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Words by Neil Garaghty
Bordeaux’s gay residents like to joke that they live in one of the gayest cities in Europe but don’t even have a gay village. Take a stroll around the city centre and it’s easy to see why.
Affluent and with a chi-chi attitude to rival Paris, around every street corner you’ll stumble across beautiful squares and boulevards lined with atmospheric wine bars. Bordeaux personifies the French bon vivant lifestyle and with wine this good, it’s hard to drag yourself away to a gay bar!
Instead, mixed venues are the norm, and if fine wining and dining is your thing, grab a seat on a pavement terrace, order a glass of ruby red St Emilion and slide into Bordeaux’s favourite past time – people watching. Oh, and whatever you do, don’t forget your designer sunglasses!
In a city awash with chintzy hotels, Mama Shelter, tucked away behind the cathedral, is a breath of fresh air. Housed in a striking 1930’s office building, the interior has been transformed by French interior designer Phillipe Starck into one of those funky, upbeat hotels that instantly brings a smile to your face.
The fun begins in the reception, where Mexican wrestling masks provide a surreal back drop to check in. The theme continues in the bedrooms where cartoon masks are attached to giant mirrors. Guests are invited to slip these on and post Bugs Bunny selfies onto the hotel’s Facebook page. The comfy minimalist rooms feature ice pink décor, chequerboard carpets, crisp white bed linen and are wired up with 27” iMacs that include free wi-fi and Skype.
The rooftop sun terrace is a great spot to lap up the warm southern sunshine over cocktails, while downstairs, the ground floor restaurant is one of the coolest hang outs in town. With live DJs playing funky soul, ping pong tables and a bar decorated with dozens of rubber rings, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the feel good factor.
For gay visitors, the bar has the added attraction of being a popular early evening rendez-vous for Bordeaux’s gay community.
Step outside from the hotel, and Mama Shelter’s urban cool makes a stark contrast to Bordeaux’s stunning 18th-century grandeur. Flushed with money from the wine trade and colonies, the city centre was rebuilt to rival Paris and to this day is known as Petit Paris. There’s no better place to start your exploration than the stunning Grand Théâtre that stands like a Greek temple in the heart of the city.
From here it’s a short stroll to the Esplanade des Quincones, where on hot summer days you can cool off by the huge Girondin Fountain, a riot of gushing water nymphs and muscly gods. The Esplanade leads out on to the banks of the Garonne River, a landscaped parkland and the epicentre of Bordeaux’s outdoor fitness culture. With meandering cycling tracks, gym stations and volley ball courts there’s no escaping the plentiful eye candy.
Pride of place along the waterfront goes to the Place de la Bourse, where a shallow rectangular pool, le Miroir d’Eau, reflects the palatial buildings, a magical sight especially when floodlit at night.
Of course no trip to Bordeaux is complete without sampling the region’s world famous wines and if you have trouble distinguishing your Medocs from your Côtes de Bourgs, a wine tour is an ideal way to brush up your knowledge. Bordeaux 360 has a great selection of trips to some of the most beautiful wine chateaux. Pick one that includes St Emilion, a lovely medieval hilltop village surrounded by ancient vineyards.
Back in town, kick off the evening with an aperitif in the Bohemian St Pierre district which is awash with mellow wine bars. L’Autre Petit Bois is popular with the gay community and has a gorgeous courtyard lit by shabby chic chandeliers hanging from the trees.
From cheap and cheerful local eateries to top notch Michelin star restaurants, the food in Bordeaux is superb. For good value French classics, cheap wine and a buzzing atmosphere, La Brasserie Bordelaise is a local St Pierre institution, while around the corner at La Cigale, a bevy of cute waiters has cemented its position as Bordeaux’s most popular gay friendly restaurant.
After 11pm, Bordeaux’s exclusively gay venues spring to life. Le Trou Duck is Bordeaux’s old faithful, a pint sized corner bar that defiantly blasts out trashy music in the heart of Bordeaux’s elegant pedestrian zone.
In terms of attitude, Bordeaux may be up its own ‘cul’, but after all it is a port city and in true maritime tradition there is no shortage of sleazy cruise joints and saunas. Buster Bar is the dimly lit cream of the crop where Querelle encounters are two a euro. Elsewhere a trio of saunas: Hugo, Thiers and Saint-Jean attract a smouldering crowd of local mecs and their admirers.
Finally, if you have time, don’t miss Bordeaux’s beautiful coastline. South west of the city, The Bassin d’Arcachon, a vast lagoon fringed by pretty oyster villages, is one of France’s most exclusive holiday destinations.
North of the Bassin a wild beach lashed by Atlantic breakers stretches for miles. Here you’ll find one of Europe’s most beautiful gay beaches, Le Porge, which on hot summer weekends is packed with gay Bordelais who come here for surfing, picnics on the sand and countless ooh la las in the dunes.
Bordeaux may not have a gay village but in terms of gay quality of life, few cities can match the beautiful and sophisticated ‘Port of the Moon’.
Travel by Train: Fares from London to Bordeaux start at £111 standard class return. All fares are per person and subject to availability. For bookings visit voyages-sncf.com or call 0844 848 5848. Personal callers are welcome at the Voyages-sncf Travel Centre, 193 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EU.
Accommodation: Double rooms at Mama Shelter start at €69 per night. mamashelter.com/en/bordeaux
Headline image: Christophe Bouthe