Elegant Bordeaux Tour

Elegant Bordeaux Tour, Bordeaux, France (A)

The fine architecture, elegant streets, peaceful market squares and magnificent churches of the Chartrons and Saint-Seurin districts are among the most delightful sights that Bordeaux has to offer. This meandering walk will reveal a side of the city that has prospered over the centuries and continues to enjoy an affluent present. Each building, each statue and each plaque has a fascinating story to tell… as we are about to find out!
Image Courtesy of Tim Pike.
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Sights Featured in This Article

Guide Name: Elegant Bordeaux Tour
Guide Location: France » Bordeaux
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 15
Tour Duration: 2.0 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 6.1 Km or 3.8 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: http://invisiblebordeaux.blogspot.com
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Esplanade des Quinconces & Monument aux Girondins
  • CAPC modern art museum/Entrepôt Laîné
  • Maritime stock exchange
  • Slave trade memorial plaque
  • Maisons hollandaises
  • Église Saint-Louis
  • Place du Marché des Chartrons
  • Statue of Liberty
  • Jardin Public
  • Fontaine d’Audège and Place Charles-Gruet
  • Palais Gallien
  • Saint-Seurin basilica
  • Castéja (former "Institution nationale des sourdes-muettes")
  • Former Hôtel des Postes
  • Cours Georges-Clémenceau
Esplanade des Quinconces & Monument aux Girondins

1) Esplanade des Quinconces & Monument aux Girondins

Our walk begins on Esplanade des Quinconces, named after the sequences in which the trees on either side were originally planted (four trees forming a square with a fifth in the middle). The square is usually a peaceful sight on the main tourist trails of the city, but is sometimes the scene of funfairs, circuses, specialist markets and concerts.

Esplanade des Quinconces took its present form in the 19th century. For more than 300 years, a fortified castle kept watch over the city here. It was demolished in 1818.

At the far end of the square, overlooking the Garonne river, are two 21-metre-high rostral columns which were erected in 1829. They respectively symbolise trade and navigation.

At the near end is the spectacular “Monument aux Girondins”, which pays homage to the Girondins political group who were overpowered and executed by their rivals the Jacobins in the slipstream of the French Revolution.

The creator, Alphonse Dumilâtre, spent eight years designing the monument, which was completed in 1902. Its centerpiece is a 43-metre column which is topped off by a winged lady made out of bronze. Freedom is symbolised by the broken chain in her right hand.

During the Second World War, much of the monument disappeared from view and it was thought it had been melted down to be turned into weaponry. However, when the war was over, it was found in Angers, central France. It was returned to its original spot in 1986.
CAPC modern art museum/Entrepôt Laîné

2) CAPC modern art museum/Entrepôt Laîné

CAPC (Centre d'Arts Plastiques Contemporains) is a world-class modern art museum exhibiting 1,000 works by 140 artists including Sol LeWitt, Daniel Buren, Claude Viallat, Richard Long and Mario Merz. Temporary exhibitions are held in the impressive central concourse.

The building is just as stunning as the exhibits it showcases. It was previously a warehouse, Entrepôt Laîné, and used for the storage of sugar, coffee, cocoa, spices and cotton. The engineer responsible for the original stone, brick and wooden structure, Claude Deschamps, is also the man behind the Pont de Pierre, the oldest bridge in central Bordeaux. His designs sought to deliver a functional building where nothing was used to mask the raw building materials. The warehouse took two years to build and was completed in 1824.

In the early 1970s, there were plans to demolish the now-disused warehouse, but overwhelming public support resulted in it being granted listed status. It was purchased by the city of Bordeaux in 1973, becoming home to the museum which officially became a municipal establishment ten years later.

Its full transformation from warehouse to museum was the work of architects Jean Pistre, Denis Valode and designer Andrée Putman. Work was carried out over several phases up until 1990.

The museum is open 11AM-6PM, 11AM-8PM on Wednesdays, closed on Mondays and public holidays. Admission to the permanent exhibits is free of charge. Prices vary for temporary exhibitions.
Maritime stock exchange

3) Maritime stock exchange

The Bourse Maritime, or Maritime Exchange, may appear to bear all the magnificent hallmarks of the 18th-century architecture on display elsewhere in Bordeaux, but in fact this building “only” goes back to the 1920s: it went up between 1921 and 1925.

The magnificent stone façade of the building is precisely that: a façade. The structure itself is predominantly made of concrete. Its exterior design pastiches that of the buildings on Place de la Bourse, even going so far as to reproduce a number of the sculpted masks, or “mascarons” (from the Italian “mascherone”), that can be seen on Place de la Bourse. A couple of more recent figures are also represented; the first two presidents of the modern-day port of Bordeaux: Georges Barres and Étienne Huyard.

Today the building is home to various tertiary-sector companies and a post office, so don’t expect to see anyone perched up in the look-out up on the roof keeping an eye on the maritime traffic!
Slave trade memorial plaque

4) Slave trade memorial plaque

It is from this quay that ships set sail between 1672 and 1837, on the first legs of 508 triangular slave trade voyages resulting in 150,000 Africans being deported to the Americas.

Bordeaux was not alone. In France the city of Nantes organised 1,744 expeditions, and the ports of La Rochelle and Le Havre were on a par with Bordeaux.

Before the triangular voyages began (they peaked in the 1780s), boats departing from Bordeaux conducted two-way commerce with the Caribbean. With the onset of triangular trade, vessels would leave on their outward passage loaded with wine, foodstuffs, cloth, arms and trinkets which, upon arrival on the eastern coast of Africa, would be exchanged for slaves. The middle passage would follow, with the slaves being ferried in inhumane conditions to the colonies, mainly Saint-Domingue. Death rates on board the boats were between 10 and 20 per cent.

Upon arrival, the slaves would be sold or auctioned off and work on plantations where the average life expectancy was five to six years. The boats would embark on their return passage to Bordeaux carrying sugar, cocoa, tobacco, cotton and other produce, making a substantial contribution to the city’s wealth.

Until the 1990s, this chapter in the city’s history was more often than not glossed over. But Bordeaux has begun to come to terms with its past, hence this plaque, a permanent exhibition at the Musée d’Aquitaine and a statue of Toussaint Louverture, the architect of the independence of Haiti, on the riverbank opposite.
Maisons hollandaises

5) Maisons hollandaises

Here we have two twin houses which, in terms of their shape and design, are unlike any other in Bordeaux. For obvious architectural reasons, they are known as the “maisons hollandaises”, the Dutch houses, and were built around 1680.

At the time, the Dutch were major importers of Bordeaux goods, particularly wine, and a large community of Flemish traders had moved to the city, mainly in the Chartrons district where we now find ourselves.

For many years it was believed that these houses were built by Dutch traders who elected to remain in the city, but it later emerged that the man behind their construction was a bourgeois merchant from Bordeaux named Hilaire Renu.

The two houses were threatened with destruction during the 18th century but survived, partly because number 29 became home to the “Bureau des Fermes”, or customs office.

They continue to prevail and have been officially listed as historic heritage since April 1990, so we will be able to admire details such as the sculpted lions’ heads and diamond-shaped stained glass window panels for many years to come!
Église Saint-Louis

6) Église Saint-Louis

Saint-Louis church, completed in 1880 after six years of building work to the designs of architect Pierre-Charles Brun, is one of the most recent churches in Bordeaux, but is also one of the most magnificent.

This neogothic masterpiece is arguably best-known for its symphonic organ which, along with the sacristy, is listed as an historic monument. The organ is the work of local manufacturers Maison Georges Wenner. As old as the church and restored in 1985, it is regarded as one of the finest instruments of its type to be seen in the area and is regularly used for concert performances.

Other exceptional features include stained glass windows created by renowned craftsmen Henri Feur and Nicolas Lorin. Master stonemason Bernard Jabouin created the bas-relief sculptures visible in the church’s Saint Joseph and Saint John the Baptist chapels. The 18th-century baptismal fonts are made of Carrara marble.

Like the fonts, the aforementioned sacristy, made from Cuban mahogany, predates the church itself. The 18th-century work was recovered from the Saint-Louis church’s predecessor, Église des Carmes. The sacristy is not usually open to the general public.
Place du Marché des Chartrons

7) Place du Marché des Chartrons

Place des Chartrons is one of the most elegant squares in Bordeaux. After providing the backdrop to a convent for many years, it is at the end of the 18th century that it took its current form.

In the middle there was originally a stone fountain and three wooden structures that would provide shelter for market stallholders.

It was in the mid-19th century that chief city architect Charles Buguet led the construction of a more permanent octagonal covered market structure surrounded by a covered walkway, the glass roof of which was supported by elegant metallic pillars. The covered market, known as la Halle des Chartrons, remained largely unchanged until the 1950s, when the decision was made to enclose the entire structure within opaque concrete walls.

However, with traders deserting the square one by one, the place lost its original raison d’être and ceased to operate as a market. In 1998, the concrete walls came down and the structure regained its original appearance with the central building and the covered perimeter walkways. It is now a cultural centre that puts on a wide range of exhibitions, meetings, debates and concerts.

Meanwhile, after remaining dormant for many years, the neighbourhood market (Marché des Chartrons) was relaunched along the waterfront where we were previously. The market is held there every Sunday morning.
Statue of Liberty

8) Statue of Liberty

Place Picard is home to one of the world’s many replicas of the Statue of Liberty. The full-size version in New York was executed to the designs of French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi and given by France to the United States in 1886.

In Bordeaux, Bartholdi was commissioned to produce a fountain on Place Picard to replace a border fountain on Cours Balguerie which regularly overflowed; in winter, the resulting ice on the ground was frequently the cause of accidents.

The new fountain was produced and topped off with a replica of the Statue of Liberty. An inauguration ceremony was held in 1888 in the presence of the French president.

During the Second World War, the Germans dismantled the statue, intent on melting it down for reuse as weaponry as well as seeking to remove this powerful symbol. The statue was to be transported to Germany by rail but never got there, either due to accidental misrouting or through disruption by railway-workers. It was recovered once the war was over and re-erected in Soulac-sur-Mer, 90 kilometres to the north of Bordeaux.

Back on Place Picard it would be around 60 years before the Statue of Liberty reappeared, in the shape of a resin replica erected in 2000. Subsequent to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the city council added a plaque to the plinth dedicating the statue to the memory of those who died.

In 2012, the statue was restored.
Jardin Public

9) Jardin Public

This wide expanse of greenery in central Bordeaux was a formal “jardin à la française” upon its creation in the mid-18th century. It was originally the brainchild of Marquis de Tourny, the second of three emblematic “intendants”, the king’s representative in the province of Aquitaine, who, as chief town planners, changed the face of the city.

During his tenure, Tourny opened up wide, tree-lined avenues and commissioned this garden on what used to be marshland. Initially, admission to what was known as the “Jardin Royal” was tightly controlled and the gates were only opened to the most prestigious patrons. After the French Revolution, the grounds officially became a “Jardin Public” that was open to all-comers. In the 19th century much of its formal design was dropped in favour of a more free-form British style, a “jardin à l’anglaise”.

As well as being ideal for a gentle bird-, tree- and statue-spotting stroll, the Jardin Public provides a number of distractions for the young and not-so-young, including a merry-go-round, puppet shows and a café.

Since 1858, botanic gardens have also been carefully tended to within the grounds of the Jardin Public, with another branch being opened in the right bank Bastide neighbourhood in 2001. The Jardin Public is also home to a fine natural history museum which is undergoing refurbishment work at the time of writing. It will re-open in 2014.

The Jardin Public opens every day at 7AM. Closing time varies from 6PM to 9PM depending on the time of year.
Fontaine d’Audège and Place Charles-Gruet

10) Fontaine d’Audège and Place Charles-Gruet

In a tiny side-street before arriving on Rue Fondaudège, a monumental stele marks the spot where a plentiful and long-valuable source, la Fontaine d’Audège, provided the area with clean and fresh water.

For many years the water was channelled throughout the city, supplying tanneries as early as the 15th century and fountains in other neighbourhoods by the 17th century. It is also thought that in earlier times the source was a vital water supply for spectators at the nearby Palais Gallien amphitheatre (which is our next stop).

As the area grew busier, walls were constructed around the source to prevent dirt and soil from contaminating the water. In 1827, as the inscription records, the small structure that can be seen today was built to further preserve and protect the fountain system that had been installed on the site of the source itself.

By crossing the main road that runs nearby, Rue Fondaudège, the name of which pays homage to the Fontaine d’Audège, a decorative Renaissance-style fountain can be seen. Designed by local architect Louis Garros, it has been in position since 1866 and its waterworks were originally fed by the Audège source, which is personified by the nymph-like figure that was sculpted by one Louis Coëffard de Mazerolles.

Now though the water from the Fontaine d’Audège is diverted in the opposite direction, towards the Jardin Public. If you admired the large pond there (possibly from one of the ornate bridges), you will have been looking at water which originated here…
Palais Gallien

11) Palais Gallien

By viewing the ruins of the Palais Gallien, we are travelling some 2,000 years back in time. This Gallo-Roman amphitheatre was built in the 2nd or 3rd century and its wooden stands could hold 15,000 spectators (some say up to 22,000). At the time it would have been located outside the city, which has made substantial headway in the intervening years! Experts have established that the arena section measured 70 by 47 metres. On the outside, the structure was 132 metres long, 111 metres wide and 25 metres tall.

Much of the coliseum survived until the time of the French Revolution (1789), prior to which it was a haven for criminals and prostitutes, then a rubbish tip! But huge sections were dismantled to make space for new residential buildings, some of which recycled materials from the coliseum itself! In 1800, authorities stepped in before the remaining western wing was also torn down and in 1911 the ruins were officially listed as national heritage.

Legend has it that for many years it was believed that the place had been built by 8th-century King Charlemagne for his wife Galiène, hence the name it has been given. It was from the 16th century onwards that historians identified it as being much older than that.
Saint-Seurin basilica

12) Saint-Seurin basilica

Saint Seurin basilica is one of the oldest churches in Bordeaux. Originally built in the 6th century then overhauled and extended between the 12th and 14th centuries, Saint Seurin was (and still is!) the first stop in Bordeaux for St. James' Way pilgrims passing through the city en route to Santiago de Compostela, in north-western Spain.

The church, which is listed as UNESCO world heritage, boasts some fine samples of Christian carvings and sculptures, and an impressive pipe organ which was first installed in 1776. Each chapel has its own distinct character: Notre-Dame-de-Bonne-Nouvelle looks much as it did when it was added in the 14th century, while Notre-Dame-de-la-Rose is an impressive example of flamboyant gothic ornamentation.

The church’s bell is made from the metal of weaponry that was seized from the Spanish Navy in 1637 during a battle for one of the Lérins islands off the Provençal coast in south-eastern France. The bell was consecrated in 1640 and was registered as an historic monument in its own right in 1942.

In the early years of the 20th century, archaeological digs uncovered a large Christian cemetery with graves dating from the 4th to the 18th centuries, and revealed a set of walls that formed constructions from different periods housing fresco-decorated tombs and pottery storage jars that were used to bury infants.

The archaeological site can be visited between 2PM and 7PM from June to September.
Castéja (former "Institution nationale des sourdes-muettes")

13) Castéja (former "Institution nationale des sourdes-muettes")

When you view this building, known as “Castéja” (named, like a neighbouring road, after the Bordeaux mayor in the 1860s), it may be an empty shell or a residential complex. Either way, its glory years as an educational institute for deaf and dumb girls are long gone.

Construction work on the Adolphe Thiac-designed edifice ran from 1862 until 1870. It welcomed pupils of the Bordeaux deaf school, founded in 1786 and a girls-only establishment from 1859 onwards. During the First World War the building was used as a military hospital, and during the Second World War it was occupied by the Germans.

Soon after the War, in 1949, a decree was passed attributing the building to France’s Interior Ministry, and part of it became the central police station, the police cohabiting with the students and staff of the deaf school which was still very much present, remaining there until 1958 when it moved to Gradignan in the suburbs of Bordeaux.

In 2003 the police force moved to other quarters in the Mériadeck district and, for a number of years, Castéja housed various State departments until it was put up for sale in 2010.

The façade features the sign language shapes for 24 of the 26 letters of the alphabet, courtesy of the Bordeaux sculptor Louis Coëffard de Mazerolles, whose path we crossed earlier on Place Charles Gruet, and who is also responsible for the prominent statue of Charles-Michel Lespée, Abbé de l’Épée. This 18th-century man was the first to initiate free education for the deaf and remains an emblematic figure for the deaf community.
Former Hôtel des Postes

14) Former Hôtel des Postes

In the 18th century, a seminary was built on this spot and was a seat of theological learning until 1791 when, post-Revolution, the building became State property and, after some stopgap occupations, welcomed the “Hôtel des Monnaies”, minting money and printing stamps.

In 1892, the building was redesigned and rebuilt to the designs of Parisian architect Jean Boussard, and became the “Hôtel des Postes” although most people came to know it as the “Grand Poste”, in reference to its status as the city’s main post office. The building stood apart from the more traditional architecture of the surrounding buildings through its use of “exotic eclectism”; this included sculpted sphinxes and a bas-relief of a Roman emperor in a horse-drawn carriage above the main entrance, all of which caused many a mystified look from passers-by.

More was to follow with the addition of a massive metal cage-like structure on the roof onto which converged all the city’s telephone cables. Under the guidance of architect Justin Tussau, this was removed in 1924, replaced by the upper floors which can still be seen today. Some of the more exotic façade features were also dismantled, resulting in a more modest art deco feel.

In 1988 the building was given another facelift ahead of the postal services moving to a more modern and functional facility in the Mériadeck quarter. In 2004 the building was sold to a private consortium who converted it into luxury flats. The complex was listed as an historical monument in 2011.
Cours Georges-Clémenceau

15) Cours Georges-Clémenceau

What better way to finish our walk through the elegant quarters of Bordeaux than with a stroll along Cours Georges-Clémenceau, which forms the western flank of the affluent so-called Triangle d’Or quarter (the golden triangle).

On either side of the boulevard there are countless examples of fine 18th-century architecture to take in. In amongst the ground-level luxury shops and cafés, look out for the world-class classical music venue, L’Auditorium de Bordeaux, home to l’Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine. This 21st-century masterpiece can be seen at number 9.

Head down the side-streets to your right and you will end up on Place des Grands Hommes and its spectacular glass-and-metal shopping arcade where a covered market used to be.

At the far end of Cours Clémenceau is Place Tourny, which celebrates the man who you may remember was responsible for the creation of the Jardin Royal (which became the Jardin Public)… and for the wide boulevards throughout the city including Cours Clémenceau (although it was known as Cours Saint-Seurin at the time).

And by walking down Cours de Tournon or across Allées de Tourny, you will find yourself back at your starting point on Esplanade des Quinconces, hopefully having enjoyed this guided tour through elegant Bordeaux!

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