“Can I help you at all?” asked one in a succession of Bordelais as I wrestled with the Tourist Office map. Mostly, we knew where we were going, although it didn’t look like it. However, this was typical of the helpful attitude we encountered last weekend in the capital of Aquitaine. The Bordelais are proud of their city, and rightly so.
Here, I have to admit – as I often do – that in our 17 years here we had not yet set foot in Bordeaux. Determined at last to put this right, we combined a visit with the SF’s birthday.
Rather than get stressed out driving in a strange city, we decided to let the train take the strain. The high speed train (TGV) takes 1h40m from Montauban to Bordeaux, so it was a no-brainer. The shiny recent tram system that the city has installed made getting about the centre easy, too, although most of the sights are within easy walking distance.
The city has benefited from a radical makeover in recent years. The stone façades have been scoured and the formerly rundown riverfront transformed. Central Bordeaux became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. Countless buildings are historic monuments.
The pièce de résistance is probably the Place de la Bourse, fronted by a shallow expanse of water, the miroir d’eau. A statue of Louis XV – no longer there – once stood before this former business exchange. There’s a fantastic view of the river and the curving waterfront from here.
Reminders of Bordeaux’s origins as an important port and wine trade centre are everywhere. Much of the city is built on an imposing scale, with broad boulevards, majestic buildings and immense squares. Wealthy merchants demolished some of the older medieval buildings during the 18th century and replaced them with grander palaces. Typical of this architecture is the Place de la Comédie, dominated by the neo-classical façade of the Grand Théâtre.
Nearby, the huge Esplanade des Quinconces, established in 1820, is said to be the biggest square in Europe. A massive monument (1893-1902) decorated with over-elaborate sculptures honours the Girondins, bourgeois businessmen who were victims of the Revolutionary Reign of Terror. They symbolised the Bordelais’ independence of spirit.
Soaring spires are also a trademark of Bordeaux. The separate bell tower of the Gothic Saint-Michel Basilica is said to be the tallest building in southwest France at 114 metres high. It’s known as la Flêche (the arrow).
The 11th-century Cathedral of Saint-André also has a free-standing 15th –century bell tower, the Tour Pey-Berland, topped with a gilded statue of Our Lady of Aquitaine. Eleanor (or more correctly, Aliénor) of Aquitaine married her first husband, Louis VII of France, at the cathedral in 1137, sowing the seeds of centuries of conflict between France and England.
A history freak like me is in their element in a city like Bordeaux. We walked and walked (we also ate and drank) but there’s still plenty left for another visit. Of course, being France, there was the inevitable dog poo at strategic points, but we were struck by how clean and litter-free the city is.
Markets, food and museums are the subject of Bordeaux post #2, coming up soon.
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