Bordeaux – by reputation alone – is an interesting city. If the majority of French people are to be believed, it is an idyllic paradise populated by kind people, fine restaurants and – of course – the celebrated wine for which the region is known. It is also held to be unspeakably beautiful in terms of architecture and location. People continually remind travellers that the city was not always like this – as recently as ten or fifteen years ago, Bordeaux was still suffering from the hangover of its industrial past, with blackened, sooty buildings and warehouses where there are now sunny pedestrian boulevards.
The city is also located perilously close to Toulouse, making it a natural next destination for me. It sits just a little further north-west on a crescent-shaped bend in the Garonne River, which is also what gives the city its logo. To me, this blazon resembles nothing so much as a biohazard symbol, and I spent a fair amount of time wondering why the Bordelais were so inordinately proud of the local chemical warfare plant.
One of my first activities in the city was to seek out a guided visit of the old town. These are run very frequently by the Office of Tourism, although I almost missed out on being able to go until the kind lady at the front desk snuck me into a tour that was already full. This provided some supporting evidence to the suggestion that the Bordelais are friendly, at the very least.
The guided tour itself – despite a bit of rain – was very good. Unsurprisingly, the city gets full marks for architecture and historic buildings; it is gorgeous. Even in a country known for its history and beauty, I can see why so many French people speak fondly of Bordeaux’s city centre.
Not entirely unlike Paris, Bordeaux feels a little bit like a playspace for gifted architects. For example, the Grand Théâtre was designed by Victor Louis – who later designed the theatre of the Comédie-Française, and the Church of the Bastide was restored by Paul Abadie, designer of Paris’ Sacré-Cœur. The style of several of the quartiers also distinctly resembles the Haussmannian-renovated areas in the capital. It would seem that many visionary designers have contributed to a city which sparkles with beautifully-maintained historical splendour.
All of this sightseeing managed to occupy the great majority of time during the day, punctuated with occasional resting in the city parks – which are very lovely – and feeding myself. Good food is also something for which Bordeaux is known, and generally speaking I’m inclined to agree with this as well; I enjoyed everything I ate and drank there, although France has been very good to me in terms of food no matter where I go.
However, as night fell, I must admit to feeling a bit lonely. This is an experience I’ve talked about before – when the attractions are closed and everyone is occupied with their friends, a foreign city can suddenly feel very empty. This was somewhat exacerbated by the fact that I had just spent the weekend with some very good friends, and I found myself acutely missing their company as I ballooned around the nighttime city like a spiderling, held aloft by the barest gossamer strand of motivation.
As depressing as this sounds, it did give me the opportunity to exercise my social muscles a little bit. If being alone is so intolerable – I told myself – then don’t be. So, over the next two days, I made a concerted effort to talk to more strangers. I know that for the extraverts among us, this may sound terribly ordinary (and perhaps even a little bizarre), but for me being so outgoing with perfect strangers represents both a serious personal challenge and a radical change in my usual (safe) behaviour. However, I also knew that I would probably never see any of these people again – so it really doesn’t matter at all, does it?
By and large, I would say that this philosophy served me well in Bordeaux. I managed to have dinner with three complete strangers on my very first night – even if it was just fast food – and talking to them helped to brush away a little of the isolation I’d been feeling. The next day, I had a conversation with a perfectly lovely French girl outside the Tourism Office. This ended up lasting far longer than I would have predicted from the outset, particularly after I discovered she studied English and was practically bilingual. It’s always a pleasure when you learn that you have interests in common with someone, and so I very suavely and confidently exchanged phone numbers with her for future friending. Just kidding – it was a very shy, tentative proposal that somehow inexplicably met with a positive response. As much as I may have changed here, I’m not Captain Charisma just yet.
Despite all this, I ended up spending my last day in Bordeaux on my own. However, I was feeling marginally better about this fact by then and my usual explorateur mood had returned, leaving me keen to see some more of the city before my departure. One of the places I ended up going was the Musée des Beaux Arts.
The museum is split into two wings – the North and South – which are also divided by topic. The South Wing didn’t impress me especially, as the majority of the work on display there seemed to be either religion-themed or portraits of wealthy dead men. However the North Wing was a bit more eclectic, with things like naval scenes, artistic nudes and sculptures, including Mozart expirant by Rinaldo Carnielo, which I found very impressive. The North Wing also had a lot more contextual information provided about the works on display, which I’ve always found helps me immeasurably to appreciate them – I am not a scholar of art, and I am more and more willing to admit to that failing and seek the required education to understand what I’m looking at, why it’s important and the context – both historical and artistic – from which it arose.
In the end, I think Bordeaux lives up to its reputation; it’s beautiful, the people are friendly and it wears its history proudly. As far as the city itself goes – it’s good, and worth the visit. However, I think it’s the sort of place that might be more fun with some companions. Some cities suit solo travellers, some don’t. This place strikes me as the perfect spot to relax and enjoy the French lifestyle.
Through no fault of its own, it’s also one of the cities where I did the most reflection and introspection – after all, I had to think about something during those long walks in the magnificent public gardens. It may be something of a cliché, but I do believe this sort of travel has helped me to find myself – or at least to better understand the person I want to be when I grow up, if that ever happens.
To see a gallery of photos related to this post – although I actually didn’t take very many in my two days there – click here. If all this talk of Bordeaux has filled you with desire for wine, but you have none handy, check out this recipe for prison wine.