‘Spices, slaves and grapes…that’s how this city got rich’, says our guide Veronique Baggio as she walks me through the medieval quarter of the city. The city of Bordeaux in France is synonymous with wine and curves in the shape of a crescent moon along the Garonne River. It’s the same thing that has led to its poetic name, Port de la Lune. Bordeaux has a long complex history as it was ruled by Celtic tribes, the Romans, the English and finally the French. In the 18th Century it was the largest port in France, when it prospered due to trade with the West Indies and Africa. A decade ago the city was covered in grime and neglect and shady characters walked the waterfront. Today you have to raise your glass to Mayor Alain Juppe, who spearheaded an ambitious urban renewal project. The blackened limestone facades were scrubbed clean of pollution and soot, and resurrected to their honeyed glory. Squares and public buildings were lit up, bicycle lanes, gardens and pedestrianised promenades were laid out. A state-of-the-art tramline was constructed that whizzes past with underground electricity, so that ugly cables do not distract you from the exquisite city skyline. Today, the city has one of the largest urban areas on the UNESCO heritage list – 347 monuments in an area of 1,800 hectares.
History beams from every corner of the city. Vieux Bordeaux or the Old quarter is atmospheric with narrow streets lined with old churches and grandiose mansions. Bordeaux has more than 5,000 listed buildings and I am not surprised to hear that Baron Haussmann, the architect who turned medieval Paris into a modern city used Bordeaux’s 18th Century plan! I am entranced by the intricate wrought iron balconies and the distinctive mascarons – comical stone masks and faces above the doors and windows of buildings that look down at tourists, walking on the serpentine streets. I spot African women’s faces in stone – testimony to the slave trade that brought wealth to Bordeaux and scalloped shells paved into the floor, indicating that Bordeaux was a favoured stop on the iconic pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. I am enchanted by the whimsy of the Le miroir d’eau, a flat fountain on granite slabs with plumes of mist that creates an optical illusion, reflecting the magnificent buildings of the Place de la Bourse. It has been described as the ‘most beautiful puddle in the world’. Children in swimsuits play gleefully; adults walk and dogs run around splashing water on bystanders. Far away in the distance is the Port de Pierre with its seventeen arches — one for each letter in the name of Napoleon Bonaparte who ordered it to be built. Difficult to construct initially because strong currents would bring it down, engineers succeeded only after 12 years. Next thing, I enjoy the ‘hidden Bordeaux’ that our guide introduces us to — Rue Vivet with its endearing little square and unique green wall, created when medieval buildings were torn down to make way for apartments.
Designed by botanist Patrick Blanc, lush plants grow out of small pockets in the walls creating a long ‘vertical garden’, around a small play park for children. Marie Yvonne Holley, our friend from Aquitaine Tourism takes us to the quirky Cafe Utopia housed in the old 17th century St Simeon’s church (which has been a gymnasium and garage) before it morphed into a grungy bar cum cinema and art complex, which screens alternative cinema from across the world. We have huge platters of salads and sandwiches and enjoy the warm ambience of its interiors with vaulted ceilings, swinging doors, old church seats, grandfather clocks and retro film posters. This space doubles up as a cultural centre with pamphlets and flyers about events as well as a place where local activists sign petitions. Wine has been made in Bordeaux since Roman times and more than 10,000 estates make their living from these fertile soils. One in every six persons works in the wine industry and some of the world’s most expensive wines like Medoc and Sauternes, come from the picture book chateaus fringing the city. I am in the city at the time of the biennial Fete du Vin – the Wine Festival when the city is a flood of wine tastings, trips to chateaus and the waterfront is covered with conical white tents showcasing more than 80 appellations of wines, and larger than- life wine bottles decorated by graphic artists and painters. To really understand the complex world of wines and the French concept of terroir, I take trips to vineyards in the region. I am engulfed in a sea of wines and spirits of all descriptions and vintages, ranging from vin de pays to premium classified first growths as I visit flamboyant chateaus behind forbidding walls. Bordeaux is not just about wine – it’s a gastronomic paradise with Turkish delis, Irish pubs and Indian restaurants rubbing shoulders with elegant French restaurants serving foie gras (fattened duck’s liver), oysters from Arcachon and the quintessential signature pastry Caneles, with a soft centre and a hard crust made in traditional copper moulds, from flour, milk, rum, vanilla and sugar. They say that the caneles were invented to make use of the egg yolk which was left over, when egg whites were used to filter wine. The eclectic Sunday flea market in its shadows with African masks, vintage furniture, retro clothes and old books is an enjoyable experience. I trawl through Rue Saint Catherine which was once a Roman road, and indulge in the classic French habit of lecher des vitrines or window shopping; today it is touted to be the longest shopping street of Europe filled with both luxury shopping and small boutiques filled chock-a-bloc with classy French women with their children and pets. Today Bordeaux is simply herself – with a unique identity forged by history segueing with modern innovation – her head in the future but her feet deeply entrenched in her glorious past.
Bordeaux is wine country and to understand how to sniff and swirl wine head to L’ecole du Vin de Bordeaux across the street from the Grand Theatre. Enrol in a wine tasting class or a wine appreciation course. Housed in a former 19th century spice warehouse, CAPC Le Musée d’Art Contemporain museum with three levels of arcades is almost as big a draw as the art itself.
About the author
Kirat Sodhi loves to travel, read and is a theatre enthusiast. You can contact her on twitter @KiratSodhi.