Bordeaux: In Vino Oblivium

The last weekend of September and Bordeaux is warm, sunny, its people out in force to savour the last dregs of the summer. The town has a lively buzz, particularly at night. Step outside around 10:30pm, and things are yet to hit full swing- you will see entire families of three generations out taking the air. Ask for a glass of wine at half past midnight and the waitress will snort “Zis eez a restaurant!”, at which point you’ll realise that the patrons around you are indeed tucking into their evening meal. Until around noon, on the other hand, the city is as quiet, fragile and sheepish as Lisbon on a Sunday morning. As you pick your way through the town centre, its narrow alleys are regularly interrupted by wide boulevards, lined by imposing buildings with big windows and corbels holding up wrought-iron balconies. The crumbling stone is a warm honeycomb yellow, carved in a florid baroque style and decorated with gurning faces in the keystones. What had been sold to me as the most English of French cities feels more like Sicily; this is no Eurostar jaunt to a rainy city that gets dark at 4pm, it feels entirely Southern European and it’s a pleasure to be here.

In the decades after deindustrialisation, the French came to call Bordeaux ‘the Sleeping Beauty’, an example of eighteenth-century town planning that had gone to the dogs rather. In the twenty-first century it was decided to restore and clean up old Bordeaux and make it a visitor attraction, which it now is with bells on. Beyond the old town all appears to be sprawl (it is said that Bordeaux’s soil is too weak to support skyscrapers) and the drive from the airport cut through what seemed an entire self-contained city consisting of huge retail parks and ringroads. It is tempting to wonder whether the old town is being maintained as a checked-tablecloth-and-accordion Potemkin village for tourists while everything beyond it suffers the same modern malaise as the rest of the world. I couldn’t really say as it kept us in such a cosy, cosseted embrace that we never made it to the other side of the Garonne.

One of the things that intrigued me about Bordeaux was its supposed unique feel; this was English territory for some three centuries (Eleanor of Aquitaine and all that) and they are said to have left oblique traces. The only trace I could see was a proliferation of ‘English’ pubs: The Charles Dickens, The Sherlock Holmes, Le Frog & Rosbif. We tried to avoid them -it seems stupid to leave England for Bordeaux and spend your time in a fake English pub- but one bar we ended up inside had beers from the big breweries and that awful “handwritten” chalk font recognisable from the dreariest big pub chains in Blighty. It sapped the spirit, and made me wonder: do the French think this stuff cool? Do they think it exotic?

The harmonious style, bolstered by classical buildings like the hotel de ville, add up to the sense that this town feels more Parisian than Paris; there is even the odd old part-timbered survivor lurking in quiet corners. You could film your Truffaut-pastiching pop video or car advert here, call it Paris and most people would be none the wiser. Could the old English association be the reason it was given such a quintessentially French makeover? The same applies in Nancy, the last big town before the disputed Alsace/Lorraine region which has changed hands so often.

We didn’t leave the unblemished old town very much, because it has been set up as an idyllic place to visit. Narrow lanes with twisting vines open onto pretty squares and there are enough enticing bars and cafés that it would take three months to try them all. Venture beyond the boundaries even a little bit, however, and cracks appear in the Allo Allo facade instantly. The area surrounding Basilique Saint-Michel is, in contrast, very North African with a busy fruit and vegetable market and the occasional artisan produce stall with a queue of bearded hipsters. It was strange to see all this taking place around the underskirts of an enormous Gothic cathedral and I was reminded of Houellbecq’s last book, Submission. Ol’ Michel’s previous book imagined a future France where all welfare and social services had been abandoned and the only remaining sector for employment was catering to Chinese tourism. This one is more provocative still; atheists/agnostics tend to have fewer children and so the whole of Europe falls under Islamic rule. It was not on display in bookshops that had all his other books on the open shelves. Anyway he thinks the reactionary French, who never really wanted a revolution, will find in Islam a bulwark against republicanism, feminism, et al. “For these Muslims, the real enemy -the thing they fear and hate- isn’t Catholicism. It’s secularism… they think of Catholics as fellow believers. Catholicism is a religion of the book.” One other note on bookshops; the new book by German scientist Giulia Enders, which is having great success in Britain under the title Gut, is faring equally well in France as The Discreet Charm of the Intestine.

Most of the old towns charming ways and byways are sheltered from the Garonne river by the buildings along its promenade, but after Place du Parlement you will discover the river by walking into Place de la Bourse, a huge three-sided square which is quite a showpiece, and perhaps the most Parisian of the lot.

The riverfront sights are those of a proud and prosperous city showing off. I find myself wondering if, as with Liverpool, this stuff was built with slave money.

Cross the road after Place de la Bourse and there are gardens which seem to be home to a large number of rats. Opposite the square is the miroir d’eau, a very fancy water feature for the delectation of tourists and kiddies. It consists of a large rectangular puddle whose water ripples in the breeze. Occasionally sluices will open, draining away most of the water and turning what’s left into a perfect mirror of the classical architecture and the bright blue sky. You have a couple of minutes in which to gawp at this before the ground belches out a vaporous mist.

Stroll up the river and there is another huge square, much more bare and surrounded by trees on four sides, Place des Quinconces. It has two maritime statues on pillars facing the river; like those on Piazzetta San Marco these are presumably a badge for the city, the first great sight traders and visitors would be faced with when arriving by boat from the Atlantic. In the square are marble statues of Montaigne, whose essays I like, and Montesquieu, whose name crops up a lot but whom I have never read. I think I am prejudiced against him because Montesquieu was the name of the village where I was enslaved for six weeks during my French A-level. Clearly I should know him better as he was an advocate for the separation of powers and his Persian Letters, written from the perspective of imagined visitors, were a scathing satire on European mores.

At the rear of the square is the Monument aux Girondins, which is bombastic to the point of lunacy. I feel bad that my knowledge of French history is so nebulous but I gather that the Girondins were a bourgeois, liberal faction in the musical chairs of post-revolutionary France, most of whom were killed during the Terror. Reading about them brings to mind the treatment of lifelong Labour politicians currently denounced as “Tory lite” by the Robespierres of the new, kinder politics. 

A bronze of Liberty stands atop the column, under which is a pedestal flanked by two fountains containing a cacophony of wild horses, outstretched figures and groups of podgy putti in langorous poses. It makes the Trevi fountain seem timid. Behind this cast of thousands, I rather liked the two ladies surreptitiously gossiping around the back.

Back inside the burrows of pretty streets, Place du Parlement with its almost Manueline array of carved faces, Place du Camille Julien with its Roman remains, Place du Palais and Place St Pierre were all a short stroll from our flat, and all exquisite little squares with seating divvied up between the three or four bars. We spent quite a lot of time lounging around there, having all the nice drinks that would mark your card as a pretentious fool if you ordered them in England; pastis in the warm hours before dinner, cognac in the cool hours afterwards. I’m no wine expert but the Bordeaux itself seemed sharp, flinty and much less fruity than the Italian reds I normally plump for, and had a fairly sophisticated taste (if you avoided the €3 plonk). Place St Pierre, before a medieval parish church, was the most old-world but its waitresses were mostly doling out cocktail pitchers and it felt slightly too touristy.

One of the interesting strands to Bordeaux tourism was its position as a stopping point on the Camino de Santiago, beloved of baby boomer early retirees who, unlike my generation, can take a few months off work while their bodies are still capable of the exertion.  These pilgrimages seem to be about the pleasures of slow travel rather than any spiritual impulses, but they do say that Chaucer’s pilgrims were effectively on a Club 18-30 jaunt. Although a big fan of Bunuel’s La Voie Lactée, I think I’d be more interested in the one from Canterbury to the Vatican. From the outside, anyway, Bordeaux’s hostel didn’t seem to be all sackcloth and ashes.

At a few points around the frontiers of the erstwhile walled city were huge gates that could feature in a fairytale and whatever their vintage, looked more King Ludwig than medieval. They were quite decorative, with multiple conical turrets arising out of a bulky base and looked as if the function was more ceremonial than to pour boiling oil onto besieging armies. Porte Cailhau faces the river and the gate by the old town hall houses the Grosse Cloche, a gigantic bell that probably served as the Facebook notification system of its time.

Bordeaux’s most rarified quarter was the Triangle d’Or, which seemed to be their equivalent to Bond Street and Mayfair. The very fine square with the poshest hotel, and a splendid theatre topped by classical statues representing the arts, was the meeting point between this area, the old quarter, the Quinconces and the Spaccanapoli-esque Rue St-Catherine, the longest uninterrupted shopping street in Europe.

The Golden Triangle consisted of three elegant boulevards and the streets between, given over to boutique stores and designer labels. Its interior was slightly spoiled by omnipresent, bumper-to-bumper cars and the centrepiece, a circus called Place des Grands Hommes, was given over to a steel-and-mirrors UFO-shaped shopping mall dealing in tacky bling. It was quite the anti-climax.

There were some modern bits that attempted to keep the whole town from seeming like a museum piece; one wag had added a special feature to make a dreary multi-storey car park a place of humour and fun, whilst the square with the theatre had a very strange giant boy’s head cut from rust-coloured metal. If it is intended as an advert for the wonders of 3D printing, I am afraid it looked very computerised and, to this luddite, lacking in soul.

Bordeaux really gets cooking on gas when it comes to Gothic churches. The parish church for our neighbourhood was the modestly-sized but gorgeous Église St-Pierre. It is C14th with C19th restoration and has kept that unassuming, naive quality; the figures in the rounded entrance arch look as if they are Terry Gilliam characters flying off at some improbable angle.

On the inside it is quiet, dark and lovely. There are icons, paintings, good stained glass and the rib vaults above the apse meeting in a central star.

Considerably larger is the aforementioned Basilique Saint-Michel, with its gigantic, free-standing spiky campanile.

It is a vast, tall church; like the big Dutch churches it feels like a sort of forum where one could spend the whole morning strolling around the diverse aisles and chapels. The treasures within include some medieval alabaster carvings and a swanky, swashbuckling pulpit upon which St Michael is finishing off a dragon.

Its interior is Gothic in a very satisfying way; it gives an impression of great solidity and reliability. It gets me thinking about how Gothic is essentially an elevating style. What is a Gothic arch but a big arrow pointing to the heavens? And when you look where your eyes are directed, above all the gloom and dark stone, you see coloured light flooding in through the stained glass.

Bordeaux’s Cathedral itself is more of a composite. Only one wall remains from the C11th structure and it looks like a different building from each angle. Again the Gothic bell-tower (apparently the real thing, although it looks like Pugin) is free-standing and this time topped with a gilded statue of Our Lady that glistens in the sunlight and looks deeply foreign to these Protestant eyes: we are more used to seeing golden Buddhas than Virgins.

Around the choir, the outside of the church is all sharp angles and Gothic buttresses; the other side is flat, plain, and has been so aggressively scrubbed down that it no longer looks its age. The same thing is taking place on the inside and seems a pity. On the doors gargoyles, to show that evil has been expelled from the inside of the church, look as if they are mid-flight having just received an almighty boot up the arse.

Inside it is a church of two halves; the nave has a lower ceiling and looks older, with some preposterous tombs for Cardinals and so on.

The choir and the aisles around it are the thing, a colonnaded walkway bordered by a great many sharp and narrow arches and offering continually shifting perspectives. After the nave, the heights of this side seem vertiginous and the stained glass is wonderful.

Should the visitor get sick of a diet of Gothic, Église Notre-Dame is much later, and feels ironically earlier, with its barrel-vaulted Romanesque shape filled out by baroque frippery. On the exterior, its statues in niches are very southern Italian and the bare, pale stone is a contrast to the Northernness of Gothic gloom. Its side chapels have lovely frescoed patterns imitating curtains and doorways around the paintings and sitting on the organ are a family musicians augmented by putti with harps, violins and trumpets.

Before I leave the subject of religious buildings, one depressing pattern I’ve noticed on my last few visits to France. As you stroll through a French city, it is common to notice an inconspicuous but dignified building which will be surrounded by soldiers brandishing guns the size of telescopes. My first instinct is always to wonder if some Terribly Important Statesman is making a visit to some sort of municipal building. Every time, it turns out to be a Synagogue. Should we be taking Houellebecq more seriously?

Turn your back on such vexing issues at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which although fairly small, is at €4 an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours. There are two wings separated by a garden. The first covers painting from early medieval to around 1800; clusters of the likes of Titian and Rubens are bulked out by the less familiar, but it contains some interesting oddities and it’s the kind of sleepy, no-one-gives-a-shit place where you can see the guard charging his iPhone.

The second wing is perhaps more interesting, with abundant odd sculptures that vary from the primitivist abstract to a very overwrought and romantic Dying Mozart. It ends with a focus on local painters of the last 150 years, whisking you through Impressionism, Cubism, etc. I enjoyed the collection of paintings by André Lhote but perhaps my favourite was a sly realist painting of a family waiting to have a rich relative’s will read out to them. Pregnant with unspoken tension, it seemed like a Balzac or Maupassant story transposed into oil on canvas.

With three nights here we didn’t get around to making any excursions; the main ones on offer are Cap Ferret, the seaside spot where Zidane lives, which sounded too expensive, and the wine-making valhalla St Émilion, which sounded too famous and tourist-saturated. On the last day, however, we finally struck out of the comfortable centre and sauntered up to Chartrons, the riverside area beyond the old city’s walls where historically, wine merchants from Britain, Ireland and the Low Countries were obliged to reside. On the way you pass Bordeaux’s cool, leafy Jardin Public, where the marvellous colonnade leading to the sorry sight that is the parched botanical garden sets you up for quite the anticlimax.

The foreign merchants evidently did rather well for themselves and built up a pretty neighbourhood, which has remained fairly affluent. Tourists don’t seem to ever make it this far out, not that it’s a particularly long walk, and the locals probably like it that way. There are a market, abundant dining options, rather a lot of antique shops, and (surprise surprise) an enormous Gothic church.

So, that’s Bordeaux. My impressions are superficial, but we came for a nice weekend of good wine in pretty surroundings and certainly weren’t disappointed. It being a high season weekend, we didn’t manage to get tables at any of the famous restaurants (including Jonathan Meades’ favoured La Tupina, which actually scores very lowly on Tripadvisor) but I clocked their menus and was quite happy to see that around here, they really do eat frogs’ legs. On the last night, we made the effort to get out of bed at 4am for the lunar eclipse. The moon was just beginning to show itself again, and my camera wasn’t really up to capturing the spectacle, but we were glad to have done our duty and taken the puritanical plunge out of bed as the city was sound asleep; old habits die hard.


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