Welcome to les Chartrons, a village inside Bordeaux, the city that wooes French and foreign visitors and keeps them coming back for more. I was lucky to re-discover Bordeaux for a few days in early June. She and I got acquainted at the best possible time: A stretch of rainy weather had just ended, and minus a few showers, the sun was, as the French say, au rendez-vous. It is impossible not to fall in love with Bordeaux these days. La Belle Endormie (a Sleeping Beauty of sorts,) has emerged from her 20-year long facelift with a brand-new, revitalized figure, and a dynamic, irresistible personality. Bordeaux seduced me as soon as I stepped outside my apartment in the old town, just a couple of hours after I landed at her busy yet manageable airport, jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Over the next few days, I would explore Bordeaux‘s many neighborhoods, observe her people, sit at countless terraces, soaking up the sun and enjoying the relaxing southern lifestyle I left behind so many years ago.
Bordeaux, like many cities, is made up by a large number of distinct neighborhoods, each with a unique personality. It was impossible to see them all, but I did my best. One, in particular, made a lasting impression, les Chartrons, and I am taking you there today. On y va?
In France, one lives in Paris, or en province. The difference is not only geographical. Paris and la province are two very distinct worlds, and they often clash, as people take sides, and show pride in their lifestyle. Interestingly, when looking for a place to live (or to spend a leisurely Sunday afternoon,) many Parisians look for corners of the French capital that feel and look like villages. Montmartre, les Batignolles, la Butte aux Cailles, to name a few. Bordeaux is a bustling city, and in its most stately sections, one can feel overwhelmed (yet awed) by the grandiose architecture and sights. A former Parisian with provincial (and southern) roots, it is not surprising I enjoyed les Chartrons. Located a few minutes north of the old town along the Garonne river, and easily accessible on foot or by Tram, les Chartrons feels like la province. Illustration: Check out these bucolic street scenes captured along rue Notre-Dame, the neighborhood’s lifeline.
Were les Chartrons always so peaceful? Not quite. Named after the monks who established an old convent there in the 14th century (les Chartreux,) the district had become a thriving area by the 18th century, where wealthy merchants built fortunes (and expensive private residences) thanks to the booming local wine trade. It was always a multicultural neighborhood, however, that attracted people from around the world. Warehouses were built along la Garonne, where wine produced in the Bordeaux region arrived on flat-bottom boats, les gabarres, only to be shipped to northern Europe. Business had slowed down by the 1920s, and after World War II, les Chartrons had fallen in a state of disrepair. Local landmarks remained, like le Temple des Chartrons, built in the early 19th century, or l’Eglise St Louis des Chartrons and its neo-gothic architecture (1870s.)
Les Chartrons were going to experience a rebirth at the turn of the 21st century. Brocanteurs and antique shop owners set up shop in the once thriving old streets, on and around rue Notre-Dame, followed by artists. Investors soon followed, as the area became more desirable. Façades have been cleaned up, yet signs of the past remain if one takes a closer look.
Les Chartrons is a popular and fast-growing corner of Bordeaux once again. In line with the neighborhood’s multicultural past, the British were the first foreigners to rediscover its appeal, as illustrated by several popular local pubs and stores with a definite British flavor. (Historical ties have linked France and England in the Aquitaine region for centuries, after all!) Parisians seeking to escape the French capital’s rat race have been arriving en masse. Real estate prices are soaring. Who would not enjoy the thriving cultural life (art galeries, theaters, exhibits, several excellent museums,) and the fine dining and night-life at les Chartrons?
Just like in another popular, well-known neighborhood with a similar story, (Paris’s le Marais,) gentrification is underway. Les Chartrons boast several popular outdoor markets, and le Marché Bio held along la Garonne once a week, is one of the most famous (and oldest) organic markets in France. Along the quaint streets, one spots concept stores, art galeries and welcoming boutiques often catering to local Bobos (Bourgeois Bohemians) and out-of-town visitors.
Bordeaux is famous for its wine, but it also welcomes one of France’s most vibrant student communities. Many renowned universities, business and art schools are based there. In the remodeled old warehouses along la Garonne, schools and start-ups have replaced wine at the popular Campus des Chartrons.
As I stepped out of the peaceful old streets and headed back to la Garonne river banks on my way to Bordeaux’s newest museum, la Cité du Vin, I realized I was hungry and spotted a lively terrace where locals (some on business lunches,) were already sitting. A young waitress saw me hesitate and offered the last table. I accepted. Even in a touristy city like Bordeaux, I figured a place named after François Vatel, the man who served legendary feasts at Vaux-le-Vicomte for Fouchet, the Sun King’s superintendent, would likely prepare decent food.
As I perused the short menu, I noticed the personnel looked very young. In fact, an older employee standing inside was watching them attentively. Once in a while, he would make a quick comment, pointing at a table, and the young waiters took notice. Food arrived, creatively presented, fresh and delicious. This was service in the French tradition: attentive and efficient, with minimal unsolicited interactions with diners. It was early afternoon: The museum was waiting, and time was of the essence. I ordered a favorite dessert of mine, le café gourmand. While I waited, I realized that for the duration of the meal, small groups of young men and women, dressed in black business attire, had walked past my table on the sunny sidewalk. Chatting, laughing, and walking with a purpose, they were all coming from the street corner next to the restaurant. When my young waitress brought le dessert, I finally asked her who the lively crowd was. She replied (proudly:) “We are all students of the Vatel School, Madame.”
I could not believe my luck: To make my Bordeaux adventures complete, I had stumbled upon one of the finest International schools in the Hospitality industry. My lunch place was just a small part of the Vatel campus, (including the school’s administrative buildings and a 4-star hotel,) located in a tall modern building just around the corner.
As I walked away towards the Tram station where I would hop on the train to le Musée du Vin located nearby, I looked back and took a photo of the restaurant. My table had already been cleared, awaiting the next diner. For a fleeting moment, I paused and imagined what it would have been like to live in Bordeaux and study hospitality management (an old dream of mine,) chez Vatel in the beautiful Chartrons neighborhood. I knew: It would have been pretty special.
All photos by French Girl in Seattle
Please do not use without permission
French Girl in Seattle Travel Notes:
Do You Speak Français (boutique)
93 rue Notre-Dame, Bordeaux.
More photos of the boutique here.
Les Tables Vatel (restaurant and school)
114 quai des Chartrons, Bordeaux.
Open everyday breakfast/lunch/dinner – Hours vary