A trip to Bordeaux during a French national rail strike
Bordeaux is possibly, after Paris, the second most famous city in France. Although its fame is probably due to all the top-quality wines produced in the surrounding vineyards, the city itself is not to be ignored; not least because it has one of the best preserved 18th century (UNESCO listed) centres in Europe.
There are also world-class museums, excellent shopping opportunities and fabulous restaurants. All these things combine with the famous wine to make Bordeaux a great place to want to spend a few days.
Since July 2017 there has been another great reason to make a trip to Bordeaux: the opening of the new TGV train line means that it is now just over 2 hours from Paris. Even taking into account the 1 hour connection across the French capital, that means the city is now less than 6 hours by rail from London St Pancras.
Ligne à grande vitesse
France’s world-famous TGV (High Speed Train) first appeared in the early 1980s when the initial LGV (High Speed Line) Sud-Est opened between Paris and Lyon. The network of 300km/h / 320km/h lines has grown over the past 30 years to link almost every important centre in France. The map below shows the development of the impressive system.
The second LGV to open was the Y-shaped LGV Atlantique (shown in yellow above) in 1990. It linked Paris Montparnasse with Le Mans and Tours. Even from the first day TGVs ran along it to reach Bordeaux but they were always forced to use the slower conventional tracks beyond Tours.
The opening of the LGV Sud Europe Atlantique (340km added to the original 230km) in 2017 saved 50 minutes and finally brought Bordeaux within around 2 hours travel time of the capital.
I must admit Eurostar has never been my favourite train service: I had quite a few bad experiences in the early days and the fares have always seemed too expensive. I have just got into the habit of avoiding them. Recently, however, I have been hearing good things about their new German-built Velaro trains and I have been looking for an excuse to give them another chance. A trip to Bordeaux seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Booked on eurostar.com two months beforehand, our plan was simple: on December 28th we would board the 09:24 train from St Pancras to Paris, arrive at Gare Du Nord at 12:50, cross the French capital by Metro (the convenient Line 4) to Montparnasse in time for the 13:52 TGV and be in Bordeaux at 15:56. We planned to spend three nights in Bordeaux and then return to London on New Year’s Eve.
That was the plan.
The French national strikes began on 5th December 2019 with more than 30 unions protesting against President Macron’s plans for pension reforms. The rail network was especially hard hit with many of the TGV services being cancelled and most of the Paris Metro lines totally out of action.
At first I wasn’t worried: I didn’t think the strikes would last another 3 weeks and even if the two sides couldn’t come to a final agreement, I believed there would be some kind of truce for the Christmas period when we were due to travel.
I was wrong.
As Christmas approached, it was clear that no solution nor truce was in sight and the TV news was filled with scenes of railway workers clashing with police in Paris. My biggest worry was how we would cross the French capital.
It seemed our Eurostar was still scheduled to run and although SNCF (French Railways) were attempting to run around 2 out of 5 TGVs, there had been no Paris Metro service outside the rush hour for weeks.
With taxis apparently scarce, we faced an uncertain trip across Paris. If we missed our connection, what guarantee, given the conditions, would we have of finding another TGV with space on it ?
Supression de Votre Train
On 24th December I received an e-mail direct from SNCF. It was all in French but I knew what it said: the 13:52 train had been cancelled due to the strike and I should use the SNCF website to change to a different train.
Looking at SNCF.com, it seemed that there was a 14:52 that was running and there was even space on it. Frustratingly when I tried to change on to it I was told to go to eurostar.com because I had originally booked there.
I switched websites but on eurostar.com I was told that as the 09:24 was still running I couldn’t change anything. I didn’t fancy spending Christmas Eve phoning a call centre so I gave up. I decided to claim a full refund from Eurostar. (to be fair – they handled it well and I got the money back very quickly)
I then went directly to the British Airways website and booked two seats on their Gatwick to Bordeaux flight on 28th December. Amazingly, with just a few days to go before departure, I paid less than half of the price I had paid for the rail tickets two months before. Although, to be honest, this probably had a little bit to do with the fact that France was a less popular destination than normal on account of the strikes.
In the end it all worked out well.
We left Gatwick at 6am on Saturday morning and by the time that our planned Eurostar would have been leaving London, we were already checking into the hotel in Bordeaux. I did regret the loss of the train journey, but flying certainly gave us a little extra time to explore.
Bordeaux, with its population of 250,000, is the sixth largest city in France and has the highest number of preserved historical buildings after Paris. It is a nice size: big enough to have lots to explore but compact enough that mean most of the main sites easy walking distance of the centre.
The city’s impressive transportation network was accessible with a day ticket of 5 Euros and that even included the Airport Bus (Route 1+) and the 4 lines of modern tramway. The trams are especially impressive as they run through the centre using an innovative electrical current collection system which does away with the need for ugly overhead wires. Thankfully, unlike the Paris Metro, the system wasn’t directly affected by the strike.
In fact, once in France, the strike didn’t affect us much at all. One single time we were forced off a tram because protestors had blocked the tracks, but otherwise there was no disruption at all. We spoke to people in bars and though we heard stories of Christmas holidays being ruined by the striking train drivers, we also got the impression that many people thought the unions had a point.
We headed first to the city’s main market: Le Marche des Capucins and spent a while wandering around stalls that were selling fruits, vegetables, meat, spices and fish. The market also featured little restaurants and cafes and we paused at one for a coffee.
Oysters seemed extremely popular here; they are a local favourite anyway but they are also especially eaten in large quantities all over the country as a tradition on New Year’s Eve. There was also quite a lot of Spanish-influenced produce on offer, perhaps not surprising given the proximity of the border.
Close to the market we found a little restaurant, Au Bistrot, and had a fantastic lunch there. All the food was cooked right in front of us in an open kitchen and it was delicious.
This meal was the first of several excellent eating experiences we had in the city. During our time we also managed to sample two of the region’s specialities: Entrecôte à la Bordelaise (steak in red wine and shallot sauce) and Lamproie (eel stew).
A short walk up from the food market we found the Saint Michel Basilica. It is claimed to be the largest parish church in the city and was built between the 14th and 16th Centuries.
We were lucky to visit on a sunny day as we found the reflections of the stained glass especially beautiful inside.
Surrounding the church was another market: Marché Royal, one of the biggest open-air markets in Bordeaux.
The whole square in front Saint Michel’s was filled with more than 100 merchants selling clothes and other items.
We walked on towards the St. Jean railway station (where we would have arrived on the TGV) and then caught a tram back towards the centre. We wandered around what is known as the Triangle-d’Or: the heart of prosperous 18th century Bordeaux.
The main central square, La Place de la Comedie, with its standout highlight: the Grand Theatre sat proudly in the centre. The place was lively all day long and it was particularly enchanting at night.
From just in front of the theatre, the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe, Rue Sainte-Catherine, stretched south; we walked along it before heading to the Riverfront.
The River Garonne runs through the city and the finest bit of riverfront is around the Palais de la Bourse. Normally in front of the Palais is Le Miror d’eau: a shallow lake that is used to reflect the buildings and appears in many photographs of the city. Sadly, it was turned off for maintenance during our visit.
As it got darker, we continued to walk around popping in and out of various shops. The centre was decorated festively and there were a lot of people, tourists and locals, on the streets, shopping or gathered in bars and restaurants.
We ended our first evening with a visit to the traditional Christmas market where we indulged in some lovely brioche and a couple of glasses of Vin Chaud.
Le Coeur Historique
We spent the morning exploring the oldest part of the city. The early morning mist added to the atmosphere as we negotiated our way around the warren of narrow streets around the St Paul district.
We walked south as far as the 15th century city gate and the Glosse Cloche belfry: an emblem of the city that is featured on the city’s coat of arms.
We then looped around towards the river again to get a great view of the oldest bridge in Bordeaux: Le Pont de Pierre.
Next we passed through the Porte Cailhau, which looked just like a fairy-tale chateau with its turrets and archway.
We carried on circling and zigzagging through the various little squares of the medieval city to the end up at the ancient Eglise St Pierre.
Our afternoon was taken up by a visit to the charming village of Saint Emillion. Lying just 40km east of the city, it is normally an easy day trip by train and, believe it or not, tuk tuk from the railway station. On account of the strike we were forced to make alternative arrangements.
St Emillion and its surrounding area is also UNESCO listed and it owes its status to the unusual diversity of wines made possible by complex geology (there are sands, clay and limestone) and climate. Merlot, blended with cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon or malbec is the predominant grape here.
We wandered around the village and into the Eglise Collégiale with its impressive Stained Glass and fascinating murals.
Incredibly there were more than 80 wines shops in the small village and, judging by the various Fedex, DHL and UPS labels on the doors, they must do a lot of business shipping bottles all around the globe.
Château de Pressac
Before returning to Bordeaux, we visited one of the St Emillion vineyards close by: Château de Pressac. We were treated to a brief look at the vines followed by an insight into how the wine is produced.
First we learned about the differences between the 3 types of soil within the property: the plateau, the slopes of the hills and the lower ground, and of the impact they each have on the flavour of the grapes.
We were then told how the grapes are picked, put into small crates, sorted and eventually fed into the vats where the wine making process actually begins.
The wine is eventually transferred from vat to barrel to allow it to mature for around a year. The importance of using new barrels (two thirds of them are renewed every year) was also explained to us.
We then learned all about the categorical system and what it takes to make a “Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé”.
Finally we were allowed to taste two types of wine.
Cité du Vin
Our third day began with a ride on the tram up to the north of the city. The short journey took us past a series of old port-side buildings which are rapidly being transformed into a new trendy area known as Bacalan.
Our destination for the morning, La cité du vin, with its distinctive modern architecture shape sits at the centre of this area. It is the world’s leading wine museum.
We spent most of the morning discovering about the world of wine. The place is very well done and features many immersive, sensory and interactive exhibits.
We learnt about the history of wine making, wine areas and saw interviews with wine producers all around the world.
At the end there was a trip in the elevator up to the 8th floor where wine tasting awaited along with a panoramic view of Bordeaux with the impressive Jacques Chaban-Delmas Bridge in the foreground.
We were looking out over the Bacalan (the word is derived from the Portuguese for salt cod): an area that is gradually being transformed from a working port with cranes, hangers and basins into a centre for arts music, food and leisure. There was still plenty of grungy industrial stuff left but it was clear that the area was rapidly being gentrified.
For lunch we headed across the road to Les Halles de Bacalan: a fancy modern food market situated in a large modern hanger. Inside we found 20 stalls offering various upmarket food options. We chose some local artisan roast chicken from one of them and ate it at a communal table filled with locals and tourists.
Afterwards we walked along the dockside. In the centre of one of the basins was Le soucoupe volante, a UFO-shaped sculpture by artist Suzanne Triester. Further along the same basin we found the iboat – a music venue.
We walked a little further to reach the old submarine pens built by the Germans in World War 2 but now turned into an urban art space.
On our last day we wandered around the bourgeois Saint Sepelcre district, around the Jardin Public and then ended up at the Cathedral square.
Apparently Saint-André cathedral’s original 12th century tower was insufficiently squat to support the weight of the bell, so it was thus decided to build a dedicated free-standing tower next to the cathedral in 1440: The Pey-Berland Tower.
I climbed all 229 steps to the top of the tower (50 metres), and it was well worth the effort: the view of Bordeaux was outstanding.
We then spent a very interesting couple of hours in the Museum D Aquitaine. It tells the story of the region in quite an absorbing way. It is quite comprehensive too: it starts with archaeology and prehistory and then moves on through the roman empire to the present day.
Of particular interest was the section covering the period between 1362 and 1453 when the crowns of Aquitaine and England were united following the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine with the King of England.
Impressively, the museum didn’t shy away from explaining Bordeaux’s past involvement in the slave trade. We learnt that this was part of the reason, along with the flourishing wine trade, for its prosperity in the 18th and 19th centuries. There were moving displays of the slave ships themselves and life for the slaves in the French colonies.
Wherever we wondered in Bordeaux we seemed to come across a branch of the Baillardran bakery chain on almost every corner. The company, with its distinctive red signs and uniforms has over 12 branches in the city.
Baillardran specialise in Bordeaux canelés which are small pastries flavoured with rum and vanilla.
They come in varying sizes. They are soft on the inside, crusty on the outside, quite delicious and very moreish.
Staying on the sweet theme, Caolaoc, a form of chocolate milk now found over France and one of my favourites, was born in the city in the 1950s.
In keeping with the local tradition we started off most of our evenings with an aperitif; the local Lillet (a blend of wine and liqueurs) went down rather well.
We bar hopped around the medieval St-Pierre district and enjoyed a drink at the famous L’Apollo soul bar.
We had another drink amongst the stone walls and fabulous art-nouveau deco of the Grand Bar Castan….
….and we had a third at Utopia: a combined art-house cinema and café in a converted old church.
We also popped into La Poste: a converted post office now tastefully renovated into a café restaurant. The building retains its art deco style and the octagonal windows in the roof are quite impressive.
La Prochaine Fois
We flew home on time and arrived back at Gatwick just before the end of the year.
We felt we had seen a lot of Bordeaux but there was certainly still a lot more to be seen. I could easily envisage us returning to see more of the city and the surrounding area.
I am also still keen to make the trip by rail. When we visited Bordeaux railway station I learned that it has been twinned with St Pancras and there is even talk of a direct Eurostar (4.5 hours estimated) one day.
If we do choose the train next time, I hope we can avoid the strikes.
Although that might be easier said than done; there has been at least one train strike in France every year since 1947 !