Like a new variant let loose on an unsuspecting nation, rugby fever is sweeping through France in September as the World Cup sets up shop from Paris to the Med. But, and I realise this may border on sacrilegious, it’s not all about the rugby, right?
Because beyond the stadiums of Bordeaux and Marseille, where bloodied men battle it out on the fields of France, there is so much more to explore. So whether you’ve got a few days to spare between the Bok’s scheduled group matches, or are just happy to leave the stadium fervour to others, set aside some time to explore all that these historic cities have to offer…
While rugby fans are in the queue at the Stade de Bordeaux, chances are you’ll find me in the top-floor wine-tasting bar of Bordeaux’s impressive La Cité du Vin, a riverside museum dedicated to the history, influence and art of winemaking. That’s because few wine regions in the world come with the same cachet as Bordeaux, where the Left and Right Bank of the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers are home to iconic names such as Latour, Lafite and Margaux.
If you don’t have time to venture into the winelands, Bordeaux has no shortage of diversions. Book a show at the impressive Opera House, opened in 1780, or simply wander happily down the charming alleys of the old town. Join the locals on the crescent-shaped quayside — it’s why Bordeaux was once dubbed the “moon harbour” — and you’ll marvel at the honey-coloured stone of the Place de la Bourse.
Be sure to climb to the top of the Pey-Berland bell tower for views downstream. Of course, you’ll start each day with un café and one of the delicious canelé pastries the city is known for. But Bordeaux is just as famous for oysters, plucked from the Gironde estuary downstream. A reliable favourite is Le Cabane Cent Un, serving shucked oysters from nearby Cap Ferret. Lastly, allow an afternoon to explore the new precinct of Darwin, a former military base transformed into a creative hub home to organic restaurants, street art, skate parks and boutiques.
When the Springboks return to Marseille’s impressive Stade Velodrome — France’s second-largest stadium — in early October, chances are they won’t have time to wander the cobbled alleyways of this charming port city. Made up of more than 100 neighbourhoods, or quartiers-villages, Marseille is one of the oldest cities in Europe and traces its history back to Roman times. That rich history is on full display in Le Panier, the oldest district, but you’ll also want to wander the colonnades of Palais Longchamp, and climb the Notre-Dame de la Garde for glorious views of the city and Mediterranean beyond.
History aside, there’s a cultural side to the city too. The wonderful Musée des Beaux-Arts de Marseille exhibits works by notable European artists, while the Musée Cantini boasts one of the country’s largest collections of modern art. And certainly don’t miss the striking architecture of the MuCEM — Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean
Worked up an appetite? Bouillabaisse is the star of the show in Marseille, and chefs will make their morning pilgrimage to the seafood market on Vieux Port to select fresh line fish — usually gurnard, red mullet and bream — for this famous seafood broth. You’ll find it everywhere from humble seafood street stalls to Michelin-starred eateries — Gérald Passédat’s Le Petit Nice is especially famous — that will dent your pocket and please your palate.
With the rich immigrant community common to so many port cities, you’ll also find wonderful North African food here. End your day with cocktails at Le Dantès Skylounge with inspired cocktails and glorious views over the historic port.