Nicola Heath writes: Flying into Bordeaux on our way to the French Atlantic coast, I hadn’t considered the city much beyond the airport and a cheap hotel. It won’t surprise those who have visited the city before, or those who are better researchers than me, but Bordeaux was a revelation.

We walked from our hotel, cheap and cheerful and near the Gare de Bordeaux Saint-Jean, to the centre of town via the churches of Sainte-Croix and St Michel, eventually arriving at the Cathedrale Saint-Andre de Bordeaux. At first the streets were shabby but still elegant, and the open doorways we passed emitted faint wafts of mustiness. We passed through a Turkish neighbourhood filled with shops selling fruit and veg and eventually down to a pedestrian mall thronged with Saturday afternoon shoppers. At the bottom of the mall runs a main thoroughfare, where we ran into a protest march. Blocks of demonstrators wearing their union colours marched alongside vehicles blaring music and presumable political slogans and chants through tinny speakers, like raucous, gaudy parade floats. We couldn’t read the banners but realised pretty quickly the people were marching against French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62. There were probably similar protests happening all over France that afternoon.

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We wandered around the Cathedrale Saint Andre de Bordeaux, where Eleanor of Aquitaine married her first husband, Louis VII of France, in 1137. The cathedral was consecrated by Pope Urban II in 1096, however most of the current building dates from the 14th and 15th centuries. Place Pey-Berland, a wide square, stretches along its nothern side, and groups of skaters make use of the open space at the western end. We crossed the square and walked along the Rue des Remperts, home to tempting shops that we dared not enter— chocolatiers, a macaroon seller, a surf shop, numerous salons de thé, and clothes shops.

Bordeaux is built on a grandiose scale. Baron Haussmann, the architect of Paris’s boulevards, used Bordeaux as inspiration when faced with the challenge of redesigning the unruly and malodourous medieval capital in the 1860s. Impressive buildings and open spaces dot Bordeaux. In the centre of the Place Gambetta is a French take on a traditional Engish garden; in the Place de la Comedie is the Grand Theatre, a colonnaded building with a reportedly splendid interior (I didn’t go in). A little further north, at the top of the Place des Quinconces is the Monument aux Girondins, a 50 metre column standing aloft two fountains built in 1902 to commemorate the federalist Girondins killed in the French Revolution.

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It could be that Bordeaux is always beautiful at dusk, but we arrived at the riverfront in time for a particularly beautiful sunset. The sky was lit through with lilac and the imposing sandstone buildings on the riverfront silhouetted by the setting sun, and the sunset streetscape was reflected in the much-photographed shallow pool at the Place de la Bourse. As darkness fell streets and numerous squares throughout the city were filled with tables of Bordelais drinking and eating. We stopped for a drink at La Comtesse and eyed off restaurant after restaurant until we finally took a seat.

The next day we went to the Musee d’Art Contemporain on the advice of a friend, and being the first Sunday of the month it was free too. A refurbished nineteenth century warehouse that had previously stored the commodities that fuelled Bordeaux’s wealth, the gallery has occupied the space since the 1970s. We spent the morning looking around the gallery’s exhibitions before leaving Bordeaux — wowed — for the coast.

Nic Heath lives in London, works in media and travels Europe at every opportunity (but she’s just snuck back to Australia to dodge the English winter). She blogs at nicopedia.

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