It was a sullen rain-soaked January day in 2008 when Mr Gallivant and I first came upon the belle dame that is Bordeaux. On a whim a week or so before, we’d talked about moving to France. As you do. New year, new beginnings and all that. After as good as three years in England, we were quite ready for a change of scene. The balmier climes of the south west corner of the hubby’s homeland were beckoning, even if our first foray to the region happened to be under brooding skies. But we weren’t put off. After all, where much in Europe does offer sunny smiling days in the dead of winter? Better to see the city draped in her dismal off-season cloak at the outset and our expectations could only rise.
We really knew nothing about Bordeaux. Except that she is famous for her world-class wines. A rash rifle through an atlas one reckless evening changed all that. If we were to relocate to France, it had to be to someplace that ticked all the boxes – a suitably-sized city a stone’s throw from the coast with summers worth celebrating, some friends in the surroundings, culturally and aesthetically satisfying, sufficient connection to the outside world, oh and why not throw in some great food and several bottles of that illustrious wine, as well as proximity to the Pyrenees and Spain, for good measure. Toulouse was in the offing, but just about got pipped at the post for being too inland; and Biarritz for being a touch too small a town for us.
So Bordeaux was basking on her laurels before we’d even set foot in the city. We booked the flights, arranged to stay with a good friend living locally and set off on a recce for the successor in a long line of the perfect place to live. And we were easily swayed in spite of the wet weather that sombre January weekend, for just four days later back home in Oxford and our house was on the market with a May moving date in mind.
Now it’s nearly nine years on, and we haven’t regretted our choice to settle here one bit. Bordeaux is quite simply a beautiful city. Poised like a pearl on a broad bend of the River Garonne, a few kilometres downstream of its course into the Gironde Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean beyond, she is a city both compact and bijou with a cosmopolitan mix into the bag. A city that has stood the test of time.
A little history …
- First inhabited some 2,000 years or more ago by Celts for her strategic position, the settlement later fell to the Romans, who named her Burdigala and introduced the vine to the region with its favourable oceanic climate of long warm summers and mild winters.
- A rather fallow period followed in the life of the former Roman capital of the south west until the 12th century and the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry II of England, when the city once again flourished thanks to its wine trade.
- By the 18th century, Bordeaux was well and truly garnering from her golden age and most of the grandiose architectural delights in the centre and along the quays date from this period. In fact, when Baron Haussmann was commissioned by Napoléon III in the mid-19th century to update the still-antiquated architecture of Paris and position her as a capital city on a world scale, it was to the grand boulevards, open spaces and neoclassical limestone buildings of Bordeaux that he turned for inspiration.
- All the same, Bordeaux began once more to experience a bit of a lull in the history books and for many years was nicknamed La Belle Endormie – Sleeping Beauty – for the city’s old centre had steadily deteriorated over time; the elegant façades of those once noble buildings now black from pollution and years of neglect.
- Cue Bordeaux mayor and former French prime minister, Alain Juppé, who instated a regeneration project in the 1990s to spruce up the historic city and restore her to her former glory. Bordeaux has since gained a new lease of life: the harmonious old town and riverfront buildings have had a magnificent makeover rendering them to their glorious honey-coloured grandeur; the ribbon of riverbank reclaimed from a sorry state of ruin and transformed into a sweeping swathe of leisurely pursuits along the Garonne for promenading, pedalling or perusing the world go by; boulevards pedestrianised; and a high-tech sleek and smart tram system installed. Merci, Monsieur Juppé !
Thanks to this recent renaissance, Bordeaux was designated UNESCO status in 2007 – the largest urban heritage site in the world noted for her ‘outstanding urban and architectural ensemble of the 18th century’. Bordeaux is also classified as a ‘city of art and history’, home to 362 monuments historiques – only in Paris are there more – with remarkable Roman vestiges and medieval relics rubbing shoulders with the amalgam of elaborate 18th-century buildings.
What’s more, the city proudly paraded the title of European Best Destination in 2015, and has recently received more richly deserved accolades –Lonely Planet votes Bordeaux the world’s top city to visit in 2017, the Los Angeles Times likewise marks the city as a must-see for the year ahead, and CNN also selects Bordeaux in its 17 best places to visit in 2017. And if that isn’t credit enough, July 2017 sees the completion of the LGV high-speed train – Ligne de Grande Vitesse – which will put this prominent south west city just two hours from Paris. Bordeaux is now indisputably stirring from a century or so of slumber, newly revived and ready to take on the stalwarts of Europe. No wonder she is constantly chosen as one of the best places to live in France.
And so this well-heeled city, born essentially of a wine trade spanning centuries, finds herself in the spotlight once again. There may be an underlying pinch of bourgeois privilege that exudes – the smug Bordelais do have to live up to their world-class wine reputation after all – but beneath the self-satisfaction lies a dynamic and sophisticated city bursting to be put on the map. Until recently, she hadn’t really been part and parcel of Europe’s established city destinations, but the last few years has seen an increasing influx of visitors dropping by. In 2016 alone, La Cité du Vin, a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to wine and dubbed ‘the world’s first wine theme park’ opened to the public, and the brand new Matmut Atlantique stadium hosted several of the Euro 2016 football matches, both swelling tourism to the city tenfold.
La Cité du Vin © http://www.bordeaux-tourisme.com/
As for me, the city was a coup de coeur from the very first. I fell in love with her grace and style that bleak winter’s day all those years ago. Mr Gallivant too. We felt a sense of belonging about the place; so much so that we had to make Bordeaux our new base. It may have been on impulse, but when we arrived into town after the long drive from England on a warm and welcoming early June evening six months on from our first foray to the city, about to embark on self-employed careers and with baby plans in mind, it truly felt like coming home. I am sure one day our path will take us elsewhere – we have never been ones to stay put for too long, even if Bordeaux has been a longer stretch than most – but this is a place that will always remain an inherent part of us. We have an intrinsic connection to the city and her surroundings, and our beautiful children were born here making it all the more deep-rooted in our souls.