Bordeaux Secret Sights Tour

Bordeaux Secret Sights Tour, Bordeaux, France (A)

Bordeaux is a city that works on many levels. While many of its spectacular landmarks are ever-present on postcards and in guidebooks, some of the most fascinating features of Bordeaux are well-kept secrets that are barely noticed by locals, let alone by visitors. This oddball tour around central Bordeaux reveals these charming secrets and will enable you to see the invisible…
Image Courtesy of Tim Pike.
How it works: The full article is featured in the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" on Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Download the app to your mobile device to read the article offline and create a self-guided walking tour to visit the sights featured in this article. The app's navigation functions guide you from one sight to the next. The app works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

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Sights Featured in This Article

Guide Name: Bordeaux Secret Sights Tour
Guide Location: France » Bordeaux
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 15
Tour Duration: 2.0 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.7 Km or 2.3 Miles
Author: Tim Pike
Author Bio: Tim Pike is an Englishman in France who works as a corporate journalist in the aerospace sector. In his spare time he roams the streets of Bordeaux and the surrounding area on the look-out for interesting places to see and tales to tell. When not writing he can often be spotted riding a vintage yellow bicycle or strumming a guitar.
Author Website:
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Borne du kilomètre zero
  • Former Apollo-Théâtre
  • Former Théatre Français
  • Cour Mably
  • Passage Sarget
  • Place Saint-Projet
  • Place Camille-Jullian & Utopia Saint-Siméon
  • Place Fernand-Lafargue
  • Grosse Cloche clock and its solar equation dial
  • Hôtel Saint-François
  • City's oldest house & De Lartigue mansion
  • Trunk-makers' workshops and homes
  • Place Saint-Pierre & Église Saint-Pierre
  • Place Georges de Porto-Riche & Église Saint-Rémi
  • Galérie Bordelaise
Borne du kilomètre zero

1) Borne du kilomètre zero

Camouflaged by the 1859 building that encases it is the milestone that originally marked the geographical centre of the city and designated the spot from which distances to and from other places were measured.

Today, as is now customary in all French towns and cities, the Bordeaux “kilomètre zéro” is the city hall, the Hôtel de Ville. But this milestone, still known locally as “la borne du kilomètre zéro” (kilometre zero marker), was positioned on Place Gambetta sometime in the mid-19th century.

The wear and tear of the passing years is clear to see; even the text is almost illegible. It reads “Origine du bornage”… although the letters n, a, g and e have long since given up the fight! The milestone itself though should survive a little longer: it and the adjoining building are now jointly registered as part of France’s national heritage in the “Inventaire supplémentaire des monuments historiques”.

And the status of the location as the spiritual heart of the city does continue to live on: just opposite the borne, on the square, a multiple signpost has been erected to display the direction and distance to all of the cities around the world that are twinned with Bordeaux!
Former Apollo-Théâtre

2) Former Apollo-Théâtre

Here, and above a Thai restaurant in the road which runs parallel, a few clues dotted around the façades offer reminders of the past.

The spot was originally the location of the gardens of one Baron Pierre de Castelnau d’Auros, where a popular sedentary circus structure was stationed in the 19th century. In 1867, the local businessman Émile Louit funded the construction of a brand new 2,800-seater theatre, Théâtre Louit.

After a couple of name changes (Folies Bergères then Bouffes Bordelais), the venue was gutted by a massive fire then was rebuilt and reopened as Théâtre des Arts. In 1907, the theatre became known as l’Apollo-Théâtre and its stage hosted operetta recitals, variety shows and music-hall artists including Joséphine Baker.

In 1914, the venue even welcomed sessions of France's upper parliamentary house, the Senate! During a German offensive on Paris, the French government had fled to Bordeaux to ensure that the country could continue to be governed. Paris was saved in September 1914 and the government returned to Paris shortly afterwards.

In 1932, the venue was converted into a movie theatre, Cinéma Apollo, and rebuilt once again in 1972 as a multi-screen complex: Cinéma Ariel. Fifteen or so years later, the complex was taken over by the Union Générale Cinématographique, or UGC.
Former Théatre Français

3) Former Théatre Français

One of the staples of the affluent so-called Triangle d’Or quarter (the golden triangle, surrounded on its three sides by Cours de l’Intendance, Cours Clémenceau and Allées de Tourny) is this neo-classical structure built in 1800: the former Théatre Français.

At the time, the theatre was designed to replace the nearby Théâtre des Variétés, which was demolished in 1792 when the circular Place des Grands-Hommes was completely overhauled. Architect Jean-Baptiste Dufart’s principal challenge was that of fitting a working theatre into a triangular space! He thus opted for the design with the narrow, convex main entrance which still exists today.

In 1893, the venue became known as the Olympia, but in 1899 resorted to its previous name, focusing on light opera and comedy shows. In 1908, the theatre began putting on films, with a full Pathé programme of weekly newsreels and documentaries ahead of an interval and the main attraction. From 1920 onwards, the venue traded solely as a cinema and since the 1980s, it has been the twelve-screen Circuit Georges Raymond (CGR) complex that we can see today. The building was recently fully restored.
Cour Mably

4) Cour Mably

This compact, elegant courtyard has a rich history. It was originally one of the two cloisters (the other is long gone) of a convent originally set up around 1230 by the Dominicans (later known as the Jacobins). The configuration which still stands was designed by the military engineer Pierre-Michel Duplessy with Friar Jean Maupeou and built during the same period – 1684 to 1707 – as the neighbouring Notre-Dame church.

After the French Revolution, the property became the head office of a Jacobin political party before being used by the military for accommodation and archive purposes. The chapter house on the ground floor was actually utilised as a bakery! In 1883, the State passed the property on to the city of Bordeaux, who turned it into the municipal public library and a permanent museum, Le Musée des Antiques, which remained there until 1953.

Today the upper floors of the buildings have been leased back to the State and house the Aquitaine regional chamber of accounts (Chambre Régionale des Comptes). Meanwhile, the chapter house hosts temporary art exhibitions and miscellaneous cultural events. Open-air concerts also occasionally take place in the courtyard itself.

Leaving by the main entrance, be sure to take in the imposing statue of Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, who lived on the nearby Cours de l’Intendance from 1824 until his death aged 82 in 1828, and the baroque wonder that is Église Notre-Dame, registered as a national monument in 1908.
Passage Sarget

5) Passage Sarget

This small shopping arcade, which connects Place du Chapelet with Cours de l’Intendance, was opened in 1878. It was entirely funded by the local dignitary Baron Sarget, whose mansion house was located nearby.

In 1917, the arcade was purchased by the wine trader Nicolas Désiré-Cordier. Just two years later he sold it on to the city of Bordeaux for 1 million francs. The city was keen to acquire the passageway because pedestrians far preferred walking through the arcade to the road which runs parallel, Rue Martignac, which was considered unsafe at the time.

During later renovations, archaeological digs took place and uncovered the traces of ancient baths and mosaics. Some objects which were retrieved dated back to the 1st century…

Don’t expect to be able to enjoy a hot bath there now though. The arcade is solely comprised of luxury shops and tearooms! The atmosphere is unique though, thanks in part to the arcade’s glass roof and metal framework, which for many years was obscured by a suspended ceiling.
Place Saint-Projet

6) Place Saint-Projet

There’s a fair chance that on Place Saint-Projet you will be in the company of shoppers and flâneurs who are out enjoying the atmosphere of the café terraces and the street entertainers. And yet this square, which is one of the oldest in the city, used to be cemetery!

Going way back to the 4th century, it is where you could find the “forum”, or main general meeting place, after the previous forum ended up outside the city’s fortifications. The church and cemetery which were built around the 8th or 9th century were dedicated to a bishop from Auvergne, in central France, who died in 674: Praiectus.

There are records of the parish church up until 1173, ahead of the square becoming a marketplace around the end of the 14th century, with a market-hall being built and a well being dug where the cemetery used to stand. In 1738, the well was replaced by a fountain which can still be viewed today.

From 1392 onwards, an imposing cross stood in the centre of the square. Although this cross was removed around the time of the French Revolution, it was retrieved and restored in 1803. Since 1977, the cross and its sculpted figures have been back in the location where they can still be seen today.
Place Camille-Jullian & Utopia Saint-Siméon

7) Place Camille-Jullian & Utopia Saint-Siméon

This square, which only took its present shape after buildings were demolished in 1935, is named after Camille Jullian (1859-1933), an historian and researcher from Marseille who taught at the University of Bordeaux and did much to uncover the history of his adopted city. The monument in his memory, erected in 1938, is comprised of Gallo-Roman ruins.

Arguably the most interesting feature of the square is the Utopia art house cinema, the modern-day incarnation of a church building which dates back to the fifteenth century, named Saint-Siméon because of its proximity to a sanctuary that housed relics of the Syrian Saint Simeon Stylites.

At the time of the French Revolution, the building became a “salpêtrière” (a saltpeter storage depot) and later a boarding establishment founded by two ex-naval officers: l’École Navale des Mousses. The institution aimed to educate and train youths and set them on the path to becoming sailors.

In 1863, the premises were taken over by Charles Teyssonneau, who set up a factory that produced tinned food. While there, Teyssonneau invented an ingenious key-like device to open sardine cans, and which was patented and went on to be used the world over for many decades thereafter.

The building later became a bicycle shop and subsequently a garage before being turned, come 1999, into the five-screen art house cinema we know today, which is part of the Utopia network of independent movie theatres.
Place Fernand-Lafargue

8) Place Fernand-Lafargue

Before being given the name of the 19th-century writer Jean Fernand-Lafargue, this square was known as Place du Vieux Marché – it was the main marketplace and one of the focal points of Bordeaux life throughout much of the Middle Ages. It was first documented as “Lou Mercat” (Gascon for "the marketplace") in an account of a battle which took place in 1248.

Throughout latter-Medieval times it was a place where merchants and students mingled with St James’ Way pilgrims; the square was one of the last sights in the city before the pilgrims departed through the nearby Porte Saint-Éloi. The marketplace was a veritable hive of activity what with the crowds, the animals, the public criers… and the public pillory: a ten-metre-tall hexagonal tower in the centre of the square where offenders were displayed and humiliated in front of all-comers as penalty for the acts they had committed.

Merchandise arrived over land but also by boat: the square was on the right bank of the river Peugue, which flows from the western limits of the suburb of Pessac to the Garonne. In this part of Bordeaux, it probably wasn't the most pleasant of sights, used by butchers and tanners to dispose of their liquid refuse. The river is still there - it has just been driven underground and, since the 19th century, has run below Cours d'Alsace Lorraine through a channel that is five metres wide and three metres high!
Grosse Cloche clock and its solar equation dial

9) Grosse Cloche clock and its solar equation dial

The Grosse Cloche belfry is one of the best-known landmarks in Bordeaux and features on the city’s coat of arms. Its timepiece was originally built in the 1750s to the designs of the mathematician and astronomer Paul Larroque. It replaced a previous model installed in 1567. The mechanics were overhauled by local clockmaker Gaston Guignan in 1912 and the clock was recently fully restored.

The semi-circular dial indicates the difference in minutes between the apparent solar time (as indicated by the shadow of a sun-dial) and the mean solar time (as displayed by our watches). Solar time is based on the idea that when the sun reaches its highest point, it is noon. The following day, when the sun crosses the meridian, it is noon once again. But what has elapsed can be more or less than our 24-hour units.

Positive values on the solar equation dial indicate that the apparent solar time is ahead of the mean solar time. This can be by as much as 16 minutes and 33 seconds around November 3rd. Negative values indicate that the apparent solar time is behind the mean solar time, “peaking” at 14 minutes 6 seconds around February 12th. The dial indicates zero around April 16th, June 15th, September 1st and December 25th.

Meanwhile, on the north flank of the belfry, the sister clock face displays the different phases of the moon during the lunar month.
Hôtel Saint-François

10) Hôtel Saint-François

The building on the corner is best-known locally as Hôtel Saint-François. This “immeuble de rapport” (residential rental property) was completed in 1855 by the entrepreneur Antoine-Théodore Audubert (1819-1893). It was first called Hôtel de la Perle.

The five-storey, 70-window building featured many architectural and technical innovations: train rails were used as support beams, a restaurant-bar was located on the ground floor, there was running water on all floors, gas lighting in the staircase, electric doorbells (an 1831 invention), a phonic communication system to be able to liaise with the concierge at all times and a rooftop terrace with its own communal washhouse!

Amongst the many wonders to behold on the two façades of the building are the headless sculpture of a builder, positioned in such a way that he is propping up a second-floor balcony. Below his feet, the square-and-compasses symbol of Freemasonry can be spotted on the first-floor balcony railings (the building was the meeting point of an influential local Masonic lodge). Above the main entrance are a couple of statues: the male figure on the left clearly senses there is too much distance between him and the female figure so, to be able to take in the view of her exposed features, he is brandishing a telescope…

The curiosities continue inside the building: the staircase banister features a bas-relief retracing nothing less than the history of architecture from prehistoric dolmens to 19th-century housing!
City's oldest house & De Lartigue mansion

11) City's oldest house & De Lartigue mansion

Just before the archway on Impasse de Rue Neuve is the city’s oldest house (built in the 14th or 15th century). All that remains of the original structure is a single wall and its Gothic-style twin arched windows. The ground-floor carriage entrance has long-since been bricked up. It is thought the house once belonged to the locally powerful Soler family.

On the other side of the archway lies a courtyard and a 16th-century mansion house which first belonged to Jean de Carle, president of the Parlement de Bordeaux court of justice, but went on to be owned by the wealthy De Lartigue family, whose daughter Jeanne went on to marry the celebrated political thinker, writer and philosopher Montesquieu.

Although they mostly lived in a château in Montesquieu’s birthplace La Brède, to the south of Bordeaux, Jeanne continued to oversee this family home and died here in 1770.

Above the ground-level shelter for horses and carriages, the living quarters extend over two storeys. The top floor is fronted by an ornate wooden walk-way/balcony while, on the stone wall of the first floor, the sculptures of two muscular male and female figures in Roman-style attire can be seen. It is thought that they represent the original owners of the premises, Mr and Mrs de Carle. Given the levels of illiteracy at the time, these sculptures could be regarded as the house’s nameplate.
Trunk-makers' workshops and homes

12) Trunk-makers' workshops and homes

In Medieval Bordeaux, as elsewhere, craftsmen would set up shop alongside fellows of the same trade. This road was home to “bahutiers”, who made “bahuts”, wooden chests or trunks.

Trunk-makers were not the street’s first residents; pre-18th-century names include Rue deu Putz (Well Street in Gascon) and Rue deus Judius (Jew Street in Gascon), the latter in reference to the Jewish money-lenders who operated there.

The bahutier shops at numbers 47 and 49, pre-date the name change: number 49 (on the left) dates from the 15th century, while number 47 was built in the 17th. Both feature arched doorways which gave onto the bahutier’s shop and workshop.

Let’s work our way upwards at number 49: Behind the large first-floor window were the living quarters of the bahutier and relatives. Mullion and transom bars split the window into quarters, enabling plenty of daylight to enter without the whole building collapsing! The smaller window on the second floor was the communal sleeping quarters while the diminutive window at the top shows where the apprentice or maid would sleep.

Its steep sloping roof was known as “à la guise de France” (in the style of France). The 30% slope of its younger stone-façaded neighbour was known as “à la guise de Bordeaux”.

The two buildings now share a single entrance and are residential. They were restored in 1985, an endeavour which is quietly celebrated by an inscription just below the roof of number 49.
Place Saint-Pierre & Église Saint-Pierre

13) Place Saint-Pierre & Église Saint-Pierre

In ancient times, this area was one of the liveliest parts of Bordeaux, a far cry from its peaceful atmosphere today. To begin with, this wasn’t even dry land: Saint-Pierre church was built on the spot where the entrance to the city’s earliest port was located, with an expanse of water between the parallel roads Rue du Cancera and Rue de la Devise. The port, which remained here until the 12th century, was fed on one side by the Devèze, a stream which takes its source in the suburb of Mérignac. Like the Peugue, the water is still flowing today, but it too has been driven underground. In 1832, there was an interesting discovery in a sewer channel nearby: a bronze statue of Hercules which was one of the centrepieces of the ancient port. The statue is now on display at the Musée d’Aquitaine.

The flamboyant gothic-style St Pierre church, registered as an historic monument in 1908, was originally built in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The St Pierre parish itself goes back to the 12th century, and it is thought that as early as the 6th century there was a sanctuary dedicated to St Peter, the patron saint of fishermen, in this area. The church has undergone many restorations, most notably in the 19th century, with new additions including some modern stained glass windows. Other features include ornate arches and an interesting wooden depiction of the Virgin Mary mourning over the dead body of Jesus (or “pietà”).
Place Georges de Porto-Riche & Église Saint-Rémi

14) Place Georges de Porto-Riche & Église Saint-Rémi

The haven of tranquility that is Place Georges de Porto-Riche is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. The square is named after a playwright and novelist who was born in Bordeaux in 1849 and spent much of his life in Paris. De Porto-Riche was elected to become one of the forty so-called “immortal” members of the Académie Française, the prestigious body that serves as the ultimate authority on the French language. In the speech he gave upon his election, he disrespectfully skimmed over the career of the person whose place he’d inherited, Ernest Lavisse. This went down badly with the Académie, who never officially welcomed him into the institution - he died seven years later in 1930.

The square is a place to rest, reflect and possibly even drink from the Wallace fountain, one of the six of these cast-iron public drinking fountains to be found in Bordeaux and named after Sir Richard Wallace, the philanthropist who funded their creation in Paris in the late 19th century.

Saint-Rémi church, over to one corner of the square, was originally built between the 11th and 12th centuries on the spot where a pagan temple used to be. Over the years, the church has gradually been transformed, and it was recently converted into art and cultural centre, which boasts a rich programme of exhibitions. While most churches in Bordeaux have plenty of room to breathe, this one is very much landlocked on most sides, as was so often the case in Medieval times.
Galérie Bordelaise

15) Galérie Bordelaise

This charming shopping arcade, which forms an unusual diagonal channel through the middle of its surrounding buildings, was the work of the architect Gabriel-Joseph Durand and opened for the first time in April 1834. It had initially been funded by four rich South-American traders who had fled war in Mexico.

It was here that, in 1896, a young man called Albert Mollat took over a small bookshop that had previously belonged to his cousin. He adopted an ambitious pricing strategy, branched out into publishing itself and by 1928 the shop had outgrown its premises. It moved to a new location, taking over the final Bordeaux living quarters of Montesquieu on the nearby Rue Porte-Dijeaux. The shop, which is still called Mollat, is part of the genetic makeup of anyone who lives in Bordeaux. It has continued to flourish and expand, and today ranks as the biggest independent bookshop in France.

Possibly the most timeless of the thirteen stores in the arcade is the Verdeun scale model and toy shop. As well as its arcade-side entrance, do make sure you see the roadside shopfront of this store, which was founded in 1948 by Maurice Verdeun, a successful track cyclist who won a world championship title in 1950!

And this is where our stroll through the secret sights of Bordeaux comes to an end. By exiting the Galérie Bordelaise through its main entrance you will be instantly transported back to the hustle, bustle, trials and tribulations of the 21st century… so brace yourself!

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