A municipal sign such as the one on the right welcomes visitors to Gironde, the district around Bordeaux. The name was vaguely familiar to me from my limited knowledge of the French Revolution. The Gerondins were a group of commoners that were elected to the new parliament of France at the start of the revolution along with the likes of Robespierre and Danton. When the Reign of terror began, the Gerondin delegation was amongst the first to be sent to the Guiollitine for their less than complete acceptance of the new wave of revolutionary demands. Another famous revolutionary, Jean-Paul Marat, was a radical who was keen to keep the revolution pure and so demanded the deaths of many fellow revolutionaries, including the representatives of the Gerondin district, who had been imprisoned. His involvement in their death prompted his girlfriend, a Gerondin supporter, to murder him in 1793 while he was having a bath. He immediately became a martyr to the revolution and a famous painting of his death has come down to us to record the event.
We were travelling across France in 2019 in a motorhome, endeavouring to return it to its owners outside London. For our sins we had to decide what would be our stops along the way and so the city of Bordeaux was one we had chosen in advance, perhaps because we were familiar with its famous red wine. Motorhomes are not big city or old city friendly so the process was to find a camper car park within striking distance of the centre of Bordeaux and then make our way via public transport to the city centre. Little need to be said about the two-star quality of the Bel-Air Camping ground but it was 20 km from Bordeaux by bus and it was lucky we enjoyed the bus ride through the fields of France on the way to town. Our bus stop was called ‘Stalingrad’ and I was concerned perhaps the Bordeaux council housed a coterie of revisionists who dreamed of turning Bordeaux into a Stalinist enclave. To my relief I discovered it memorialized the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942/43 which was the largest confrontation of World War 2. My initial offended impression of Bordeaux was way off mark; I should have realized that if the Russians changed the name of Stalingrad to Volgagrad, the democratic French would have no alignment with the guy in line for the title of worst mass killer in history. My happy greeting at Place de Stalingrad was complete when I was met by a Blue Lion whose cheerful image set me up for a very enjoyable walk around the centre of Bordeaux.
Our bus station was on the opposite bank of the Garonne River to the centre of Bordeaux but a stone bridge with 17 arches, Pont de Pierre (1819-22), was a delightful method to approach our destination. One of the disappointments of only having one day to visit a city is that you have to decide how much you will see of that city before overload sets in and you have to relax, drink coffee or wine and then find your weary way to the bus stop for home. In the case of Bordeaux, this means we were going to miss out on some important sites. One of those was the lovely Basilica of St Michel that we could see off to our left as we crossed Pont de Pierre. Our choice to restrict our coverage of the city was to keep going straight up Cours Victor Hugo and walking past the first of our city gates, the Port de Boulogne. Unlike the other gates we passed this day, this was a comparatively recent gate built in 1750 to mark the entrance to the city.
Bordeaux has had a long history of human habitation and it always has had a great need for fortified walls. In recorded history, it started with the Celtic people who formed the town of Burdigala which became a centre of trade for tin and lead along the Atlantic Coast. Coming to the attention of the Romans, it eventually fell under their rule in 60 BCE. Alas the remains of a Roman amphitheatre still stands in Bordeaux today and can be visited by tourists with more time than us. It was outside of our walk zone so all I can do is present a photo here (courtesy Bordeaux Tourism) of these third century remains and put Le Palais Gallien on my list for the next time I am in Bordeaux.
When the Romans retreated to Italy, the fighting for Bordeaux’s strategic position and resources continued unabated for the next 1000 years with Vandals, Visigoths, Franks and Basques arriving for their share of the wealth of the area. Of course, Moor armies came north to harass Bordeaux as did the Vikings who came south in the 8th and 9th century. The next millennium didn’t get any better with English control over Bordeaux arriving for 3 centuries (13-15th), including it being the base for the famous rampaging Black Prince, a descendant of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most famous Queen of Bordeaux. It eventually fell to France in 1653 when Louis 14thth entered the city with his army. On my traipse around Bordeaux, there was plenty of information about the gates of the old fortification walls but little indication where the old walls themselves ran. Presumably they ran along the edge of the Garonne River but little evidence remains about the actual area of the city, the walls enclosed..,hopefully further research will give me these details.
Our first stop along Cours Victor Hugo was La Grosse Cloche which is one of the few remaining remnants of medieval Bordeaux and it certainly looked like a gate in search of a city wall. Alas this was not to be, however it did stand on the site of a 13th century gate which was part of the old ramparts. The bell in this clock tower is a weighty 7,750 tons.
From here we walked further along Victor Hugo’s street and turned into the longest ‘pedestrianised’ shopping street in Europe, Rue Sainte-Catherine. We had little time for shopping but some inclination for enjoying the manipulative humour of French children buying mugs for their mother.
We turned off the long shopping street into the Cours de Alsace and Lorraine which would lead us to the complex around the Cathedrale Saint-Andre. Approaching from this direction, it would be easy to assume that the bell tower, Tour Pey Berland, was part of the Cathedral but as we found in numbers of other towns and cities on this west coast of France, the tower was a separate entity to the Church. There is usually practical reasons for building the church tower separate from the main church structure. In the case of Bordeaux, the original church tower was too small to hold the bells that were required so it was replaced in 1440 with a free standing, square, larger tower that would structurally withstand the swinging weight of the huge bells. I am still a little puzzled by the fact that I have never heard of church towers being destroyed by the size of their bells swinging too freely to call the faithful to mass. This devastating situation luckily didn’t develop as the community couldn’t afford the bells after the tower was finished. I wasn’t until 1853 that a worthy tenor bell was installed in the tower.
The cathedral of St Andre itself is still a beautiful building despite the difficulties of life over the last 800 yars as the largest church in Bordeaux. There has been a church on this site since the 9th century but St Andre began life in the 11th century and was slowly added to over the next two centuries. Its crowning moment was in 1137 when a youthful Eleanor of Aquitaine was married to Louis VII in this cathedral. He was the future King of France, then a neighbouring territory with eyes on absorbing Aquitaine into the Kingdom of France. Perhaps the worst moments in the history of this Cathedral came over 600 years later as a result of the French revolution when it was ‘relieved’ of all its accumulated treasures and then transformed into a food store, a Temple of Reason and then a hall for patriotic celebrations. The cycle of history changed of course in the 19th century and St Andre was eventually back in all its soaring beauty, even with appropriate bells in its still standing, if separate, bell tower.
St Andre’s Cathedral shares a plaza with the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) of Bordeaux. I had stopped to take a photo of both the impressive gates to the building as well as some fellow travelers when a suited man entered the frame heading for the gate. He noticed me and immediately stopped and stepped back. I invited him to continue but he insisted that I take my photo. If all civil servants of Bordeaux were as courteous as this chap, the city is very well served.
We turned right at the Hotel de Ville and headed down towards Porte Dijeaux. The street we walked down was called Rue des Remparts so suddenly I had at least one clue as to the line of the old city walls. On this side of the city they must have protected Saint Andre and led down this line to Porte Dijeaux. Being built in 1748 and still looking spectacular, this gate was certainly not the medieval gate. This entrance to the city here has been one of the gates since Roman times. The name of the gate at the time of Louis XIV was Porte Dauphine and with changing urban demands, was eventually replaced with the current gate. Of course, not long after it was built there were no urban demands for city gates as the city had escaped beyond the old wall and its entrances. Today it’s a picturesque spot for both citizens and tourists to admire as well as site for a fruit stall selling perfect stone-fruit to passersby.
The other point of interest about the street sign for Rue des Ramparts was the note underneath the street name, ‘Chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compestelle’ as well as the symbol of the pilgrim’s scallop shell. We were on the St James Way to St Suerin church, a stopping point for pilgrims using the Via Turonensis on their way to Santiago de Compostela in north west Spain.
On the map at the end of this article is a map of our trek around Bordeaux. Where St Seurin is marked on the map, it also states “Site Paleochretien”. As the marble board at the door of the church states, this basilica was built in the 12th century but the site it is built on has Christian origins going way back to somewhere between 365 and 385 CE. In 1905 when a section underneath the church was excavated, it contained gravestones with Christion imagery dating back to the fourth century. The current basilica was on the route for 12th century pilgrims who were visiting it on their way to Santiago de Compostela. This is a significant church and the main doorway and the internals of it speak for themselves. Even the gargoyles were aged and interesting.
From St Suerin we strolled down towards the Place des Quinconces, apparently the largest city square in Europe. Coming from the direction we did, the first sight of the Place is the tall column with a gold ‘Liberty’ statue on top with open arms to the world. To understand the purpose of the column and its it huge fountain at its base, we need to remember the story of the Girondins that I started this article with. This amazing piece of public art was dedicated to the spirit of the Girondins from Bordeaux who died during the Reign of Terror. It was built between 1894 and 1902, eighty years after the plaza was laid out. The bronze horses leaping out of the fountain were preserved during World War Two by being removed in 1942 and returned to the fountain after the war fully restored.
There are two large columns standing at the other end of the Place des Quinconces that were built before the Monument to the Girondins and the figures at the top of these columns represent something more mundane than ‘Liberty’; the figures are ‘Commerce’ and ‘Navigation’. They have the prows of boats attached to each side of the columns, presumably to evoke the victory of the Romans over the Carthaginians. While we were visiting the Place de Quinconces, it was surrounded by temporary fencing for the upcoming festival on the weekend and there was a huge amount of preparation for a big concert planned.
We decided at this point to chance our luck with catching a tram down along the river to La Cite du Vin, a very futuristic glass & metal building a few kilometres down the Garonne. We also hoped to have lunch there or nearby but we were disappointed with what was on offer for our lunchtime appetites. We could have done the tour of all things Bordeaux wine at this gorgeous building but, after close inspection, we decided we would head back to the centre of the city and have a simple lunch in the backstreets. On the way back to our tram stop from La Cite du Vin, we passed a section of enclosed water on the opposite side of the road that was connected to the river but cut off by a large lock gate. The curious cartoon image painted on what was suggestive of a submarine tower, overlooked this basin (see map on right) and appeared to be a whimsical comment on the basin that lay before it. The WW2 submarine base, used by the German occupiers and their Italian allies from 1942 on, is connected to this body of water, a tragic military leftover whose future the city hasn’t quite resolved.
We alighted from our tram back near Place de Quinconces and set off, driven by hunger, past the huge Grand Theatre and down the river to Place de la Bourse, built over 45 years between 1740-1785. The buildings, along with the surrounding section of the old city of Bordeaux, was placed on UNESCO’s world heritage list in 2007. It surrounds a huge plaza facing towards the Garonne and the beautiful ‘Water Mirror’ that sits over the other side of the main esplanade on the bank of the river. In the centre of the plaza is the usual beautiful fountain adorned by the ‘Three Graces’ from Greek mythology who are said to represent youth/beauty , mirth and elegance . Like the French Churches that suffered at the hands of the French Revolutionaries’ new world view, the original fountain in this square was destroyed. It was a statue of King Louis XV who ruled for the fifty years before the revolution and epitomized all that the revolutionaries despised. He was also the monarch behind the construction of Place de la Bourse. It was this monarch that saw the end coming for the walls of Bordeaux and ordered them removed here so that his beautiful palace could be built with a clear view of the river.
Strolling out through the back of Place de La Bourse we found ourselves a place for lunch, resisting the allure of the signage of Michel’s Bistrot along the way.
After lunch we headed for our last stop on our hurried tour of Bordeaux; its address was Place du Palais, 33000 Bordeaux. We were heading back down towards the river to inspect Porte Cailhau, the major section of the wall still standing that once ran along the riverfront of old Bordeaux. It was the main gate of the city built into the walls in 1495, directly in front of the old Palais de L’Ombriere that would have stood very near this gate, perhaps close to the spot where we sat down for coffee to have a slow gaze at this many towered entrance to old Bordaux. We also walked down Rue de Palais Ombriere to arrive at our destination; it probably runs over the vacant land created when the old palace was demolished in 1800. A plate on the wall of Porte Cailhau explains much of this background. There is no doubt that this gate at one time formed part of the old city wall as the demolishers of the old wall left the connecting stonework on both sides of the gate as can be seen in the photos below.
Porte Cailhau (1493-1496). The architecture of Bordeaux took on a different tone when the Jurade (Municipal Council) decided to have a monumental gate built over the river just opposite the palais de L’Ombriere – the seat of the new Parliament. The campaigns in Italy gave Bordeaux a taste for the Renaisance, and so flamboyant-style accolades of windows were laid above the Gothic Gate. The people of Bordeaux dedicated this arch of triumph to Charles VIII in 1495 to mark his victory at the battle of Fournoue, thus proving their loyalty to the new kingdom. (Contents of Wall Plate.)
There were two other plates on the external wall of Porte Cailhau. The first set out some key questions and details about the life of Bordeaux’s most famous daughter, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It sets out very clearly Eleanor’s importance and influence on the city’s contemporary life in the twelfth century as well as the next 300 years of the history of France. Her first husband to be, stayed in the old Palais Ombriere (it was started in the 10th century) while awaiting his marriage to Eleanor. The second plate’s contents are set out below.
“CHEMINS DE SAINT-JACQUE-DE-COMPOSTELLE PASSAGE A BORDEAUX
St James Way has been declared the first European Cultural Route. To mark this, the City of Bordeaux is offering today’s pilgrims a path indicating places of interest. In the 12th century pilgrim guide written by the monk Aimery Picaud, four main routes along St James Way are described. One of these is the Via Turonensis, which passes through Bordeaux. In his guide, the monk recommends visiting the basilica of St Seurin. Let us take up our staff! (From plate on wall of Porte Cailhau Gate.)
This information plate reiterated in greater detail the message we had noted earlier in the day on the street sign, Rue Des Remparts. As if Bordeaux didn’t have enough to be proud of in the history and the architecture of its city, they were ensuring that the visitor would fully understand the long and proud history of Bordeaux’s position on the Aquitaine Coast for the last two thousand years. Its exhortation could be taken as a motto for the modern traveler.
“Take up your staff!”