15.12.2014 - 20.12.2014
One of the things I really liked about Bordeaux was the coherence in building styles - sure, there are a few modern buildings, like the courthouse and the glass block that is the public library, but most of the central city is built in a similar neo-classical style, of the same materials and at the same time. In the poshest part (where I took no photos for some reason) it is gleaming white. Around where I was, they tended more to the grey: apparently many of the buildings had turned almost black but the whole place was given a good cleaning a few years back.
I had one of the best meals in St Pierre Square, in a very traditional bistro, pretty standard entrecôte steak frites but cooked beautifully, very friendly service, casual atmos - even though I was only in Bordeaux for a few nights and was never short of somewhere to eat or drink, I was tempted to go back for seconds.
It wasn't until I visited the Musée d´Aquitaine that I learned about why Bordeaux has such a consistent style: its all down to Louis XV, who sent two successive Intendants (Royally appointed civil servants, kind of like a Governor to carry out the Royal will in the provinces) to re-arrange the town planning in Bordeaux early in the 18th century. They pretty much tore the CBD down and started afresh, constructing around 6,000 buildings, most of which are still standing. The spot it occupies has had inhabitants for something like 600,000 years - the museum did a good job of presenting its recent history: there might have been older artifacts, but the oldest I noticed was this 25,000 year old Venus of Laussel, which was found carved into the walls of a nearby cave. Unfortunately, I didn't record what the next two are (I think they're quite old), and then there are echoes of the bronze age.
Moving forward a bit, into the Roman era, I noticed statues of Jupiter and Diana
Montesquieu (or, more properly, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu) is perhaps Bordeaux's most famous inhabitant, known to some as the originator of the theory of separation of powers. The Americans, Brits and other Europeans loved him, but in France, the church saw to it that his most prominent work - The Spirit of the Laws - was banned. His funereal monument is in the museum
I have to say - I blame Montesquieu for the biggest dud of my entire trip. Since the local University bears his name, and with Bordeaux being a UNESCO world heritage city and the joy I took in what I'd seen, I thought the University must be something special (it was founded in 1441) so took a long tram trip out to the edge of town to see it. I think the buildings were probably built in the 1970's, and they obviously lacked a design budget - my only recollection is of ugly rectangles lined along the tram tracks.
One of the things that made me a little uncomfortable about the architecture in Bordeaux was what drove its prosperity in the 18th century - it had a triangular trade - sending slaves from Africa to the West Indies, bringing sugar and coffee from there back to Bordeaux, and then sending arms and wines back to Africa. Repeat. The museum had a pretty extensive account of this trade. Another thing I liked in the museum was a 19th century shop set up - it was one of the last things I saw.
Outside again, I found myself on Intendant Street - quite a few boutique shops selling things like fountain pens and chocolates, and stretching on for quite a distance. At its head is the magnificent Grand Théâtre, built in the 1770's, and the less magnificent Sanna, by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, a cast-iron 7 metre high female head - apparently it operates on an intuitive level, but mine wasn't up to it, so took solace nearby.
There were a few things I spotted from before the 18th century rebuild - some of the old wall has been left intact and a couple of the 13th century gates. The Cathedral is from the 14th century, with its bell tower sitting on the ground beside it, to protect the Cathedral from the vibration of its bells (is that normal? I don't recall seeing this sort of thing before).
Funnily enough, pilgrims would go through the Porte Saint-Éloy to Santiago de Compostela, which is in my own future, although there won't be much walking involved. The bell itself has huge cultural significance for Bordeaux - it was rung to signal the start of harvests and people were so attached to it that the King could punish them just by taking away their bell. My French reading isn't so good, but if I understand correctly, following a peasant revolt in 1548, it was taken away for 13 years.
There were a few more modern things which caught my eye. I got caught up in the middle of some sort of photo shoot - I hope it wasn't a modelling session, as whatever was being modelled wasn't obvious. Then there were a couple of signs I liked - I think when I go back through Bordeaux on my way home, I'll pay a visit to the cafe signified by the second one.