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Première Bordeaux - La Ville

by Jon Rusciano

During my email campaign of confirmations for winery visits, months before the trip, I realized there would be available time over the weekend to explore the City of Bordeaux.  After studying maps of the city and reading about the public transit systems there, it was apparent that driving my car into town would not be prudent.  Only private garages were available for parking in the center of the city, and no map I could find had positively located them.  So, a transit bus or a tram would be the preferred means for access.  Finally, I did find a map of the bus routes.   Most fortunately, Bus Route #1 was a direct line from the Airport to the heart of the city, and back again.  Better yet, there was a stop right in front of my hotel and the termination of the route (Quinconces) was only a block away from the Office de Tourisme (“OdT” – city’s official tour provider).  Divine providence!


The French had their Labor Day holiday on Sunday (with even public transportation closed), thus my tour was scheduled for Saturday.   A private bus tour of the city was at 10 am. in the morning, so I caught the transit bus at 8:45 am., allowing plenty of time for the unexpected.  Delightfully the fare was only two Euros, and then off we went.  After passing the familiar Carrefour Market, just inside the loop, new sights emerged.  Apparently, many of the citizens resided in high-rise apartments.  Two thirds of the way in, the spaces between buildings were eliminated and the age of the structures increased.  It started to look like the back streets of Paris.  Quinconces is a several blocks long plaza of concrete and gravel where portable shops and carnival type attractions are assembled each day to attract visitors.  At one end was the famous Monument Aux Girondins, a tribute to the freedom the people of France acquired as the result of the French Revolution.


The tour started at the corner storefront office of OdT, as a large red bus pulled up, right on time.  Ticket holders took a seat, and the bus began its slow journey around the most famous sights of the town.  I was on the “English” tour, in which a female guide announced each sight and its historical significance in French first, and then English.  It was amusing that her descriptions of these famous landmarks took several minutes each in French and then less than half a minute in English.  Somehow I believe that Anglais received the “Reader’s Digest Condensed Version.”  Nevertheless, it was well worth the time, acquiring a two hour briefing on the wonders of this “shrine to wine.”  Notable sights were the remains of the WWII German Submarine Base, the Quai des Chartrons (riverfront street of side-by-side buildings where 18th and 19th century wine merchants and negociants once stored and marketed wine), Place de la Bourse (giant reflection pool where local children recreate) and numerous churches and historic government buildings.


One of the most famous sights on the tour was the Pont de Pierre, an old arched bridge across La Garonne (river), built by the troops of Napoleon Bonaparte on his orders, after a treacherous flood-water crossing into the city that they were forced to make during one of his campaigns.  Each arch rested upon rock-based river abutments, visible from the walk path above.  The arches were designed so that seventeen supports would equally span the river, the same number of letters in Napoleon’s name, of course.  After the tour, I returned to the bridge and walked across and back, for the experience and visual perspective of the city that the hike offered.


On foot, I strolled the shop-lined Rue Sainte Catherine, a long north/south pedestrian artery which essentially divided the center-city in half.  There were interesting eateries, sidewalk cafés and a number of novel shops where local artwork was marketed.  This led to Cours Victor Hugo, the east/west “main drag,” which fed into Napoleon’s bridge.  Heading back toward the river on Victor Hugo was the most interesting sight that I beheld that day… St. Michel Basilica.


St. Michel was designed similarly to most 12th and 13th century French cathedrals, with one exception.  The bell tower was constructed separately, at least 30 to 40 meters away from the main sanctuary.  In the tour, we were informed that the designers were fearful that the weight of both, if constructed together, could not be adequately supported by the soils upon which it would be founded, due to the close proximity to the river.  So, a stone paved plaza was created as a gathering place for the followers to congregate between the two structures, before and after services.   To my amazement, this sacred plaza was the spot where throngs of local merchants set up stands for selling produce and numerous other day-to-day wares to the citizens.  And, around the noon hour it was a very popular spot, with hundreds of people crowding into this confined area to negotiate the day’s shopping needs. I had haunting visions of Jesus driving the money changers from the temple, a Christian biblical story from my intense Baptist upbringing…  By 1:30 pm. the shoppers cleared out, with the vendors’ best products having been negotiated and sold. 


This was when the scene became most interesting.  Like clockwork, as the market patrons thinned, the street-dwellers (surprisingly young) emerged.  The merchants would only place the best produce out for their customers, culling bruised, less-fresh items back into the wooden crates from which they were packaged and transported.  Stacks of these used crates were piled beside their trucks, to be loaded and hauled away for garbage or reutilization.  These street people came in waves to each stack, picking out the produce which was less than marketable, but still very edible.  The vendors all allowed these scavengers to pick empty crates and fill them with the rejected produce.   It was as if they had an arrangement… no thievery of the sellable produce during “rush hour,” no begging to clients shopping for their food, and in return, no hassles for taking away all the rejected food.  It was impressive how much each person could bundle and tote away.  No doubt they were “shopping” for their extended families and/or Woodstock-like communes.  If what I witnessed was a daily event, feeding of the needy was handled in an orderly, conflict-free fashion.   Nevertheless, the sight of so many impoverished Bordeaux residents was unsettling.


By 2 pm., the doors of St. Michel were opened to tourists and worshipers who wished to enter.  The arched interior was much like the ancient cathedrals of Paris, Rome and many other European cities.  And, the magnificence of the workmanship was no-less impressive.   The awesome shrines, which mankind has erected to glorify concepts of deity over the ages, are remarkable.


Walking back toward the section of town from which my tour commenced, some upscale wine shops were spotted.  Would there be any great deals inside for some of the classified Bordeaux wines that I had sampled on this trip?  In a word… no.  Although the marketing/display techniques utilized were impressive.  The most amusing shop I visited was facing Place de la Comédie, amidst the upscale central-city hotels.  Entering, it appeared tiny, with a small check-out counter and relatively inexpensive bottles and sundries within range of a fleet-of-foot thief who might be inclined to nab something and run out the door.  Protected by one of the husky male employees was the entrance to a towering spiral staircase (Stairway to Heaven, so to speak).  Customers who wished to enter were asked if they could be assisted.  If nothing in particular was desired, a customer’s request for browsing was met with an assessment of validation as a non-risk.  My responses to his questions, along with his apparel and jewelry once-over, let him know right away that I was American, and a possible customer.  Ascending, I noticed that the wines were all on shelves, backset into the curved walls above the stair railings.  Lower levels contained the second and third labels of classified growths.  About three stories up (and passing two more wine sentries), the “good stuff” emerged.  First and second growth labels supported price tags with higher numbers in Euros than I could acquire the same bottles back in the USA with Dollars, not even addressing the mega-difference between currencies.  I went to the summit of this interesting store, just to see what made the very top shelf.  To no surprise, it was a combination of Lafite and Latour, in drinkable vintages.  The journey down was slow, while deliberately displaying my empty hands to everyone encountered along the way.


Scattered about through the streets were numerous sidewalk cafés, with seating extended as far out into the plaza or street as possible.  These were popular places for locals and tourists to spend long hours during mid-day, eating, drinking and watching wandering mimes and passers-by.  When in France…  Not having anyone to chat with for hours, I opted for a sandwich offered by a street vendor.   It was long on bread and short on any other healthy nutritional substance, but tasty.   I noticed numerous boulangeries with baked desserts, attracting patrons with hot pastries, cleverly displayed and positioned for the customer-fragrance-captivation factor. 


Families and couples congregated in a large, well groomed Jardin Public, having picnics, Frisbee throwing and smooch-fests.  Kids assembled in masses to see the on-going puppet shows, whose characters’ amplified voices could be heard at any corner of the park.  I could not understand all they said, but the lively displays of expression and aggression were captivating to watch.  A cleverly-clothed small monkey scampered about on a leash, to the delight of the boys and horrified screams of the girls.


After a long day of exploration, I decided to return to the OdT for a new, less frazzled copy of a city map.  Then, I went out to utilize the public toilet, before boarding the next bus back to my convenient  hotel stop.  This restroom break provided my final tidbit of amusement for the day.  The facility was a large oval structure, constructed of red painted metal, with two doors (entrance and exit).  A button was there to be pushed for the entrance.  If occupied, a lighted sign near the button indicated “Occupé.”  When unoccupied the button would cause the slatted metal door to open on one end of the oval, affording easy access.  Inside another button could be pressed to close the door.  Following use, another button activated the exit door.  Yet, before allowing the next person inside, there were loud swishing noises.  In fact the entire interior was being blasted with a sanitation fluid, apparently flushing the toilet and cleaning all inside surfaces.  When the entry door finally opened, most of the solution had dripped down into the grated drain, which made up the entire floor.  The fluid was moderately heated, yielding a cloud of steam and detergent-like smell as if the next-in-line were entering a giant dishwasher.  Taking my turn, I wondered if anyone had ever failed to exit when prompted, getting sanitized along with the rest of the surfaces.  I cannot imagine the cost of maintaining one of those facilities.  Impressively, there were several in highly trafficked areas.


As I traveled “home” on Bus #1, I watched the riders more than the passing sights I had witnessed earlier.   There were pierced and tattooed teenaged mothers, babies in tow, middle-aged couples with leashed dogs, uniformed elderly women returning from cleaning jobs in fancy city apartment complexes and confused-looking, weathered old men with traditional French chapeaux.  Each looked straight ahead, without speaking, as if entranced by the drone of the bus between stops.  Obviously, it had been just another “ho-hum” day in the life of these Bordeaux citizens.   It also seemed very likely that few, if any, would ever be fortunate enough to experience the viticultural treasures which existed, less than an hour’s drive in several directions of their habitat….  I thanked my lucky stars.


Office de Tourisme – Bordeaux





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