Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2010-01-04
There’s nothing more exciting than discovering a famous city when it flies in the face of its reputation... This is the case of Bordeaux, long deemed “arrogant” and “inward looking”... The world wine capital has been transformed in recent years to such an extent that it has become the liveliest and most cosmopolitan city in the southwest.
The world wine capital has been transformed in recent years to such an extent that it has become the liveliest and most cosmopolitan city in the southwest.
Bordeaux – the extraordinary metamorphosis
Renovation of the quaysides, rehabilitation of the port warehouses, development of the right bank of the Garonne, setting up of the tramway, restoration of the monuments, pedestrianisation of streets, creation of 550 km (342 miles) of cycle paths... The works carried out at an incredible pace since 2000 have suddenly turned Bordeaux into a luminous and welcoming city, as European as Barcelona, Naples or Amsterdam...
Less than 3 hours from Paris by TGV and two hours from Spain, France’s 6th city in terms of number of inhabitants (230,000) and GDP (67 billion euros) is a gem of classical architecture. But behind its magnificent façades, Bordeaux is also a lively city – sometimes unusual – that one has to learn to enjoy.
The quaysides: one of France’s finest promenades
The most spectacular aspect of this metamorphosis is, of course, the renovation of the quaysides of the Garonne which, over a 4.5 km (3 mile) stretch, have been returned to their former glory – the port of Bordeaux was, in the 18th century, the leading port in France and second in Europe.
Accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, these 80-metre wide quaysides were redesigned by town planner Michel Corajoud. From the popular Saint-Michel district (in the south) to the former warehouses of the Quai de Bacalan (in the north), they make a magnificent walk along the Garonne, which has at last been re-humanised. Far from being rectilinear in accordance with the canons of contemporary town planning, on the contrary they form a mosaic, with each district having its own ambiance by the riverside. Thus, in the popular Quai Sainte-Croix area, a 5-hectare (12-acre) park is being created where people will be able to play volleyball and basketball by June 2008. On Quai de la Douane, an immense mirror is going to be laid in the ground in order to reflect the Place de la Bourse, the architectural jewel of Bordeaux. The Quai des Chartrons, for its part, is no longer the noisy merchant district where barrels and trucks blocked the way. Its 18th century houses have been totally restored and the quayside now accommodates the terraces of restaurants and guinguettes (cafes with music and dancing), children’s play areas and a renowned Sunday market.
Strolling along these quaysides in 1838, Stendhal wrote: “Bordeaux is inarguably the most beautiful city in France.” Not long ago, the phrase seemed excessive, but today it’s a different story...
The tramway, the city’s other great construction site
Abandoned in 1950 in favour of the bus, the tramway (which at that time had 38 lines on a 200 km/124 mile network!) is today making its great comeback... and has been modernised to boot! Since its inauguration in December 2003, the Bordeaux tramway has used a totally new process over quite a considerable distance (43.7 km/27 miles): the APS (Alimentation par le sol) system of ground-level power supply, which makes it possible to protect the historic heritage by getting rid of overhead lines. Creating new residential areas, particularly on the outskirts of Bordeaux and on the right bank, the tramway is the backbone that is restructuring Bordeaux and its suburbs. The market for property along its lines has been stimulated and the 70,000 students, who were previously confined to their campuses, now have direct access to the city centre... After 50 years of a transport policy centred on the automobile, the stated aim of the city council is to make Bordeaux – thanks to the tramway – an environment-friendly city where the inhabitants will leave their cars in the car park.
A forgotten place: the Botanical Garden
The Bastide district on the right bank of the Garonne was once devoted to the industrial activities of the port. Facing the fantastic theatrical setting of the left bank, where each 18th century house is a work of art, one cannot fail to be taken aback by the right bank’s landscape of industrial wasteland! Nevertheless, the locals like to come and picnic here when the weather is fine, walking or cycling across the Pont de Pierre, which was built in 1822 and is 487 metres long. From this bridge or from the banks, the panorama that takes in the Place de la Bourse or Place des Quinconces is fabulous and makes for the best photographs, particularly in late morning. Originally created in 1726 for doctors and apothecaries, the botanical garden stretches out opposite the jetty where the cruise ships berth*. This space, which won the European Landscape Award in 2003, consists of an aquatic garden, crisscrossed with paths, and a “community garden” cultivated by the riverside residents. Here, over an area of 13,500 m2, you can explore a reconstruction of the Aquitaine Basin with its dunes, cliffs, plains and moors. The botanical garden also sets out to be a space for education and heightening public awareness to the problems related to water shortage: the watering of the plots is economical and inspired by the techniques used in the Sahel region of Africa.
Bordeaux at play…
As regards nightlife and fun, until now Bordeaux was considered not to measure up to its rival Toulouse... But that time has gone! Just have a wander around the Saint-Pierre district, adjacent to Place de la Bourse, from 6pm. Whether it be the very Italianate Place du Parlement (whose fountain is surrounded by café terraces), the Place Saint-Pierre (where those partial to organic wines meet at the Bô Bar) or Place Camille Jullian (frequented by film buffs with season tickets to L’Utopia)... old Bordeaux is bursting with good spirits every evening! Although the students have their headquarters inside the immense Bodegon Rock Café, on Place de la Victoire, night time revellers tend to frequent the wet docks located to the north, on Quai Armand Lalande. These old maritime warehouses have been converted into trendy bars, restaurants and nightclubs (such as the famous Dame de Shanghai in Hangar G2).
Day or night, we recommend a stroll around the more intimate Saint-Michel district, which with its picturesque bars is the most Mediterranean part of Bordeaux. The Café de la Fraternité is renowned for its terrace and mint tea while the Girondia is particularly appreciated for its authentic tapas. In the morning, the Marché des Capucins (market) is a melting pot of heady scents where Portuguese, Spaniards, Moroccans, Turks and long-time inhabitants of Bordeaux come to buy live poultry or rabbits... In rue Elie-Gintrac the all-season stallholders bustle about and perpetuate the traditional working-class dialect. Around the Tour Saint-Michel erected in the 15th century, the Sunday morning flea market is also a cosmopolitan place where you can exchange furniture and postcards.
Where to stay
“Une chambre en ville”
Located in rue Bouffard, renowned for its antique dealers, this set of 5 air-conditioned B&B rooms spread over 3 floors is a haven of peace and quiet in the heart of historic Bordeaux. The 18th century building was perfectly restored by Ruud Van de Pol, a young art lover originating from Amsterdam. The breakfast room displays engravings and paintings by Gérard Béringer, a great portrait painter born in 1947, whose expressionist work, celebrated by Jean Clair (director of the Picasso Museum) and art dealer Heinz Berggruen, is in the vein of Julian Freund. 79 euros (about £53) a night. 8 (about £5) euros for breakfast.
An exceptional heritage
Bordeaux is both a mineral city, with its buildings of blond stone from Aquitaine, and a Mediterranean city, with its trees, fountains and squares inspired by Italian architecture. Above all, between the heat of the Landes and the coolness of the ocean, Bordeaux is a temperate city, which is reflected in its classical 18th century architecture.
Without going through the list of all the monuments, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Bordeaux has to be discovered through its places of interest and buildings which, magnificently restored, make this old merchant city a work of art – just like Amsterdam or Venice.
An absolute must: Place de la Bourse
Place de la Bourse is to Bordeaux what Place de la Concorde is to Paris. Both were designed by the same architect: Jacques-Ange Gabriel (1698-1782), great servant of Louis XVI and Louis XV, to whom we also owe the Versailles Opera House and Petit Trianon... Place de la Bourse was built in the midst of the quaysides, between 1730 and 1755. It has the distinctive feature of being horseshoe-shaped with, at its centre, a fountain of the Three Graces (Trois-Grâces). Its arcaded façades with high windows are adorned with wrought-iron balconies. At midday, the sun illuminates this little gem facing the Garonne. The square has been repaved and closed to traffic.
The Grand Théâtre
There was a time (from 1987 to 1995 to be precise) when the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux – at that time directed by the great conductor Alain Lombard – was an international showcase for the city, at least as prestigious as its football club, the Girondins de Bordeaux... Although the musical policy of Bordeaux today seems to lag somewhat behind Montpellier and Toulouse, the Grand Théâtre nonetheless remains a veritable masterpiece that must be visited at all costs! Set on Place de la Comédie, in the heart of the chic part of Bordeaux, it was built in 1780 by architect Victor Louis (1731-1800) on the remains of a Gallo-Roman temple. Bordeaux, which was at the time incredibly wealthy thanks to its commercial port, wanted to compete with Paris by endowing itself with one of the most beautiful theatres in France. Indeed, its 88-m-long classical-style façade, surmounted by a balustrade, is of dazzling purity. Wagner was one of the regular spectators of the Bordeaux Opera. On show nights, the Grand Théâtre shines in all its splendour!
The Hôtels particuliers
For a long time Bordeaux was home to a whole elite of the Ancien Régime, composed of magistrates and rich merchants. They had magnificent town houses (hôtels particuliers) built, adorned with grotesque masks and wrought iron, some of them with gardens. You can admire some of these buildings in rue Paul-Painlevé (old Hôtel de l’Intendance) and rue de Castillon (Hôtel de Copmartin at number 9, renowned for its monumental carriage gateway, and Hôtel de Rolland at number 13; also note the pharmacy at number 28, decorated with a superb engraved sign eulogizing Eau de mélisse des Carmes, a lemon-balm liqueur). On the corner of rue Margaux and rue de Cheverus you will see the Hôtel de Brassier, whose carriage gateway is topped by a hideous mask intended to repel evil spirits... François Mauriac lived here for 5 years.
The pedestrian streets
Bordeaux, once choked by motor traffic, can now breathe thanks to its many pedestrian streets. From Place de la Comédie to Place de la Victoire, rue Sainte-Catherine, which follows the route of the old Roman road, is the longest shopping street in Europe (1.2 km/0.7 miles long).
The Cours de l’Intendance, sloping gently between the beautiful Louis XV-style Place Gambetta and Place de la Comédie, is given over to luxury and haute couture shops. In the morning, when the avenue is empty and the sun makes the paving stones gleam, it offers a fine view of the Grand Théâtre and quaysides.
Rue Vital Carles contains a monument of Bordeaux life: the Librairie Mollat! This bookshop, founded over a century ago, has been frequented at one time or another by every inhabitant of Bordeaux old enough to buy a book... Despite the arrival of the FNAC chain, Mollat has expanded and is now one of the biggest bookshops in France, with its 5 shops spread over 2,200 m2. Exhibitions, rare books, conferences, publishing house... An authentic focal point for the intellectual life of Bordeaux!
Every year about twenty liners drop anchor right in the city centre. Bordeaux is France’s second port of call for cruise ships on the Atlantic coast.
Une chambre en ville
35 rue Bouffard.
Tel: 05 56 81 34 53