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Subject:  Bordeaux, France Date:  6/2/2019  4:05 PM
Author:  OrmontUS Number:  24150 of 24973

Bordeaux, Lascaux Caves and Saint-Emilion, France
“The only source of knowledge is experience.” – Albert Einstein
Our ship (Oceania Marina) docked right in the middle of Bordeaux, across from the Place de la Bourse. Not only was this super-convenient, but our overnight stay allowed us to use the first day to take a road trip.

We have a wonderful riverside view of the city as well as the Pont de Pierre (Stone Bridge). The bridge, was completed in 1821 after years of construction work, was the first to span the Garonne River with its 17 graceful arches (to match the letter count of Napoleon Bonaparte’s name) supported by foundation piles that are set into the riverbed to withstand strong currents.

Bordeaux is unexpectedly beautiful and grand. It’s the only town in France we’ve seen that actually compares to Paris in both scope and architecture – and a place we intend to return to to spend more time.

UNESCO declared Bordeaux a World Heritage Site in 1998 thanks to the city's wealth of architectural treasures as "an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble" of the 18th century. More than 350 buildings are classified as historical monuments.

In the evening, the bridges and structures of Bordeaux as they glow against the night sky and are very photogenic.

Getting around in Bordeaux is easy by foot, but the extensive tram/bus/river boat system is also convenient and inexpensive. Tickets cost about 1.40 Euro and are usable on all three. They are purchasable from machines at some tram stations or at the scattered Tourist Information offices (the closest to our ship is at the other end of the Quinconces mall). Fares may be paid aboard at a slightly higher cost. The “C” tram shuttle bus takes one to the train station, the “B” tram heads the route of much of the following walking tour and the river boat takes a 45 minute ride to La Cite du Vin wine museum up the river. Both taxis and Uber are also available in town.

Since the new tram has been built, many of the streets are free of cars. You can wander around the old town on your own, because it’s fairly compact, or take advantage of the 2-hour walking tour the tourist office arranges daily at 10am (every day except Saturday, Cost is 8.50€ ). A circuit tour map and description of the UNESCO sites is also available from the tourist information offices.

The prettiest and most historic neighborhood in Old Bordeaux is the “Golden Triangle,” defined by cours Clemenceau, cours de l’Intendance, and les allées de Tourny. It’s easy to seem the important sites/sights of the old town in a walk of two to three hours:

From the ship it was easy to stroll a block down the river and enjoy the gardens and fountains of the new promenade along the quays. Lining the quays of Bordeaux for a half mile are palatial classical buildings from the 18th century. The most magnificent examples are found at the Place de la Bourse, the former royal square dedicated to Louis XV, which epitomizes the elegance of 18th-century design. In the center of the square is the Fountain of the Three Graces, surrounded by two beautiful pavilion-like buildings: the Palais de la Bourse (formerly the Stock Exchange) and the Musée National des Douanes (Customs Museum – not really worth seeing), the only museum of its kind in France. These graceful quayside monuments overlook the banks of the Garonne River.

On warm days, Bordelais (particularly the youngest ones) come here to splash through the huge 1-inch deep mirror of water that lies between the square and the river, the Miroir d'Eau (Water Mirror) is an outdoor artistic installation created in 2006.

From here, we walked north to esplanade des Quinconces. It was laid out between 1818 and 1828, and covers nearly 12 hectares (30 acres, considered the largest public square in Europe).

A bit further to the west, is the Monument Aux Girondins, a 43 meter column commemorating those ho lost their lives during the French Revolution. The fountain at its base is spectacular.

We entered the heart of Old Bordeaux at place de la Comédie (originally the site of a Roman temple) to admire one of France’s great theaters. The Grand Théâtre, (Place de la Comédie, 05-56-00-85-95; www.opera-bordeaux.com) was built between 1773 and 1780 as testimony to the burgeoning prosperity of Bordeaux’s emerging bourgeoisie. A colonnade of 12 columns, topped with statues of goddesses and the Muses, graces its facade. There are guided tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2, 3:30, and 5pm to visit the richly decorated interior. They cost 3€, and you can reserve ahead in person, by phone, or via Internet.

It’s time to follow the “B” Tram track along the posh shopping street, lined with high end stores, of Cour de l’Intendance.

Taking a jog off of Cour de l’Intendance on Rue Martignac brought us to the Eglise Notre-Dame, a baroque Jacobin church built during the Counter-Reformation, which has been used as a set in a number of movies.

We continued to follow the tram tracks until they turned onto Rue Vital, walking past the Porte Dijeux. This has been the gateway into the city from the West since the Roman era. It was rebuilt during the 17th century by Louis XIV when it was called the Dauphin’s Gate in honor of the future Louis XVI.

Another place of historical importance in the heart of Bordeaux, the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Andrew, which dates back to the 12th century. It hosted two royal weddings; the first between Eleanor of Aquitaine and the future Louis VII and the second between Anne of Austria and Louis XIII. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this cathedral was part of the Route of Saint James pilgrimage trail. Pilgrims traveled through Bordeaux from the Médoc, Tours, and the British Isles on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. A view of its relics (and a supposed Rembrandt) costs 3 Euros.

Comparable to Notre-Dame in Paris in its grandeur, the Cathedral of Saint Andrew has an impressive facade with sculptures of the Last Supper, the Ascension, and Christ in Majesty. Interestingly, the western front side of the cathedral is completely unadorned, since it was originally too close to the old town walls.

The Tour Pey Berland is a richly decorated tower is the freestanding belfry for the Cathédrale Saint-André. Built in the 15th century for the Archbishop Pey Berland, the tower exemplifies flamboyant Gothic architecture with its ornate details, soaring spires, and angled corner buttresses. As a more recent addition, a 19th-century statue of Notre Dame d'Aquitaine adorns the top of the tower. Visitors can climb the 50 meter tall tower to the top to enjoy magnificent panoramic views of the city.

Opposite the cathedral stands the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), originally a palace and royal residence (Palais Rohan) built in the 1770s. Designed in the Neoclassical style typical of Bordeaux, the Hôtel de Ville has an impressive colonnaded facade. Set in the pleasant Jardin de la Mairie public park, the Museum of Beaux-Arts occupies part of the Hôtel de Ville. The museum offers a wonderful insight into European art history, with a collection of art spanning the 15th to the 20th centuries. The permanent collection includes masterpieces by Titian, Veronese, Rubens, Delacroix, Renoir, and Rodin, among others.

Continuing along the “B” Tram tracks brought us to the Museum of Aquitaine, which covers the history of Bordeaux and the region of Aquitaine from prehistoric times to the present day. The museum exhibits pieces of antiquity, including the Laussel Venus, an artifact from 25,000 BC, Gallic gold coins from around the 2nd century BC, and a 3rd-century statue of Hercules.

Continuing along the tram tracks on Cours Pasteur for another block will bring you to the city’s Main Synagogue on the left side. The visitor’s entrance is around the corner at Rue Sainte-Catherine, 213 and the building is accessible on Monday-Thursday at 2, 3 and 4PM.

Walking back a block down Rue Sainte-Catherine and making a right turn on Cours Victor Hugo will bring you to the remnants of 13th century medieval defensive gate of Bordeaux, the Grosse Cloche (Big Bell). The clock features predominantly in the gate tower that was part of the old city hall and the bell is a 7,800kg one cast in 1775.

Walking through the gate on St. James (what seems to be a pretty hip street) brought us to the Place Ferdinand-Lafargue, the former 12th century marketplace, where the pillory was once installed.

Making a left and returning to Rue Sainte-Catherine, the longest pedestrian shopping street in France, allowed us to window shop and look at the wide variety of restaurants on our way back towards the Grand Theatre. As you get closer to the theatre, the stores become more likely to be global chains and the northern end of the street is anchored by a Galleries Lafayette department store (if you accumulate 190 Euros purchase or more in a day, you can apply for a VAT tax rebate, otherwise, as a non-EU resident, you can request an immediate 10% discount in most cases).

The Allées de Tourny, which heads alongside the left side of a park which heads north-west from the Place de la Comedie in front of the theatre, is home to Cadiot-Badie, 26 allées de Tourney (05-56-44-24-22; www.cadiot-badie.com), a must for chocoholics. Established in 1826, their chocolates are considered the best in Bordeaux – and in my opinion, maybe among the best in the world.


Other sites of note:

The exquisite Romanesque Basilique Saint-Seurinis, a stop on the medieval Way of Saint James pilgrimage on the route to Santiago de Compostela, is also designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This exceptional 11th century church has a choir, featuring a stone abbot's throne and ornate stalls built during the 14th and 15th centuries. The oldest part of the basilica is the 11th-century crypt, which is a treasure trove of ancient reliquaries and sarcophagi from the 6th and 7th centuries.

The "Rayonnant Gothic" style Basilique Saint-Michel is dedicated to the Archangel and is another important church on the Route of Santiago pilgrimage trail. Along with the Cathedral of Saint Andrew and the Basilica of Saint Seurin, the Basilica of Saint Michael is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The basilica took 200 years to build, from the 14th to 16th centuries.

The only remaining vestige of the Roman era in Bordeaux, the Palais Gallien was built in the late 2nd century and was located just outside the town of "Burdigala." This immense amphitheater, which offered typical brutal Roman entertainment such as gladiator combats, could accommodate 15,000 spectators on wooden benches.

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs features a superb collection of decorative art objects, including furniture, tableware, jewelry, miniatures, and musical instruments from the 18th and 19th centuries. The museum is housed in the lovely Hôtel de Lalande, an elegant mansion built between 1775 and 1779.

Docked alongside the Quai des Chartrons, the Cruiser Colbert was once one of France's biggest warships. Built in 1953, the ship served until 1990 during the Gulf War. Visitors can tour 75 rooms including the kitchen, engine room, Captain's footbridge, and the Admiral's flat for a peek into life on board for the 600 sailors. There’s also the WWII German submarine base on the Chartrons river.

If you want antiques, head to rue Bouffard, rue des Remparts, and rue Notre-Dame, where you’ll find an indoor market known as Village Notre-Dame (& 05-56-52-66-13; ww.antiquitesbordeaux.com), housing about 30 antiques stands. Another destination is the neighborhood around Eglise St-Michel, particularly the passage St-Michel, a narrow alleyway a few steps from the church.

OUT OF TOWN:

Since I’ve been a small child, I’ve been intrigued by the Cro-Magnon prehistoric cave paintings, dating back around 20,000 years, which were found in 1940 at Lascaux, France. We were given an 11:06 appointment and told to show up 20 minutes early which create a bit of a challenge as the Hertz office opened at 8AM and the drive was over two hours. Adding to the stress was that hertz put down the address of their truck rental lot near the station on our reservation, rather than the proper office located in the basement of the main train station. Misunderstanding the “round-about” instructions on my GPS a couple of times added to the delay and the trip became a white-knuckle race against time to make the deadline.

Well, this was a good news/bad news event. The bad news is that the actual caves have been off-limits to tourists. The good news is that the Lascaux IV – Centre International de l’Art Parietal, the foundation responsible for the site, has recreated an exact duplicate of the network of caves, as well as the full suite of prehistoric cave drawings. I‘ll leave it to others to decide if the four hour round-trip is worth it, but I found the site extremely interesting (my wife – well, not enough to justify the drive).

Saint Emilion

On the way back to Bordeaux, we stopped at the quaint town of Saint-Emilion. You enter the town by passing under the ancient arched gate over rue Cadene, one of the roads into the medieval village, approaching the towering 13th-century King’s Keep and the Collegiate Church and its cloister, whose construction in the Romanesque style began even earlier. The area and its namesake village have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because Saint-Emilion represents a historic vineyard landscape that has survived intact. Viticulture, in this the heartland of the Merlot grape, was introduced here by the Romans and then greatly enhanced in the Middle Ages.

Surrounded by vineyards, St-Emilion is on a limestone plateau overlooking the valley of the Dordogne; a maze of wine cellars has been dug beneath the town. The town, constructed mostly of golden stone and dating from the Middle Ages, is also known for its macarons, a light-as air cookie made with almonds and egg whites – but the ones we tried didn’t seem better than others we’ve had elsewhere..

At the heart of St-Emilion is the medieval place du Marché, also called place de l’Eglise Monolithe, between two hills.

The vines on the "hill with a thousand châteaux", reach right up to Saint Emilion's 13th century town walls and surrounding moat, dug out of solid rock. Surrounded by miles of vineyards, this medieval town grabs the eyes, but it quickly becomes apparent that it is a massive tourist trap designed to sell Bordeaux wine at high prices to those who appreciate such things (personally, I’ve never been able to tell the difference between a good $10 bottle of wine and one that costs ten times that, but I suppose there are those who can, and we picked up some seven year old red at a local Carrefour supermarket in Bordeaux for about 7 Euros).

The major Bordeaux wine districts are Graves, Médoc, Sauternes, Entre-deux-Mers, Libourne, Blaye, and Bourg. North of the city of Bordeaux, the Garonne River joins the Dordogne to form the Gironde, a broad estuary. Some 117,000 hectares (298,990 acres) of vines produce over 150 million gallons of wine a year, some of which are among the greatest reds in the world. (The white wines are less well known.) The general area extends all the way to the Chateau d'Amboise, Chateau du Close Luce, Chateau de Chenonceau, Chateau de Chambord and the Chateau de Blois which we saw earlier in our trip, when we drove from Paris to the Loire Valley. Before heading out one of the many Wine Roads, or Routes des Vins, make sure you get a detailed map from the Bordeaux tourist office.

Jeff
("Take the High Road - A Primer for the Independent Traveler")
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