Historically, the capital of the Gironde département has always had good bones, as scattered ruins from the Roman days (when it was called Burdigala) attest. Just west of the old Chartrons neighborhood, the arches of the misleadingly named Palais Gallien (it’s not a palace at all, but a Roman amphitheater from the second century A.D.) perfectly frame an ancient winding street, all cobblestones and copper streetlamps. Despite the ruins, the city’s real character was established in the Age of Enlightenment, when money poured in due to the slave trade. (Bordeaux has persisted as a destination for many North African and sub-Saharan immigrants.) In the 18th century, the city reached a new height of prosperity as civic construction and housing for the rich exploded. Its avant-garde, wide-open spaces inspired Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s overhaul of Paris, during the era of Napoléon III a century later. (Haussmann was the prefect of Bordeaux for many years before relocating north.) Thus the architecture and overall feel of the two cities echo each other closely, with grand esplanades, numerous town squares, intricately carved stonework, not much greenery, and a skyline devoid of skyscrapers but dramatically broken by Gothic spires. Unlike Paris, however, the porous, pale-yellow sandstone used for most of Bordeaux’s buildings was badly neglected, and over the centuries it drank up all the soot and pollution from the port, the river, and, later, the increasingly clogged roads. By the 20th century, France’s sixth-largest city had become depressing, dark, and dingy.
Improvements began in 1995, when former prime minister Alain Juppé became Bordeaux’s mayor and passed tough laws requiring residents and businesses to help assume the cost of cleanup. Now the central city is almost blindingly clean. There are still many areas, notably in the North African districts to the south, where the sandblaster has yet to arrive, but the most regal buildings, like the Bourse and the Musée National des Douanes, profit mightily from the light reflecting off the wide Garonne River. Anyone who finds the view of Paris’s Right Bank impressive will be speechless when he or she walks the cleaned-up quays of Bordeaux’s Left, which is even more grand—not bad for a town that’s just under half the size of its cousin to the north.
Though much of the talk in Bordeaux concerns what’s new and fresh, die-hard traditions can make for some of the most extraordinary experiences, and those who come to Bordeaux would be tragically underserved if they totally avoided the old-school ways. For instance, the deceptively casual Le Lion d’Or in Arcins, just down the road from St.-Julien, is a scruffy restaurant that’s easy to miss, but something of a clubhouse for the Médoc elite. It provides on-site lockers for château owners to store their own bottles, so diners can simply crack open their family’s case and swap with friendly rivals two tables over. Looking around the main room, it’s hard not to notice that everyone’s labels are facing out to enable a clearer game of my-wine’s-better-than-yours. Given the private stashes, Le Lion d’Or doesn’t offer much by the glass, so I arrived with a bottle of 2000 Château La Lagune from an esteemed Haut-Médoc estate that has just restored its guesthouse to Napoleonic splendor. Within a few minutes of walking in the door, I received a volley of good-natured catcalls from a table of wine-society types in town from Strasbourg for the En Primeur tastings, an event where châteaux tap their casks for a preview of what they’ll release later that year.