Sat 6 Sep 2014
Life in late summertime Bordeaux is très très bon! Quietly observe the locals in this jewel of a city and you’ll see they live by the popular French credo, Mangez bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup (“Eat well, laugh often, love abundantly!”).
Never ones to shy away from local tradition, Mountaineering Man and I embraced the way of the Bordelais and spent four days enjoying everything the city had to offer.
For starters, we opted for an Airbnb apartment over a hotel, something we’re doing more of these days. The lovely Julia’s central, third-story flat was perfect. Housed in a 200-year-old building but fully refurbished, it featured dark-wood floors, exposed brick walls and large windows that let in a lovely cross-breeze and lots of sunlight. I was grateful for the climb up the sturdy stone stairs to her apartment; by the time I got to the top, I’d rationalised away whatever treat I’d eaten earlier.
We tried to achieve that sort of balance on a daily basis, which is easy in this extremely walk-able city. The promenade along the River Garonne, with its sweeping views and breathtaking landmarks such as the Place de la Bourse, is the ideal running route and one we took full advantage of. Breakfast was always the same but never dull: a fresh-baked croissant from our local boulangerie, a glass pot of thick natural yogurt with fruit compote and a cup of café crème, enjoyed al fresco on rattan bistro chairs facing the street – bien sûr.
The weather in late August was slightly humid but quite mild, about 23 C (74 degrees Fahrenheit). Suspicious we may be returning to a cool, gray Dublin, we decided to explore the outdoor attractions versus museums and galleries. It was a good move. Within a day we’d familiarised ourselves with our new neighbourhood and found some real local gems like the Diabolo Menthe record shop and Plume Small Kitchen cafe, an airy, rustic restaurant with a focus on fusion and fresh, local ingredients. And though we didn’t venture inside, we walked the perimeter of the Basilique St-Michel, a formidable Gothic church with a bell tower we could see from our apartment window.
Armed with a list of the area’s best restaurants (according to numerous online city guides we referenced, like The Guardian and The Telegraph), we ate incredibly well and didn’t have a single, disappointing meal. One of our most memorable lunches was at La Tupina, a local institution renown for its open hearth fireplace and the various meats and produce cooked over its roaring flames. We shared two such meats: a breast of duck – just pink – and a rare sirloin steak along with a side of their famous potatoes, fried in duck fat and seasoned with local gray salt. Of course we had to wash it down with a bottle of Bordeaux, anything less would have been gauche!
We worked off our meal with a bicycle ride along the waterfront followed by two hours of shopping (me) and a trek in search of more record shops (him). The city bike scheme in Bordeaux is excellent with over 140 stations and an app that tells you which stations have bikes available. Shopping on the rue Sainte-Catherine, a 1.2 km-long pedestrian street in the heart of the city, is a workout in itself. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and loved the shop ladies, who were honest with their opinions (“That dress, not good on you as shoulders wide and this makes it look bigger!”) but genuinely interested in helping me find clothes that suited my shape and style.
Seafood is a local staple in Bordeaux, and for the shellfish tower of our dreams we went to Le Petit Commerce. Piled as high as the bell tower of the basilique were langoustines, crab, prawns, oysters, clams, sea snails and periwinkles, served with all the proper accoutrement including homemade mayonnaise (if you haven’t had langoustines dipped in fresh-made mayo, you haven’t lived!), lemon wedges and wet wipes. Another night we opted for something a bit lighter and embarked on a moving small-plates feast, hopping from wine bar to wine bar – a bit of charcuterie here, and a tomato salad there. One of our favourite stops that evening was Le Bo Bar, a tiny wine cafe with fantastic rosé and outdoor seating in the Saint-Pierre square.
Despite our pre-trip research we did leave some meals to chance. After spotting a photo of the chef on Oddur Thorisson’s Instagram feed, we decided to try Glouton le Bistrot for lunch. Though the wait for food felt like an eternity, the tomatos farcies facon mamie (“tomato grandmother’s recipe”) was perfect: a slow-roasted tomato stuffed with sausage and baked au jus. And for our final dinner in Bordeaux we chose Brasserie L’Orleans, simply because the menu listed the one dish MM really wanted to experience in France: the tartare de boeuf (beef tartar). The beef was fresh, the frites crispy and the wine, rich and hearty.
On our last morning we meandered down to the Sunday market along the Garonne. Instead of our usual croissants we shared a bowl of warm escargots a La Bordelaise, which are snails cooked in tomato sauce similar to a bolognese, and each got a crisp crepe with egg and shredded Gruyere. I bought a bag of gray salt and we gawked at booth after booth of fresh seafood, vegetables, cheeses and pastries. There were couples strolling along, sampling all the freebies and whole families (including the dog, who sits in the bicycle basket) shopping for their weekly groceries. The children at the market were something else; I saw one slurping down raw oysters and another gnawing at the end of a monster baguette. Ah, to grow up in this beautiful city – c‘est magnifique!