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The trifecta of Bordeaux: the city, châteaus, and a beach

The scenic, castle-like Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse del Lalande overlooks the famous fields of Lafite Rothschild. The scenic, castle-like Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse del Lalande overlooks the famous fields of Lafite Rothschild. (BELLA ENGLISH/GLOBE STAFF)
Email|Print| Text size + By Bella English
Globe Staff / February 18, 2007

BORDEAUX, France -- When the word "bordeaux" is mentioned, people immediately think of the wine, among the world's best, or the region in sou thwest France where it is produced. Rarely do they think of the city.

But Bordeaux is a bustling burg with many charms of its own. Like a dowager down on her luck, it had fallen victim to neglect. Today, however, it is undergoing a facelift that has already restored its downtown park and is removing the grime and soot from its 5,000 stone neo classical buildings, the better to showcase their columns, arches, cornices, and carvings. The city has a new and efficient tram system, along with bus service, though the best way to explore is on foot.

Most tourists who come to Bordeaux are pilgrims seeking the surrounding vineyards -- or " châteaus" as their estates are known -- and who use the city as a base. But the city itself should not be ignored; it offers many architectural, shopping, and gastronomic pleasures.

Last fall, my daughter, who was studying in Paris, and I rented a car and drove the six hours south to Bordeaux, where we spent a few lovely days visiting the châteaus, the city, and the nearby beach -- a real trifecta of a trip. The Garonne River cuts a swath through Bordeaux and connects it to the Atlantic; the late R.W. Apple Jr. of The New York Times once described this river city as France's Boston, "overflowing with understated rectitude."

The old part of the city, with its wide avenues and small side streets, is a great place to wander in search of architectural revelations -- a gargoyle here, a stone church there -- along with fountains and monuments. Head for the main square, anchored by the majestic Grand Theatre, considered one of the most beautiful 18th-century buildings in Europe. At night, you can take in a concert or ballet at the ornate theater. During the day, it is open for tours.

In the large square outside, diners eat at open-air cafes, while street musicians, jugglers, and mimes compete for attention and euros. At one kiosk, we bought the region's signature " canelés" mini-cakes made in fluted molds, dense and chewy with a taste of honey. Between that and an amazing chocolate boutique, we nibbled our way down the mile-long Rue Sainte-Catherine, said to be Europe's longest pedestrian street. Small shops and large chains form a fun mix. In Bordeaux, you'll also find all the big fashion houses including Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Ferragamo, Kenzo, and Escada.

We wanted to take in wine country, so we booked a wine and art tour with the city's tourism office. At 9:30 one morning, 20 of us left in a mini bus, headed for the Medoc district slightly north of Bordeaux, home to the world-class châteaus of Margaux , Latour , Lafite Rothschild , and Saint-Julien. Many of those "premier cru" châteaus don't do group tours, or any tours at all. ("You have to be a wine person or e-mail ahead of time," said our guide).

So we were content to visit three others. Our bus passed through wine villages, past stone walls and rows of grape vines, each with a rose bush on the end, the better to predict disease (which attacks the rose bush before the vine). The stone châteaus were imposing and interesting, each with its own story. Some are owned by families who reside there, others by corporations.

Our guide offered a running commentary on the complex classifications of Bordeaux wine, from the world-class grands cru to the lowlier -- but often still wonderful -- cru bourgeois. Naturally, she had to insert constant comparisons with California wine production, with the refrain: "Here, it is not allowed."

By 10:15, we were touring Château d'Arsac. It was the week after the harvest, and workers were emptying enormous merlot vats. The owner is an art lover and various modern sculptures decorated the lawn; one piece even sat in the middle of a vineyard. Inside, we tasted wine while our guide told us about the Bordeaux Marathon, at which runners can stop at various vineyards in the Medoc region and sample the wares. Her friend, she said, finished the race having stopped 33 times for 33 glasses of wine. "It's the only marathon in the world like this," she boasted.

There's a reason why.

At noon, we stopped in the village of Bages and had a four-course lunch at a cafe: olive and chorizo loaf, fish with a red pepper sauce, a cheese plate, and a chocolate tart, accompanied by local wine. My 20-year-old daughter, Megan, is of legal drinking age in France. Our guide was surprised to learn that she's "illegal" at home. "French kids can't buy wine until they're 18, but they grow up having a glass a day at home," she said. Her son, now an adult, has been drinking wine since age 7 -- something I don't dare tell my teenage son.

She also mentioned that she, her mother, and her daughter were going to spend an upcoming weekend at Les Sources de Caudalie, a hotel and spa on the grounds of Château Smith Haut-Lafitte, in a wine town south of Bordeaux. Here, they would indulge in some "vinotherapy" such as massages with grape seed oil and baths of grapevine extract.

After lunch, we visited two more vineyards, ending with the esteemed Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse del Lalande. This property, still inhabited by the comtesse, who is in her 80s, is one of the most scenic in the area with its beautiful castle-like château, swimming pool, veranda, and sweeping lawn. It overlooks Lafite Rothschild, and many wine enthusiasts in our group took pictures with telephoto lenses of the famous fields. On the way back, Margaux lovers asked if we could stop by that property. Though it was closed for the day, we at least got a glimpse of the world-famous vines, and the magnificent mansion. Back on the bus, many of us nodded off into a wine-aided nap; we arrived in Bordeaux by 6 p.m.

The next day was sunny and 75 degrees, so we took a 45-minute drive to the Atlantic Ocean and Europe's highest sand dune -- Dune de Pyla. There were stairs leading to the top and the panoramic view from there was stunning: the glittering blue ocean on one side, forests on the other. We headed down, way down, to the beach and watched the fishermen and swimmers: The water was not nearly as cold as New England's in the summer.

For lunch, we drove another 10 minutes to the charming resort town of Arcachon, which has wide beaches, a boardwalk, and pedestrian streets featuring outdoor cafes with crepes, moules/frittes (mussels and fries), and croques monsieur. I explored the town while my daughter sat on the beach with a book. Sailboats abounded, as did young people playing beach soccer and volleyball.

Back in Bordeaux, we noticed a salon offering chocolate facials, so of course we went in. "There are important enzymes in chocolate," explained the beautician. Who cared? It felt like she was massaging my face with a melted Hershey's bar. We emerged an hour later, feeling great and smelling even better. We spent the evening exploring old Bordeaux, wandering in and out of the fantastic wine shops and trying to figure out a way to get some vintages back to Boston. I managed to bring back some half-bottles packed in boxes stuffed with socks in my checked bags.

Our last morning in Bordeaux, we got up and jogged in the renovated park, passing by swans and ducks, a snack stand, and a carousel. We paid our last visit to Antoinne's, by now our favorite patisserie, for a box of croissants, madeleines, and macaroons, the better to fortify ourselves for our trip back north, to Paris.

Contact Bella English at english@globe.com.

If You Go

Where to stay

Les Sources de Caudalie Château Smith Haut-Lafitte, Martillac

011-335-578-38383

sources-caudalie.com

This hotel and spa, with two restaurants, is just south of Bordeaux, and offers "vinotherapie," or various spa treatments using nautral spring water and vine and grape extracts. A three-day "vine getaway package" is about $700.

For other accommodations, go to bordeaux-tourisme.com .

Where to eat

Gravelier 114, cours de Verdun

011-335-564-81715

amgravelier@yahoo.fr

Stylish storefront bistro with creative meals, including mullet "cooked" at the table over vine shoots. Monday-Friday, lunch noon-1:45 p.m. ; dinner 7:30-9:45 p.m. ; closed Saturday and Sunday.

La Tupina 6 rue Porte de la Monnaie

011-335-569-15637

latupina.com

A charming place with old stone walls, terrace dining, and huge fireplace. Try the grilled duck or chicken, and the grilled fois gras. Daily noon-2 p.m. lunch; 7-11 p.m. dinner.

What to do

Art and Wine Tour Bordeaux Tourist Office

bordeaux-tourisme.com

A day-long guided tour and tasting of three Medoc châteaus , including lunch. About $90.

Le Soin Visage

5 cours St. Louis

011-335-578-70003

Have a chocolate facial for about $50.

Musee Des Beaux-Arts

20 cours d'Albret

011-335-561-02056

culture.gouv.fr/culture/bordeaux

Paintings from the Renaissance to World War II. Daily 11 a.m.-6 p.m., except Tuesday. Admission about $6.50.

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