Trying to persuade a traveller that Bordeaux is a hip destination is a bit like trying to promote the city of Edam for its excellent windsurfing; the name is both an engine for tourism, and a handbrake. The subtext of Bordeaux is: if you are not an oenophile, then don’t bother.
Of course, the much-loved biennial wine festival, which takes place next week, remains a big midsummer draw. With music, fireworks and winemakers’ stalls stretching for 2km, it has now settled into its new home along a renovated quayside, which is also welcoming cruise ships for the first time this year.
But, overall, there’s something predictable about this French city harking on about wine. Is there nothing else to say? The previous time I was here, 20 years ago, Bordeaux felt monocultural, and snobbish with it, but this time, I’m happy to report all that has changed.
The motor for that change is largely the bullishness of one man, Bordeaux’s mayor Alain Juppé, former prime minister and a close ally of France’s previous president Nicolas Sarkozy. It was Juppé who pushed through the pedestrianisation of the centre, and the cleaning of all those 18th-century façades. He also pushed through the introduction of new trams, which – after five years of roadworks and huge cost – now murmur down boulevards without the assistance of overhead wires.
The net result is a peaceful cityscape of freshly scrubbed, gold-coloured limestone, threaded through by gliding metal caterpillars that are brilliant for getting to see the new stuff, as well as the old.
It was tramline C that took me to the Miroir d’eau, the “water mirror”, which sits between the river and Bordeaux’s best façades on Place de la Bourse. Since opening in 2006, the Miroir has quickly become an icon of Bordeaux, just as the London Eye has for the British capital. Covering 3,450 sq metres, this rectangle of water is only 2cm deep, making a perfect reflector for its surroundings. Every 20 minutes, the veneer of water is drained and refilled by high-pressure nozzles, creating a hovering duvet of fog. People puzzle over it, walk through it, try to capture it on film, and then vow to return in the evening, when the illuminated façades of the Bourse are etched across its surface.
Tramline B runs along the back of the Mama Shelter, where I was staying, one of several funky new hotels. Juppé was instrumental in getting Mama Shelter, the hotel chain co-created by designer Philippe Starck, to open here late last year, and everyone is still talking about it. Funky, innovative, humorous and very good value, its downstairs, with live music and pink ping-pong tables, has become a hipster hang-out, while upstairs rooms have high-quality linen and everything digital for free.
From Mama Shelter, Tramline B runs along the new river quays, where the wine festival will take place. The old dark and decaying warehouses that once handled all those wine barrels have either been torn down or turned into outlet stores, and there’s a big new marina on the way.
Of course, the wine itself is still around. Even if you’re not here at festival time, there are plenty of ways of experiencing it in the city, and you don’t have to be a connoisseur. At the Max Bordeaux tasting bar on the Cours de l’Intendance I found I could try £1,000 bottles of Grand Cru, famous châteaux such as Lafite and Latour, by the shot – a snip at €35.
For roughly the same price, however, I spent a whole morning at the Bordeaux Wine Council, directly opposite the tourist office, at its English-language wine-tasting workshop, specially targeted at the likes of me. There I learnt how to identify the gooseberry, the honeysuckle and the freshly cut grass but, just as I’d learnt to like them, I was appalled to see all the three-quarter-full bottles we’d tasted being poured down the drain. Tasting purposes only, it seemed.
I did leave the city with a wine souvenir, however: my own vineyard – in a box. In The Wine Game, players have to tackle 12 months of viticultural tasks to beat the other winemakers and achieve Grand Cru. Something for a rainy day.
The Bordeaux Wine Festival (bordeaux-wine-festival.com) runs from June 26-29. Andrew Eames was a guest of Bordeaux’s tourist board (bordeaux-tourism.co.uk) and Mama Shelter (mamashelter.com; doubles from €69). A two-hour tasting at the Bordeaux Wine Council (bordeaux.com) costs €39