Blond Bordeaux

Bordeaux is like a classy lady.  She is as sophisticated as the chic women I see walking around, similar in their elegant attire and pillared heels. And if she is a lady, she is blond. All her buildings in the town centre are of creamy stone, with classic columns, carvings and statues and the most wrought iron I have ever seen.

Wrought iron 1

I walk around looking up at the eighteenth century architecture and it leaves a strong impression on me. Even ordinary buildings which now house modern shops below have fabulous works of art above their doors or on window supports.

Statur merman 1

Statue lady

Nowhere is this style more prominently on display than around the Place Quinconces where the Grand Théâtre dominates the square with its colonnades and Corinthian columns inspired by antiquity. The building is dramatically crowned by the 9 muses and 3 goddesses and gazes across at the refined hotel opposite.

Grand Theatre 1

Grand Theatre 2

Place Quinconces 1
I also adore the dramatic Monument aux Girondins.

Monument aux Girondins 1

Girondins 3

Girondins 2

Girondins horses 1

Girondins men

The 34 iron statues were evidently sold to the Germans during the occupation of France, to be smelted down – for armoury I assume. But it seems the Germans could not bear to destroy them and they turned up completely unexpectedly many years later in Angers. I am glad they were not lost to the foundries. It is perhaps appropriate that the black statue at the summit of the column is the winged lady Liberty, dramatically breaking her iron chains in two.

Bordeaux is a very large modern city and Atlantic port, built on a wide river estuary, so a visitor inevitably sees only a small proportion of it. The suburbs will not all be as alluring – including where I rent a small flat in the old Chartrons area, which is not upmarket but extremely convenient, just a few tram stops into the town centre.

The crescent-shaped ‘Port de la Lune’ has been undergoing major renovation for some years and the Chartrons quayside area has been completely redeveloped after falling into ruin. When the building project is finished this area will house another 10,000 people by 2030.

Now the ‘Bordelais’ people can cycle or walk the length of the Quai de Bacalan, at one end of which is a thoroughly modern new bridge, the Pont Chaban-Delmas, and at the other the ancient stone ‘Pont de Pierre’ built in 1875 allowing the wide Garonne to be crossed here for the first time.   The Chaban-Delmas bridge opens to allow large cruise liners to pass through at certain times of the day and my civil engineer brother will love the fact that it does not open outwards from the middle but instead its flat central panel, the ‘tablier’, lifts straight up, vertically, like an elevator, 53 meters high into its steel cables. The bridge is Europe’s largest lift bridge and cost 160 millions euros when it was completed in 2013.

When one promenades along this long quay one eventually passes the Place de la Bourse and its renaissance fountain, in front of which a popular feature was added in 2006 – ‘Le Mirroir d’Eau’. Inspired by Venice in winter say its creators, a fog of mist is periodically released to hover over the paving stones and reflect the landmark buildings behind much to everyone’s delight.

Mist 1

After your riverside promenade you can enter the old town and just meander through the rambling streets, now and then coming across a street sign to point your way along the Chemin de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle or a golden shell set into the pavement to guide your feet there. One brass plaque explains about the pilgrim route and finally exclaims enthusiastically : “Let us take up our staff!”

St J sign 1

The St Jacques pilgrims came this way along the ancient route called Via Turonensis in Latin passing through Saint-Jean-D’Angely as I did and entering the city by the Porte Cailhou, as I also do, before making their way to one of the city churches, most notably the Cathedral of St André.

The Porte Cailhau

The Porte Cailhau

St Andre 1

The Cathedral St André

The Portail des Flèches - Gate of Arrows

The Cathedral’s Portail des Flèches – Gate of Arrows

St André stands in the middle of a large square which is edged by romantic cafés with ivory and yellow awnings on the outside and beautiful belle époque wooden stalls and large gilt-framed mirrors within. The square also houses the authoritative Hotel De Ville which today is the scene of a ‘say no to breast cancer’ demonstration in which I participate.

Hotel de Ville

The cathedral’s Royal Portal is renowned and amongst the large stone bishops and the scene of the Last Judgement stands Saint James, holding a staff and a money purse in the shape of a shell. It is strange to discover that this exquisite 13th century portal was originally brightly painted. The paint was scraped off in the 19th century but traces still remain so some statues have coloured eyes and pink toned skin. The French architect, Viollet Le Duc was said to have been ‘so astonished’ by some of these statues that he had them cast and reproduced on one of the gates of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Royal Portal

The ‘Portail Royal’

The doorway is called the Royal Portal because there have been several royal marriages celebrated in this gothic cathedral, including Louis XIII of France to Anne of Austria in 1613, and Philip IV of Spain to Henry IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of France. The cathedral does seem to have a sense of dignity inside, befitting Kings and Queens of Europe, and I particularly admire its multi-coloured medieval columns and colossal organ. I do not get a feel for the pilgrims who have passed this way though. I think Bordeaux’s architecture, not its spiritual history, has dominated my mind and emotions during my stay.

St Andre organ

Outside I notice that the cathedral’s repairs are being undertaken by the enigmatic Saint Jacques-de-Compostelle ‘companions’, and even a van and site sign bear this significant name.

SJ Van

As you meander you will come across the pretty parliament square with its dozens of stone masks high on the building walls, each one with a different face, and you will find the other city gates – the Porte Dijeaux and the Porte de St Eloi with its ‘Grande Cloche’ bell tower which still rings out on special festival days such as the 14 July and at one time housed a prison for petty criminals.

Grande cloche 1

The Porte St Eloi and the Grande Cloche.

One inevitably also encounters the modern shopping street, La Rue Sainte-Catherine, which at 1,150 meters is the longest in France. It is not very pleasant in my view but the sight of all the seething crowds along its length is quite something.

Bordeaux is of course one of the most famous wine growing districts in the world and a trip here is not complete without visiting her vineyards. I take a leisurely drive around the countryside, wondering who on earth picks all the grapes these days.  In discussion with a grower later I learn that there are still many French people who come to do so, often the same families having a long-held relationship with certain vineyards. However some of the grapes are now also harvested by machine here.

St Emilion 1

I end up, like everyone else does I imagine, at Saint-Emilion. It is such a pretty golden stone village and one can still get a feel for its charm and history despite it being completely taken over now by tourism. There are dozens of wine dealers enticing you into their shops to taste their award-winning wines, then doing a hard sell whilst you sip your sample.  But you can lose the tradesmen when you climb the cobbled streets and sit in a café in the sunshine watching the world go by, or gaze down on the sandy-brown rooftops from the parapets above.

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St Emilion roofs 1

St Emilion street



One Response to “LA BELLE BORDEAUX”
  1. Elegance is the one word that embodies all that is Bordeaux, in my opinion 🙂

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