Author Topic: Wine of the Sun, Port of the Moon: A Trip to Bordeaux  (Read 702 times)

Jubal

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Wine of the Sun, Port of the Moon: A Trip to Bordeaux
« on: December 23, 2019, 05:19:06 PM »
Wine of the Sun, Port of the Moon: A Trip to Bordeaux


My journey to Bordeaux nearly didn’t start. The government of Emmanuel Macron, attempting to push through pension reforms the French public sector unions saw as punitive, had provoked widespread strike action which was grounding planes and leaving the train network almost unusable. Going to Bordeaux in such circumstances was an odd reminder of the contradictions of the British viewpoints of France I grew up with – we simultaneously think of France as more argumentative, unionised,  and also as effete, cultured, inherently somehow posh compared to ourselves. I did arrive nonetheless, by the rather less pleasant, more expensive, and less environmentally friendly means of a short-haul flight. Having taught my undergraduate class that morning and hopped to the airport, I passed through Charles de Gaulle, who has not necessarily been improved by his reincarnation as a Paris airport. Eventually I was sitting on plane two, nosing through a lesser known Fenimore Cooper novel I had picked up earlier in the year, and imagining what lay ahead. I knew very little of Bordeaux and had not had much time for prior research, so beyond knowing I was heading to a decently sized southern French city that did wine quite seriously, I wasn’t sure quite what I was flying into.

The first answer was that I was flying into bad weather. My initial views of Bordeaux were dark and rain-filled, rattling on a bus into the city from the airport as large modern blocks loomed above me. Most parts of most cities, certainly the large ones, do not conform to the guidelines of the imagination or the tourist brochure. Travellers, of course, make our natural bee-lines for the centres and the noteworthy spots: but perhaps the writers of travelogues should not be so quick to do so, for in doing so we create cities of the mind that are different in almost every respect to those as experienced by their inhabitants. The process then becomes circular, as the cities are compelled to make use of such advantages to take account of the tourism and trade, which in turn is then fed to the next bands of unwary travellers.


The wine monument and Aquitaine Gate archway.
When at last I was able to take a stop between the bus and the tram that would take me down to the suburb of Pessac for some sleep, I found a very brief lull in the rain. I was greeted by a mysterious pillar, in fact a relatively recent (2005) monument commemorating the city’s wine industry: the first sign of the Bordeaux that the, albeit one too oblique for me to appreciate whilst plane-tired and in need of food. I regret not taking a closer look despite passing it more than once: if you do so, do note the turtle sculptures at the base which I entirely missed on my own trip. A large semi-triumphal arch marks the spot of the old Aquitaine Gate, and I walked past rather than through it to reach a cluster of fast food shops around what would have once been the entrance to the city (I ultimately opted for Les Burgers de Colette, who were very friendly and the food was very good).

The triumphal arch may not be old, but in its implied modelling of a classical past it nonetheless captures a great deal of the city’s history, for this was indeed once a Roman city. Whilst the name, first recorded as Burdigala, may well be from a now mostly lost relative of Basque, it is likely the Romans who first started planting the Gironde region to the west of the city with vineyards. It was the Romans too whose slaves mined British tin and lead which, sitting as Burdigala on the transport routes, built the city’s wealth until it became the capital of Roman Aquitaine. Metal, wine, money, the salt sea and slave labour – all were to come back again in Bordeaux’s history. The eighteenth century builders of this triumphal arch sought to bathe their Bordeaux in the light of Roman imperial glory, but it was as much the prosaic and at times brutal underpinnings of that past that they mirrored.

The conference I had come to attend was the fifth (though my first) in the Linked Pasts series, dealing with connecting historical data-sets about places and people. I found that I knew rather more of the people there than I expected, which took some of my prior nervousness out of the occasion, and the atmosphere was pleasantly laid back. The presence of lunchtime wine felt like another gently nudged reminder of where we were (not to mention the food, which was finger-food sufficiently cleverly put together that it bordered on the impractical). Bordeaux’s university campuses are large and stretch southwest from the centre along the B tram line, and it was in the Archeopole building of the university that we had our meetings.

The evening between the two days of conference I was there for (having had to miss the first day due to strikes and teaching alike) was notable for two reasons. First, it was notable in that we went to have an excellent, though rather painful for my student-scale food budget, meal at Le Charabia, a bistro in town. The duck is excellent and the wine available in two litre bottles, should you ever happen to pass. Second, it was a notable evening in that it was the twelfth of December 2019, when the UK’s Conservative party managed to break through against a weakened Labour party and deliver Boris Johnson a convincing majority in parliament, effectively the first strong majority Conservative government of my lifetime. As a liberal, this was a somewhat grim eventuality, and I was glad of the friendly shared anger of my academic colleagues. This European port that had so often reached grasping hands out to the world, once the centre of English political play upon the European stage, was a strange place drink to the defeat of British pro-Europeanism. Upon seeing the exit poll I moved from wine to gin – it seemed like the time.


Bordeaux Cathedral, dimly lit, looms in the darkness.
The next day, just to add insult to injury, my small laptop had a hard drive failure. I had to make my own way into town to search for food, and to add ignominy to the aforementioned insult and injury the Bordeaux winds shredded my umbrella – twisting it to the point where the spokes sheared and snapped beyond repair. Huddling under the flopping, half-broken mess that remained, I got off the tram outside the Museum of Aquitaine and walked until I passed the Cathedral of Saint Andrew for the first time, its sides lit up but its tall spire rising unlit into the wind, rain and gloom. Auspicious it was not.

I turned right at the Hotel de Ville (town hall, for those unfamiliar with the nomenclature), and found myself at La Mama, a pleasant enough Italian pizzeria which I can recommend. Once fed, back huddled under the half-broken umbrella, I went for a walk all the same, up past the grand colonnade of the opera house and eventually to the river, the swollen and angry Garonne. This is the bend of the river that was known to ages past as the Port of the Moon, so named for being a broad crescent-shaped bend in the river into which vessels could come to dock. The crescent moon first appeared on the arms of Bordeaux in the medieval period, and an emblem of three such crescents intertwined still represents the city today. Tonight the moon-water was cratered and scarred as it tossed in the wind and rain, while high above the stormy river the actual moon was far obscured from view. I turned my back on the wet plaza, passed through the medieval Porte de Cailhau, and returned to Pessac on the tram.

The next day, the Museum of Aquitaine was my first destination. One of its first and chiefest treasures on display was the ‘Laussel Venus’, a 25,000 year old carved woman from some way inland in the region. She stands with an almost sagging wide belly and hips, her breasts heavy, one hand towards her vulva and the other holding what appears to be a horn. What sort of expression she might have had, though, we cannot say, for her face has been long since lost to the eroding ravages of time. Scratches around her hips give the indication of stretch marks; scratches on the horn number thirteen vertical lines, a pattern also notable on numerous other bone fragments from the Stone Age past – it is not after all a cornucopia, or a drinking horn created to wait thousands of years for Bordelais wine to fill it, but a lunar calendar. The women of Aquitaine, long before Aquitaine was thought of, looked to and worked with the moon before the Port of the Moon could even have been imagined, with the motion of the Venus’ other hand indicating the relationship to menstrual cycles. It may be that the horn is a direct representation of the crescent moon, or it may be simply in reflection of the use of bone and horn to make such calendars. Thousands of years later, when the settlement that would become known as Burdigala was first founded, the people who made the Laussel Venus had long since passed even deeper into history from the ancient Aquitanian founders of the settlement than those settlers are to us today. The moon shone through its phases much the same, though.


The Place de la Bourse, heart of Bordeaux's 18th century mercantilism.
Tracing Bordeaux through time, I walked through the draining of its wetlands to expand the city in 50 BC, the heaping of Campanian amphorae from the time when Bordeaux bought rather than sold the red and white gold for which it would one day be famous, the Romans bringing serpent-twined columns and distant gods, before the Chi-Rho started appearing on tombstones and Christianity stamped its mark. It might not have been forever thus – Muslim forces from Spain sacked the city in 732 – but the rise of the Carolingians put paid first to Muslim potential for advances into France and, with far more painstaking difficulty, the repeated attempts by the Aquitanian dukes to assert or claim their independence, often combining their region and title with that of Vasconia (that is, Gascony, to the south). Centuries of uneasy recognition by the Aquitanians of Frankish sovereignty might have been brought to a harmonious close by the 1137 marriage of Aliénor, heir to the dukedom, to Louis VII of France - but then, after a frustrating marriage that failed to produce a male heir, the marriage was annulled and she remarried to Henri Plantagenet, who shortly after became King of England. Bordeaux was the heart of England’s French possessions, not to mention one of the most major sources for wine sold to England, for three centuries thereafter, as gryphons, saints and demons took their positions and roosts around the city’s architecture, until in 1453 a final English attempt at reconquest was beaten back at nearby Castillon. It was perhaps only then that France could consider Bordeaux genuinely among its possessions (and even then, the French crown was to get more trouble from the region in later centuries).

The museum’s lower floor traces this journey: its upper floor turns to more recent, and painful, matters. Bordeaux settled into a quiet obscurity between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, but the arrival of full throated imperialism brought new opportunities for a potentially sizeable Atlantic port. Bordelais settlers moved out to the sugar islands of the Caribbean, their home city boomed with commerce, the city’s vineyards were invested in and expanded – and slavery on a vast scale funnelled money into its streets and buildings. Little model reconstructions of a Saint-Domingue plantation, native artefacts from around the world, and portraits of Toussaint L’Ouverture were accompanied by detailed discussions of the pre-colonial slave systems that colonial era traders exploited and expanded. It all felt strangely more distant than the medieval and ancient parts of the exhibition – with the further off parts of the past, the temptation and effort is to bring them closer, while for the more recent centuries, perhaps, the collective memories and reverberations are too sharp. We grasp for context all the more when we cannot, or will not, grasp the enormity of the pain that is laid bare by taking into account the grand sweep of the past.

Having completed my look around the museum, I picked up a fluffy mammoth as a souvenir and an umbrella to replace my broken one, and headed out through the streets. In the city’s centre these are a pleasant eighteenth century mixture of sizes and types, less high and block-built than I was used to seeing in Vienna and feeling closer to equivalent aged areas of British cities in style – though the expanse and consistency of that period architecture is greater. Juggling umbrella, bags, and just-purchased food, I mused on an apple tartlet and let my feet take me out through another of the city’s huge medieval gates, the Porte Saint-Eloi, dedicated to the saint of metalworkers usually known as Eligius in English. The current tower is much of an age with that of the Cailhau Gate, and has a huge belfry with an eighteenth century bell. The scale of both gates is vast, and they are showpiece architecture, built in a period when the French monarchy was no longer seriously concerned with defending Bordeaux from nearby threats (the Cailhau gate commemorated the French victory at the 1495 Battle of Fornovo, opening the Italian Wars that dominated the first half of the sixteenth century in that peninsula). Bordeaux if anything lost prestige once the Hundred Years’ War ended, having lost its status as a key centre of England’s continental possessions, and with it the English wine trade that had been at the core of its medieval prosperity.

Heading southeast from here, the streets were a clutter of smaller shops, many of them with piles of tagines outside and more generally a noticeable North African cultural heritage. The modern Bordelais are a people of a post-Imperial port city, their ties in many cases stretching out across myriad parts of the world dominated until very recently by the French state. Saint Michael’s Basilica, and particularly its separate belfry, stand tall here – originally a small eighth century chapel outside the medieval city walls, frequented by medieval sailors and expanded over time, the basilica now stands as an oddly appropriate if not entirely in place elder statesman among a relaxed mess of eateries and small shops that feels a good deal less manicured than the city centre. By the riverside nearby, I passed clusters of noisy cafes where young and old men (and in these they were all men) gathered around tables, smoked, and watched football on large TV screens.


The Girondins monument - liberty breaks her chains atop it.
Walking by the port of the moon for the second time on my trip, this time the rain was lighter, but its past felt heavier. A huddle of huts selling Christmas odds and ends felt almost out of place against the long backdrop of stately eighteenth century architecture. I did not go over the Pont de Pierre, Bordeaux’s first major river bridge, only completed in 1822, but instead wandered down past the Cailhau gate again and to get a better daylight look at the Place de la Bourse – that is, place of the purse – the heart of that eighteenth century mercantile revolution that underpins what is still the architectural backbone of the modern city. The huge, elegant palace was made a little lopsided by the large car advertisement that covered the scaffolding on one side, and the famous water mirror opposite, a recent innovation with a low water pool allowing tourists to see in reflection as well as reality the majesty of the square, was – ironically enough for a rainy day – dry. That is not, of course, to say that it was anything short of spectacular: perhaps living too close to the Habsburg edifices of Vienna has ruined my sense of perspective for eighteenth century architecture, but the Place de la Bourse nonetheless says ostentation like few other places manage. The car advertisement if anything provided an ironic reminder of the whole purpose of the place, for it is easy for us to allow the architectural remnants of recent centuries to fade into a gently historicised, aesthetically attractive backdrop – a reminder of the brash and frequently amoral spirit which powered the construction of such nigh-ethereal work is a helpfully sharp grounding point.

Continuing downriver a little and turning away from the port of the moon brought me to one of Bordeaux’s largest and most famous monuments – for a city whose facades were so often built upon slavery, it is the city’s contribution to French liberty that takes pride of place. In the French revolution, the elected representatives from the Gironde, Bordeaux’s wine-growing hinterland, formed the core of a notable if loose faction, less bloodily fanatical than the more diehard followers of Robespierre but strongly internationalist and in favour of spreading anti-monarchism across Europe. Their Montagnard opponents, dominant in Paris itself, were ultimately able to seize control and conducted, right across France, a brutal purge of the “Girondins”, as they had become known. The Girondins’ monument stands in front of a vast public square, Bordeaux’s memory to its own political martyrs: atop it, making high ideals a literal feature of the city, a great bronze depiction of liberty breaks her chains.


Inside L'Intendant, looking up at the spiralling floors of bottles.
A nearby park proved to be closed, so I turned again and headed, passing through Bordeaux’s main Christmas market, back into town. Here I came to L’Intendant, a wine shop specialising in the Gironde’s red gold. Peering in from the street, it seems a tiny, almost cramped space with almost no floor area – but going in reveals the spiralling truth. A staircase winds up around and around the shop going directly upwards, with a curving shelf of wine bottles going round and round the shop, divided by sub-region of the Gironde with the price tending upwards with the stairs. Whilst much of the day to day trade is tourists popping in and getting a slightly nicer souvenir on the ground floor, the upper reaches of the shop display bottles behind locked casings worth thousands of euros each. Bordeaux’s wines are mainly red with just the occasional white, but it was not always thus: the ‘clairet’, a lighter wine best described as a deep pink rosé, was the medieval specialism of the region – as Bordeaux moved to produce more full bodied red wines, the English use of the word adapted to follow, hence ‘claret’ still being used today for the Bordelais reds.

I then headed to Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, winding my way back into those paler vintages of Bordeaux’s medieval past. The building was consecrated by Pope Urban II in 1096 on the eve of the First Crusade, and was the site of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s ill-fated first marriage just over forty years later. The modern building reached more or less its current form by the fourteenth century, with, like Saint Michael’s Basilica, a separate bell-tower. It was not well lit inside, and other than a few paintings and the ostentatious organ there was little of the baroque overexcitement that so often festoons the inside of great Catholic monuments. Its medieval gloom was all at once comforting and oppressive, and the grand building felt smaller for it. A few notes bellowed out of the organ as I walked around, but for the most part it was a quiet place, tourist murmurs floating along only occasionally. I paced down the aisle alongside the shadow of a shadow of a thirteen year old girl who hundreds of years before had been told to marry the King of France, and sat for a moment to consider the gloom. For Eleanor, for the resulting fame of Bordeaux wine – and thus perhaps even for Bordeaux’s later glories – this place’s dark clarity felt like a pivot point, the quiet eye of the Bordeaux storm.


One of Pessac's starlings on my last morning.
Back outside, the huge Christmas tree in front of the main cathedral doors blazed to welcome me back into the storm itself. Going via parliament square, I headed back to the Christmas market for a final look around. The various stalls were not much different to those that one finds at any such market in Europe – expensive cheeses, unusual ingredients, winter clothing, all manner of confectionery – but there were a few particular hints of the local region, with some macaron sellers from the Basque country, Atlantic salt, and some local food sellers. Perhaps most curiously there was no wine (except cups of vin chaud, the practice of mulled hot wine having spread across Europe probably as early as the Roman era). The market had been unbearably packed with people a couple of hours earlier, but now it was just starting to quieten again as the evening drew on, and I bowed to the storm and the commercial hubbub and rushed around buying cheese, salt, and other things to take away with me. Perhaps it was just my tiredness and buffeted emotions, and processing everything from the museum’s posters from Bordeaux’s literal exhibitions of colonised peoples in the 1890s, to the height of its loud ideals of liberty, to the woman and her child I had just passed huddled in blankets on the street, to the throb and hum and noise and warmth of the market… but there did seem to be something continually asking for more about Bordeaux: it seems a city addicted to the world, and the world to it.

The next morning, it was time to go: I said farewell to my hosts, packed my mammoth and my cheese, and stepped out the door to – at last – sunshine. Sparrows hopped between the rooves of Pessac, a leafy suburb largely comprised of one and two storey buildings. Stopping at Berenil's, a very good little nearby boulangerie/patisserie, I bought a chocolatine (the local name for what is better known elsewhere as a pain au chocolat), and ambled down the road, blinking in the sudden clarity and calm as the shining iridescence of starling feathers flashed in metallic greens and blues from the tree branches. I made my way back past the arch at the Aquitaine gate, and two flights and several hours later I flew home into Vienna, after dark and in the clear.

It is internal contradictions and tensions that make a person or a place genuinely three dimensional, and Bordeaux is emphatically a four dimensional city, with those tensions stretching back through deep ages past, reflecting each other in the port of the moon century after century. It is a city whose greatest monuments are to those who fought for liberty, amid beautiful architecture funded by the profits of sugar and slavery. It is a quintessentially French city that has so often rejected France, a city of kings and sailors which threw its people out to the world and let the world bleed into it in return. Perhaps it is all for the best that Bordeaux has wine, its red silken gold, and the haze of nights when the port of the moon breaks and tosses with its namesake’s reflection – many cities are burdened with the weight of long history, and at least Bordeaux can pride itself on its ability to soften the edges.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

Gmd

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Re: Wine of the Sun, Port of the Moon: A Trip to Bordeaux
« Reply #1 on: January 08, 2020, 05:47:20 PM »
Nice read! Feel like i've been there myself now :D
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Jubal

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Re: Wine of the Sun, Port of the Moon: A Trip to Bordeaux
« Reply #2 on: January 09, 2020, 11:04:26 PM »
Thank you! :) If you ever do decide to go, I'd recommend summer - the Christmas market was nice and all, but the winter wind and rain were really pretty fierce. I think it was perhaps a bit less windy than Galway the year before, but much wetter.
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Gmd

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Re: Wine of the Sun, Port of the Moon: A Trip to Bordeaux
« Reply #3 on: January 15, 2020, 12:12:31 AM »
Yeah went round Budapest and Munich the last 2 winters in the rain, think late spring is the best time for travelling around as i plan to do this year.
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Give me my green name back!!! I am always Logothetes

Jubal

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Re: Wine of the Sun, Port of the Moon: A Trip to Bordeaux
« Reply #4 on: January 22, 2020, 03:42:24 PM »
Let me know if you feel like doing Vienna!
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

Gmd

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Re: Wine of the Sun, Port of the Moon: A Trip to Bordeaux
« Reply #5 on: January 22, 2020, 07:36:25 PM »
For Sure!
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