This month let’s continue our visit of the beautiful city of Bordeaux. While our first newsletter mostly took us through streets dating back to the Middle Ages, this one will address the age of Enlightenment that also contributed, in quite a different style, to the heritage of this city. During this period, many magnificent monuments were built which represent Bordeaux at its peak, and are not to be missed.
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Esplanade des Quinconces
The Trompette Castle
In 1453, the victory of the French army at the battle of Castillon put an end to the terrible Hundred Years War. The English were driven out of France, and Guyana (back then the name given to the greater area of Bordeaux) became French once again. But the people of Bordeaux took a dim view of this new situation, as they stood to lose their profitable trade with England. They decided to resist the supervisory authority of their new master, the King of France Charles VII. This distrust was mutual. Their new sovereign had two fortresses built to establish his domination. The fort of Hâ guaranteed him control of the south and west sides of the city, while the Trompette castle, a real stronghold, allowed him to keep watch of either a possible English invasion attempt from the river Garonne side, or any seed of rebellion from the people of Bordeaux. When in 1675 Louis XIV decided to enlarge the fortress, to bring the unruly inhabitants into line, the people of Bordeaux loathed him even more since they had to pay for the work, which included the demolition of more than 300 houses. Just imagine their surprise when, on top of it all, they caught sight of the canons pointed at their city.
The ‘Esplanade des Quinconces’
Relations with the centralized power of the monarchy were finally eased under the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI. In the 18th century, Bordeaux’s golden age, the infamous citadel was seen as an obstacle to the development of the city. As the leading port of France, the city had become wealthy thanks to its wine but also, in a less glorious way, thanks to the sad business of snatching men and women from their homelands of Africa and the West Indies to be sold as slaves in a three-way trade. Traffic was congested, and the streets needed to be widened. Once a symbol of the monarchy’s oppression, the Trompette castle was torn down in the end, as it stood in the way of the city’s economic development. A huge area was left in its place that would suit the fancy of the day. It was then fashionable to plant trees in staggered rows, a design that gave the esplanade its name. Today, this great square, one of the biggest in Europe, spreads over 335 acres. It has become a very lovely area to go for a walk, as well as the meeting place of choice for the city’s cultural and festive events.
Fountain of the Monument aux Girondins
The ‘Monument aux Girondins’
In the esplanade, you will find two huge statues dedicated to two of the city’s famous sons, the writers and philosophers Montaigne (16th century) and Montesquieu (18th century), and two very large twin columns, ‘les colonnes rostrales’, which seem to be watching over the river. The story behind the ‘Monument aux Girondins’ (Girondists) is well worth telling. During the revolution, two opposing political parties were confronting each other on the benches of the Convention (a national convention formed by election): the ‘Montagnards’, the Parisian elect, and the ‘Girondins’, elected from Bordeaux for the most part. These antagonists shared neither their vision for France’s political and economical future, nor, and more importantly, their opinion about the fate of Louis XVI. Indeed, the Girondins defended the king and refused to sign his death warrant. Most of them would be sent to the guillotine and pay for this stand with their lives. At the end of the 19th century, a monument was built in honor of these men who had fallen victim to a period when madness often won over reason. This symbol of freedom, a 36 ft tall column, is topped by the figure of a bird-woman breaking her chains. At its foot, beautiful bronze sculptures of mythical horses and figures decorate a gushing fountain, but not a single Girondin is portrayed! In 1881, the town council of Bordeaux met to discuss this project, through rather stormy sessions and impassioned discussions. The main question was, why honor the Girondins and not the Montagnards? And just when everyone finally agreed to make some room for those unfortunate protagonists of the French Revolution, the council found itself cruelly short of funds. And so no image of a Girondin was added to the monument dedicated to the Girondins. It would just have to celebrate the Republic instead!
Place du Parlement
The Marquis of Tourny
The Marquis of Tourny arrived in Bordeaux in 1743 as an intendant (royal agent) of King Louis XV. Intendants served as representatives of the king, and as such were granted full powers. It was a backhanded way for the king to strengthen his own power throughout the country. Bordeaux was then at its peak, its docks swarming with intense port activities and flourishing trade. The king’s envoy was immediately taken in by the area, a somewhat constricted space between great walls which gave it the appearance of a medieval city. In his desire to promote urbanism, the king had given the marquis carte blanche to transform the capital of Aquitaine into a little Paris. The intendant got down to this job with enthusiasm and undertook one of the largest urban construction sites of the 18th century. However, the transformation of the city was not without difficulty. The people of Bordeaux, eager for freedom and independence, did not think much of this Parisian style colonialism. They were annoyed by the nuisance of a permanent work site, even though at the same time, it did provide jobs. Finally, several very cold winters during the following decades caused shortages of wheat and therefore of bread, and dreadful famines ensued. The people had not in the least anticipated this disaster, as they had long since given priority to wine production over wheat growing that they considered less noble. Despite it all, work progressed as best it could and resulted in what is, still today, one of the most beautiful cities in France.
The marquis de Tourny transformed the medieval town into a beautiful city with verdant gardens, great squares, prestigious gates, large avenues, splendid buildings, and imposing residences all bearing testimony to its prosperity. There is a striking aspect of the architecture of Bordeaux that you will notice when you look at the beautiful houses of the middle-class. There are faces of stone which stand out against the houses’ facades. These decorative details date back to antiquity. Their purpose was to chase evil spirits away from the residences, and ward off bad fortune. In the 16th century, Italians, enamored with classical art, gave new life to these ornamental heads called ‘mascarons’. When Italian Renaissance style became in vogue in France, mascarons naturally appeared, first in Paris then in Bordeaux. But where antiquity had represented hideous animals or other creatures from Greek mythology, the French mascarons represented ordinary everyday people that you might meet in the city. Alongside the faces of wealthy middle-class people, you also see those of Turks wearing turbans, Chinese and Africans. Indeed, due to its international trade activity, Bordeaux was an exotic town where people from all over the world mixed. The mascarons show just what a multi-racial melting-pot the city once was.
The “Grand Theatre”
Bordeaux owes this beautiful monument, a masterpiece of neo-classical inspiration and one of rare beauty, to the architect Victor Louis. This Italian-inspired theater, shaped like a horseshoe and meant to resemble an ancient temple, opened on April 7, 1780. Its interior conforms to what a 18th century audience would expect and admire: Royal blue seats, a required color ever since the days of Louis XIV and Versailles, the grand imperial T-shaped staircase that was an inspiration to Charles Garnier for his Paris Opera house, the trompe l’oeil scenery, and finally the masterpiece, the magnificent cupola. It elegantly bears the three elements which represented the essence of the city of Bordeaux: The port, the trade (wine and slaves) and the leopard, emblem of the kings of England, a grateful acknowledgment of a prosperous time. It is quite remarkable, if not miraculous, that a fire never broke out in such a building, one with a framework made entirely of wood, once heated by a fireplace and completely lit by candlelight.
The “Grand Theatre”
A Show in the Age of Enlightenment
A visitor entering this magnificent temple is immediately struck by the beauty and the solemnity of the place. A quick glance inside the theater will bring you back in time for a few moments, back to the 18th century. It is easy to imagine beautiful ladies dressed in their finest gowns and wearing their best jewels, accompanied by elegant and refined gentlemen. You can just see yourself at that time, seated in half-light, moved by a show that was both a visual and auditory delight. Reality, however, was quite the opposite. Indeed, in the 18th century, one went to the show in the afternoon, because it was much safer to be out walking the streets in daylight. Afterwards, one went to dinner. When the theater was in use, there were candles placed all around the cupola. Reflected in the mirrors, they gave light to the whole room during the entire performance. Consequently, it was a special sort of liveliness the artists had to deal with. The show was going on as much in the room as it was on stage, where the front row ladies were as much admired as the performing artists who had to go on acting through either hisses and boos, or cheering and applause.
An Invitation to Travel…
Bordeaux is called ‘The Port of the Moon’ because of the bend in the river Garonne. It is a dreamy nickname that the city wears well, and one that the receptive visitor will quickly understand. The river banks are beautiful, especially when the morning sun shines down on the building facades, or in the evening when, all lit up, these structures reveal the nobility of their architecture. What a pleasure it is to stroll down streets where each plot of land has a story to tell, or to walk through such peaceful gardens. Past and modern times live side by side, elegantly and harmoniously, making Bordeaux a very special large city with all the charm to attract and welcome tourists. A must-see!