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Beguiling Bordeaux
Ray Jordan, The West Australian Place de la Comedie, the centre of business in Bordeaux and flanked by the famous Grand Theatre, with its facade of 12 individual statues.

Bordeaux should be a blueprint for town planners on how to transform a grand old city with rich historical heritage into a modern vibrant one.

The changes, which came not without some controversy, have retained the city's essential culture while introducing modern influences that complete the picture rather than destroy it.

Once you enter old Bordeaux, with its centuries of rich and important history as the capital of the Aquitaine region, you cannot fail to be captivated by its majestic old buildings along the sweeping bend on the banks of the Garonne River.

Bordeaux, about 500km and an easy fast-train ride from Paris, is of course the gateway to one of the world's greatest vineyard regions in the south-west of France, on the Atlantic Coast.

But even without its vineyards it is a city that offers a lot for tourists.After a long program of improvement, Bordeaux has transformed itself.

This transformation has been stunning and now provides an environment where French lifestyle and culture can be enjoyed.

The congested city has been replaced with an environment that favours pedestrians, with a new light-rail system combining functionality and efficiency.

The pedestrian malls are superb with shopping and restaurant thoroughfares spreading out from the city centre.

As a walking city it is now one of the best in France, with a mix of modern, old and refurbished buildings providing many destinations to fill your days. The only addition that would make a visit to Bordeaux complete would be decent coffee.

Unfortunately, what we found was that, as in just about every French city including Paris, Bordeaux coffee was close to undrinkable.

There are a number of choices in how to approach your stay.

You can use the excellent public transport supplemented with plenty of hoofing it around the city's old streets, and then take one of the many tours to the vineyards that are not more than an hour and a half away; or you can hire a vehicle at the airport or train station.

Parking in the street, despite the efforts to keep cars away, is like winning Lotto and the best solution is to use one of the new underground carparks. These are brilliant - clean, safe, easy to access and open 24 hours a day.

When you arrive, piped classical music removes tensions you may have - and the rates are good, about 10 euroz ($14) a night - though your best bet is to drop into the Tourist Bureau and get a parking concession for your entire stay. The Place de la Bourse is the biggest carpark and is right in the heart of the city.

There are plenty of excellent hotels in Bordeaux and a good tip is to find one near the old part of the city. The Hotel Majestic is not far from the waterfront and costs between 130 euro and 230 euro for the deluxe suite, which by Australian standards is actually a wardrobe but a lot better than the tiny rooms if you stay for a week.

To explore Bordeaux, leave the car and take shank's pony with the odd light-rail journey to get to some of those attractions a little further away.

Bordeaux is one of the oldest cities in France dating back to a Celtic tribe from the north of France in the 3rd century BC. Two centuries later Roman armies conquered the city and named it Burdigala just a few years before the first vineyards were planted.

In the Middle Ages, after the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry Plantagenet (who later became Henry II of England), the city was under English rule for more than 300 years.

But its great golden age was during the 18th century when about 5000 buildings, including those which formed the important quays area, were built and subsequently used as a model for the transition of Paris into a modern capital under Napoleon III.

Once you take to the streets you start to appreciate the charm and majesty of the old city. The houses tend to be relatively small, unlike the big tenements of other cities. The streets are quiet and even the major thoroughfares don't have the hustle and bustle of big cities.

The main open promenades are all close to the centre of the city and include the tranquil Jardin Public, which was redesigned in 1856 in an English style. This 10ha park in the centre of the city is the perfect place to spend a day at the weekend.

The Place des Quinconces, with its stands of plane trees and massive statues of Montaigne and Montesquieu, forms an important open space near the waterfront area with a connection through to the Place de la Comedie, the centre of business in Bordeaux, flanked by the famous Grand Theatre, with its pediment of 12 individual statues.

A number of important thoroughfares lead away from this bubbling open space including Rue Sainte Catherine, the longest shopping street in Europe with 1.2km of shops, restaurants and cafes.

It begins at the Place de la Comedie and finishes at Place de la Victoire, becoming more downmarket as you walk away from Place de la Comedie. The prices, even in some of the more exclusive shops, are certainly not as steep as you might find in Paris in streets such as Rue Saint-Honore.

At the end of this street is the Saint Michel church, one of the main landmarks with its 15th century, 114m high bell tower and steeple.

Of course, the soul of Bordeaux is wine and the Bordeaux Wine and Trade Museum in the Chartrons district, the former heart of the Bordeaux wine trade and the city's port activity, is an inexpensive and excellent way to see the evolution of wine production in Bordeaux, finishing with a short tasting.

This was one of the wealthiest parts of Bordeaux during the second half of the 18th century, with rich merchants building extravagant town houses, many of which remain.

It has been extensively restored and is still an important part of the wine trade, although other activities, including some excellent art galleries, now fill the old cellars and caves.

Speaking of art, the Musee d'art Contemporain de Bordeaux on the embankment of the Chartrons is a must visit. The vast open spaces of the old warehouse provide the perfect space for some striking exhibitions.

The restaurants in Bordeaux range from relatively inexpensive to spare-no-expense Michelin-starred places. But you really don't have to spend a lot. For instance, La Tupina was recommended by about every winemaker I met. It has a warm and friendly environment with an open fireplace and ovens, excellent and ample traditional food and a good wine list.

Gravelier is outstanding, with some of the most modern cooking in the city, supplemented by a modest but well-priced wine list, while Le Pavillon des Boulevards and Le Vieux Bordeaux were also popular among the winemakers of the region.

And if all that French cooking gets just a little too much there are plenty of Japanese, Chinese and Middle Eastern restaurants to try, all close to the city centre.

Plus, there are the vineyards not more than an hour away. But that's another story.