There was a time when Bordeaux – the biggest urban centre in southwest France – was a place people outside the wine business might choose to avoid: many classical buildings in the largely 18th-century core of the city were grimy and the streets were often clogged with traffic. Ugly warehouses effectively cut off the city from the Garonne river, in theory one of its best features.
However, an ambitious regeneration programme launched in the mid-1990s by the mayor, Alain Juppé (who went on to serve as France’s prime minister), slowly turned things around. The dirt was removed from many of the city’s handsome limestone façades, a new tram system encouraged the Bordelais to leave their cars behind, and a popular waterfront promenade – packed with strollers, joggers and skateboarders in good weather – replaced many of the warehouses and reconnected the city with its river.
According to the Notaires de France, the association that supports French notaries, average house prices (excluding newbuilds) in Bordeaux rose 1.9 per cent in 2013, compared with a 1.7 per cent fall in resale properties in France as a whole over the same period. Meanwhile, in Lyon and Marseille house prices were stagnant.
Nowhere is Bordeaux’s transformation more evident than in the Chartrons neighbourhood north of the city centre, the traditional location of the city’s antiques and bric-a-brac shops. In the past few years these have been joined by an increasing number of one-off fashion shops and trendy dining spots, inviting comparisons with the Marais district in Paris.
The city has also set up one of its business initiatives in the neighbourhood, drawing in ever more young professionals; the so-called Chartrons eco-creative business incubator was set up in 2010 to support start-ups in the sustainable development and creative economy sectors.
“There is a real buzz to Bordeaux and the city has a youthful feel,” says Julia Mottram, a British former fashion editor who moved to Bordeaux eight years ago and owns the Lily Blake boutique on Rue Notre Dame, the main artery of Chartrons. “But at the same time it has a serene quality and is a grand sort of place.”
Chartrons can be quite quirky, too: a simple bookshelf nailed to a front door on Rue Notre Dame is a highly informal book exchange scheme run by a nearby café, available at all hours and with no lock in sight.
A three-bedroom, duplex apartment in Chartrons, 50 metres from the riverfront and with 230 sq metres of living space, featuring a wine cellar and indoor pool, is available for €860,000 through the Idea Pierre agency.
According to Pierre-Olivier Villacreces, of Idea Pierre, about half of buyers of high-end homes in Chartrons come from the Paris region. They have been encouraged in part by a new 340km stretch of high-speed rail track between Tours and Bordeaux, due to open in the summer of 2017, which will cut journey times to the capital from about three hours to just over two hours. “Incomers also like the fact that Bordeaux is so handy for the seaside, which is under an hour away,” says Villacreces. He says many of the best homes in Chartrons and other property hotspots in Bordeaux now exchange hands for at least €5,000 per sq metre (the average price citywide is just under €3,000 for both apartments and houses).
Villacreces adds that the award of Unesco World Heritage Site status to the historical core of the city in 2007 also boosted property prices.
There is also evidence that a new, hip Bordeaux is emerging along with the infrastructure improvements. A new Philippe Starck-designed Mama Shelter hotel and bar opened in October last year in a former office building close to the city’s cathedral. Yet south of the centre, and particularly the area around the train station, some of the streets where the façades have not been cleaned up appear dark and rather unwelcoming – a reminder, for some, of the Bordeaux of old.
Two miles to the north, in the coveted Jardin Public section of the city – named for its attractive park – a five-bedroom, 370 sq metre townhouse is on sale with the Monique Lecomte agency for €2.85m. Features include an office, a home cinema, a games room and an outdoor pool.
By way of comparison, a renovated 19th-century château with six hectares of land located 20km from the centre of Bordeaux has an asking price of €3.2m through Logimmo. The principal building has 780 sq metres of living space; the property also includes a caretaker’s lodge, a guest cottage and stables.
In 2009 greater Bordeaux set itself the challenge of expanding its population to 1m by the year 2030 (the city and its suburbs at present have 719,000 residents). New housing projects are being built all around the city, especially in the old docks area downstream from the centre.
In the Bassin-à-flots scheme, for instance, 160 hectares of the city’s old docklands are being transformed into a new city district. About 65 per cent of the new buildings will be given over to housing, and it is expected that by 2030, 10,000 residents will be living in units ranging from studio flats to five-bedroom apartments. Bordeaux is a city with room to grow: the semi-industrial right bank of the Garonne across from the Bassin-à-flots is still relatively undeveloped.
The docklands scheme will also be home to the city’s new Centre of Wine Civilisations, which will serve as an educational and cultural centre, and as a platform for the local wine trade. The centre expects to welcome 500,000 visitors a year when it opens in 2016.
● Buyers should budget about 8 per cent of the purchase price to cover land registry taxes, notary’s fees and other expenses
● Estate agents typically charge a commission of 5 to 6 per cent of the sale price
● Bordeaux international airport has scheduled services to several UK airports, but some are only seasonal
● The French economy is expected to grow by 1 per cent in 2014
● Bordeaux has more than 9,000 wine producers and is France’s largest wine region
What you can buy for . . .
€250,000 A two-bedroom unit with 100 sq metres of living space in a modern apartment block in the residential Caudéran district
€1m A two-bedroom apartment in the central ‘Golden Triangle’ district with 180 sq metres of living space
€5m A seven-bedroom period mansion close to the city centre with a 750 sq metre garden and pool
Photograph: Allan Baxter/Getty