Bordeaux uncorked Sarah Lyon, Writer | Posted: 15 July 2016
Self guided cycling holidays in France
Self guided cycling holidays in France

With the opening of a state-of-the-art wine museum this year in Bordeaux, Sarah Lyon takes a look at this intriguing city, steeped in the traditions of French wine-production yet modern, vibrant and, yes, 'cool', too.

YES, Bordeaux is the wine capital of the world. But it would be wrong to dismiss it as nothing more than a mecca for well-heeled gentlemen of a certain age sniffing and swirling claret.

The city itself is cool. I suppose that’s not a very cool thing to say. Hip doesn’t sound quite right either. It’s got a modern edge that is in stark contrast to dusty old wine cellars yet – and this is the paradox – fits perfectly well.

Wine is a big deal here. But Bordeaux is grown-up enough as a city – and a region – to realise that the modern traveller wants more than a one-trick pony.

This is a place to take a table at one of the many pavements cafés and watch the world go by. The broad avenues and cobbled squares give an air of relaxed prosperity. Smart, but not uptight. Catch some street theatre or take a wander around a museum or gallery. New for this year is the £63-million Cité du Vin. Surely a wine museum is dull? No, not in this city. The building itself, on the banks of the Garonne, looks like something astronaut Tim Peake would feel at home in. The Telegraph’s Anthony Peregrine reports: “Even if you don’t like wine – can’t tell a Margaux from a dandelion-and-burdock – you’re still going to have a good time.”

Not only has the city been bold with the structure, made from hundreds of glass and aluminium panels, it has had the foresight to be outward looking. Of the 800 wines for sale in the museum’s shop, just 200 are from France and the remaining 600 are from the rest of the world. Back to Anthony Peregrine. He concludes that the region’s wine capital status is enhanced with the fact that “this isn’t a museum of Bordeaux wine but Bordeaux’s museum of world wine…”

Away from the city, which is a start and finish point for one of our cycling holidays – as well as being a popular add-on destination for those journeying to the Basque Pyrenees or Gascony – the surrounding countryside is breathtaking.

Of course, tranquillity now reigns over this beguiling corner of south-west France, but the fortified stone villages (bastides) scattered across the gently undulating landscape are testament to a more turbulent era.

Related Holidays & Further Information

Bordeaux and St Emilion

Starting in Bordeaux, this captivating cycling holiday explores the area to the east – including famous St Emilion – with ample opportunities for wine tastings each day, before returning to this elegant, cycle-friendly city for a final night.

More about our cycling holidays
in the Bordeaux region >

La Cité du Vin

Offering permanent and temporary exhibitions, workshops, restaurants, wine bars, and a viewing platform for panoramas along the river, the new Cité du Vin in Bordeaux is so much more than a museum.

More about the 'City of Wine' >

Historians refer to the long conflict, which pitted the kings and kingdoms of France and England against each other from 1337 to 1453, as the Hundred Years’ War. There is no need for wine to imagine thundering squadrons of gallant knights, silent troops of English archers and coat-of-arms emblazoned banners billowing from the castle walls …

The foundations for this century-long period of discord can be traced back to the Cathedral of St André in Bordeaux. This was the scene of the marriage between Eleanor of Aquitaine and the future Louis VII of France. As her dowry, the bride brought with her a large chunk of south-western France but – after 15 years of quarrels – the marriage broke up and Eleanor then married Henry Plantagenet, who inherited the throne of England two months later, becoming Henry II. Eleanor transferred her property with her and thus lit the touchpaper on the war between France and England.

While galloping chargers may be a thing of the past in Bordeaux, cycling is very much de rigueur. Make no mistake; this is a bike-friendly city. Don’t leave without having a pedal along one of the wide avenues that run along the riverside.

Out of the city, as you explore the Entre-Deux-Mers area between the Dordogne and the Garonne – the two rivers which flow into the broad Gironde Estuary just north of Bordeaux – there is a combination of quiet country lanes and dedicated cycle paths. Just the ticket for enjoying a cycling holiday at your chosen pace.

While wine is woven into the fabric of life in this part of the world, you don’t have to be a wine buff to choose a cycling holiday here. The pretty villages and bucolic landscapes are enough of a draw in their own right.

The jewel in the crown of these villages has to be St Emilion. Added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999 it has a cachet all of its own. Not just because of the vineyards, but because of its beautiful architecture. It’s home to the largest monolithic church in Europe and has some 200km of underground caves. Its name comes from a Breton monk who, back in the eighth century, fled here to escape persecution. He was called Emillon and his supposed ability to perform miracles attracted a following of monks.

Autumn, or more specifically the third Sunday in September, is an especially interesting time to visit St Emilion. The Jurade, or wine ambassadors, parade through the village in their traditional crimson robes. Known as the Ban de Vendanges, this is a wonderful festival to be a part of. Along with the processions there are – of course – wine tastings and many local arts, crafts and produce on display.

Finally, proof (if it was needed) that this area has more strings to its bow than wine alone. Move over Mary Berry, St Emilion is home to the macaroon. They have been a speciality here since nuns developed the recipe in 1620. Some visiting stomachs may quail at the snail, but it would take taste buds of ice not to be melted by one of these heavenly treats.

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