very sparse, I had this in front of me for the majority of the time. It was an enjoyable one-stop for gas, long-haul drive through picturesque Massif Central countryside.
On arrival to Bordeaux, we entered the city by car and worked our way towards the center of the old town. I crossed the Garonne River via Pont François Mitterrand, then turned north. In the next few kilometers, the cityscape transformed from typical European town to something requiring an extent of talent to describe. But in the absence of such rare stuff, this URL will help. Visually, it felt like I just time warped back to the nineteenth century. The architecture was consistent, and visually stunning – It wasn’t just a few buildings. It was the entire old town, and this was the facade of buildings facing the Garonne River – the rest of the old town was yet to be explored.
We had secured a centrally located apartment on Rue Sainte Catherine, in the heart of the old town on a pedestrian-only street. We found parking within an easy 5-minute walk to the apartment, as we arrived in central Bordeaux just before 2 o’clock in the afternoon. We were a little early to our rendezvous with the person presenting the apartment. So, we sat down at a café and passed a few minutes over an afternoon drink, admiring our new home for the next 4 nights.
I couldn’t help but notice the number of people on Rue Sainte Catherine. We were near the northern end of the street, which was slightly elevated so that I could see downward into the distance. The pedestrian-only street looked like a river of people flowing downhill and away from me – it was quite the visual. And the interesting thing – it was Wednesday afternoon just after 2 o’clock. It was a beautifully sunny day in early April, and maybe it was some sort of holiday for high school kids – I was grasping to rationalize the level of activity for the middle of the week in the middle of the afternoon. I guessed it must be good to be French.
An elevator ride and a flight of stairs later and we were inside of our well-appointed vieille ville apartment. I chose the apartment for its location, the interior design, and its amenities. It’s amazing how well-renovated a 200-year-old building can be. I felt like we had every convenience we would need. The central area of the apartment was a single room that had the kitchen, dining area, and living area – an open space concept. There were two major design elements – a wall of glass looking onto the glass rooftop of the Gallerie LaFayette building down below, and opposite the glass was the curved stone exterior wall of the building. The exterior stone wall really added character and contrast to the interior design.
We dropped off our luggage, and eagerly set off to explore the area surrounding our apartment, keeping an eye out for a nice restaurant – always in the back of my mind: food. We found ourselves at some wonderful landmarks just wandering about: Place de la Bourse, Place du Parlement, Hôtel de Ville, and Eglise St. Michel – each less than a five minute walk from our apartment. Just stretching our legs after driving all day.
The sense of wonder at how visually stunning the old town was on arrival, was followed by the anticipation of seeing more of it. There was no organization really at this point, no list of what things to see first and next. It was more like kids wandering around a candy store. One interesting landmark led to the next one.
This section has complimentary Google Maps photos. To see the “Arrival” photos on Google Maps, go to the map at the bottom of this post and click on fullscreen mode. Then select the “Photos – Arrival” layer from the menu on the left side of the map.
This section has a complimentary Google Maps route and photos. To follow the Discovery Trek on Google Maps, go to the map at the bottom of this post and click on fullscreen mode. Then select both “Route – Discovery Trek”, and “Photos – Discovery Trek” layers from the menu on the left side of the map.
Bordeaux is an architectural treasure. As we walked through the old town on our discovery trek, it felt like we found something interesting with the turn of every corner. It was by far the best-kept vieille ville of any city of we’ve previously visited in France. Bordeaux has the kind of architectural heritage that drives an urge to take a photo of every building.
We set off from the apartment and made our way towards La Place des Quinconces early in the morning with beautiful blue sky, without-a-single-cloud walking weather. The air was brisk and cool which contrasted the warmth of the sunshine nicely. The walk was a pleasure and the scenery was memorable.
From La Place des Quinconces we turned north and walked along the river, and bumped into a open air market selling a variety of seafood. We continued along the river until we arrived at Le Miroir d’Eau, which had a variety of water displays – sometimes like a mist, sometimes like a fountain, and other times a thin layer of water which was the mirror image suggested in its name.
We crossed the road away from the river and made our way back into the old town, walking by Place Bir Hakeim, and once again a variety of beautiful architecture was on parade before us.
From there we made our way past the Ecole des Beaux Artes to the Eglise Saint-Croix where we toured the interior.
We continued our walk through the old part of town towards Place de la Victoire, which was busy with outdoor cafés and people going about their day. It seemed a cross-road of pedestrian traffic, a little busier than other parts of town.
Leaving Place de la Victoire, we headed for the first of the beautiful green spaces situated inside the old town. The garden was surrounded by period architecture buildings, which were as decorative as the wisteria hanging from their walls. The public garden should have been full of people enjoying the sunshine on a beautiful spring day. But it was lightly used, and we practically had it to ourselves.
Leaving the Botanical Garden behind us, we headed back towards Place du Parlement for a bite to eat. All that walking did work up an appetite. We stopped at Chez Jean for an epic French meal. It was memorably good, and I rant about it in the Food Scene section.
The old town of Bordeaux, situated on the west side of the Garonne River, was much more expansive than Lyon’s old town. General impressions of the old town were that it had its share of narrow medieval lanes, but it also opened up to broad avenues with modern trams running down the center. It opened up to lovely small squares hosting shops and cafés, and grand squares with cathedrals and churches as their anchors. There were monuments, statuary, and water fountains interspersed throughout the old town. There were several green spaces as well. Some were on the grounds of its institutions, like the Musée des Beaux Artes, for example, while others were stand-alone public parks.
I didn’t know what to expect from Bordeaux with regards to quality of food. All I knew was that it was France and, it will be good. I didn’t have any idea how good. I found the cuisine in Bordeaux to approach the quality in Lyon. And Lyon was very, very good. It seemed to me that we had more variety in Bordeaux. In particular, I found that we had more seafood available to us than we had in Lyon.
In Bordeaux, restaurants typically don’t open until after 7:00 PM for dinner. And it’s not just restaurants, it’s everything, cafés included – wherever we could sit down, no matter what they call themselves, the hours were similar. Usually in larger cities, cafés stay open and offer smaller portions, and snacks throughout the day. The restricted hours I think speaks to Bordeaux’s smaller size, with reduced customer traffic and demand.
We both had a seafood bisque as an appetizer, we tried the sea bass, and mussels for our main dishes. The seafood was fresh, and well prepared. This place specializes in seafood. We would revisit L’Embarcadère for the last meal of our last evening in Bordeaux.
The name translates to the Oyster Box. We walked by this restaurant and noticed a guy standing outside by the entrance, shucking oysters all through the lunch hour. What a way to advertise that a restaurant serves oysters (aside from the name). We had Jambon de Bayonne, and sausage for appetizers. A bit of variety with warmed brie on toast, fresh oysters, and finally Fromage Blanc with strawberry preserves. It was very good. The oysters in particular were very fresh.
A classic French restaurant just around the corner from our apartment, highly recommended by a local. Beef bone marrow, and smoked trout for appetizer. I love bone marrow, and this was very good – I considered ordering a second helping (a very bad idea in France). I don’t snob on about the wine, but for this meal a hearty local red was recommended for me. We both had Cochon Noir – 10 hour slow cooked Basque Pork. No knife was necessary, it was that tender. Followed by a medley of sweets for dessert. The wine went well with all of it, especially the marrow and the pork. I became quite the fan of Eau de Vie de Poire, what a wonderful digestif.
This was our lunch stop in Villeréal on our Village Road Trip. This was a regular café fare, with what you see is what you get. This tiny restaurant was a farm-to-table associated with a local farm for high quality beef. Some of the tables around us were sharing enormous servings of what looked like ribeye. Would have loved to have tried it, but we were not interested in anything that heavy.
This should be titled “The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men.” We stopped at this little café in the morning to get some coffee and tea. Meanwhile, fifteen minutes later – 2 types of eggs, bread with butter and apricot preserves, jambon, and fresh orange juice. It was very fresh and good. And considering that tax and tip are included in the price, not expensive either.
This was a little café we stopped in for lunch in the middle of the Discovery Trek Part Deux. It was very simple café food, Charcuterie, fromage, and two types of salmon, along with some salad. Good café chow, and very reasonably priced.
So this is the reason we had to stop at this place a second time, and it should be titled “Seafood Porn.” We saw a table of 4 order something like this during our first visit. This is not a tourist place. That is not a stack of bad seafood sold to people that don’t know what they’re ordering. A big variety of mostly raw shellfish, along with a compatible local white wine. It was a labor of love getting to all of that seafood with the variety of little utensils provided. The chocolate dessert seems out of place, but it was awesome.
Village Road Trip
This section has a complimentary Google Maps route and photos. To follow the Village Road Trip on Google Maps, go to the map at the bottom of this post and click on fullscreen mode. Then select both “Route – Village Road Trip”, and “Photos – Village Road Trip” layers from the menu on the left side of the map.
We hit the road for the Village Road Trip early just after 8 o’clock in the morning. We drove through pastoral two lane country roads, winding our way through the hills of Aquitaine west of the city. The weather was beautiful with blue skies and sunshine. I couldn’t have asked for better spring weather to be outdoors. The Volvo S60 was very well behaved on the backroads, with all the power and agility I needed to maneuver around the twists and turns.
All of the villages we visited were Bastides, built from the 13th to the 14th centuries, and laid out in a grid pattern with a central market square. Many of them had medieval walls as fortifications, some built much later than the village itself. Usually the church takes the most central and prominent location in most towns and villages. But here, the church is relegated to a corner, and the focus is on the market square – on commerce.
We arrived in Eymet, the first village of the day. We worked our way to the main square looking for a bite to eat. We found ourselves a little working café off to the corner of the square. It looked like other tourists had the same idea, as several tables were occupied on arrival. Interestingly, this little village is favored by British expats, accounting for one third of the locals – total population just above 2000 people. I won’t hold that against the locals.
This was one of the smaller villages visited this day. But it was big enough to have a good café – turned out to be a farm-to-table partner with a local beef producer. There were a number of tables that ordered what looked like enormous servings of beef, perhaps ribeye. I thought I was back in the States judging by the portion size. We met a very interesting Brit expat, sitting at the table next to us. She painted a colorful picture of retired life among the French folks in the area.
This was our favorite village. it was very picturesque, and authentic. It was also among the largest, with many artisanal shoppes throughout the main square in particular. While this was April, and the volume of visitors was light, I fully expect heavy tourism here in the heart of summer. The locals are prepared for, and expect them. It was a pleasure exploring here.
This village was our second favorite behind Monpazier. It was perched on a hilltop overlooking a valley. It looked to be more of a residential village as opposed to a tourist draw like Monpazier, with fewer shoppes, fewer attractions for visitors, and more homes. It was very quiet and scenic, with the valley overlook.
Another hill-top perch overlooking a valley below. This was the smallest village visited, not deeper than 3 residential streets. It’s main square was under repair during our visit, so we didn’t get the full impact of its charm. Very quiet, with hardly a soul in town.
This was the largest of the villages visited, and it had the least charm. I would remove this stop from the village itinerary as it didn’t fit in with the rest. It was more of a small city than a village, with things like kebab shops full of loud teenagers. We stopped in to have an early dinner, but no restaurants were open. So we settled for a boulangerie prepared sandwich and some patisserie for dessert.
While all of the villages had some Bastide design elements in common, they were all unique in their own way. Some were very small requiring no more than a few minutes to walk through its entirety. The per-village photo count speaks to how visually appealing each village was to us.
Discovery Trek Part Deux
We contemplated the idea of going on a second road trip from Bordeaux, but after a brief conversation we simply discounted the idea. We wanted to continue to explore the vieille ville, and whatever parts of town we hadn’t yet discovered. For example, we had not been across the river, although we knew it wasn’t part of the old town. I thought it still merited exploration. We opted to do that versus additional village tours, or trying a winery junket with some unruly future drunks.
The map shows all of the places discovered and photos taken along the way for Destination Bordeaux. To use the map to its potential, click the rectangle in the top right corner of the map to open it in a new tab. Set your browser to fullscreen mode so that you can see as much of the map as possible. Browse the map layers by selecting or deselecting the check boxes on the left side of the map. A good example in selectively exploring the map would be to check only “Photos – Village Road Trip” and “Route – Village Road Trip” on the side of the map. This would display just the Village Road Trip elements on the map. Then zoom in as tight as you like to view parts of the route of interest, along with the photos taken there. I’d love to hear feedback on this use of Google Maps to enable interaction with travel content. Enjoy!
Final words on Bordeaux. I find Bordeaux to be at the largest end of the cities I would consider for an extended residence, like for a year or more. The quality of the city in terms of its architecture, history, food culture, and even the climate, makes it very appealing to me. But I would have to live in the old town. No exceptions, and it wouldn’t be on Sainte Catherine Street. it would have to be on a more cozy and intimate residential square, like some we wandered by on our walks through town. I envision easy access to a café, charcuterie, and boulangerie/patisserie – the essentials for French living.