Bordeaux #1: City of Superlatives

Place de la Bourse with le miroir d'eau in front
Place de la Bourse with le miroir d’eau in front


“Can I help you at all?” asked one in a succession of Bordelais as I wrestled with the Tourist Office map. Mostly, we knew where we were going, although it didn’t look like it. However, this was typical of the helpful attitude we encountered last weekend in the capital of Aquitaine. The Bordelais are proud of their city, and rightly so.

Here, I have to admit – as I often do – that in our 17 years here we had not yet set foot in Bordeaux. Determined at last to put this right, we combined a visit with the SF’s birthday.

Rather than get stressed out driving in a strange city, we decided to let the train take the strain. The high speed train (TGV) takes 1h40m from Montauban to Bordeaux, so it was a no-brainer. The shiny recent tram system that the city has installed made getting about the centre easy, too, although most of the sights are within easy walking distance.

Extensive restoration

The city has benefited from a radical makeover in recent years. The stone façades have been scoured and the formerly rundown riverfront transformed. Central Bordeaux became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. Countless  buildings are historic monuments.

Le miroir d'eau with the bell tower of Saint-Michel - la flêche - in the background
Le miroir d’eau with the bell tower of Saint-Michel – la flêche – in the background

The pièce de résistance is probably the Place de la Bourse, fronted by a shallow expanse of water, the miroir d’eau. A statue of Louis XV – no longer there – once stood before this former business exchange. There’s a fantastic view of the river and the curving waterfront from here.

Grand scale

Reminders of Bordeaux’s origins as an important port and wine trade centre are everywhere. Much of the city is built on an imposing scale, with broad boulevards, majestic buildings and immense squares. Wealthy merchants demolished some of the older medieval buildings during the 18th century and replaced them with grander palaces. Typical of this architecture is the Place de la Comédie, dominated by the neo-classical façade of the Grand Théâtre.

Façde of le Grand Théâtre
Façade of le Grand Théâtre

Nearby, the huge Esplanade des Quinconces, established in 1820, is said to be the biggest square in Europe. A massive monument (1893-1902) decorated with over-elaborate sculptures honours the Girondins, bourgeois businessmen who were victims of the Revolutionary Reign of Terror. They symbolised the Bordelais’ independence of spirit.

Monument des Girondins
Monument des Girondins
Monument des Girondins - detail
Monument des Girondins – detail


Soaring spires

Soaring spires are also a trademark of Bordeaux. The separate bell tower of the Gothic Saint-Michel Basilica is said to be the tallest building in southwest France at 114 metres high. It’s known as la Flêche (the arrow).

La Flêche - Saint-Michel bell tower - taken from the Chartrons quays
La Flêche – Saint-Michel bell tower – taken from the Chartrons quays

The 11th-century Cathedral of Saint-André also has a free-standing 15th –century bell tower, the Tour Pey-Berland, topped with a gilded statue of Our Lady of Aquitaine. Eleanor (or more correctly, Aliénor) of Aquitaine married her first husband, Louis VII of France, at the cathedral in 1137, sowing the seeds of centuries of conflict between France and England.

Cathédrale de Saint-André
Cathédrale de Saint-André
Tour Pey-Berland
Tour Pey-Berland

A history freak like me is in their element in a city like Bordeaux. We walked and walked (we also ate and drank) but there’s still plenty left for another visit. Of course, being France, there was the inevitable dog poo at strategic points, but we were struck by how clean and litter-free the city is.

Markets, food and museums are the subject of Bordeaux post #2, coming up soon.

You might also like:

Toulouse: pink, violet or blue city?
The Tale of Napoleon’s Thumb
Black wine and secret gardens in Cahors

Copyright © 2014 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved


  1. I’m so glad you liked my adopted city! Even after more than 20 years I frequently get a Wow! feeling when coming to Bordeaux and never tire of just wandering around and looking. You must come again and this time we’ll meet!


    • We had a great time. The compactness of the city centre means you can wander about and just look around. But we saw a lot of museums, monuments etc. too. Tired feet afterwards!


  2. I spent an afternoon in Bordeaux with a friend and loved it! it reminded me of a little Paris. I must go back and explore it more.


    • An afternoon certainly isn’t enough! A weekend isn’t, either, so we will have to go back and explore all the things we didn’t see. It is a little like Paris, especially the Haussmannian buildings and the broad boulevards. But it has a character all its own. And the riverfront is a big attraction.


    • I enjoyed your posts about Bordeaux when you visited Caiti and kept saying to myself, “I must get there.” Well, now I finally have. And we shall certainly go back. Just a pity it took us 17 years!


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