Jiving, seen here next to the Miroir d’eau, the world’s largest reflecting pool, remains very popular in France.
Bordeaux – Long Read

Toasting a bright future built on an ancient past

Photo by Ruben Drenth

Bordeaux – Long Read Toasting a bright future built on an ancient past

Hello Bordeaux, the largest urban area in the world to be honored as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Once the biggest port in France, its delicate limestone buildings have been cleaned of decades of pollution and its abandoned quays transformed into chic apartments, restaurants and clubs.

Maaike Goslinga
Maaike Goslinga

Stéphane Pusateri peers over his tiny gold-rimmed glasses, his face lit up by the last specks of sunshine that wiggle through the streets of Bordeaux. “What about an apéritif at my place?” he asks in his thick French accent. With one hand he gently pulls the leash of his photogenic bearded dog Coffee, while balancing a smartphone in the other. He taps his thumb frantically over the screen. “I live in a very nice apartment nearby, look.” The photo shows a room decorated in wine-red wallpaper, with an antique French chaise longue. I bumped into Stéphane, the president of the Bordeaux Residents’ Association and a remarkably outspoken man, just minutes ago.

Moments later, I find myself in what is undoubtedly Bordeaux’s most eccentric apartment. In the subdued light of the hallway, I am greeted by an angry mounted badger holding an umbrella stand. While Stéphane rushes to the kitchen for the promised aperitif, I take a seat in the living room where my eyes dart from one side of the room to the other, not knowing what to take in next. Portraits stare, glare and squint down at me, while every other space on the wall holds drawings of animal bones. I see a stuffed hoof topped with a copper ashtray. The shell of an armadillo. A bowl of porcupine quills.

Stéphane returns with a glass of Sauternes, the golden-hued, opulent wine of Bordeaux. I clink glasses and take a sip. It is not surprising he chose such a local product, I soon learn. His unconditional love for Bordeaux, its heritage and rich wine tradition has seeped into every aspect of the 60-year-old’s life. He has long striven to preserve the authenticity and heritage of Bordeaux and the Gironde region.

The name of Alain Juppé soon comes up. The incumbent mayor of Bordeaux came into office in 1995 and immediately engaged in a revitalization journey. The first step was getting rid of the city’s bothersome smog. “Bordeaux used to be dirty and grey from pollution,” says Stéphane. “People did not go outside, it was just cars. No one wanted to live here. The previous mayor, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, was in office for almost half a century, but did not do anything about it.”

Bordeaux has seen a massive transformation

Much changed when Juppé entered the scene. The apartment Stéphane lives in has tripled in value since the 1990s. “During the past 20 years, Bordeaux has seen a massive transformation. Buildings have been renovated and cleaned. A new tram system was set up.” Stéphane was among those who fought for a car-free inner city. Significant investments in infrastructure have given Bordeaux an impressive boost in bicycle use. With more than 200 kilometers of bike paths and selfservice rental bikes provided by the municipality of the Bordeaux, cycling is now becoming mainstream.

Indeed, the regeneration schemes seem to have paid off. Bordeaux has a clean, tranquil feeling that permeates through every pore of the city. Delicate limestone buildings in soft cream coloring line the streets of the city center. It is not entirely car free but bollards and retractable posts keep most vehicles out of pedestrian spaces. In 2007, the city became a Unesco World Heritage Site. After Paris, it now has more protected buildings than any other French city and boasts an array of well-preserved Roman and Gothic churches as well as excellent, informative museums.

My favorite, Musée d’Aquitaine, guides visitors through Bordeaux’s naval history and the city’s remarkable transformations throughout the ages. It is hard to imagine this city was once a bustling port, earning its riches in shipping and trade in sugar, coffee, wine and, deplorably, slaves. The model ships and paintings depicting fleets and seafarers represent a bygone era. Most remnants of the harbor have vanished completely or been pushed away all the way up the river mouth. The inner-city port is not deep enough to allow passage of heavy, ocean-going vessels, leaving the Garonne River devoid of traffic. The crescent of broad quays is now populated not by ships but people, who laugh, walk, jog and talk. These grand boulevards only came into existence after Juppé’s election; before, a clutch of abandoned warehouses had clogged the riverfront, blocking the view of the river.

Part of the riverfront that perfectly encapsulates Bordeaux’s transition is the area around the statue-rich Place de la Bourse. This urban ensemble embracing the Three Graces Fountain was built for King Louis XV in the 18th century. Landscape architect Michel Corajoud connected the square to Bordeaux’s quayside in 2006 with some visual help. He gave the buildings a twin in the water at their feet by designing the Miroir d’eau, a ton of granite slabs covered in water that spouts out mist occasionally. The Bordelaises come here to rest their feet in the shallow water, to enjoy the chill of thick fog tickling their ankles. The Miroir cheers people up and cools them down.

The riverside is the best part of Bordeaux

In the nearby Saint Michel Park on the Left Bank, people tear pieces off their fresh baguettes, chewing as they relax on the soft green grass. Wine bottles pop. Frisbees whizz and float through the air. Down by the beach, a volleyball drops in the sand of the court laid out along the water’s edge. In the background, the sun illuminates the 17 arches of the Pont de Pierre, Bordeaux’s first bridge. Not coincidentally, the arches represent the number of letters in Napoléon Bonaparte, who commissioned the original bridge made out of wood.

Unlike Paris, Bordeaux lacks the buzz of modern, metropolitan life. It feels petite, accessible. The people I meet in the park love their city precisely for its lack of pretentiousness and the resulting easy-going atmosphere. “The riverside is the best part of Bordeaux,” says, 24-year-old Antoine, who is having a post-study glass of wine with a friend. “Everyone comes here to exercise, have a picnic or simply enjoy the sunset.” Davide, who I meet later that evening, echoes these sentiments. “Bordeaux might not have an Eiffel Tower or another huge monument, but it has atmosphere,” he says.

Bordeaux is not La Belle au bois dormant – the “Sleeping Beauty” – it was made out to be before its transformation. The shopping streets of Rue Sainte-Catherine and Rue de la Porte Dijeaux function as the arteries of commercial life, with the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux as Bordeaux’s beating heart. This neoclassical temple was harshly criticized by 19th-century writer Stendhal, who condemned its “spindly and ill-arranged” Corinthian columns and called its roof “as vast as it is ugly.” Now the theater is considered to be Bordeaux’s centerpiece. Bordelaises sit on its marble steps, lean against its colossal columns and gather at its foot. Later in the day, they disperse into the city’s winding alleys, which branch out further into tiny squares full of bars and bistros.

Not all buildings in Bordeaux exude 18th century sophistication and vanity. There’s an odd standout in the northern neighborhood of Chartrons: Base sous-marine, an old submarine base built by Spanish and Portuguese prisoners held captive by the Nazis and Italians during the occupation of Bordeaux in 1940. The submarines assembled in this enormous carbuncle of concrete – the roof is over 30 meters thick – carried weapons and supplies to the rest of the fleet. The bunker, which survived many air raids by the Allies, still stands today. Impossible to destroy, the grey carcass is now a cultural venue where music and art blend. It’s a surprising sight in a city otherwise known for its classical architecture.

The renaissance of Bordeaux continues

Bordeaux is at its liveliest on Friday evening, when cheerful locals getting off work head for the park, the restaurants and bars. On this particular day in September, the sun is still shining, its beams making wine glasses sparkle like stained glass. It’s warm outside. Young and old are dressed impeccably, light jackets for cooler nights draped around their shoulders. Tables and chairs clutter many of the city’s squares.

This used to be a dirty, dark and overcrowded city, plagued by disease and war. But as the renaissance of Bordeaux continues, a new wave of cafés and bars create a happy, convivial vibe in the heart of town. On every street corner, people are huddled together, eating sophisticated local meals at outdoor bistros. The city's fame has only increased since French celebrity chef Philippe Etchebest starting running the Café Opera in Bordeaux’s Grand Théâtre, while Joël Robuchon and Gordon Ramsay have also opened branches of their restaurant empires.

I go for a meal at La Brasserie Bordelaise, which serves a wide range of local food at less stratospheric prices than the big names of the culinary world. The place is filled to the brim. Waiters run around with platters of cheese and portable meat slicers. Admittedly, I am quite hesitant about the rather exotic-looking menu, but I ignore my doubts and go all-in by just ordering everything I can’t pronounce. I soon find myself eating plates full of local delicacies, including pig intestines filled with indiscernible meats and duck confit. An acquired taste, yet full with interesting flavors. The mains are topped by a canelé, a sweet, soft pastry with a caramelized crust.

Bordeaux is not just a city good for wine, I discover. What adds to it allure is its cuisine, which is full of interesting flavors and aromas. You may wonder why I have not mentioned Bordeaux’s vineyards before – the vineyards so loved Michel de Montaigne, one of history’s greatest writers and mayor of Bordeaux between 1581 and 1585. He regularly retreated from hectic city life to the rural family estate, where he managed vineyards and wrote. Bordeaux’s wines have always been one of the great names, shipped far and wide and drunk by young and old, the inexperienced and the connoisseur.

It’s easy to find a professional tasting

The imminent opening (in June 2016) of the Euro 81 million La Cité du Vin on the banks of Garonne – dedicated to the history of French wines – shows how important the industry remains to the city. The region produces as much wine as all of Germany’s vineyards combined. Bordeaux offers wine tastings aplenty, as does the nearby village of Saint-Émilion, home to the world’s finest merlots and cabernet francs. It’s easy to find a professional tasting, where I learn to pair a sweet Sauterne with a pungent blue Roquefort.

However, I’m no wine buff so I wonder if Bordeaux has any alternative to its vins. A booming beer culture, perhaps? I soon stumble on a place where my questions are answered. Brasserie Mascaret is a brewery and vineyard in Rions, a medieval village some 40 minutes away by bus from the city center. The road meanders through rolling vineyards, the vines heavy with grapes waiting to be harvested.

Outside the Brasserie, I see a small van decorated with images of four different beer bottles: a wheat beer, a blond beer, a pale ale and a brown ale. These are the four craft beers produced by Pauline and Fabrice Rivière, a couple originally from Bordeaux itself. They have been brewing beers for 20 years now. Fabrice has a microbrewery diploma from the University of La Rochelle, having learned the craft before it was cool. The couple have been slowly expanding their home brewery, filling it with robust stainless steel machines, gadgets and gizmos. But converting wine-loving locals into beer geeks has not proven to be an easy task.

“If you asked locals if they liked beer, they would look at you with blank faces,” says Pauline. “Over the years, I have set up tasting sessions and taught people how to drink beer – just like you teach people how to drink wine. It’s an acquired taste. No one thought I would get this far. Now I even teach people how to brew their own beer.”

People are starting to appreciate grains

Lately, the couple have experienced a change in mentality in their wine-addicted region. People are starting to appreciate grains, hops and yeasts. Pauline and Fabrice drive around the region to drop off casks of beer every day. Their brown ale even won an award at a national craft brewing award ceremony. Their success has forced the couple to outsource their 27 hectares of vineyard to their neighbors, who are now in charge of selling their wines and shipping them as far as China.

I ask Pauline if they hope to take over Bordeaux with their craft beers. “We hope so, but competition is getting stronger,” she says, naming a couple of rival breweries in the region. She understands that wine will be forever be Bordeaux’s darling, but the future for us beer-lovers does not look too bleak.

In contrast, Stéphane is a traditionalist and firmly believes Bordeaux should invest more in its rich wine tradition. He is not a big fan of the new and shiny, and believes his city and its region should stick to its roots: being beautiful and producing great wines. It should cherish its heritage, rather than trying to keep up with the rest of the world. Bordeaux already missed the technology train. Instead, it should invest in sustainable tourism and be wary it does not become party central, he says. He has already done his bit by introducing a law that forbids the sale of alcohol after 4 am.

I thank Stéphane for his hospitality and the excellent wine. It is time to go. Dwarfed by a giant mounted oryx on the wall behind him, he stands to say his “au revoir”. The brief handshake when we first met is now followed up by two smooches on my cheek. “I’m glad we met,” he says. “You have to accept what comes to you sometimes.” Despite his resistance to change in the city he loves with such passion, it seems he accepts that being open to new ideas is also a good thing.

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