I've always been a bit of a Francophile with my eyes set on Paris. It never crossed my mind that I might one day leave a little bit of myself in Bordeaux. But that's what I've been telling friends, family, co-workers, strangers on the subway, and puppies in the park for the past week since my return from this southern French city.
In a way, the attraction makes sense. Bordeaux boasts a similar architectural style as the City of Lights, with its limestone columns and wrought iron balconies galore. One of its most well-known landmarks, Place de la Bourse, was even designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, a celebrated architect who worked extensively in and around Paris. But what really ensnared me in the end? The fact that all of this historic grandness actually lends itself to a very accessible, very attractive way of life.
Take the quays along the Garonne River, as a prime example. Thanks to a citywide revitalization effort launched in the 1990s, the waterfront is lined with swaths of landscaped lawns, artsy cutout street lamps, and fiery beds of red and orange blossoms. Super-smooth paths are perfect for strolling, biking, and rollerblading. A massive reflecting pool creates a glassy mirror in the middle of it all. And the longest stretch of 18th century architecture in all of France? It sits nonchalantly in the background.
Just another place the Bordelais – the moniker for the citizens of Bordeaux – hang out. No big deal.
Bordeaux is decidedly more affordable than what I'd imagined a French city would be. It's free to roam the cobblestone streets, of course, or stroll onto a picture-perfect plaza. A baguette fresh from the oven is 0.90€ ($1.24). A quarter-pound of Pyrénées cheese costs a little less than €4 ($5.50). Yes, I'm officially breaking up with $3 croissants in NYC.
Some hours into my first day of wandering, I fortuitously bump into one of the wine lecturers for Viking River Cruises – whose new Bordeaux itinerary had brought me to the city in the first place. He lets me tag along on his way back to our ship, a newly christened Longship. Away from the shiny shops on Rue Sainte-Catherine, the city's main retail street, he points out his favorite dinner spot in the city: a seafood tapas restaurant called Le Petit Commerce where he grabbed many a dinner with friends in his youth. They'd follow the meal with a bottle from a nearby wine shop, setting up camp at its outdoor tables to finish out the night.
It's an intoxicating combination: the historic married with the everyday, robust nightlife contrasting with laid-back lounging. That's why, right now, I continue to feel drunk on Bordeaux days past my trip. Bordeaux is certainly a city in its own right, but there's a sense of ease there that I also crave. While that French sophistication and heritage is a proud part of its identity, Bordeaux somehow remains unassumingly casual and warmly accessible. It's not difficult to picture myself heading for the quay, pastry (and probably wine) in hand, to unwind after a day of work.
I also discover on the cruise that, as a getaway, Bordeaux unsurprisingly is a wonderful base for exploring the rolling vineyards and stately châteaux that characterize French wine country. From port, we make an easy jaunt out to Pauillac in the Médoc region, home to iconic winemakers like Mouton Rothschild, Latour, and Lafite-Rothschild. Or there's Blaye, practically just across the Gironde River, where brandy lovers can partake in cognac-mixing in the place where the spirit was born. Along the way, the 16th century archways of Saint-Émilion, truffle adventures in Bergerac, and sweet dessert wines from Sauternes all add to the magic.
But the best part of this Viking experience, of course, is that you get another night in Bordeaux after all the boozy, cheesy, nature-y excursions. You'll have to stay tuned for a guide to an affordable day there – but in the meantime, these snapshots of the transformative trip (and of the river cruise ship) should tide you over.