Bordeaux: A gleaming city on the Garonne
With its urban elegance and provincial charm, Bordeaux is an appealing tourist destination in a beautiful region of southwest France. Bordeaux is called the “Port of the Moon” because of its romantic location on a crescent-shaped bend of the Garonne River. In this splendid setting that allowed trade to flourish, the city has a rich cultural heritage dating back to antiquity. UNESCO declared Bordeaux a World Heritage Site in 1998 thanks to the city‘s wealth of architectural treasures. More than 350 buildings are classified as historical monuments.
A place of historical importance in the heart of Bordeaux, the Cathedral of Saint Andrew dates back to the 12th century. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this cathedral was part of the Route of Saint James pilgrimage trail. Pilgrims traveled through Bordeaux from the Médoc, Tours, and the British Isles on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The Cathedral of Saint Andrew compares to the Notre-Dame in Paris in its grandeur and features an impressive facade with sculptures of the Last Supper, the Ascension, and Christ in Majesty. Interestingly, the western front side of the cathedral is completely unadorned, since it was originally too close to the old town walls. However, now you will find the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) opposite the cathedral; this grand neoclassical palace built in the 18th-century reveals the dramatic difference in architectural styles over the centuries. During the summer, the Bordeaux International Organ Festival is held at the cathedral. Visitors can enjoy free concerts performed by the most talented European organists.
Le Grand Théâtre
The Grand Théâtre is the centerpiece of the Place de la Comédie, a hub of city life and the ancient site of the Roman Forum. One of the city’s most emblematic buildings, this monumental theater was built in 1780 in the inspiring new Classical style of Bordeaux. The building was designed by architect Victor Louis who also designed the Palais Royal and Théâtre Français in Paris. The exterior features 12 colossal Corinthian columns along with statues representing the nine muses and the goddesses Juno, Venus, and Minerva. Inside the theater, visitors are awed by splendid foyers and grand staircases. For a memorable experience, spend an evening at the theater to enjoy a performance by the National Orchestra or National Ballet of Bordeaux.
Place de la Bourse
Lining the quays of Bordeaux for a half mile are elegant classical buildings from the 18th century. This impressive collection of architecture along the river was designed to welcome and impress visitors. The most magnificent example of this neoclassical architecture is the Place de la Bourse, which epitomizes the elegance of 18th century design. The square was built between 1730 and 1755 by members of the Gabriel family of architects. In the center of the square is the lovely Fountain of the Three Graces, surrounded by two beautiful pavilion-like buildings: the Bourse (Stock Exchange) and the Musée des Douanes (Customs Museum). These graceful quayside buildings stand just above the banks of the Garonne River. Take a scenic walk alongside the Garonne to admire the inspiring architecture of the Place de la Bourse and the shimmering reflections of the buildings in the river.
This exquisite basilica is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site because it was a stop on the medieval Way of Saint James pilgrimage. The basilica features the Romanesque style typical of churches on the route to Santiago de Compostela. This exceptional church dates back to the 11th century. The choir, featuring a stone abbot’s throne and ornate stalls, was built during the 14th and 15th centuries. The choir chapel is adorned with impressive Gothic reredos (decorative screens) that display 12 alabaster reliefs and a 14th-century Virgin Mary figure. The oldest part of the basilica is the 11th-century crypt, which is a treasure trove of ancient reliquaries and sarcophagi from the 6th and 7th centuries.
Exemplifying an extravagant “Rayonnant Gothic” style, this basilica, dedicated to the Archangel, is another important church on the Route of Santiago pilgrimage trail. Along with the Cathedral of Saint Andrew and the Basilica of Saint Seurin, the Basilica of Saint Michael is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The basilica took 200 years to build, from the 14th to 16th centuries. The church presents a pleasing unity of architectural style, described as “Rayonnant Gothic” (the 13th-century French style of ornate Gothic architecture). From the top of the freestanding belfry, you can take in stunning panoramic views of the city. After visiting the basilica, enjoy a stroll around the quarter of Saint Michel that surrounds the basilica. This quarter to the south of the Pont de Pierre is the most colorful and atmospheric neighborhood of Bordeaux. Twice a week on Monday and Saturday mornings, the Square of Saint Michel is transformed into a marketplace, and the shops around the square lend a lively ambiance.
The Museum of Aquitaine vividly illustrates the history of Bordeaux and the region of Aquitaine from prehistoric times to the present day. The museum has exceptional pieces of antiquity, including the Laussel Venus, an artifact from 25.000 BC, Gallic gold coins from around the 2nd century BC, and a 3rd-century statue of Hercules. Other highlights include the 13th-century figure of a knight of Curton and the 16th-century Montaigne’s tomb. The monument to Montaigne once stood at the entrance of the museum, and visitors would touch the statue’s foot as a ritual to “absorb” the wisdom of the illustrious man. For a peek into everyday life of Bordeaux during the 20th century, be sure to view the Reconstructed Grocer’s Shop filled with superb replicas of furniture, accessories, and foodstuffs from the 1900s. You’ll find a cash register, coffee grinder, tinned fruits and vegetables, pots of mustard, terrines of foie gras, jars of bonbons, and a display of lollipops.
Esplanade des Quinconces
An expansive public space in central Bordeaux, the Esplanade des Quinconces is considered to be the largest square in Europe. This tranquil retreat in the heart of the city is just a few blocks away from Le Grand Théâtre. Flanked by the Quai Louis XVIII alongside the river, the esplanade offers peaceful waterfront views. Built from 1818 to 1828, the square’s monumental fountain honors the Girondins, the group of republican politicians from the département of the Gironde who were deputies in the Legislative Assembly during the French Revolution. (Many Girondins were sent to the guillotine during the Terror). The original fountain was destroyed during World War II and later restored. There are also statues of Montesquieu and Montaigne. Another noteworthy site nearby is the Jardin Public, where you can visit the botanical gardens and the natural history museum.
Pont de Pierre
One of the iconic sights in Bordeaux, the Pont de Pierre (Stone Bridge) blends perfectly with the city’s elegant riverfront buildings. Imagined in 1817 by engineer Claude Descamps, the Pont de Pierre was completed in 1821 after years of construction work. The result is a beautiful feat of engineering. The bridge spans the Garonne River with 17 graceful arches supported by foundation piles that are set into the riverbed and well designed to withstand strong currents. In the history of Bordeaux, this was the first bridge to cross the Garonne River.
At the center of historic Bordeaux, the Rue Sainte-Catherine is the busiest shopping street in the city. This street is also the oldest existing thoroughfare in Bordeaux, as it was a road during Roman times.
Where to stay
Located just 40 minutes by car from the center of historic Bordeaux, Villa La Tosca is a jewel located on the shore of the Arcachon Bay and it is considered a prime example of Arcachon Architecture. Built in 1903, the luxury villa was recently restored to preserve its historic heritage and warmth, while offering modern amenities and comfortable luxury. Outdoors, an acre of manicured gardens contains an ecological lap pool, a kitchen herb garden, and a natural spring. The villa overlooks the lawns and gardens, the ancient wall and the views of the sea. Villa La Tosca has eight luxurious bedrooms, each with their own unique styling and feel. If you are looking for an exceptional place for an exceptional moment, you would be hard pressed to find a more stylish and welcoming retreat.