Four-hundred and fifty thousand square feet of dull grey concrete, with a roof almost 33 feet thick, built by over 6,000 Spanish and Portuguese prisoners of war. The German submarine pen in the Bassins à Flots is possibly the only truly ugly feature in the entire UNESCO World Heritage city of Bordeaux. It’s now owned by the city and used as an art gallery and music venue—and a more recent addition to its cavernous halls makes it the perfect place to start a food-and-wine walk of the city.
This quaint B&B with charming garden makes for a quiet refuge from the city; its rooms are named after famous painters from Bordeaux.
Since 2016, one of its outer bunkers has been transformed into Moon Harbour whisky distillery (they spell it the Scottish way) opened by Jean-Philippe Ballanger and Yves Medina. This is whisky with a Bordeaux twist, using locally-grown corn and barley from the Gironde, copper stills made locally by Stupfler, and with the resulting whisky matured in barrels handed on from the best local wine châteaux. (Tours on Tuesday to Saturday at 11 a.m., 3 p.m., 4.30 p.m. and 6pm.)
Bordeaux’s transformation over the past decade has made it one of the gourmet capitals of France. Go to the tourist office and you can sign up to any number of gourmet walking tours, visiting the best cheese shops (Jean d’Alos, Chez François, Deruelle), chocolate shops (Cadiot-Badie and Darricau), canalé emporiums (Ballairdan, La Toque Cuivrée) and wine stores (Cousin, L’Intendant).
But this is a tour of the newer food and drink spots that have fueled Bordeaux’s reinvention. That’s why a whisky distillery in the heart of wine country is a perfect place to start. (It’s not the easiest place to get to, at a 15-minute walk from the Cité du Vin tram stop, so you’re just going to start here, and finish downtown.)
From Moon Harbour, walk straight down past the Sub Pens (stop in to the photography gallery if you have time, it’s one of the eeriest and yet most brilliant locations for art) along the Bassins à Flots dry docks, passing a ton of newly-opened cafés and restaurants (although my suggestion for a quick glass would be one of the classics such as Café Maritime or the more unusual La Dame boat, permanently moored on the port side, great for cocktails on a hot summer evening.
From here, loop to the other side of the Bassins by crossing the lock and head up to Les Halles de Bacalan. This indoor market hall just might just be my favorite place in the city right now, bringing together 25 local producers from around Aquitaine. Opened in 2017, it’s still new enough to get the locals acting like tourists, spilling onto the large wooden tables outside with wine and oysters on summer evenings, taking in the high ceiling aesthetics of the hall itself to buy rotisserie chicken from Carreau des Producteurs, or locally caught fish from Requins Marteaux, or any one of the hundreds of cheeses from Fromagerie des Flots. You can head to the next-door bistro Familia for a meal, but my suggestion would be to simply stay in the food hall and grab a seat—one of my favourite places is the vegetarian traiteur Dose, that makes some of the best vegan hamburgers and fresh juices that you can imagine.
Not far to go to your next stop. Directly opposite Les Halles is the Cité du Vin (20 euro adult entry, or 25 euro with tasting in the 7th floor bar with its panoramic views. Tram Line B Cité du Vin stop). Its glass-fronted building spirals above the Garonne river with over 13,350m2 of exhibition and entertainment space. Be prepared to be surprised inside—mostly because its exhibition showcases American, Spanish, and Georgian wine culture every bit as much as it does Bordeaux.
You’re going to be here for a while, but once out, turn left out of the Cité, cross the small footbridge and head straight down the quays, turning left after around 160 feet to cross over the 160 million-euro Chaban Delmas bridge that connects the Bacalan and Bastide wharves (watch out for the crowds gathering if a tall ship is coming, as the bridge can be lifted vertically to let them pass underneath). You have now crossed over from the Left Bank to the Right Bank, where you’ll turn right and walk along the quays from the far side, giving the most gorgeous view back along the 18th century limestone sweep of Quai Bacalan and Chartrons.
You’re going to visit another non-wine spot now, with Bordeaux’s craft beer distillery, Darwin Beer that is overlooking the river on Quai de Queries. Pale straw in color, light, fragrant and fairly fruity in taste, to try it you need to head over the road to the brilliant Darwin Centre, a former military barracks that has been converted into an organic epicerie, coffee bar, and refectory-style bistro. Expect exposed stone, warm oak, polished concrete, with a skate park outside. Open 12-2.30, 7-10.30 p.m., Tues-Sun, (Ligne A tram, Stalingrad stop, or two hour guided tours for 10 euro.)
From here, turn left out of Darwin and continue to walk along the quays past the Botanical Gardens, up to Place Stalingrad and its blue lion statue, then head back over the river to the Left Bank over the historic Pont de Pierre, built in the early 1800s under the orders of Napoleon. You are now opposite the Porte de Bourgogne, back in the traditional gourmet heart of the city, where you can reacclimatize in Grand Bar Castan on Quai de la Duane. This place opened in 1890 and is one of Bordeaux’s iconic spots for a early evening apéritif (I guess you’ve got to go for Lillet Blanc on ice since you’re here). If you’re lucky you’ll get a seat on the terrace, if you’re even luckier you’ll get service that’s halfway polite. But either way, you’ll finish back in old Bordeaux, looking back over the new.