Bored In Bordeaux

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It will probably come as no surprise to you when I say that Bordeaux is all about the wine.  Oh, there’s good food, too.  But mainly, it’s all about the wine.  And the tourists.  I was expecting something different: a gracious old waterfront city where one could drink well while enjoying the town and the waterfront.  Mais non, that wasn’t exactly our experience.

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The waterfront, such as it is, is way below the level of the city, pretty much invisible.  Or it would have been had not this great honking cruise ship been ensconced there, probably the source of the seemingly endless number of Americans in the streets.  It was very hot when we were there, and one of the best things was this huge ankle-deep wading pond, usually filled with teenagers and assorted other refreshment seekers.

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Those kids not wading were lounging on the steps of the Opera House.  There’s almost nowhere to sit in public in Bordeaux, unless you’re in a park, or paying to sit in a cafe.  And when I say paying, I mean to the tune of $12 dollars for a coffee and a glass of wine.  And that in a place where the waiter had to sneak us a glass of water because one was technically required to buy bottled water, the only place in France that I’ve even encountered that.

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There were certainly beautiful old buildings to be seen

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some of which had a special look that we haven’t seen elsewhere in France.

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But a lot of central Bordeaux looked dingy, and as if it co-existed uneasily with the modern world.  And we couldn’t find anything to do.  There were wine tours galore, but they took 5 hours and the timing didn’t work out for our short visit.  There was a city tour bus and a joint-cracking shock absorber-less little tourist train.  And really, that was it.  If you want to be in Bordeaux, you really have to plan to do a lot of wine touring, or else….ta da…a lot of shopping and eating.

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I managed to find a pair of black boots that fit like a dream, thus ending my fruitless months-long search.  By visiting two phone stores we found out how to end our frustration with our wireless service.  Those things are very good, but they’re not at all why we thought we were going to Bordeaux.

However, I knew that we would be having three meals in restaurants, and I planned them rather brilliantly, if I do say so.

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Every food lover who goes to Bordeaux visits La Tupina. It’s a shrine to traditional southwestern cooking, one that I’ve wanted to visit ever since I first read about it in Paula Wolfert’s Cooking of Southwest France.

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When you walk in the front door you can see your lunch roasting on the spit.

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We sat by a lovely window and savored that iconic roast chicken

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with its disk of delicious stuffing and a juice-soaked crouton, and I thought about how that plate alone cost 24 Euros, which is $35.  Although I didn’t have the fries cooked in duck fat that also come with it, and I don’t want to sell them short.  But I thought a lot about how I could feed four people a roast chicken dinner for that price, and that it might not be quite as good, but it would be close.  And then I thought that Paula had been here and eaten that and so, maybe, that made it worth it.  And it was very good.  In the end, I bought their cookbook, which is stuffed with great recipes, and now I can say I’ve been to La Tupina, and that maybe everyone should go there, once, and after that they can come to my house where I’ll be making a lot of those dishes over the coming months.

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At the other end of the spectrum was La Brasserie Bordelaise.

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It’s the kind of place where for 12.50 Euros you get a huge piece of cold roast chicken with homemade mayonnaise, a heap of fries, a giant salad

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and cheese or dessert just like Mom used to serve you.

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Unless, of course, your Mom actually brought you to the brasserie, set you up at the bar with something good to eat, and joined in the happy, noisy crowd of lunchers who know they are in the right spot.  Incidentally, this was one place where we didn’t hear a word of English, always a good sign.

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I’d love to go back there sometime with a big group and eat downstairs in this tantalizingly beautiful room.

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And speaking of beautiful rooms, it’s hard to imagine dining anywhere more beautiful than La Belle Époque. The food is delicious and creative, but go there for the room, lined in every direction with gorgeous tile work

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that was hidden from the Germans in WWII under false fronts, and rediscovered later after it had been long forgotten.  They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

I do have to say that everywhere I ordered wine by the glass, letting the server choose for me because I don’t know the wines of Bordeaux, something very good appeared in my glass.  I learned that the white wines of Bordeaux are very nice, and I’m not much of a white wine person normally.

But honestly, it’s the first time ever in all of our travels that we’ve arrived in a major city and not been able to find anything we wanted to do.  It was a weird experience, and not one I’m in a hurry to repeat.  So I’d say go for the wine, go for the food, take lots of money with you in either case.  But if you’re looking for any other sort of fun and adventure, you too may find Bordeaux boring.

Okay, you can call me a Philistine now.

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12 Comments on “Bored In Bordeaux”

  1. KarenK Says:

    Okay, you’re a philistine, but a well-booted one. Food, wine, cheese, beautiful buildings, but I kept looking for a picture of the most important thing: the boots!

  2. Eden Says:

    our first trip to your part of france many years ago almost was a trip to Bordeaux instead. Thanks for reaffirming that we made the right choice. We loved Gard, and from your descriptions I suspect we would not have been as keen on Bordeaux (although I AM totally in love with that Belle Epoque dining room!)

  3. Michel Says:

    See? You should have called my family in the Cahors… 😉

  4. Shaya Says:

    I have to say I agree with you. We were there a few years ago and we had a fantastic time…but only because we were there during a summer wine festival where for 30ff we could drink all the great wine we could get down. We also met a really entertaining rastafarian man who made the mood nice and light as we went from booth to booth.

  5. zuleme Says:

    We went to a gorgeous tiled restaurant in Nantes, La Cigale. It was supposed to be the only one like it left in France but that Bordeaux restaurant looks close.
    I’d love to come to your house for roast chicken. Will bring wine and cheese and flowers. Not this year, sigh. Raining in the White Mountains amidst our glorious foliage.

  6. Debra Says:

    Never underestimate the value of amazing boots on your feet! oh and the wine…

  7. Abra Bennett Says:

    The boots are not that amazing, the amazing thing is that they had my size. Last time I wanted boots I had to go all the way to Amsterdam where women are tall and have big feet.

  8. Dedene Says:

    We went to Bordeaux years ago before the waterfront was finished. I found it to be a sad city as well with not much to do.
    I’m glad someone agrees with me.

  9. Shira Says:

    Shame you didn’t enjoy Bordeaux. But I agree–Brasserie Bordelaise is great, the kind of restaurant I keep looking for and not finding in Paris.

  10. Mick Says:

    Hi Abra. Love your photos – never managed to get a decent shot of the bread pile a Tupina.

    Our special place for recharging the batteries for the past 30 odd years has been Arcachon so we have spent plenty of days in Bordeaux and witnessed the massive improvements to the city in recent years. I’m really confused about what there wasn’t to do (if that makes sense) on your recent visit there. What would you normally expect from a city that you didn’t find there?


  11. Chef Bill W Says:

    My wife and I were in Bordeaux May 1 2008 for some wine tours and education on wines.
    As you mention, it is about the wines.
    We stayed at Sainte Catherine and traveled to some First Growth wineries as well as lesser known.
    Wouldn’t trade this trip for any American trip.
    We didn’t tour Bordeaux as much as I would like but we went there for the wine experience.

  12. Leshaya Says:


    A shame you didn’t enjoy Bordeaux. Of course the city is centered on the wine industry, that’s what it’s famous for and why so many people come to visit it.

    But there is much more to the place than… the wine! To understand that, you might want to pop in a museum, not for long if you’re not the museum kind, and you’ll see that city was also an important Roman venue. Check out the Palais Gallien, not much left of it though but it’s still fun to see that chunk from Ancient Rome in the middle of 18th century buildings!
    As for the waterfront, I don’t know where you read there was going to be a waterfront in Bordeaux? The city is on a river, not the ocean… If you want to see the ocean rent a car and drive out to “Le Grand Crohot”. If you want be more adventurous take a 1h train to Arcachon and then a 15mn bus. Climb up the Dune du Pyla.
    During the spring and summer, there are plenty of concerts and festivals going on. Sometimes at lunch at the Opera House. Speaking of which, for a one day trip you could have gone to visit the Opera House (same architect as the Opera House in Paris), gone up one of the towers: Pey-Berland is the most famous, but depending on the season, the one in St Michel has a better view of the whole city. By the way, St Michel, it’s definetely a quarter you should visit. Very cheap and good restaurants as well.
    Sorry to hear that people weren’t as welcoming as you’d expected, but surely it can’t have been worse than in Paris! I hope you’ll change your mind and come back. Spring and Summer being the best seasons to cross the oldest bridge of the city and have a pic-nic on the other side of the river.

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