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Bordeaux Blooms

An 18th century city stirs with 21st century energy

William Echikson
Posted: September 5, 2000

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When up-and-coming chef Thierry Marx was offered a position five years ago running Château Cordeillan-Bages, a small hotel and restaurant in the famed Médoc wine village of Pauillac, fellow chefs thought he was crazy to accept. "They said, 'There's no market for good cooking in Bordeaux,'" Marx recalls. France's preeminent wine country long has been considered a gastronomic backwater, home to few good restaurants and few good hotels. Winery owners preferred to entertain in their châteaus, where their wines could easily overshadow unexciting food. As their guests, they preferred close friends or business associates. Tour-ism was the last thing on their minds in this traditional, conservative place.

But Bordeaux's old facade is cracking. Adventuresome chefs, hoteliers and winemakers are injecting both the city and its surrounding countryside with a welcome new energy and openness. Marx and his Cordeillan-Bages were awarded two Michelin stars this year, and he's now shooting for a third, an accolade no Bordeaux restaurateur ever has won. Some sophisticated, California-style attractions are popping up, particularly the new spa-hotel, Les Sources de Caudalie, at Château Smith-Haute-Lafitte (see "Château Serenity," page 71). Long-closed châteaus finally are opening their doors. There are even modern art museums, and hip dining spots offering great choices of wines from outside the region.

Bordeaux always has had its charms. It's one of France's largest cities and boasts some of the country's finest 18th century architecture, particularly a truly grand Grand Théâtre. Take a stroll down the elegant tree-lined allées de Tourny and cours du 30-Julliet and shop at luxury boutiques on the cours de l'Intendance to grasp the city's grandeur.

Touches of modern color now are adding a welcome buzz to this historic calm. On rue du Pas St.-Georges, part of the maze of narrow streets around the place du Parlement, a new art gallery has opened. "We don't want to be slaves of tradition," says owner Régis Mac. His original wood collages, full of bold reds and bright oranges, represent powerful abstract depictions of "energy" and show off his own strong sense of freedom. A 19th century warehouse complex has been transformed into a striking modern art museum called L'Entrepôts Lainé.

Still, Bordeaux is a business city, and tourist facilities are limited. The only four-star hotel is the comfortable but anonymous Hôtel Burdigala. A much better choice is to stay in the suburbs, either at the new Les Sources de Caudalie or the ultramodern St.-James in Bouliac. Both are only about 15 minutes from downtown and offer unforgettable, luxurious experiences.

William Echikson has lived in Europe and written about food, wine and travel for the past two decades.

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