Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Bordeaux tourism - la visite de mes copines and my own personal rants

After our crazy weekend in Paris my friends and I hopped the train down to Bordeaux.  They had more sightseeing on their schedule and I planned on working for a few days before our trip to Lisbon.  So I had Lionel escort them around and we kept them quite busy over the course of their 3 days in Bordeaux.

The first day they drove all the way out to la Dordogne and visited Beynac-et-Cazenac, the Chateau de Castelnaud, the Chateau et jardins suspendus de Marqueyssac, La Roque Gageac and Sarlat-la-Caneda.  Even though it was a long drive they had enough time to fit everything in and the girls absolutely loved having the chance to see some of the French countryside.

The second day they spent the morning in Arcachon visiting the Dune de Pyla and enjoying oysters in one of the ports along the bassin.  Then they headed off to St. Emilion for the afternoon to visit the medieval town and do a wine tasting and a visit of the cellars of the Clos des Menuts. 

On their third and final day we gave Lionel a break and the girls went into Bordeaux on their own to spend the morning walking around the city to see some of the sights.  I provided them with a basic walking tour drawn out on a map.  After grabbing lunch they headed to the tourist office to meet up for a wine tour they had booked visiting some chateaux in the Médoc.  I met up with them in the evening and we grabbed drinks and did dinner out in the city before heading back to my place to get ready for our trip to Lisbon.

 visiting Bordeaux - the Pont de Pierre

 at the Porte de Bourgogne

Overall I think they really liked Bordeaux and the surrounding areas.  They were charmed by some of the small towns they visited and the overall scenery in the southwest of France.  And of course they loved the food and wine!

I, however, have some gripes about tourism in the Bordeaux area, based off of my research trying to plan stuff for my friends' visit as well as my parents' upcoming visit.  And this also ties into a link I saw on Facebook today.  Apparently Bordeaux was just selected for the listing of the "11 exceptional tourist destinations in France" and while I will agree that Bordeaux is a pretty city and that the Bordeaux region is nice, I am a little surprised.  Surprised that Bordeaux would want or even try to obtain such a distinction and surprised that it would be awarded considering the, in my opinion, overall lack of any attempt on behalf of the city of Bordeaux and nearby area to accommodate tourists or encourage tourism.  Why would I feel that way, you might ask?  Well, here is my reasoning:
  1. The inability of the fools running this city to come up with any sort of convenient mode of public transportation to get from the airport into the city center and vice versa.  Talk about not encouraging tourists right from the get go.  The tram A gets pretty close, why not just extend it the extra little difference and make tourists and residents lives a little simpler?
  2. The refusal to encourage, promote or even make available any sort of tourism outside of the wine industry.  Don't get me wrong.  I get it.  People come to Bordeaux for the wine.  But if you want them to stay for longer than a day you might want to advertise and open up some other options.  There is only so many times a sane person can listen to an explanation of the same wine making process in a short period before they inevitably can't take it any more.
  3. The apparently poor assumption that all tourism only occurs in the warmer months.  If you want to be a major tourist destination then your tourist attractions need to be open and available to visit at all times of the year.  It's not unheard of for a person to go on a winter city break after all.  Examples that I've stumbled across lately and that are really starting to frustrate me: 
    •  Did you know that, beyond wine chateaux, there are tons of historic chateaux in the area (within an 45 min-1 hour drive of the city center) and though most of them are open to the public, they are pretty much all closed from Oct/Nov-March/April?  Examples of this include, but are not limited to, the Chateau de Cazeneuve, Chateau de la Brède, Chateau de Vayres, etc and the few that are actually open at this time of year are only open weekends or for one visit one day a week, obviously in French.  That sure doesn't encourage tourism!
    • Did you know that it is possible to book boat cruises on the Garonne to admire Bordeaux from the river, to visit nearby sights including an island near Blaye, to go to wine tastings and for meals?  Well, unfortunately, the only ones available during the winter are a few dinner cruises.  Strange considering other places, including Paris, are able to maintain schedules for sightseeing cruises even in the winter.  Pretty sure the Garonne doesn't freeze over.  Just another example of not trying to encourage tourism.  
    • Did you know that there are the ruins of a Roman arena in Bordeaux?  Neither did I until recently and that is the kind of thing my brother loves.  I thought it would be perfect to include in their visits of Bordeaux...until I went to the website and discovered that even the ruins are closed in the winter.  Well, I thought, there are certainly other Roman ruins in the general Bordeaux area.  And yes there are.  But all closed in the winter.  
    • After extensive research into the subject it seems the options for touristic activities in the Bordeaux region in the winter are limited to walking around the city, a few guided tours of the city (including one in an open air bus...who wants to do that of all things in the cold!?!), the occasional more specialized guided tour (in French) though these seem to only be offered one or two days throughout the season so you have to be here at the right time and wine tours.  You can drive yourself out to the Dune de Pyla but the city doesn't provide guided tours out to visit the dune and the bassin in the winter (though in my personal opinion a visit of the bassin including Arcachon and the ville d'hiver would be entirely appropriate).  But who cares because there are tons and tons and tons of wine tours.  Because, clearly, that is all that Bordeaux seems to think is worthwhile in the area.  Sure makes things rough for me though, especially since my family are not big wine drinkers.  And like I said, certainly doesn't encourage tourists to stay longer in the area or promote anything more than oenological tourism.  I guess Bordeaux can't appeal to anyone who doesn't want to taste wine, or at least that seems to be the message the city is sending.   However, if anyone has any suggestions or knows of anything open during the week at this time of the year, please let me know!  I'm getting desperate!
 Anyway, all this to say that Bordeaux as a "tourist destination" is really starting to frustrate me and I don't agree that this city makes any effort to encourage any sort of tourism beyond wine tourism.  And I think that is a shame because the city and the surrounding area have a lot more to offer than just wine tastings.  I personally travel a lot during the winter months as flights and hotels are often much cheaper than during the high tourist season in the summer.  This is the first time I've encountered such difficulty in finding things open to the public at this time of the year, in any country.  Perhaps I have just gotten lucky, or perhaps this is another particularity of Bordeaux.

But, as it is, for my family's upcoming visit I am mostly having Lionel take them on day trips to other nearby areas of France, much as we did with my friends.  Already planning on them going to Le Pays Basque (especially Saint Jean de Luz), La Rochelle, perhaps Bergerac, we are planning a 3-day trip to La Dordogne, we are planning a 2-day trip to Toulouse and Carcassonne, and we will certainly take them out to the bassin at some point (though they have already been) as well as a some time in Bordeaux.  A lot of those places might be more of a drive than the immediate area around Bordeaux but at least there will be something to do and tourist sights are actually open in the winter.  And thankfully the holidays will also keep us busy.


  1. From my corner of France Sarlat is not that well known (other picturesque villages like Conques or Cordes sur Ciel are well known), but my mom knows a couple at her church that go to Sarlat each summer for French classes. My mom now refers to the town as "That place in southern France where they offer those French classes". I think it's funny how some places have such different images within France as compared to how Americans see them.

  2. It's even worse when you don't have a car... My options for going to the coast are kind of limited because the Gironde bus is so slow. I can basically only go to Arcachon and the Dune or else spend 2+ hours trying to get to another beach. All of those other places you talked about - out of the question with public transport unless it's St. Emilion.

    I think tourism in Bordeaux is geared towards a certain type of visitor. The visitor that is over 50/retired, has a lot of money, rents a car, wants to eat good food and drink good wine, stays in fancy places, etc.

    You know what I think about the airport connection. I think it's all fixed: the city wants to protect the JetBus and the taxi drivers. So unless you want to spend ages in the city bus, you have to cough up the money. The number one bus is fine, although very slow, but the problem is, as you know, getting a connection to that bus. If you don't live near that bus line, it all adds up. Sure, it's cheap, but it is way too slow for such a short distance.

    About the Roman ruins, are you talking about Le Palais Gallien? If you are, those are open all the time. Well, I rather say 'open' because you can't actually enter them, but you can view them from behind a railing and there is never anybody guarding the place. Unless you have to pay to see them now?

  3. You are so right, I discovered Bordeaux last Summer and stayed two weeks it was not until the last few days in Bordeaux that my airbab host tuck me to the ruins of a Roman arena in Bordeaux. The first thing I do when discovering a city is go to the tourist office. I went a few times in Bordeaux and did not see any info on it or other sights of interest.