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
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Once again your writing takes me right back there.
I think my first visit to Bordeaux was in the mid-80s and I thought it was pretty impressive. But since then I kept reading how the “dingy and decrepit” old town was being revitalised. Well yes, I visited a few years ago and it was seriously smartened up, from an already impressive starting point. Indeed the whole inner old-town got UNESCO listed. Back then half the streets dug up for the new tramway–including the “wireless” sections–(Alimentation par le Sol)–such as in front of the Place de la Comedie/Grand Teatre; I believe Bordeaux may have been the first to use this system which is now spreading around the world. This aspect of Bordeaux was featured in Michael Portillo’s tv series Grand Continental Rail Journeys.
I looked at the online property market around Chartrons because it was one of the few places in France where you can get genuine warehouse space for private apartments and for very good value per sqm. But I haven’t looked for several years and with all the publicity it gets one can’t imagine that has persisted. OTOH, while toying with the idea for a while, ultimately my stupid obsession with Paris won out! And speaking of which, the TGV Océanic opened in July so now one can do Paris-Bordeaux in 2 hours. (Takes longer to get to most airports!)
Bonjour Michael. Quel plaisir de vous retrouver ici! Your observations about Bordeaux confirmed what everyone I have met has said: We are looking at a “much improved” version today. I am certain locals loved their city way back when just as it was, but am not sure they will be able to stop what started years ago. Bordeaux is on her way to greatness, or at least to great fame. Les Chartrons is the perfect illustration. We will wait and see what the future holds for that beautiful, elegant, but oh so dynamic city! A bientôt.
I love Bordeaux. I love all these smaller cities around France. Lively, but without the stress of Paris.
The point about Vatel school speaks volumes about France: in the U.S., waiting tables is something you do until you can do something else. In France, it’s a decent career and one that should be done correctly–which requires training.
Merci de votre visite. I have been following your blog for a while, as you know, and share your excellent observations on French life often with the French Girl in Seattle Facebook community. Your observations about the Vatel school and the restaurant industry are spot on. That young waitress was truly proud of studying at the school when I asked. I saw the future of the French hospitality industry, and it looks like they have bright days ahead.
Well worth a visit, and a tasting!
I would agree. That museum is quite the place and delivers a multi-sensory experience. Wine tasting on the top floor of the building was a highlight, of course.
Oh man! I so want to go!! Thank you for the ride. I enjoyed it very much. I was surprised how much British blood I had in my DNA test. I think my mother will be surprised too. This area of the world has been mixed for centuries. Love the ‘Do you speak Francais’ boutique.=) Check out my blog to Iceland. xo
Merci de la visite, Sandy. I am not surprised you enjoyed Bordeaux. Here’s another corner of southern France you must explore when you get a chance. I have followed your Icelandic adventures on IG but will head over to your blog tonight. A bientôt!
Je vais tâcher d’apprendre à traduire…!!! A partir de mercredi en huit, je commence à prendre des cours d’informatique…
Les photos sont absolument magnifiques, tu es très jolie et très en forme tout au début…
Merci à mon Fan numéro 1!
¡Muy lindo e interesante su nuevo articulo! Comme d’habitude, su dicción y sus fotos son impecables.
Muchisimas gracias por pasearnos por su bella ciudad.
De nada, senora Maria. Muchas gracias!
What a wonderful virtual trip to Bordeaux! Thanks Véronique for the journey, it’s confirmed I need to go back for a visit. I myself also have wonderful memories of dining on fresh oysters and crisp white wine at nearby Cap Ferret…
Cap Ferret… Would love to go one day soon.
I enjoyed reading your article. I am from Vancouver and I will be visiting Bordeaux for 2 wks in August and looking for an appartment with air con. Is the Chartrons area a good base for the full 2 wks….. rather than the old quarter?
Bienvenue Carmen. Les Chartrons is a lovely, village-like neighborhood. It really does not take that long to get back to the old town from there by foot or with public transportation. Still, the old town is more centrally located. It’s also busier. Hope this helps.
les Chartrons is one of those places that impresses both ind and soul and (so far for us) doesn’t let go. We found it by accident returning after long walks exploring the city. All the way to Base Sous-Marine. We were pulled onto Rue Notre Dame. It was a warm day in early October so we stopped at Bar Notre Dame. This day we were the only tourists it seemed, and the bartender uninterested in the two of us. But in our horrific french we talked about how cool his place was, how it is just the type of place we search out. And that we felt lucky to have found it. He brightened quite a bit, and led us to one of the few tables out front to settle in. We spent the afternoon with the locals, and can only say felt at home. We just started looking at places in Chartrons for a possible 3 month stay. Sometime next year if the world settles in to more normal rhythms.
Bonjour Bruce and Ana. Les Chartrons is indeed a special neighborhood, with a lot of interesting history to discover. I am glad you got to enjoy it and plan to return. Good luck in your search!