Sleep No More







Bordeaux has gone from being France’s “Sleeping Beauty” to Lonely Planet’s No. 1 place to visit this year. What’s its secret?


It’s easy to see that Bordeaux is having a moment. Foodies flock to weekend markets in the redeveloped riverside district; kids hit up the skate park on Quai des Chartrons; hipsters eat organic at Darwin, a former army barracks turned co-working space. Practically every touchstone of urban cool can be found here right now, from locally distilled whiskys aged in old wine barrels, to young chefs pioneering a new food scene; plus thriving eco-communities and creative start-ups.

And yet, a decade or so ago, there was none of this. For much of the 20th century, the city was known as La Belle Endormie – “Sleeping Beauty” – thanks to its neglected appearance, as the city’s golden sandstone buildings were hidden under a centuries-old blanket of soot and grime. Its charms lay largely dormant as tourists favoured the delights of Paris and Lyon, or skirted the city on their way to the wineries of nearby Saint-Émilion and the Médoc.

But it seems that Sleeping Beauty has woken up to a bright future – certainly as far as tourism goes. This year the city was awarded top spot in Lonely Planet’s Best in 2017, their annual list of places to visit in any given year.

“It’s an amazingly attractive city because of its architecture, its gastronomic scene, and its cosmopolitan vibe now,” says Lonely Planet writer Jean-Bernard Carillet. “There are many elements that make Bordeaux so special.”

Judging by the impact on past cities so fêted, the Lonely Planet accolade is likely to attract more tourists to the city than last year’s six million (up from around 2.7 million in 2007). And this number is surely set to go up even more later this year when the LGV Sud-Ouest line – a new high-speed rail link from Paris – launches, cutting the journey time between the two cities by one third.

As tourist numbers have soared over the past 10 years, so too has the number of hotels – from 169 in 2007 to 887 in 2017. That’s an astonishing 424 per cent increase in number. There is, however, only a 27 per cent increase in the number of rooms – meaning that over the past decade there’s been a boom in smaller, boutique hotels and apartments, rather than high-rise atrocities blighting the landscape.

Bordeaux’s dramatic yet understated renaissance has its roots in the mid-1990s when the city’s old town was restored, bringing the 18th-century buildings back to their former glory. In 2007, over half the city was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, in recognition of the fact that Bordeaux has 347 heritage-listed buildings, more than any other French city besides Paris.

More recently there’s also been what Lonely Planet calls the “impressive redevelopment of the Garonne riverfront”, which incorporates dozens of boutiques, restaurants and gardens across the leftbank quays.

Central to this has been the much-hyped La Cité du Vin, a wine museum with a striking curvaceous form. According to the architects, this references the swirling of wine in a glass, although to the untrained eye it looks, charmingly, like a rubber duckie floating on the river. The new wine museum has encouraged wine buffs who once might have eschewed the city in favour of the vineyards, to pay a visit, while opening up the region’s most famous feature to a wider audience.

“We want to give people access to the world of wine,” says Olivier Kollek, the museum’s director of marketing and sales. “It’s a drink, but we want people to discover that it is also about history, people and culture.” The museum even has a children’s programme so tiny oenophiles can learn about grape growing and have a taste – of juice, of course.

Alongside wine, there’s been a diversification of alcoholic output in the city – think craft beer with food pairings at Jaqen, or local whisky aged in old wine barrels from Moon Harbour. Initiatives like these have opened up the city’s artisan drinking scene, which has long been dominated by the grape, to those who prefer an alternative tipple.

“Bordeaux is very big on creativity, and is one of the biggest cities for small businesses in France,” says Cédric Maté, who co-founded craft beer shop and bar Jaqen in 2014. “Young people are doing inspiring things and are keen to stay in the city. It’s an exciting time to be here.”

This youthful entrepreneurship can also be seen in the “gastronomic revolution”, which – as Lonely Planet says – “keeps building on its own success”. A new wave of “bistronomy”, or neo-bistro restaurants, champions local produce and innovation in the kitchen. The movement got its start back in the 1990s, when chefs decided to take gastronomic food to a more casual, bistro setting (minus the tablecloths). Today, you can find prime examples at restaurants like Milo’s, where four international chefs prepare a tasting menu with global influences, or in the pared-down dishes at restaurant Soléna, which celebrate local ingredients.

Importantly, these initiatives aren’t done solely for the benefit of tourism, and the local population is also enjoying the city’s renewed lease of life. Recently, daily newspaper Direct Matin reported that 54 per cent of the French public would choose to head to the region if they were to move anywhere else in the country. “Everyone is happy to be here, whether they’re visitors or locals,” says Maté. “And we are proud to be from Bordeaux.”

The hotel / Ynd? Hôtel

Found on a small downtown street in a 19th-century mansion, five-star Ynd? Hôtel is the ambitious creation of design aficionado Agnès Guiot du Doignon. Its 12 rooms feature the kind of designer furniture usually not seen outside the pages of glossy interior mags – especially the four so-called “crazy rooms”. The Pink Room, for example, features an enormous, flamingo-pink bubble lamp artwork on one wall, royal purple embossed wallpaper, marble pendant lamps, and a chandelier in the shower. Another room features a bed by superstar Brazilian designers the Campana brothers, with a curtain of rafia creating a hairy veil around it. Guiot du Doignon, who previously ran a restaurant in Biarritz, had initially wanted to open a hotel in Paris. “She decided to come to Bordeaux instead,” says Margaux Perrin, who manages the hotel. “Not only is it closer to Biarritz [than Paris], but the development in the city is crazy – there was no five-star hotel like this in the city before.”

The restaurant / Soléna

Chef Victor Ostronzec might not be from Bordeaux but he is at the heart of the city’s “bistronomy” scene – a movement that emerged in the 1990s, which serves gastronomic dishes in an informal bistro setting (ie minus the tablecloths). After moving to Bordeaux from Paris to open restaurant Le Gabriel with chef Nicolas Frion in 2000 – the beginning, he says, of the gastronomic growth of the city – he opened his own acclaimed restaurant Soléna last year. “We have very good produce in Bordeaux, and I put that produce at the centre of my cooking,” he says. Each dish uses just three ingredients, often in surprising ways – take a blueberry and foie-gras macaron, or tuna tartare with a side of wasabi and mango. “I will stay here in Bordeaux – I love living here,” he says. “It’s like a small city in a big town.”

The wine bar / Max Bordeaux

“If you’re going to buy a Ferrari, you want to take it for a test drive first,” says Henning Thoresen, the Norwegian wine merchant and owner of Max Bordeaux Wine Gallery & Cellar. He’s talking about how he came up with the concept for this popular wine bar, which has some of the finest wines in the region, including those from first and second growth estates like Château Margaux. Thanks to some clever tech – Enomatic wine dispensers that control the temperature and exposure to air of an open bottle – and an inclusive attitude, anyone can try them. A 25ml tasting glass will set you back anything from just €1 to a costly €30 (NOK285). “When we opened in 2009 it was a crazy idea to have a place that proposed tasting the best wines by the glass,” says Max Bordeaux oenologist and manager Ralitsa Todorieva. “Henning Thoresen had a vision for the future.”

The museum / La Cité du Vin

“Our objective is to create a link between the city and the vineyards,” says Olivier Kollek, La Cité du Vin’s director of marketing and sales. “Many visitors to Bordeaux know it as a region of wine, but they used to wonder how they could experience that in the city.” Now, with the assistance of the compagnon de voyage – an interactive audio guide – visitors can create their own experience in the 3,000m2 permanent exhibition space. There’s plenty to learn, with 20 different sections, encompassing everything from the history of viniculture to lessons on how to describe wine. “We have many professionals and connoisseurs visit us, and they all discover something new,” says Kollek. “But, it’s also very important for us to be accessible to the general public.” Within 10 months of opening, the museum had received over 350,000 visitors, and a survey showed that 25 per cent of the visitors declared they travelled to Bordeaux specifically to visit the museum. “People say it’s emblematic of Bordeaux,” says Kollek. “That’s very motivating for us.”

The craft beer / Jaqen

It’s not all about wine in Bordeaux these days. Take Jaqen, a bar and retail concept with a focus on craft beer. The timber-clad space stocks ales from around the world, which you can enjoy matched with charcuterie and cheese. “It’s easy for us to appreciate craft beer in Bordeaux,” says Cédric Maté, who founded Jaqen with business partner Benjamin Cini. “People are already used to good wine and food, and they are open-minded about gastronomy.” It’s no surprise that the concept is proving popular, and the pair are already considering expanding, with an emphasis on local brews. “Visitors like to discover French craft beers, and local people also like the concept,” says Maté. “We have about 15 beers from this region and 40 per cent from France.” Next year, they want to expand their Bordeaux offering by growing their own hops. If it’s local, it’s better,” says Maté. “But we always go for quality first.”

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