Wine capital of Western France
www.bordeaux-tourism.co.uk. Although Bordeaux is France’s ninth largest city, it is pleasantly relaxed and oddly provincial despite the obvious trappings of its wealth. This is a city built on wine, ‘dedicated to the worship of Bacchus in the most discreet form’ according to Henry James.
The region was put on the map by the Romans, and the wines of Burdi-gala were favoured above all others by successive emperors. Charlemagne created the city capital of the Duchy of Aquitaine in 788; later Eleanor of Aquitaine handed it to England on her marriage to Henry Plantagenet (later Henry II of England) in 1153. The English remained in control for 300 years and developed an exceptional fondness for Bordeaux wines, a taste which contributed handsomely to the city’s fortunes for centuries to come.
The 18thC was a boom time in Bordeaux, its Age d’Or. Aubert, Marquis de Tourny, the intendant (govenor), set about creating an elegant city centre worthy of such an illustrious bastion of the wine trade and in doing so demolished most of the medieval town. There are no promenades along the banks of the chocolate-brown Gironde, its business-like wharves separated from the city centre by a six-lane highway. But the heart of Bordeaux is immensely walkable with tree-lined boulevards, leafy parks and squares, sidewalk cafés and a maze of side streets.
The centrepiece of the 18thC town is place de la Comédie, where Victor Louis’ 1780 Grand Théâtre sports its elegant colonnade and classical statues. To the south, between rue Sainte-Catherine and the river, quartier Saint-Pierre was the fashionable haunt of Bordeaux’s wealthy merchants with many fine mansions around place du Parlement and place Saint-Pierre. Cours du XXX-Juillet leads north to the shady expanses of the Esplanade des Quinconces and the grandiose late-19thC Monument aux Girondins which commemorates Bordeaux’s liberal deputies executed during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. Streets radiate from here north to the botanical gardens and natural history museum in the Jardin Public; and west to place de Tourny where a statue of the urban-planning Marquis surveys his handiwork.
Bordeaux’s smartest shopping street, cours de l’lntendance, runs from place de la Comédie to place Gambetta. Around the square, cafés spill out from beneath arcaded Louis XV-style buildings and overlook the central garden through a stream of traffic. This is where the Revolutionary guillotine was set up, and where city centre buses now stop. A ten-minute walk north-west, the Basilique de Saint-Seurin was a minor pilgrimage stop; Charlemagne is said to have deposited Paladin Roland’s legendary oliphat (horn) here. Though the horn is long gone, there is a superb 13thC carved portal.
Antique sellers ply their wares along rue Bouffard south from Porte Dijeaux to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs et du Design. The museum’s collections of porcelain, glass and furniture are displayed in the Hôtel de Lalande, an 18thC town-house. Nearby, the Centre Nationale Jean Moulin, place Jean-Moulin, named for the famous French Resistance leader, turns its attentions to life and resistance under the Nazi occupation.
The heavily buttressed Cathédrale de Saint-André stands apart from its 15thC belfry on place Pey-Berland. Almost as big as Notre-Dame in Paris, but rather less exciting, the 11th-13thC ribbed nave flowers into a fine Rayon-nant Gothic choir. (Rayonnant describes the transitional phase between early Gothic and Flamboyant Gothic.) Behind the Hôtel de Ville, the Musée des Beaux-Arts overlooks the gardens off cours d’Albret (closed Tues). It is small and well-proportioned and includes a Breughel, a Rubens, a Matisse and a summery Renoir of plump strawberries; also works by Bor-delais artist Albert Marquet, and Médoc landscapes from Odilon Redon.
Not to be missed is the Musée d’Aquitaine, 20 cours Pasteur, for a fascinating overview of Bordeaux and the region. Together with artefacts from Roman Burdigala and de Tourny’s original street plans, there are displays of local costume and crafts, oyster cultivation and the strange life of the Landais shepherds who herd their flocks across the marshes balanced on stilts. Cours Pasteur runs on to the Porte d’Aquitaine, the ancient city gate, and there is a rather seedy district of run-down houses and narrow streets heading east to the river and the Tour Saint-Michel, a 109 m-high hexagonal tower detached from its tatty 15thC church. The shopping on rue Sainte-Catherine picks up as you head back to place de la Comédie.
For wine, make straight for the Vinothèque de Bordeaux, 8 cours de XXX-Juillet, which stocks more than 200 labels from the Bordeaux growing areas. For more information and details of wine tours, pop over the road to the helpful Maison du Vin de Bordeaux, 3 cours du XXX-Juillet (tel. 05 56 00 22 88).