Last week I paid a visit to a city I have long been interested in seeing. Thanks to friends of my sister, Caroline & Olivier, I was able to stay in town.
We took the old-style train (no TGV yet!) and moved away from the heat and dryness of Provence to the temperate and humid riparian zone that surrounds Bordeaux. Not being particularly interested in what makes this region so famous—their wines!—I just wandered around the city proper to discover its sites and character.
It is a very handsome town, with stately 18th century buildings showing off lots of limestone detailing and ironwork balconies . The big buildings look very much like Parisian multi-storey structures, with grey slate roofing; the small ones, made of the same materials, are just typically Bordelais 1. I could see a vast difference between the sections of town that had been cleaned and restored 2, and the blackened neighbourhoods that hadn’t received such attentions. I got a crick in my neck from gazing at all the interesting things above, including the characteristic mascarons 3, ornamental faces carved into the lintels. Apparently, these cartoonish masks originated in Roman times as a way to keep off the evil eye. I saw gods and goddesses, animals and various heads depicting different expressions. The name, mascaron, has its etymology in mascara, the Arab word for clown.
Up above are also the iconic Bordelais hanging copper street lamps 4. And, as I’ve seen in many cities, where falcons and hawks have found a symbiotic relationship with the townsfolk, I noticed a raptor being chased by protective mamma and papa birds.5
My exploration started at the 12th century Cathedrale St. André and the 16th-century Tour Pey Berland 6, smack in the center of town. I learned that the original organ was melted down during the Revolution (gotta love war priorities) and this one was constructed in the 1870’s and further modified in 1982 7.
I walked east towards the river and under the Porte Cailhau, built in the mid 15th century. Coming out on the river’s edge I followed it north towards the splendid Place de la Bourse, the heart of this commercial city, reflected to great success in the “Miroir d’Eau” 8, the biggest shallow reflecting pool in the world. Tourists love to cavort in the 2-centimetre-deep water, which periodically spews fog on the merry makers. I could see the russet Pont de Pierre from the flowery park that lines the river here.
Another famous building is “La grosse Cloche” (the big bell) 9. It sits atop St. James Street (the Gascons preferred the English version of the saint named St. Jacques to the rest of France), along the path taken by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela . Although the site thus has religious associations, this 15th century structure has and had an entirely civic function: In olden times, the magistrates would ring it to announce the vendanges as well as fires in the town. The bell is a symbol of the proud independence of the Bordelais. Newly uncomfortable under the thumb of the French king (see below) the city rebelled, and was punished by the melting of the original bell. The Bordelais rejoiced in 1561 to restore a bell in the tower, still a symbol of the city (see their coat of arms in my illustration).
In a sprinkle of rain, I turned back south to visit the museum d’Aquitaine and learn what I could about the town and the Aquitaine province.
This region of France has some prehistoric sites, scattered as usual, with primitive “Venuses” carved from the local limestone 10. The Romans also settled here, naming the town region Aquitaine and the city Burdigala, and it looks, from this statue, like they too enjoyed the Bordeaux wine 11. From their collection, I particularly liked a bas relief (one of two almost exactly the same) of a little girl with her pet dog and a chicken 12.
The history of Bordeaux is not without darkness. Since the Norman Conquest, and as the capital of the Duchy of Guyenne/Gascony/Aquitaine, this part of France was actually under English sovereignty, and when there was a dispute as to the succession of the French crown (due to the French disallowing the possibility of a female regent), war broke out, pitting the English Plantagenets, along with their local Gascon and Burgundian allies, against the increasingly mighty French Valois Kingdom, with its allies, including the Aragon kingdom and the Scots. Starting with an invasion by Edward III of England in 1337, the war dragged on, encompassing the years of the Black Death, the Battle of Agincourt, and Joan of Arc’s dramatic performance; it ended after the capture of Bordeaux and the city’s last desperate battle, the Battle of Castillon.
The Gironde estuary, where the Dordogne and Garonne rivers empty into the Atlantic, is cut out for a prosperous shipping trade. It is also clearly an ideal growing spot for vineyards. The town is a mercantile-based town of wealth. As it has been since Roman times, Bordeaux is an important center of the lucrative wine industry. The medieval Plantagenet/Eleanor of Aquitaine connection secured its position serving the English markets, which launched the beginning of a profitable industry. I did not visit the Cité du Vin (at 20€ an entrance ticket, I passed; but what really turned me off was the architecture of this new museum, which looked to me a lot like a yellow-cellophane-covered cow patty) so I cannot report further on the Bordeaux wines 13.
Along with the wine trade, Bordeaux has a less salubrious reason for its wealth: Slavery 14*. The generous harbour was an ideal spot from which to launch a very lucrative trade in humans. Behind those stately 18th-century bourgeois façades is this ugly truth. The very families who so contributed to the civic triumphs were the same ones who commanded this shameful trafficking.
After my visit to the Musée d’Aquitaine, and its exhibit about the French Slave Trade, my heart was lifted by a chance encounter at the Basilique St. Michel (another Gothic cathedral, from around the 15th-century), which appears to be at the centre of a culturally mixed neighbourhood 15. The church was open for visitors like me, but was celebrating an interracial marriage 16, and that gave me hope for the future of the Bordelais (citizens of Bordeaux) and all of us.
I rounded out my downtown explorations with a visit to the Museum of Beaux Arts, which backs up to the Hotel de Ville and a pretty garden 17 which features a Diana statue 18, along with a very impressive gilt gate 19.
My visit coincided with what seems like an interminable Match du Foot— the “UEFA Euro 2016” 20, and flag-draped people were everywhere.
I feel I wouldn’t be telling the whole experience if I didn’t mention the fact that during my stay, along with the Match, there was a garbage strike 22, so many of the otherwise charming spots were marred by doors redolent of New York back in the bad old days.
I ended my day with a nice café frappé at the plaza where I had started, in front of the Hotel de Ville 21—And no, these handsome men were not part of my retinue. On Sunday, my hosts took me to visit the hip and cool complex that combines, in a very Californian way, recycled materials, organic gardens and restaurants, and a tattoo parlour, along with housing for artists/and or homeless people. It is called Darwin and resides in the old military barracks across the way from the main part of town.
We also enjoyed an unusual lunch in the park. In the magical way things of a city develop, it has become the custom for some culinarily-inclined Vietnamese residents to set up little tents in a park outside the city centre where they cook Vietnamese dishes on camp stoves with picnic coolers providing refrigeration. I had shrimp bún and an banh xèo, a crepe/omelette.
* The inscription on the 1772 engraving depicting coffee production translates “That which serves your pleasures is watered with our tears”. The frightening sculpture is from the kingdom of Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin), once an important slaving trading post. It is a Voodoo-type fetish used for protection and is made with slave chains and crocodile skulls.