Unlike Paris, Bordeaux lacks the buzz of modern, metropolitan life. It feels petite, accessible.
In the Saint Michel Park on the city’s 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.
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 local 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.
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