Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 9, 2009

Bordeaux: A Second Golden Age


For those francophiles in the room, to suggest that French culture is all about presence and brilliance, would be not only an understatement but redundant. Cela va sans dire. In terms of its culture, arts, architecture, and history, France is a model of intellectual courage and élan.

But there is more than one moveable feast in France, and now permit me to sing the praises of Bordeaux, a city that is second to none.


On Bordeaux’s coat of arms, you will note iconic symbols that articulate the city’s motto: “The fleur-de-lys alone rules over the moon, the waves, the castle, and the lion.” But please do not think this an arrogant statement; it is instead what this great world city has always striven to achieve: brilliance, enlightenment, and excellence. Therein lies its real 21st-century power.

As real estate agents say, it is all about location, location, location. And from an historical point of view, Bordeaux could not be better located. This does not mean, however, that the city has always prospered or known “good times” throughout the centuries. Au contraire mes chers, this is an area of Europe that has known great turbulent events, great tragedies, and ultimately great triumphs.

Little would Neanderthal Man, who inhabited the region between 30,000 and 90,000 years ago, have foreseen the historical vicissitudes and glories that Bordeaux experienced much much later. Under Roman rule which began around 60 BCE, Bordeaux became the capital of Roman Aquitaine, but when that empire eventually dissolved, the city was invaded and sacked by Vandals (twice), Visigoths, and then Franks. The barbarians at the gates knew an opportunity when they saw it. A period of darkness and obscurity was subsequently visited on Bordeaux beginning around 500 AD.

However fortunes rise and fall, and therefore Bordeaux eventually re-emerged as a seat of power, both political and religious, during the frequently house-divided Merovingian dynasty. And the city even witnessed a Muslim invasion under Abd er Rahman in 732 when the latter went to war with his Andalusian army against Frank ruler Charles “The Hammer” Martel. Hélas, later under Carolingian rule (the empire founded by Charlemagne) Bordeaux was called upon the defend the strategic mouth of the Garonne from those ever-invading Vikings. Throughout time Bordeaux has earned its stripes and paid its historical dues.

Today Bordeaux is the capital of the Aquitaine region, a name that should resonate strongly with anyone who enjoys the romance of European history. I use the word romance deliberately, in its original sense of a medieval narrative of heroic and wonderful events; a highly allegorical story told by troubadours throughout the known world.

Built on a bend in the Garonne River (yes Bordeaux also has Right and Left Banks), from the 12th and 15th centuries, this was an English realm, ruled over by two of the most romantic characters in history: Eleanor of Aquitaine and her husband Henry Plantagenet. Shortly after their marriage of considerable geopolitical importance (as one would say today), Henry became King Henry the Second of England. And even then, the city was flourishing because of the wine trade.

Of course, Bordeaux did become part of France but not until after the Battle of Castillon in 1453. As is often the case historically, it’s two steps forward and one step back. Being annexed to France put an end to the flourishing wine trade with England. However, by 1462 when Bordeaux obtained its own parliament, it re-emerged on the world stage as a city to be reckoned with.

In a conversation with Dominique Ducasse, Chargé de culture, at the City Hall, I was reminded once again that culture is itself an industry. In French the word culture means both culture as we know it but also agriculture. As Dominique pointed out this agricultural wine-producing base is also historically one of the principal reasons why Bordeaux became an international city. However, you must add to that equation the fact that Bordeaux has always been a strategically located Atlantic port city. And if you look at a map, it becomes clear why Bordeaux was always a commercial and cultural window onto the world. The trade that therefore has been the essence of Bordeaux was also the reason why the city and its people were in direct contact with “foreign” influences. Culture travels! As a wine-growing region — its wealth is also in its soil — as a port city and as a European crossroads, Bordeaux benefited therefore on many levels. And for the Bordelais their rich land is therefore also the source of their culture; the land is also their heritage. Dominique also reminded that great poets, Baudelaire for example, were inspired by the wines of Bordeaux.

Fast forward to 1653 and you have King Louis the Fourteenth — the Sun King — entering the city and giving it his official, and very significant, royal stamp of approval. And this recognition of the city’s potential and the consolidation of le pouvoir bordelais would lead a century later to a Golden Age in Bordeaux.

However, the great leap forward experienced by Bordeaux also became a skeleton in the cupboard — we all have them — because the new commerce was based on Bordeaux being a centre of distribution and transit centre for sugar and slaves from the West Indies; in addition of course to its wine trade.

Âge d’Or

Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Bordeaux has once again become a city of enlightenment, especially in the way in which it integrates contemporary urban design with its historic properties, especially those along the quais that “flow” beside the Garonne.

Here is what UNESCO says:

“The Port of the Moon, port city of Bordeaux in south-west France, is inscribed [on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list] as an inhabited historic city, an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble, created in the age of the Enlightenment, whose values continued up to the first half of the 20th century, with more protected buildings than any other French city except Paris. It is also recognized for its historic role as a place of exchange of cultural values over more than 2,000 years, particularly since the 12th century due to commercial links with Britain and the Low Lands. Urban plans and architectural ensembles of the early 18th century onwards place the city as an outstanding example of innovative classical and neoclassical trends and give it an exceptional urban and architectural unity and coherence. Its urban form represents the success of philosophers who wanted to make towns into melting pots of humanism, universality and culture.”

It is known as the Port de la Lune because of the port’s crescent moon shape, but it could easily have been called that because of the metaphorical associations with the moon. (I think of Cyrano de Bergerac and his imaginary journeys to the moon, a destination that in him evokes purity, passion, and poetry. The moon is his muse.)

That Age of Enlightenment was the 18th century, a time when many of the exquisite buildings you still see in Vieux Bordeaux were built in a neo-classical style.

A name closely associated with Bordeaux, is Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu; history simple calls him Montesquieu. As a social commentator and political thinker who was born in Bordeaux and lived during the Age of Enlightenment, he also played an important role in defining how complex human urban environments like Bordeaux would be supported and maintained. It is not that difficult to see how his theories of the separation of powers and responsibilities in the state — and how therefore government would play its “proper” role in governing democratic human societies — would affect the functioning of a city. Creative, common sense principles and constructive social concepts — something as deceptively simple as maintaining the people’s right to full access to the city — are, in my view, part and parcel of intelligent urban re-development and design. (This is particularly evident in Bordeaux’s much lauded (but expensive, controversial, and wonderful) new public tram/transportation system which has created new pedestrian-only spaces in the heart of the city. The powers that be in Bordeaux must all have been communicating well with each other. As part of my usual “re-entry angst” following an especially enlightening trip abroad, I decried the out-of-control car culture of North America and the mindless lack of intelligent public transport in the megalopolis in which I live.)

As you will see, many of the public buildings, grand private homes, and public spaces of 18th-century Bordeaux have been revitalized so that they shine like scrubbed faces of angelic children. And all of this has been done for good reason; for pragmatic reasons. Bordeaux had become a touch down at the heel; in part because it was a commercial port city that was a little too busy being commercially successful to think about just looking magnificent. A mayor of the city from the 19th century summed it up when he said, “L’âme de Bordeaux, c’est le commerce.” (The soul of Bordeaux is trade.) A strong economy is of course critical to cities, but Bordeaux has not forgotten its cultural industries and how they contribute directly to the public purse. To witness long-term thinking in the urban domain is refreshing to say the least.

Bordeaux also became a city that would eventually enthrall the likes of Victor Hugo, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry James; and the famous Baron Haussman, a prefect in Bordeaux, who took his inspiration from Bordeaux for the “re-design” of what was then a Paris that had all the worst qualities of Medieval times. And under the sponsorship of Emperor Napoléon the Third, he rebuilt Paris à la bordelaise. So when you visit those grands boulevards in Paris, in a sense you are also looking at Bordeaux.)

Today most observers point to travel and tourism as the largest industry on the planet; and the commerce-minded Bordelais, especially their mayor Alain Juppé (former prime minister of France and and a man with connections), have launched a new kind of global trade that also trades in ideas, ideals, and culture.

A new age of enlightenment, that of 21st-century urban re-development and design, awaits you in Bordeaux.

Images and imagery in Bordeaux

I visited Bordeaux in the early spring when locals were eagerly starting to re-emerge into the ample public spaces of their city. To watch a slideshow of select images and imagery in Bordeaux, click here.

Audio moments in Bordeaux, for our French-speaking-friends

For many people throughout the world, the French language has its own aesthetic. As we often say, “it” loses in the translation. If you are French-speaking or a student of the French language, you will enjoy the erudition and pleasing sounds of the following.

(a) An interview with Laurent Croizier of Le Grand Théâtre

Laurent, an historian, musicologist, and the public relations officer, describes Le Grand Théâtre as an experience that is passionnant, which it is indeed from several perspectives. It is a rich, elegant, and pure piece of 18th-century architecture and in many ways the symbolic showcase of Bordeaux. However, it is not museum-like. This Greek temple (dedicated to the Muses) is very much an active theatre, a community centre, with two stunning interior spaces. It is also still very much a working arts and commercial space, especially, as Laurent explains, because of the in-house artisans who practise traditional crafts related to theatre. The theatre’s stunning colonnades, statues, and its active arts scene will remind you that this is Bordeaux both past and present.

To listen to our chat, click on the following link:

For further information on Le Grand Théâtre click here.

(b) An interview with Francine Fort, Director of the Bordeaux Centre d’architecture L’Arc-en-rêve

L’Arc-en-rêve is a forward-thinking architectural institution that combines exhibits and a research centre. As Francine points out, the Centre is dedicated to both the architectural heritage of Bordeaux and to architectural modernité. Typically of French culture in general, there is a clear emphasis on both the philosophical and the practical. It is, she says, the fundamental vocation of architecture to faire habiter l’homme, create liveable spaces for human beings. She also emphasizes that the Centre wishes to act and to be useful, in particular in promoting the modernity of Bordeaux. The name Arc-en-rêve is a delightful and significant play on words: an arc-en-ciel is a rainbow; un rêve is a dream; thus the Centre is a “dreambow” that communicates historic and contemporary social values because, as Francine says, architecture happens every day.

To listen to our chat, click on the Francine Fort icon in the right-hand column.

For further information on the Bordeaux Centre d’architecture Arc-en-rêve click here.

Video moments in Bordeaux

(a) Ballet in Bordeaux

In the magnificent grand salon of Le Grand Théâtre, one of the finest theatres in the world, I was privileged to watch two ballet dancers rehearse.

To view this mini-video click here.

(b) The Roller Boys of Bordeaux

Along the very people-friendly quais beside the Garonne, I also watched another kind of dance.

To view this mini-video click here.

Bordelais favourites

Bordeaux is an embarrassment of riches but here are some of my other favourites.

(a) The Musée d’Aquitaine is a superb museum of history, archeology, and ethnography. The exhibits, especially of the Roman period and of pre-historic times are especially fine. This musuem will give you a good overview of Aquitaine.

(b) The Place de la Bourse which was designed by the Royal architect Jacques Ange Gabriel is sublime 18th-century architecture in three part architectural harmony.

(c) I am particularly fond of La Grosse Cloche, one of two remaining gates in the Medieval walls that once surrounded Bordeaux.

(d) The Cathédrale St-André is probably the most beautiful religious structure in Bordeaux. Almost as big as Notre-Dame de Paris, its Gothic choir, flying buttresses, and exquisite vaulted ceiling are very impressive.

(e) The morning market at Place des Capucins is wonderful in terms of a grassroots exploration of local gastronomical delights, wines, and cheeses. If you go, may I also recommend a very local brasserie nearby called Le Palatium. Here I watched as the owner’s young helped his father clear the tables, and then he sat down to eat, with great aplomb, a large plate of oysters. He is, I am sure, the best little boy in Bordeaux!

(f) Because Bordeaux is now so pedestrian-friendly, I wandered its commercial streets and — I am not a shopper — and found myself enjoying and photographing store window displays which had their own special Bordelais aesthetic.

Bordeaux travel resources

(a) Visit the official Bordeaux Tourism website at

(b) Bordeaux is of course the point of departure for wine tours in the world’s most historic wine region. To see the possibilities of combining tourism and wine in the Médoc region, visit

(c) Interested in wine seminars? Visit Bordeaux’ École du Vin at

(d) You can visit the Bordeaux International Airport in Mérignac at

(e) As a conference and convention city, Bordeaux is well-equipped especially with its new Centre de Congrès et de Conférences.



  1. […] Bordeaux: A Second Golden Age […]

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