Daniel Evans enjoys style and sophistication in south west France.
In very much the same way as Emmanuel Macron and his glamorous wife Brigitte are re-energising its political life, so Bordeaux, that Grande old dame of Aquitaine, is breathing new life into the south west corner of France. The city has been pulling on its glad rags in recent years – last year, the Cité du Vin dedicated to the global glory of wine, opened its doors – and this summer tickets have gone on sale for faster trains from Paris to Bordeaux. Now, if you prefer letting the train take the strain, the journey from London to Bordeaux, with a change in Paris, will take you 10 minutes shy of six hours.
Nowhere is Bordeaux’s renewal more evident than on the banks of the magnificent Garonne River which flows through the city. At the turn of this century, it was a sad, down-at-heel area with little to commend it. Now, it is the heartbeat of the city with lively bars, high class shops and elegant restaurants and I am told a lot of the credit for the transformation should go to the mayor, Alain Juppe, who was prime minister of France from 1995 to 1997.
The view of the city is certainly spectacular from the room in my swish hotel – Le Saint-James – in the heart of the village of Bouliac in the hills above Bordeaux. It’s a modern hotel designed by Jean Nouvel and inspired by the tobacco drying barns in the region. There are 15 bedrooms and three suites, a heated outdoor swimming pool and cookery school (of which, more later). The star of my room is a Harley-Davidson motorbike which, surprisingly, fits in rather well. The gourmet restaurant is run by the reassuringly solid Nicolas Magie, a Michelin-starred chef, whose imaginative menus ensure a meal to remember. And a minute’s walk from the hotel, Le Café de l’Espérance is a must for guests in search of a proper French atmosphere.
I notice that there is a wide variety of contemporary art on show, both in the hotel and in the bedrooms and Anthony Torkington, the ever-helpful Maître de Maison with a brave taste in green chinos, explains that different artists are presented at Le Saint-James every three months. In fact, if one piece of artwork takes your eye, you could well end up taking it home as all are for sale. My advice? Buy before you drink as you might blow the budget!
With the increasing popularity of learning to cook – I can’t seem to turn my TV on without seeing the gurning Gregg Wallace chomping on some sort of chocolate pudding – courses at the hotel’s cookery school, The Côté Cours, are in high demand. With the help of the brilliant sous chef Celia Girard, I (with some help from my fellow guests) managed to put together a more-than-acceptable lunch of Greek artichoke salad and pita bread and risotto Mediterranean with parmesan emulsion. Plus a glass or two of wine, of course…
Away from the hotel, Bordeaux has a wealth of museums and galleries but if you are pressed for time then the Cité du Vin museum is not to be missed. The spectacularly designed building, opened last year, offers a mind-boggling array of interactive displays and, as you would expect, wine tastings on the top floor. Francophile Anthony Peregrine is certainly a fan. “The Cité du Vin may look like the shiny foot of a cartoon character but it is a world-beater; certainly the best wine centre I’ve encountered. Granted, competition is not intense. Most wine museums are dreadful.”
And on your way back to Le Saint-James make sure you go via St Emilion. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site with a history going back to Roman times. Cars are banned from the centre so be prepared to navigate the cobbled lanes on foot. It’s small but beautifully put together.
With our all-too-brief visit coming to an end, I hear the story of Queen Elizabeth’s last visit to Bordeaux when she said – or so I am reliably informed – that it was “the very essence of elegance”. I couldn’t put it better myself, Your Majesty.