Last month, we stayed with a couple of friends in the beautiful city of Bordeaux. We had been in France for more than a year, and it was getting quite scandalous to have not seen firsthand the (French) wine capital of the world. In a way, this was our most relaxed short-vacation, as we didn’t plan a thing, and put ourselves entirely in the trust of our friends (a French-Turkish couple), who being locals there knew the city really well.
Culturally, Bordeaux is enriched by its geographical location – In addition to its Roman & Gaulic roots, it has a Spanish influence & even briefly came under Moorish (Islamic) rule.
What Paris shares with Bordeaux
Bordeaux served a capital to France – twice; once during WW-I and once before that during the Franco-German war. But far more importantly, when Paris was completely recast into the jewel of a metropolis that it is today, the chief planner Haussmann actually modeled the redesign of Paris on Bordeaux’s urban layout. I’ve shown here two images which capture the drive towards centralization and wide avenues. If you want to know how Paris came to be redesigned to what it is today, read this story.
Do you see the thin blue river going through Bordeaux in this map? That river linked Bordeaux as a trading port to Britain, and in fact the entire region in red was British until the ‘100 year war’. This leads us to the other most important claim made about Bordeaux – that it was actually the English who made Bordeaux the wine-dynamo that it currently is. The claim, often made by those from the English-speaking world understandably infuriates French sentiments. But there is some degree of truth to it. Bordeaux was making wine since the Roman times in the 1st century, but sometime in the 12th century, the English made a real business out of it.
Apparently the Romans began the wine-cultivation 2000 years ago, but the region was just growing good wine & consuming it domestically. The British probably saw a deep strategic interest in a marital-alliance & after that was consummated, rights to the entire region’s wines belonged to Britain. More, England also got rid of a heavy ‘export tax’ which the (previously French) region had to pay, and Bordeaux’s wines grew in popularity in Britain and elsewhere. So while the people who harvested the vineyards were French, and the soil is French, it is still true that it was England which brought the world’s attention to Bordeaux produce. The first time we heard this, we really thought this was a narrative manufactured and repeated in the English-speaking world to provoke French sensibilities.
Bordeaux is a beautiful and charming city, and on average the buildings are about a hundred years older than the ones in Paris. However, this isn’t a city with a checklist of ‘must-sees’. The best thing to do would be a self-guided walking tour, such as this one. Or, you could also print the free maps of Bordeaux from here. and look at the suggested walking routes from there. It is quite easy to stroll around the city on your own, and Frommer’s has plenty of good, specific advice on how you can structure your day. If you’re not on a budget, you can take a guided tour from these folks – they have strong recommendations on tripadvisor.
Advice for Photography enthusiasts
If there’s plenty of sunlight, wait till the afternoon and stay within the narrow streets of the old quarter, where the light is more forgiving. Your best opportunities will be around the golden hour, at the bridge and the central square. If it happens to be cloudy, there’s no ‘bad’ time, but you won’t have a golden hour and you may have to wait till past sunset to capture the city’s nightlife. The French really know lighting, and every one of their cities and villages are utterly beautiful at night.
Visiting St Emilion
A stone’s throw from Bordeaux is one of the most charming little villages of medieval France – St Emilion. Some of the most well known Bordeaux wines come from this region. It is about half an hour away by train and another 10-15 minutes by walk uphill to the village-center. If you plan to visit vineyards, this other writeup is excellent, as is this.
We went inside the old monolithic church, and even took the tour in French as we were starting to get comfortable enough to follow the language. In stark contrast to some of the more overwhelming churches of Europe, there aren’t any flying babies or LED-candles, but an old, simple, even austere place of worship that is now a World Heritage site. Do plan your visit around ticket availability, no walk-ins at the church.
We walked around the more residential streets of this village, and then returned to the touristy areas, popping in and out of random shops and wine-stores.
St Emilion is up on a hill, and affords gorgeous views of the surrounding region and its vineyards. We didn’t get a chance to spend the night there, but I can imagine sunrise and sunset to be very rewarding times to capture the town’s beauty – St Emilion survived time better than many other medieval villages of France. Here are few memories :