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Cities in the Spotlight: Bordeaux, France

Updated: Mar 11

Today we will be taking another trip to Europe, this time we are heading to southwestern France.

 

Bordeaux City Information

Bordeaux is a port city on the river Garonne in the Gironde department, Southwestern France. It is the capital of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, as well as the prefecture of the Gironde department. Its inhabitants are called "Bordelais" (masculine) or "Bordelaises" (feminine). The term "Bordelais" may also refer to the city and its surrounding region. The city of Bordeaux proper had a population of 259,809 in 2020 within its small municipal territory of 49 km2 (19 sq mi), but together with its suburbs and exurbs the Bordeaux metropolitan area had a population of 1,376,375 that same year, the sixth-most populated in France after Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Lille, and Toulouse.


Bordeaux and 27 suburban municipalities form the Bordeaux Metropolis, an indirectly elected metropolitan authority now in charge of wider metropolitan issues. The Bordeaux Metropolis, with a population of 819,604 at the Jan. 2020 census, is the fifth most populated metropolitan council in France after those of Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Lille. Bordeaux is a world capital of wine: many castles and vineyards stand on the hillsides of the Gironde, and the city is home to the world's main wine fair, Vinexpo. Bordeaux is also one of the centers of gastronomy and business tourism for the organization of international congresses. It is a central and strategic hub for the aeronautics, military and space sector, home to international companies such as Dassault Aviation, Ariane Group, Safran and Thalès. The link with aviation dates back to 1910, the year the first airplane flew over the city. A crossroads of knowledge through university research, it is home to one of the only two megajoule lasers in the world, as well as a university population of more than 130,000 students within the Bordeaux Metropolis.

Bordeaux is an international tourist destination for its architectural and cultural heritage with more than 350 historic monuments, making it, after Paris, the city with the most listed or registered monuments in France. The "Pearl of Aquitaine" has been voted European Destination of the year in a 2015 online poll. The metropolis has also received awards and rankings by international organizations such as in 1957, Bordeaux was awarded the Europe Prize for its efforts in transmitting the European ideal. In June 2007, the Port of the Moon in historic Bordeaux was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, for its outstanding architecture and urban ensemble and in recognition of Bordeaux's international importance over the last 2000 years. Bordeaux is also ranked as a Sufficiency city by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network.

 

Bordeaux Historical Significance

Around 300 BC, the region was the settlement of a Celtic tribe, the Bituriges Vivisci, named the town Burdigala, probably of Aquitanian origin. In 107 BC, the Battle of Burdigala was fought by the Romans who were defending the Allobroges, a Gallic tribe allied to Rome, and the Tigurini led by Divico. The Romans were defeated and their commander, the consul Lucius Cassius Longinus, was killed in battle. The city came under Roman rule around 60 BC, and it became an important commercial centre for tin and lead. During this period were built the amphitheatre and the monument Les Piliers de Tutelle. In 276, it was sacked by the Vandals. The Vandals attacked again in 409, followed by the Visigoths in 414, and the Franks in 498, and afterwards the city fell into a period of relative obscurity.


In 276, it was sacked by the Vandals. The Vandals attacked again in 409, followed by the Visigoths in 414, and the Franks in 498, and afterwards the city fell into a period of relative obscurity. In the late sixth century the city re-emerged as the seat of a county and an archdiocese within the Merovingian kingdom of the Franks, but royal Frankish power was never strong. The city started to play a regional role as a major urban center on the fringes of the newly founded Frankish Duchy of Vasconia. Around 585 Gallactorius was made Count of Bordeaux and fought the Basques. In 732, the city was plundered by the troops of Abd er Rahman who stormed the fortifications and overwhelmed the Aquitanian garrison. Duke Eudes mustered a force to engage the Umayyads, eventually engaging them in the Battle of the River Garonne somewhere near the river Dordogne. The battle had a high death toll, and although Eudes was defeated he had enough troops to engage in the Battle of Poitiers and so retain his grip on Aquitaine. In 737, following his father Eudes's death, the Aquitanian duke Hunald led a rebellion to which Charles responded by launching an expedition that captured Bordeaux. However, it was not retained for long, during the following year the Frankish commander clashed in battle with the Aquitanians but then left to take on hostile Burgundian authorities and magnates. In 745 Aquitaine faced another expedition where Charles's sons Pepin and Carloman challenged Hunald's power and defeated him. Hunald's son Waifer replaced him and confirmed Bordeaux as the capital city (along with Bourges in the north).

During the last stage of the war against Aquitaine (760–768), it was one of Waifer's last important strongholds to fall to the troops of King Pepin the Short. Charlemagne built the fortress of Fronsac (Frontiacus, Franciacus) near Bordeaux on a hill across the border with the Basques (Wascones), where Basque commanders came and pledged their loyalty. In 778, Seguin (or Sihimin) was appointed count of Bordeaux, probably undermining the power of the Duke Lupo, and possibly leading to the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. In 814, Seguin was made Duke of Vasconia, but was deposed in 816 for failing to suppress a Basque rebellion. Under the Carolingians, sometimes the Counts of Bordeaux held the title concomitantly with that of Duke of Vasconia. They were to keep the Basques in check and defend the mouth of the Garonne from the Vikings when they appeared in c. 844. In Autumn 845, the Vikings were raiding Bordeaux and Saintes, Countwere Seguin II marched on them but was captured and executed. Although the port of Bordeaux was a buzzing trade center, the stability and success of the city was threatened by Viking and Norman incursions and political instability. The restoration of the Ramnulfid Dukes of Aquitaine under William IV and his successors (known as the House of Poitiers) brought continuity of government.


From the 12th to the 15th century, Bordeaux flourished once more following the marriage of Eléonore, Duchess of Aquitaine and the last of the House of Poitiers, to Henry II Plantagenêt, Count of Anjou and the grandson of Henry I of England, who succeeded to the English crown months after their wedding, bringing into being the vast Angevin Empire, which stretched from the Pyrenees to Ireland. After granting a tax-free trade status with England, Henry was adored by the locals as they could be even more profitable in the wine trade, their main source of income, and the city benefited from imports of cloth and wheat. The belfry (Grosse Cloche) and city cathedral St-André were built, the latter in 1227, incorporating the artisan quarter of Saint-Paul. Under the terms of the Treaty of Brétigny it became briefly the capital of an independent state (1362–1372) under Edward, the Black Prince, but after the Battle of Castillon (1453) it was annexed by France. In 1462, Bordeaux created a local parliament. Bordeaux adhered to the Fronde, being effectively annexed to the Kingdom of France only in 1653, when the army of Louis XIV entered the city. The 18th century saw another golden age of Bordeaux. The Port of the Moon supplied the majority of Europe with coffee, cocoa, sugar, cotton and indigo, becoming France's busiest port and the second busiest port in the world after London. Many downtown buildings (about 5,000), including those on the quays, are from this period. Bordeaux was also a major trading centre for slaves. In total, the Bordeaux shipowners deported 150,000 Africans in some 500 expeditions.

At the beginning of the French Revolution (1789), many local revolutionaries were members of the Girondists. This Party represented the provincial bourgeoisie, favorable towards abolishing aristocracy privileges, but opposed to the Revolution's social dimension. In 1793, the Montagnards led by Robespierre and Marat came to power. Fearing a bourgeois misappropriation of the Revolution, they executed a great number of Girondists. During the purge, the local Montagnard Section renamed the city of Bordeaux "Commune-Franklin" (Franklin-municipality) in homage to Benjamin Franklin. At the same time, in 1791, a slave revolt broke out at Saint-Domingue (current Haiti), the most profitable of the French colonies. Three years later, the Montagnard Convention abolished slavery. In 1802, Napoleon revoked the manumission law but lost the war against the army of former slaves. In 1804, Haiti became independent. The loss of this "Pearl" of the West Indies generated the collapse of Bordeaux's port economy, which was dependent on the colonial trade and trade in slaves. Towards the end of the Peninsular War of 1814, the Duke of Wellington sent William Beresford with two divisions and seized Bordeaux, encountering little resistance. Bordeaux was largely anti-Bonapartist and the majority supported the Bourbons. The British troops were treated as liberators.


From the Bourbon Restoration, the economy of Bordeaux was rebuilt by traders and shipowners. They engaged to construct the first bridge of Bordeaux, and customs warehouses. The shipping traffic grew through the new African colonies. Georges-Eugène Haussmann, a longtime prefect of Bordeaux, used Bordeaux's 18th-century large-scale rebuilding as a model when he was asked by Emperor Napoleon III to transform the quasi-medieval Paris into a "modern" capital that would make France proud. Victor Hugo found the town so beautiful he said: "Take Versailles, add Antwerp, and you have Bordeaux". In 1870, at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian war against Prussia, the French government temporarily relocated to Bordeaux from Paris. That recurred during World War I and again very briefly during World War II, when it became clear that Paris would fall into German hands.

During World War II, Bordeaux fell under German occupation. In May and June 1940, Bordeaux was the site of the life-saving actions of the Portuguese consul-general, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who illegally granted thousands of Portuguese visas, which were needed to pass the Spanish border, to refugees fleeing the German occupation. From 1941 to 1943, the Italian Royal Navy established BETASOM, a submarine base at Bordeaux. Italian submarines participated in the Battle of the Atlantic from that base, which was also a major base for German U-boats as headquarters of the 12th U-boat Flotilla. The massive, reinforced concrete U-boat pens have proved impractical to demolish and are now partly used as a cultural center for exhibitions. In 2007, 40% of the city surface area, located around the Port of the Moon, was listed as World Heritage site. UNESCO inscribed Bordeaux 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".

 

Travel to Bordeaux

*taken from Lonely Planet*


An intoxicating cocktail of 18th-century savoir-faire, millennial hi-tech and urban street life, France's sixth-largest city is among Europe's most exciting and gutsy players. This is the world's largest urban World Heritage Site, cradling half the city (18 sq km) in its UNESCO-listed treasure chest. From the elegant symmetry of Place de la Bourse, palaces strung with stone-sculpted mascarons (faces), to tree-shaded boulevards laced with hôtels particuliers (mansions) built for 18th-century wine merchants, Bordeaux architecture is world-class. Contemporary architects continue the trend for excellence, with breathtakingly wild and beautiful creations resembling giant wine decanters, and gleaming white pebbles, all sorts. An interesting portfolio of art museums embracing all periods and genres is the icing on the cake to this magnificent architectural heritage. Striding through Bordeaux on its leggy route north past traditional wine-producing chateaux to the Atlantic Ocean, the River Garonne is never far away. From this Gallo-Roman city's golden past as medieval wine trader and key port in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, to the prestigious vineyards and vibrant quayside culture the river fuels today, the Garonne has been the city's lifeline since birth. Be it strolling, jogging or cycling along the silky-smooth water's edge in a loop from Left to Right Bank, lounging over drinks on a riverside terrace or cruising along the water, Bordeaux's riverside riches merit your full attention.


This is a wine capital hemmed in by green, sun-drenched vineyards. Viticulture here is an ancient art and tradition bearing its own unique trademarks and no other vineyards in the world produce as much fine wine. Best up, from celebrated premiers crus aged for years to the very first vin nouveau cracked open at festivals after the autumnal harvest, dégustation (tasting) is an intrinsic part of daily life. Paired with the city's exceptional dining scene – a sassy mix of traditional French kitchens, experimental neobistros, creative fusion restaurants, food trucks and barista-run coffee shops – there is no tastier marriage. Santé! It's hard to believe that this was a city that fell under British rule for three hundred years (from the coronation of Henry of Aquitaine as King Henry II of England in 1152). Staunchly Bordelais to the last breath, Bordeaux enjoys an overwhelming sense of local pride and savoir faire. Innovation is her middle name and a high-spirited, university-student population bolsters the compelling undercurrent of creativity rippling through the city. Peppering a tramline with monumental pieces of contemporary art, partying in a WWII submarine bunker, and dancing on a barge at the industrial wet docks is all second nature to this natural bon vivant.

 

Must See Sites

La Cité du Vin; The complex world of wine is explored in depth at ground-breaking La Cité du Vin, a stunning piece of contemporary architecture resembling a wine decanter on the banks of the River Garonne. The curvaceous gold building glitters in the sun and its 3000 sq metres of exhibits are equally sensory and sensational. Digital guides lead visitors around 20 themed sections covering everything from vine cultivation, grape varieties and wine production to ancient wine trade, 21st-century wine trends and celebrated personalities. Tours end with a glass of wine – or grape juice for the kids – in panoramic Le Belvédère, with a monumental 30m-long bar and chandelier made out of recycled wine bottles, on the 8th floor. Temporary art exhibitions, cultural events and brilliant, themed one-hour tasting workshops (€15 to €25) are also worth watching out for.

Miroir d’Eau; A fountain of sorts, the Miroir d'Eau is the world's largest reflecting pool. Covering an area of 3450 sq metres of black granite on the quayside opposite the imposing Palais de la Bourse, the 'water mirror' provides hours of entertainment on warm sunny days when the reflections in its thin slick of water – drained and refilled every half-hour –- are stunning.

Cathédrale St-André; The Cathédrale St-André, a UNESCO World Heritage Site prior to the city's classification, lords it over the city. The cathedral's oldest section dates from 1096; most of what you see today was built in the 13th and 14th centuries. Enjoy exceptional masonry carvings in the north portal. Even more imposing than the cathedral itself is the gargoyled, 50m-high Gothic belfry, Tour Pey Berland, erected between 1440 and 1466.

La Base Sous-Marine; By far the city's eeriest and most menacing sight, this mammoth hulk of a submarine base (1941–43) was one of five built on the Atlantic Coast by the Germans during WWII. Designed as a bunker to protect German U-boats from aerial attack, it pens base proved impossible to destroy – by British forces during WWII and subsequently by the city, who now use the eyesore reinforced-concrete structure as a seriously cool, underground cultural centre, art gallery and music concert venue. The submarine base is only open during exhibitions and events. Check its Facebook page for details.

Basilique St-Michel; This imposing Flamboyant Gothic church lies at the heart of St-Michel. Begun in the 14th century, it took more than 200 years to complete and is best known for its impressive stained glass. With the exception of those in the Chapelle de Mons, all the original windows were destroyed during WWII, but the 1960s stained-glass windows are truly dazzling. Like the cathedral, the 114m-tall bell tower – nicknamed La Flèche – stands apart from the church and can be climbed. Views are panoramic.

Place de la Bourse; This is Bordeaux's most iconic square. A mirage of elegance and symmetry, it was laid out by architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel between 1730 and 1775 and signified the dramatic opening up of the historic centre to the River Garonne. Medieval city walls were razed to make way for the vast horse-shoe expanse, framed by elegant palaces including Hôtel des Fermes (today a customs museum) to house the king's tax collectors and the city's shipping exchange, Palais de la Bourse. The equestrian statue of King Louis XV piercing the centre of the square was destroyed during the French Revolution in 1789 and replaced by the landmark Fontaine des Trois Grâces (Fountain of the Three Graces) in 1869.

Musée du Vin et du Négoce; This small Wine and Trade Museum, hidden in one of the city's oldest buildings – an Irish merchant's house dating to 1720 in the ancient trading district of Chartrons – offers a fascinating insight into the historic origins of Bordeaux's wine trade and the importance of the négociant (merchant trader) in the 18th and 19th centuries. The vaulted cellars, 33m long, display dozens of artifacts, including hand-crafted stave oak barrels and every size of wine bottle from an Avion to a Melchior. Visits end with tasting of wine by small, lesser-known producers.

Porte Cailhau; The main entrance into medieval Bordeaux, this grandiose 15th-century city gate was built to celebrate King Charles VII's victory at the Battle of Fornovo (1495) and conquest of the kingdom of Naples. The campaign in Italy gave the French a taste for the Renaissance and the 35m-high city gate could well be a Renaissance chateau in miniature form with its elegant slate roof, witch-hat turrets and castle-like windows peering out across the river above the Gothic archway. A small exhibition on the 1st floor explains its history and explores the ancient craft of stone masonry. River and city rooftop views from the top are second-to-none.

 

Must Try Food & Drink

Canelé; Canelé is a little cake with a rich, custardy interior, and a thin, caramelized exterior, invented by an anonymous cook from Bordeaux in France. There is a theory that the dessert originated in the convent of the Annunciation in Bordeaux, specializing in the production of candied nuts and sweet sticks known as canelets. Canelets were traditionally made by the nuns and given to the poor. In 1790, the nuns left their convent, but the recipe was rediscovered and improved by Bordeaux cooks in 1830. Today, canelé is an emblematic symbol of the city of Bordeaux, kept as the city's specialty, but it can also be found in numerous Parisian pâtisseries. Canelé is usually accompanied by cocktails, champagne, tea, and many types of wine.

Lamprey à la Bordelaise; Once reserved only for the wealthy people, today the lamprey is a popular delicacy in the Bordeaux region, caught between December and May in the Dordogne and the Gironde estuary. The dish consists of lamprey stewed with cured ham, red wine, various fresh herbs, and vegetables such as leeks, onions, and garlic. While preparing the dish, one must be careful to first hang the lamprey by the head before cutting its tail, in order to collect the blood. The blood is used in combination with Armagnac and wine sauce, and the lamprey is briefly flambéed in the mixture before being served, usually accompanied with garlic bread croutons and a glass of local red wine. Today, there is even an annual lamprey festival held in Libournais in April, filled with cookery workshops, gourmet dishes, and a variety of other activities.

Entrecôte à la bordelaise; Entrecôte à la bordelaise is a classic French dish consisting of a seared steak and a rich, wine-infused sauce. Traditionally, entrecôte is a cut from between the ribs which roughly corresponds to rib, ribeye, club, Scotch fillet, or Delmonico cuts. The steak is shortly seared on both sides, while the sauce typically includes a combination of sautéed shallots, butter, dry red wine (preferably red Bordeaux), spices, and thyme. The sauce is reduced until it becomes thick and smooth, and it is then usually drizzled over the steak. The dish is garnished with parsley, and it's traditionally served with french fries, mashed or pan-fried potatoes, green beans, or mushrooms. Renowned red Bordeaux wines are the perfect accompaniment to entrecôte à la bordelaise.

Saint-Émilion; Saint-Émilion is one of the most exceptional appellations in Boudreaux. It is located on the right bank in the Libourne wine region of Bordeaux. Although classic Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, Petit Verdot and Malbec can be used in their production, Saint-Émilion wines are mostly made from Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Often described as approachable and soft, these wines are characterized by powerful aromas of fresh fruit, primarily red berries, which are often accompanied by nuances of spices, cedar, pine, and cocoa. With age, the tannins soften, and the wines tend to evolve aromas of truffles and undergrowth. Saint-Émilion wines are age-worthy and are usually aged for at least ten years, while the best examples can be kept for over thirty years. The style of these wines is best paired with charcuterie, beef, game, and flavorful cheese varieties.

Lillet; Hailing from Pondesac, Lillet is a fortified wine that is produced with a combination of fruits, peels, and barks that are macerated in neutral alcohol and then combined with wine. The final blend is usually aged for several months in oak barrels. The drink was first marketed as Kina Lillet—because it incorporated quinine liqueur—and it originally came as a white Blanc version. Following its success in the United States, the company also distributed Lillet Dry—more suitable for use in cocktails and long drinks—as well as the red wine-based Rouge version. Both Blanc and Rouge Lillet aperitifs are typically served chilled, neat or on the rocks, and usually with orange, lemon, or lime slices. They also incorporate well in a wide variety of cocktails and long drinks.

Margaux; Margaux is a French appellation located in Médoc region of Bordeaux. The wines produced in the region are mainly based on Cabernet Sauvignon with the addition of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, or Petit Verdot. Margaux wines are often dubbed as the most elegant and perfumed in the entire Bordeaux, while their aromatic profile tends to display a combination of floral and red fruit aromas that are complemented by nuances of spices, tobacco, and truffles. Although full-bodied, these wines tend to be lighter, smoother, and mellower than other Bordeaux appellations. They naturally pair with lamb, but they can also match other roasted or braised meat dishes, as well as roasted game. The most famous estates from the area are Château Margaux and Château Palmer.

Magret de canard; This dish of flash-seared duck breast dates back to the late 1950s, when French chef André Daguin first prepared a magret like a steak and served it medium-rare. The meat is usually served thinly sliced and still slightly pink on the inside. The cut of the breast usually comes from the mulard duck, a cross between the Pekin and the Muscovy duck. This breed is raised for foie gras, so its breast meat is thicker and more flavorful than that of other duck breeds. In the mid-1960s, rare duck breast became extremely popular in the United States thanks to Robert Daley, an American journalist who praised Daguin’s specialty in The New York Times. Today, magret de canard can be found on tables throughout France, both in restaurants and private homes.

Crème brûlée; This traditional egg custard dessert consists of egg yolks, cream, sugar, and vanilla, with a hard, burnt, toffee crust. The combination is cooked, transferred into ramekins, poached in a bain-marie, then well chilled. The chilled custard is typically set in wide, flat dishes, and is then topped with brown sugar which is either caramelized under a broiler or with a blowtorch. The origins of the dish are quite unclear, and England, Spain, and France all claim to have invented it. However, most food historians agree that custards were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, and recipes for custards circulated throughout Europe for centuries. The Spanish claim to have invented it in the 18th century under the name crema Catalana, while the English claim it was their invention from the 17th century, when it was known as burnt cream. At the end of the 19th century, the French term crème brûlée became popular, putting the dessert on the map from Paris to New York City. Regardless of its origins, this timeless classic remains a great example of simple, classical cooking – memorable, delicate, and flavorful, yet easy to make.

Soupe de poisson à la rouille; Originally a poor man’s dish, soupe de poisson à la rouille is a classic French soup and a close cousin of the famous bouillabaisse. The soup is usually prepared with white fish that is cooked in a flavorful broth that mostly incorporates tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, saffron, and various herbs. The soup is then strained and served with rouille, a classic Provençal sauce that usually incorporates bread, garlic, spices, egg yolks, and olive oil while some versions can also include monkfish liver, tomatoes, or potatoes. Soupe de poisson originated in the Provençal region, most probably in Marseille, and it can be found all along the French Mediterranean coast. It is often enjoyed as an appetizer, typically served hot and topped with crunchy croutons and Gruyère cheese.

 
 

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