Thursday, 2 October, 2014

Published August 23, 2014
Beyond wine
Urban rejuvenation since the 1970s has transformed the French city of Bordeaux into more than just a wine destination. By Daven Wu
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The grandiose Grand Theatre (above), home to the L'Opera National de Bordeaux, is an example of the city's enlightened programme of urban and cultural engagement. - PHOTO: DAVEN WU

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IT'S afternoon in the comforting gloom of the Roman-inspired spa at the Grand Hotel de Bordeaux & Spa. Lined with dark tiles, the bijou pool shimmers with the light streaming in through the towering floor-to-ceiling windows. Two French matrons, cocooned in thick fluffy bathrobes, murmur appreciatively to each other about what an incredible retreat they've stumbled upon.

Not exactly the image one normally associates with Bordeaux, epicentre of the oldest and most famous vineyard in France, but you heard it here first: Bordeaux - the world capital of wine, as well as the splendid spiritual home of first growths Chateaux Margaux, Latour, Haut-Brion and Lafite-Rothschild - is more than "just" a wine destination.

In addition to 300,000 acres (121,406 ha) of vines, 5,000 chateaux, haute gastronomy and 57 categories of fine wines, for the time pressed tourist, especially one who is a teetotaller, on a whirlwind tour of France, Bordeaux offers a wealth of non-alcoholic diversions.

With the sixth largest metropolitan area in France, the city of Bordeaux provides an ideal base. From any vantage point, it's a beautiful silhouette, its broad avenues and low-rise architecture made all the more harmonious for being built with the same stone harvested from quarries on the city's right bank.

And if Bordeaux feels and looks a lot like Paris, it's because Baron Haussmann, a prefect at Bordeaux, used the city as the urban template when he was commissioned to remodel Paris in the mid 19th-century.

Since the 1970s, urban rejuvenation has been a key project. Large grids of streets and neighbourhoods were pedestrianised while cars were increasingly restricted. This helped reduce the pollution that had literally turned the city black.

Today, the port city is a glorious confection of wide piazzas, quietly humming electric trams, parks, ancient bell-towers and golden 18th-century facades, the latter freshly scrubbed of its black soot and renovated into buzzy cafés, bistros, art galleries, and boutiques. The riverfront has been spruced up, its dilapidated warehouses refurbished into trendy restaurants and bar.

As a reward, the historic centre - around 1,800 hectares in all - was put on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2007.

Fast forward to 2014 and Bordeaux city is the stylish beneficiary of a nearly 15 billion euro (S$24.9 billion) wine economy. The spillover of this bounty is palpable.

The giveaway barometer of Bordeaux's wealth is the presence of a Nespresso and Apple store, with Louis Vuitton and Hermes all within a few city blocks of one another. Indeed, there is plenty to do and see.

In addition to the over 350 heritage listed buildings, medieval cathedrals and scenic sites (only Paris has more), the 1.2km long Rue Sainte-Catherine is one of Europe's longest retail strips.

Over an immaculate lunch of saffron risotto laced with escargots and strips of jamon, and a lobster bisque dressed with a swordfish and brandade cannelloni at Brasserie "Le Bordeaux", we learn that Asian guests make up nearly 10 per cent of the check-ins at the Grand Hotel de Bordeaux & Spa. The numbers are expected to rise by 2016 when the new high speed train makes the journey between Paris and Bordeaux in two hours.

For a variety of reasons - bragging rights, exotic business base and pure speculative investment among them - Asians are also embarking on a spending spree in the area, snapping up chateaux with the kind of enthusiasm normally reserved for a new season Louis Vuitton handbag. "Especially if the domain has a Lafite in its name," adds the ever elegant Claire Casimir, the hotel's public relations manager.

And in case you're wondering what the price tag for such an acquisition might be, luxury goods magnate Francois-Henri Pinault's chateau cost him a mere 600 million euros. Ten years ago.

If it's not already clear, Bordeaux has always been wealthy and hopes are high that world-wide consumption of wine continues to rise, especially as China comes on-line. For this, thank the ancient Romans who planted the first vine around the first century. Almost from the start, the region's wine trade began flourishing as did the city's fortunes (though revenues were supplemented in the 16th-century by sugar and West Indies slavery).

For all that, modern Bordeaux - freshly scrubbed and infrastructure projects booming - wears its providence lightly. Yes, its joie de vivre derives partly from its astounding wealth, but for the traveller, especially the transient one, it all makes for a thoroughly entertaining diversion.