Thursday, 31 March 2011

Bordeaux: A City With Much More Than Wine To Offer

One of the real benefits of helping friends in their vineyard in southwestern France is that when you are not slogging away amid the vines or sorting out hundreds of meters of thin stainless steel wires there are countless ways to occupy yourself.

Well known to people in the wine trade, the city of Bordeaux is less well known to travelers who limit their time in France to Paris or the Provence beloved of travel brochures. They are missing something by overlooking this revived riverfront city of stunning 18th century architecture, wide pedestrian streets, parks, restored waterfront, active cultural life, and, of course, good food and wine. During the last few decades most of the old buildings have been cleaned, restoring the soft yellow/gold color of the Girondin stone.

By the early 18th century the city was thriving with one of the busiest ports in France sending wine and other products all over the world. The less salubrious side of this trade was an active slave trade where ships from Bordeaux would take part in the infamous Triangle Trade between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. With the city’s increasing wealth the city fathers and the royal representative, the Intendant, transformed the crowded, cramped medieval city by tearing down old walls and expanding the city with about 5,000 new buildings, among which are the Hotel de Ville, Place de la Bourse, and the Grand Theater. For those who favor the narrow twisted streets of medieval Europe there is still plenty left in the older sections of Bordeaux to satisfy the most avid devotee of the 15th century.

The 18th Century Grand Theater
The revolutionary fervor that swept over France in the late 18th century put an end to this phase of renovation, and the city struggled to come to terms with the new regime. Although the residents were quick to change the name Place Dauphin to the Place de la Republique, they remained ambivalent about the revolution. As soon as possible the name of the square was changed again to Place de la Nation and, finally, to the politically acceptable Place Gambetta after the late 19th century premier Leon Gambetta. Plans for a massive structure honoring Louis XVI were shelved when the architect was told that perhaps it was not the best time to honor the unfortunate Louis as he was being trundled out to the guillotine in Paris. The political dexterity of the Bordelais can be seen the multiple names for many areas. A handsome square might now be called Place de la Bourse, but right next to this sign are the older names of Place Royal and Place de la Liberte. One can’t be too careful.

Place De La Bourse
Bordeaux was also the temporary home of the French government in 1870, 1914, and 1940 when it decamped from Paris during wars with Germany. During the German invasion of June 1940 the city was inundated with refugees and witnessed the heroic act of the Portuguese consul, Aristedes de Sousa Mendes, who, against the wishes of his own government, issued 30,000 visas to Jews and others desperate to get out of France ahead of the Gestapo. De Sousa Mendes’ act of conscious cost him dearly. The Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar immediately dismissed him, he was driven out of his legal profession, and left penniless. He died in poverty in 1954. It wasn’t until much later that his name and reputation were resurrected. In 1966 he was recognized at Yad Vashem in Israel as the Righteous Among Nations. In 1987 the Portuguese finally granted him the Order of Merit, and a few years later he was restored posthumously to the diplomatic corps and made an ambassador.

Assuming you have ‘done’ the city you can always travel about 45 minutes to the wide, pristine Atlantic beaches that stretch for miles from Cap Ferret in the south to the mouth of the Gironde River in the north. If you prefer more sedentary pleasures to cycling or swimming there are several good restaurants in the town of Cap Ferret that overlook the Bay of Arcachon, famous for its oyster beds. The area is extremely popular with the Bordelais and it can sometimes be a challenge to get a booking in the middle of summer. However, just a little way out of town are a number of what can best be described as shacks with rickety piers jutting out into the bay where you can dine on a plate of oysters, pate, a little wine and freshly baked bread. All this for about €12.

Venturing just a little further you get to the Ile de Re, about 20 minutes from La Rochelle. Again, pristine beaches and small harbors like St. Martin de Re that have been tastefully transformed from fishing villages to tourist destinations. Proximity to La Rochelle and Paris via the TGV make Ile de Re popular year round. It was difficult enough to get a restaurant booking on a chilly weekend in March, and I hesitate to think what July and August might be like.

St. Martin On Ile de Re
If you’re feeling a little peckish you can always visit the rich food markets found throughout the Gironde region. It can take the better part of a morning following your wife around the markets sampling a little of this and a little of that, listening to her chatting to the farmers about the quality of the asparagus, bemoaning the lack of taste in Spanish strawberries compared to the native French varieties, and finally settling on a certain number of vegetables and a leg of new season’s lamb. Thus heavily armed Mariella is ready to go home and prepare dinner for some friends and introduce them to an ancient Greek way of preparing a leg of lamb, marinate it in milk and honey for the better part of day and then slowly roast it.

After this brief hiatus it is back to Clos Monicord where there is always something that has to be done.

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