The Bordeaux Report

Back in the US and recovered from my jetlag, I am pondering Bordeaux’s recent accolades--UNESCO World Heritage Site, 2015 European Travel Destination of the Year to name two.

 Girondin Monument - Place des Quinconces

Girondin Monument - Place des Quinconces

Certainly, I understand the city’s inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Bordeaux has over 2,000 years of historical and cultural significance (first records of a settlement on the banks of the Garonne River date back to the 3rd century BC), including records of a university in 286 AD, the political and commercial link to the British (300 years of British rule from 1154 to 1453) and the Netherlands, and its undeniably important wine trade with its Grand Cru Classification ordered by Napoleon III in 1855.  With 347 historically protected buildings (second in France only to Paris), Bordeaux is a monument to 18th and 19th century Classical and Neoclassical urban and architectural unity and coherence.

But, European destination of the year?  I wasn’t sure about that before my arrival and frankly, I think I would need more than 5 days to be wholly persuaded, especially when the bulk of my days was spent tasting wine at the enormously overwhelming international wine trade show that is Vinexpo.  What I can tell you is that it has changed quite a bit since I was a student there—and definitely for the better.

When I was there before, Bordeaux was gray.  There is no other way to describe it.  The buildings were elegant architecturally, but unattractively stained from years of exposure to smoke from the coal fires used to heat the city.  There was a movement at the time to clean them of their soot covering and the sparkling facade of the Bourse (Stock Exchange) evidenced the success of these first efforts.  Back then I had no idea what a difference that would make.  What was once a rather dour, formal large collection of buildings is now an elegant cohesive urban center, their facades glowing with pale gold-hued limestone.  The bone structure of the city is the same, but the color palette is more flattering, bathing the city in a warm glow.  

 Miroir d’eau – Place de la Bourse

Miroir d’eau – Place de la Bourse

Nowhere is this glow more evident than at the Miroir d’Eau.  Built in 2006, 2 centimeters of water covers 37,100 square feet, making it the world’s largest reflecting pool.  The most photographed site in Bordeaux, its mirrored surface reflects the elegant 18th century Place de la Bourse and the large symmetrical Bourse and Customs buildings.  In the sun, it glistens. At night it glows and every 15 minutes tiny fountains produce thin streams of mist that create an ethereal fog effect.  

The Bordelais make excellent use of lighting, with blue spotlights rendering magical the Grosse Cloche (Grand Belltower) and golden lights spotlighting the Grand Theatre, the Pont de Pierre (an elegantly arched stone bridge spanning the Garonne River) and the churches of Saint Andre and Saint Michel among others.  Fountains in the squares dotting the town are likewise attractively lit, their radiance drawing you closer, inviting you to mingle with the locals and take part in the café or wine bar scene.

 Le Petit Commerce – Saint Pierre District

Le Petit Commerce – Saint Pierre District

That is the part of Bordeaux I liked the most.  I can be impressed by large buildings, elegant architecture and astute civic choices like cleaning the buildings and lighting the city’s undeniably attractive monuments, but I remain a devotée of the small, older sections of cities--the neighborhoods that envelop you in the warm glow of their welcome, no additional lighting needed.  

I feel very much at home in the slightly winding streets of the old town—many of them with limited vehicular access, closed for the most part to all but pedestrians and bicycles.  (You need a special pass to bring a car into the area.)  Small shops, intimate yet bustling restaurants, and trendy wine and beer bars line the streets.  The mood is not one of overt tourism--so common in most heavily visited European cities.  There are no pushy restaurant hosts waving you in, in fact, the locals both patrons and restaurant folk alike take little notice of the passersby, preferring it seems to concentrate on their own affairs—like drinking, eating and serving good food, wine and beer.  

As a traveller, I like these areas because these are the type of places where I would choose to live had I the opportunity.

Just as the small shops and intimate restaurants fill my need for a sense of place, the rustic simple cooking of Bordeaux is what I want to eat.  As promised in my previous blog, I did not seek out any fancy restaurants.  Rather I was comfortable in my quest for cooking defined by local ingredients prepared in ways traditional to Bordeaux and its environs.   I’ll detail my food journey in Bordeaux in the next installment of my blog.  But although my questions regarding Bordeaux’s place as a tourist mecca have yet to be fully answered, I remain bitten by the bug to go back and experience more.  So maybe I do have my answer, after all.