Wednesday, May 9th – Day 5, Bordeaux
I started the day with a run out from the hotel and along the riverside walk that was already busy with other runners, walkers, cyclists and skateboarders. It gave me an opportunity to figure out the lie of the land between the hotel and the river, and provided some lovely views of the Port de la Lune as it is known, being on a crescent shaped part of the Garonne.
And so we had a full day to ourselves to explore Bordeaux. And it would prove to be nowhere near enough! But first, we had breakfast in the hotel. It wasn’t as impressive a spread as at the Chateau d’Etoges, but it was better than French hotel breakfasts used to be, that is for sure. Fortified for the day we decided that our first stop would be the remains of the Roman amphitheatre on the other side of the street from the hotel, a structure that must in its heydey have been quite impressive. To compare it with the amphitheatre at Trier, that seated 20,000 spectators, while the estimate for Bordeaux is that it would have held 15,000, so it cannot have been much smaller.
There is also considerably less of the Bordeaux building left. Apparently the Revolutionaries saw to that, as they considered it to be of no value. As a result there are just a few arches and some wall left, though a chunk of distinctly Roman brickwork is clearly visible in the wall of a nearby house in the rue du Colisee.
You can view the remains from either side, so we made sure we did, encouraged to do so by the fact that it meant we got to wander through the lovely streets of small merchants houses, related to those in the Chartron area of town. There are apparently around 5000 of these still in existence, and now that most of them have been cleaned of the blackness created by exposure to a couple of centuries of rain, they are utterly delightful. I’d love to live in one.
There are restaurants, shops and all sorts of businesses in some of them and the area feels both lived in and loved. You can even purchase all sorts of 1960s tat that you never knew you needed!
After that we headed for the nearby Tourist Information office. I have to say that the Bordeaux Tourist Information website is a fine example of how such sites should be (rather like that other superb offering from VisitCopenhagen), so we had plenty of information in advance. We wanted to buy a Bordeaux City Pass each so we could get into many of the museums and onto public transport for no extra cost, and also into la Cité du Vin provided we got there before midday (after noon it costs a relatively nominal €5 with a City Pass card). In addition, you have a choice of a bus tour, a tourist train tour or a walking tour once you’ve bought your card, and if you opt for the open top bus tour, as we did, you also get priority boarding which means you get to sit on the top deck. There was a bus just about to set off so we got on and nabbed two of the best seats!
The bus sets off and goes past the rather deranged monument of the Girondins, on the edge of the Place des Quinconces, which despite being surrounded by building work, would certainly reward closer inspection later. The bus then runs round the old town area, stopping by a variety of monuments and historic sites, but as this is a get on and stay on rather than a hop-on, hop off tour, we didn’t get to look closer and instead used the tour as an opportunity to get our bearings.
It also takes in both banks of the river, with the new developments taking place on the right bank proving interesting too, especially the Darwin Ecosysteme, which convinces me someone’s been to Copenhagen. There’s been a take over of some disused buildings by people starting small businesses, and lots of new housing is going up along there. At the same time the original railway station is now surrounded by pop-up restaurants and such like, and seems to be thriving.
Prior to 1822 this would have been an unlikely development with the town pretty much confined to the left bank, as there was no bridge, just untrustworthy ferrymen, and Napoleon, having been badly delayed when trying to get his forces across, had decided that a bridge was needed. Ironically perhaps, the bridge, which has 17 arches to match the number of letters in his name, was not opened until after his death. The views are superb!
After the tour concluded we grabbed a quick canelé, the local speciality cakes, a sample of which was included as part of the tour, before setting off on foot to take a closer look at some of what we now knew was out there. First we walked along the riverside part of the old town, having decided we really needed to round up some lunch. We eventually settled on le Gabriel, on the Place de la Bourse (also known as the Place Royale), a magnificent square designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, for whom the restaurant is named. Either way the restaurant provided us a very good veal tartare with fried new potatoes:
And also a very tasty foie gras:
The original plan was to put a statue of King Louis XV in the centre, but the statue was destroyed during the Revolution, and instead a statue of the “Three Graces” was installed in the same location. Local legend has it that the young women who inspired the figures included Queen Victoria, but I can find no verification for that claim.
After lunch we walked along the Rue Sainte Catherine, part of one of the routes of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a network of pilgimage routes which we seem to be encountering on a regular basis now.
There were certainly some pilgrims on the road, but it was also heaving with shoppers so we cast off onto the side roads and found some lovely and intriguing buildings, though we did also manage to get slightly lost.
Once we’d resestablished where we were we made our way to the Musee d’Aquitaine, where we wanted to take a look at the medieval remains on show. We also wanted to try and get a grip on the history of the city, and it certainly provided that in spades.
The thing I probably liked most was the replica effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine (or Alienor as she is known to the locals, her name on everything from a beauticians to a car wash!), a beautiful representation of a recumbent figure reading a book. I must admit I find it hard to imagine Eleanor doing anything as pedestrian as reading. I’m pretty sure she was mostly too busy! I wonder if it was some sort of family joke to portray her in such a way after her death.
The museum also provided an insight into a less savoury aspect of Bordeaux’s past, it’s part in the euphemistically named triangular trade or to be blunt the slave trade, which was briefly banned by the Revolutionary government, but then reinstated by Napoleon. The permanent exhibition on the subject has been in place less than a decade, so the town is late to admit its complicity in the matter, though there is also apparently a plaque in the Chartrons.
After we’d exhausted the museum we pottered gently back to the hotel, via the monument to the Girondins, which on closer inspection was even more demented than it appeared from the bus. The horses in particular are really quite extraordinary, blowing spray from their nostrils.
And so, the day was wearing to an end so we made our way back to the hotel to clean up and get ready for another hopefully wonderful dinner in a city that apparently boasts around 2,000 restaurants!