Living in Bordeaux: An expat guide
One Bordeaux resident offers a fun-filled guide to France's 'Sleeping Beauty'
I should really have done a bit more research into Bordeaux before I moved here permanently. But – as is befitting of my organisational skills – I absolutely didn’t do any, which is why I sat on a bus from the airport nearly five years ago, staring out the window nervously at a mass of 70s architecture and high rises. But as the buildings clanked past they got more and more beautiful until voila! I stepped off in Place des Quinconces (one of the biggest square in Europe, don’t you know?) and looked up. Mon dieu, it’s beautiful.
I may be biased, but Bordeaux is the perfect French city. Called the “sleeping beauty” of France, it has undergone a major transformation in the last few decades. Sooty walls have been cleaned up and shutters have been repainted to reveal charming limestone façades and pretty boulevards. Bordeaux is like all the bijou parts of Paris jumbled together and all within walking distance. Cobbled streets twist between balconied buildings that haven’t ever changed: sometimes you can walk down some streets and forget what century you’re in. Haughty cats slink on tiled roofs; plant pots balance precariously on windowsills and church bells dong in the distance.
It’s also full of genuinely nice people. Bien sûr, you get the odd stereotypically grumpy-faced French person, but most people are pretty smiley (and some have an almost Scottish sense of humour – check out the Serge the Llama escapade of 2013). Tourism is just beginning to really hit Bordeaux, so the visitor-fatigue of Paris hasn’t quite sunk in yet. Here are some dos and don’ts if you want to come visit my adopted city. Who knows, you might even stay.
Well, obvs: Bordeaux is renowned for its wine – we even built a wine museum in the shape of wine swirling in a glass (although I think it looks more like an old boot). There’s nothing better than sitting in an ancient square and sniffin’ and swirlin’ like you know what you’re doing. Visit L'École du Vin next to Quinconces for cheeeeap delicious wine. It’s a sommelier school, so you can explain what you’re in the mood for and the students/servers find your dream glass. If you can’t get enough and want to take wine home, there are many caves dotted all over the city. If you’ve had enough wine from Bordeaux (it happens!) the Spanish restaurant L’Auberge Espagnole can give you international beverage relief with their list of hispanophone wines.
If like me, however, you prefer your glass G&T shaped you can do that too (don’t let them shame you!) The Bordelais are also all about their cocktails with mixology bars all over the place (try L’Alchimiste, La Comtesse, Calle Ocho (best mojitos in town) or La Vie Moderne) so really, not being a wine lover should not hold you back from that hangover.
Being veggie, I’m definitely a terrible person to give you advice on typical French cuisine, but I’m gonna try m’best. I have heard everyone raving about La Tupina and even if you may have to sell your car to eat there, apparently it’s worth it (you don’t need a car in Bordeaux anyway!) In Baud et Millet the cellar is ram-packed with cheese: stinking brie, creamy camembert, nutty comté… and armed with a plate you go down the stairs and take as much as you want. After several trips you can feel the lactose seeping out of your pores and your body succumbing to a cheese-dream sieste. Still haven’t had enough fromage? Go to La Petite Savoie for a traditional raclette.
But restaurants aren’t the only way to stuff traditional French food right in your moosh. If you want the real deal then go to the market, buy everything, then eat it there, fresh. I’m not promoting biting the head off a still-wriggling fish but there is nothing better than sticky peach juice sliding down your arm on a hot Sunday morning. Check out Marché des Capucins behind the Saint-Michel neighbourhood – bursting with cheese mountains and nipping crabs, fresh crêpes and steaming coffee on counters, purple cauliflowers and open pomegranates spilling their ruby red jewels onto the dirt trodden floor and the smell of cut flowers and lemony oysters, here you fill up a basket with goods and then pour it into your tote. Open Tuesday-Sunday; you’ll find me at the herb stall.
…get a bike
In Bordeaux, my bike is like an extension of my body. Although the cobbled streets clank under your wheels and rattle your teeth out of your mouth, you really are lost without one. Find cheap bikes at the Saint-Michel market, on Leboncoin (the French gumtree/Craigslist) or sign up for a subscription with the city bikes. You’ll be ringing that bell at unsuspecting tourists in no time.
…wipe your feet when you get home
British author Stephen Clarke didn’t write a book titled A Year in the Merde for nothing folks. Also, if you’re wearing sandals, I advise you to either pack your bag with wet wipes or learn to look down. Dogs: a man’s best friend but a foot’s worst nightmare.
In Bordeaux you can party on a boat, in an old army barracks, on the riverside in a traditional guinguette (think Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette) or in a submarine base. There are also some amazing roof terraces, try the Mama Shelter or Night Beach on top of the Le Grand Hôtel to really feel like you’re looking down on the common people. If you don’t want to have to re-mortgage your house just for a pint, head to the Hôtel de Ville and climb the tower, or to Saint-Michel to climb La Flèche.
…worry about getting a job
Are you a native English speaker? Pas de problème. When I first moved here I managed to find five jobs in three days. I literally had some mum come up to me on the street and try to take me home with her to teach her child English. Mums – particularly of the bobo variety (bohème/bourgeois: yoga, organic food, private primary schools) – are desperate for their children to learn the language and you won’t be short of job offers.
Don’t want to teach English? Find a pub: you have about a million to choose from and if you don’t speak French it’s the best way to learn fast. Working in a pub is also a sure-fire way of finding the Bordeaux English-speaking community.
There are many places to go in Bordeaux if you need a friendly face or a familiar accent. The abundance of pubs are a safe bet, everyone who works there is happy to chat with you over a pint. Paul’s Place in the Chartrons area is a hidden gem. Run by adorable Cambridge born couple Paul and Jo, this cosy café is an Aladdin’s cave of books, knick-knacks and paintings that cover the walls and ceiling. There is always something happening, whether it is a piece of theatre, an open mic session, a poetry reading, a ukulele concert or the local magician.
…be surprised when you become a bread snob
It’s normal. It’s just better here. French bread is the best: no danger, end of story, full stop. Don’t express it too much though when you go home, people get mad. #sorrynotsorry
So if you do end up in Bordeaux come and find me, I’ll be the girl wearing a stripy top, swirling wine and groping peaches in the market. When in Rome, huh? I do draw the line at a beret though.
Find more guides to starting a life in a new city at http://theskinny.co.uk/travel/living-abroad