Much to savour in handsome Bordeaux

Photo of Niall McIlroy

A second, and more fruitful, visit to a city synonymous with fine wine proves fascinating.

There’s a big frustration to only transiting through a place I really want to explore. Six-year-old me first felt it when our plane stopped to refuel in Kuwait midway through our move to Australia. We had to stay in our seats.

“There’s probably only desert outside,” Dad said. That made matters worse.

A few years ago I had a couple of days in Bordeaux at the end of a houseboat cruise on the Canal du Garonne. But circumstances, not least of which was the most extreme heatwave in more than a century when temperatures topped 45C (it really did feel like a desert), conspired against me. I saw little and felt I’d never really been in Bordeaux.

This morning, Bordeaux couldn’t be more different. It’s 12C and the sky is moody. I’m at the beginning of a river cruise aboard the longship Viking Forseti. And exploring, partly from one of Viking’s comfortable coaches, partly on foot, I feel I’m at last really getting a feel for this handsome city.

What a difference the seasons make but, in truth, Bordeaux has always been a place of change. The high and wide arches in the facades down by the Quai de Chartons port district once ushered barrel-laden carts drawn by horses as wine, particularly England-bound claret, was shipped far and wide. Those arches remain but now it’s shoppers and office workers who pass beneath.

We cross the silty and salty Garonne to the left-bank for a view of Bordeaux’s fine face. Local legend has it that Napoleon’s armies took three months to make the same trip by ferry. Outraged he ordered the building of Bordeaux’s first bridge, the Pont de Pierre, which was finally completed in 1822. Tidal variations of up to 6m continually delayed construction and mean Bordeaux’s skyline has had to stay low or sink into the Garonne.

Because of this, the 54m-high Monument aux Girondins literally stands out, looming above the Place des Quinconces which is Bordeaux’s answer to the Place de la Concorde and said to be Europe’s biggest town square.

“Well it might be, and it might not be,” says my local guide Emmanuelle. “And if it’s not,” she continues, “I’m still happy.”

The monument commemorates the city’s moderate bourgeois National Assembly members who were beheaded during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.

At its foot is a fountain with a pantheon of mythical marble characters including water nymphs symbolising the Garonne and the Dordogne which merge just north of here. 

The sight of a fun fair and the smell of frying kebab meat seems incongruous at such a profound memorial but this square is where the citizens, known as Bordelais, come when the French win a big football match or when the local club, the fittingly named Girondins of Bordeaux, is victorious.

But one can only imagine the size of the crowd that would have gathered nearby at Bordeaux Cathedral in 1137. Today a gaggle of tourists stands in the shadow of a building so huge that one part or another always bears the scar of scaffolding as it’s being repaired. They are being disproportionately amused by the sight of a lady in a long black coat watering a giant poodle from a tap on the wall.

But on July 25, 1137, all eyes would have been on a lady renowned as the most eligible in Europe as Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII in this very building.

However it was her second marriage, in 1152 to King Henry II, which brought Bordeaux into English control and saw the development of the wine trade. Riches flowed in and Bordeaux, still the world’s premier wine city, wears this wealth well in the splendid facades on the Place de La Bourse and the Grand Theatre.

 Eleanor is reputed to have been the prettiest lady in Europe so it seems to me fitting she was from Bordeaux as I stand fascinated by this city on an autumn morning.

One longship, two rivers, too many fine red wines to count: there was a lot to like on this eight-day Viking itinerary along the Garonne and Dordogne, round trip from Bordeaux. Duration: 05m 26s Seven West Travel Club

Fact File


Niall McIlroy visited Bordeaux as a guest of Viking Cruises.


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