Things to Do in Aquitaine
Bordeaux has long been one of the world’s top wine destinations but when Cité du Vin opened in 2016, it finally got a museum to match its reputation. Housed in a modernist building that resembles a wine decanter, the center comprises exhibition spaces, cultural events, a wine bar, a cinema space, and more.
Built in 1495, this dramatic Gothic Revival 35-meters tall city gate was built to commemorate King Charles VIII's victory at Fornovo in Italy during the Italian War of 1494. At the time, it was the main entry point to Bordeaux from the port. It faces Place du Palais and features several ornamental sculptures and towers, something that is very typical of architecture built under the reign of Charles VIII; indeed, the monarch wanted this gate to showcase his power and affluence. The gate, which was once part of the Bordeaux city wall, was later on used as a defensive tower (the multitude of portcullis, murder holes, and machicolation features are there to prove this), and as a salt scale and storehouse.
Nowadays, it houses an informative exhibition dedicated to the tools and materials with which the tower was built as well as the urban development of Bordeaux. There is a wonderful view of the old town center, the Garonne River, and the Pont de Pierre Bridge from the top floor.
Found in the sandy flatlands of the Médoc region in southwest France, Château Margaux is today known for producing some of the finest – and most expensive – Premier Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux wines in the world. Unusually for Bordeaux, the Margaux estate produces whites as well as rich, spicy world-renowned reds, and sells around 30,000 cases per year. All Margaux wines are produced organically and the average age of the vines is 36 years old, forming from a mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc grapes.
Although wines have been produced on the estate since the 1580s, it was confiscated from its aristocratic owners in the French Revolution of 1789–99 and its fortunes were only revived with the advent of the Marquis de la Colonilla in 1810. He built the elegant Palladian mansion, to a design by Louis Combes, which still stands at the heart of the estate; since 1977 it has been the home of the Mentzelopoulos family, who are credited with restoring the reputation of Margaux wines and consistently improving their quality. In 2010 an upgrade of the cellars was undertaken by British mega-architect Lord Norman Foster; a new cooperage, visitor center and tasting rooms were added at the same time.
Flowing down from the Spanish Pyrenees all the way to France’s Atlantic coast, the Garonne is the most important river of southwestern France. Passing through two major cities—Toulouse and Bordeaux—the Garonne also runs into the Gironde estuary, the largest of its kind in Europe.
The Place de la Bourse (or Place Royale) faces onto the river Garonne. It was laid out in the 1700s by Louis XV's architect, Gabriel, to act as a dramatic frame for an equestrian statue of the monarch.
The Place de la Bourse is framed on one side by the Stock Exchange (the 'Bourse' that gives the square its name) and on the other side by a museum. In the center of the square is its chief beauty and attraction, the fountain of the Three Graces, built by Visconti in 1869. When it's lit at night it is highly photogenic.
The most remarkable religious building in Bordeaux, according to locals, the Bordeaux Cathedral (Cathédrale St. André) is famous for having a separate and independent bell tower. The cathedral was first built in the 13th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, while having once played a significant role in the religious and cultural development of Bordeaux; it is indeed where the prosperous Eleanor of Aquitaine got married to the future King of France, Louis VII. Her considerable wealth benefited the entire city and even the cathedral itself, which was subsequently enlarged and lavishly decorated. One of its most remarkable features is undoubtedly the wrought ironwork by local craftsman Blaise Charlut, which is located in the middle of the transept. The cathedral’s 14th-century tympanum depicts the Last Judgment in the most dramatic way in prominent Gothic architecture.
Bordeaux Cathedral is also where Archbishop Bertrand de Goth found out that he had been elected Pope and officially became Pope Clement V, the first to move the Curia from Rome to Avignon. Its also infamous for suppressing the order of the Knights Templar. The cathedral would again see the wedding of a royal family in 1615, this time between King Louis XIII and Queen consort Anne of Austria, following a tradition of fortifying military and political alliances between the Catholic powers of France and Spain with royal marriages.
What is perhaps one of the most iconic bridges in all of France is definitely a must-see for visitors to Bordeaux. Connecting the left and right bank of the city since 1819 but ordered by Napoleon I during the First French Empire, Pont de Pierre–the stone bridge– was the first bridge to cross the mighty Garonne River. Indeed, its construction was a challenging one, as the current is extremely strong at this point in the river; more than 4,000 workers were needed to build it, using an English diving bell to stabilize the pillars. Consequently, Pont de Pierre was actually the only bridge to connect the two banks for nearly 150 years!
The red-stone bridge consists of seventeen spans–the exact number of letters in the name Napoléon Bonaparte–lined with elegant iron light posts; each of the bridge’s pillars is capped by a medallion to honor both the emperor and Bordeaux’s coat of arms. A transport route was created in 2004 to convey the over-sized structural sections of the Airbus A380 airliner from the manufacturer to the headquarters in Toulouse; Pont de Pierre had to be slightly modified to allow the passage of barges, and thus became a new quintessential thing to do in Bordeaux in the process.
Surrounded by the vineyards of Bordeaux, the medieval village of Saint-Emilion is pure eye candy. The picturesque town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, takes its name from a Benedictine monk who—according to local legend—took refuge in a cave here in the eighth century. Centered around a monolithic church that was painstakingly carved from limestone in the 12th century, the village comprises a cluster of cobbled streets lined with historic stone houses, Romanesque ruins, and shops selling Saint-Emilion wines.
Built in the 18th century, Bordeaux’s Grand Theatre is a well-known symbol of French culture. The ornate neoclassical building is used for theatrical and operatic performances and has also served as the location of the French parliament during times of war.
Stretching more than 12 hectares (30 acres) along the banks of the Garonne River, Quinconces Square (Place des Quinconces) is Bordeaux’s largest square. Comprising a vast esplanade flanked by tree-lined walkways and fronted by the grand Monument to the Girondins, it’s among the most important sites of the city’s UNESCO-listed historic center.
More Things to Do in Aquitaine
One of Bordeaux’s most popular attractions is, predictably, also one of the most historically significant: Grosse Cloche. So much so, in fact, that the edifice is heavily featured in the city’s coat of arms. What once was the old Town Hall’s belfry dates back to the medieval times and was built as part of the city’s thick fortifications. It actually consists of two 40-meter-high towers connected by a central structure toward the top, which contains the famous bell and features an 18th-century solar dial. The tower is often referred to as the “golden lion,” a clear reference to the weather vane atop the central dome that represents the English Kingdom back when the Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine married King Henry II of England. Grosse Cloche–literally, the big bell, as it weighs well over 16,500 pounds (7,500 kilos)–was up until quite recently used by city magistrates to announce the start of harvest season, or alternatively, to warn residents of a fire. Rumor has it that locals were so attached to the bell that the king threatened to take it away when a resident misbehaved!
Nowadays, the bell only rings only six times a year, for national holidays and military celebrations.
Founded in the 12th century, but abandoned from the 17th century until after World War II, Commarque Castle (Château de Commarque) is a ruined medieval chateau. Visit to see the ruins and a cave with prehistoric art, as well as caves once used as homes. Participate in games, workshops, and treasure hunts held on school vacations.
Aquitaine’s National Prehistoric Museum (Musée National de Préhistoire) was founded in 1918 by Denis Peyrony on the des Eyzies-de-Tayac commune, in the very heart of the UNESCO Valley of Mankind and prehistoric capital of the world. The site as well as its collections are rich in history. It holds one of France’s most important Paleolithic collections including the first global set of Paleolithic art on engraved or carved blocks.
The museum’s displays enable visitors to see the oldest traces of life left by mankind and to understand the evolution of societies over the last 400 millennia. Objects on display include stone tools, art objects made of bone or ivory, and life-size imitations of prehistoric humans and extinct animals. The museum was expanded in 2004.
Standing more than 360 feet (110 meters) above sea level in Bordeaux, France, Pyla Dune (Dune du Pilat) is the tallest sand dune in Europe. In the summer months, a staircase is constructed to allow visitors to climb the dune—an activity that draws over one million visitors every year.
Located in the very center of Place des Quinconces in Bordeaux, the Girondins Monument (Monument aux Girondins) was elevated in the late 1800s to commemorate the Girondists, a fervent republican political faction consisting of militants originally part of France’s Legislative Assembly, and one of the first group to openly denounce Louis XVI’s reign and the monarchy in general. Their 1793 mass execution, which was caused by their resistance against the rapidly increasing momentum of the revolution, is often considered to be the starting point of the Reign of Terror.
At 54 meters high, the Girondins Monument overlooks one of the city’s busiest squares and is adorned with an intricate bronze statue representing Lady Liberty breaking free of her shackles and gracing Bordeaux with her palm of victory. At the base of the column stands a colossal fountain and two basins, with dramatic bronze sculptures of charging horses, each signifying a different aspect of modern French society. The south-facing side honors the “Triumph of the Republic” and focuses on work, security, power, obligatory education and the victory over ignorance, vice and lies, while the north-facing side is dedicated to peace, fraternity, trade, arts and abundance, ultimately representing the “Triumph of the Concord.”
Bordeaux in southwest France was once a vibrant port city. The port itself was known as the Port of the Moon (Port de la Lune) because it sat on a semi-circular part of the Garonne River. Historically the left bank of the port has been the center of commerce and culture. Throughout the past 2,000 years, the port has played an important role in shaping the city's history and its place as a world city of wine.
When the automobile became more prominent, the historical buildings in this area began to degrade and turn black. The roads were not meant for cars, and traffic jams clogged up the port area. The port's importance declined, and it was eventually moved downstream to the northern suburbs. In the 1990s great efforts were made to clean up the area, including the buildings, and the waterfront is now lined with pedestrian walkways, bicycle paths, shops, and museums. In 2007 the Port of the Moon waterfront was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The converging point of many of the city’s high streets, pedestrianized Place de la Comédie is an inevitable stop on any Bordeaux itinerary. This lively and elegant square dates back to Gallo-Roman times, back when it was still home to the busy forum of Burdigala, and visitors could be momentarily fooled into thinking they've actually traveled back in time thanks to the Grand Théâtre’s exceptional architecture. Designed in the neo-classical style, it features a 12-column Corinthian portico surmounted by statues that represent the nine muses and three goddesses. Nevertheless, itwasn't until the 18th century that Place de la Comédie gained its prestige.
Architect Victor Louis–who also conceived Paris’ Palais Royal and Théâtre Français–wanted Bordeaux to have a temple of the arts that would reflect the city’s newly found grandeur. Grand Théâtre would quickly become one of the most sumptuous theaters across Europe (it was, in fact, the inspiration behind Paris’ lavish Opéra Garnier), and eventually, one of the very few wooden frame opera houses not to have burnt or required extensive rebuilding.
The Grand Théâtre may be most famous for its exceptional interior, but its impressive façade gives Place de la Comédie an enviable allure, which is only enhanced by the presence of the five-star Regent hotel. It may not be Bordeaux’s largest square, but it surely is the most elegant and most romantic, especially after night fall.
The Museum of Aquitaine (Musée d'Aquitaine) has been open since the late 18th century and its collection spans from pre-history to the present day. A section of the Lescaux cave paintings kicks things off; there are also stone-age axes, Gallo-Roman ceramics and glass, and a famous Venus.
There is an ethnographical focus, and the collection evokes the life of Bordeaux throughout its lifespan through domestic objects, photographs, sound recordings and commentaries. English language catalogs are available to help guide you around.
The intricate facade of the Basilica of St. Michael (Basilique St. Michel) in central Bordeaux is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. It took more than 200 years to build, from the end of the 14th century to the end of the 16th century. The freestanding belfry, with its ornate decorations, also draws many visitors.
Also known as Porte des Salinières, the now classified structure that is Porte de Bourgogne has been part of Bordeaux’s cityscape since 1750. Built in the elegant classic style and imagined by architect André Portier, it was the starting point of the main road leading to Paris at the time, now known as Cours Victor Hugo.
Porte de Bourgogne vaguely resembles Arc de Triomphe in Paris and Titus Arch in Rome, and was actually extremely modern upon its construction. It overlooks a half-moon shaped park and series of classic facades along the Garonne River. The complete absence of ornaments gives the arch a somewhat stern allure, which only enhances its height and massive stones. While Bordeaux’s fortifications aren’t as obvious today as they were back around the Middle Ages, Porte de Bourgogne symbolizes their presence and the considerable part they played in protecting the city. Although its immediate surroundings have changed quite dramatically (it now faces one of Bordeaux’s main thoroughfares and is a major artery in the city’s mass transit system), the Porte still maintains its full grandeur and doesn't fail to impress visitors.
Although it was technically built outside the city walls in medieval times, Place Gambetta is now the bustling center of Bordeaux, both figuratively and literally (the square is, technically, the kilometer zero milestone of Bordeaux, from which all distances are calculated).
Place Gambetta is also home to one of the most significant architectural ensembles of the city. Ordered by city administrator Louis-Urbain Aubert in 1746 as part of his embellishment program, the square features splendidly harmonious facades in the Louis XV style designed by Nicolas Portier. It is mainly characterized by its mansard roofs, elegant houses and arched ground floors that conceal très chic shopping arcades. The square was initially named Place Dauphin to commemorate the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, but in light of the French Revolution, it naturally changed its name to Place Nationale. It took the name Place Gambetta in 1883 after politician Léon Gambetta, home secretary of France, who temporarily established the III Republic government in Bordeaux during the Prussian siege of Paris.
Other than being an important hub for Bordeaux’s mass transit and an architectural gem, Place Gambetta is also a luxuriant garden that acts as the perfect break for shoppers, locals and tourists alike. Lavish landscaping and peaceful fountains make for an appealing pause in the shade.
The Bordeaux Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux) is in itself quite beautiful, being housed in the 18th century Hôtel de Ville (Palais Rohan) and set in a park. It was instituted by Napoleon's decree in 1801.
The museum's collection ranges from the 15th century to contemporary works, but its specialty is Flemish and Dutch work from the 17th century, with works by Rubens providing the highlight. There is also a strong Italian emphasis, with pieces by Titian, Veronese and Perugia.
Other artists featured are Bonnard, Matisse, Delacroix and Redon.
Often regarded as one of the world’s greatest and most expensive Bordeaux wines, Château Mouton Rothschild requires very little presentation. The Rothschild family was famous throughout Europe for its financial dealings and interest in philanthropy and wines. The estate was acquired in the early 1800s and soon started to make wine, but it remained largely underrated as Bordeaux wasn’t considered a wine region back then. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Château Mouton Rothschild gained notoriety, thanks to the committed and relentless work of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, whose decisions would not only forever change the Rothschild estate but also the wine industry itself.
The Rothschild estate comprises many attractions, including the vineyards, the 100-meter long Great Barrel Hall, the classical Château, a 120,000-bottle underground cellar, and a Museum of Wine in Art (with an exclusive collection of wine paraphernalia and works of art dating back from the 17th century).
Opened in 2008 in the historic Chatrons district of Bordeaux, the Bordeaux Wine and Trade Museum (Musée du Vin et du Négoce de Bordeaux) is a must for anyone interested in learning more about the history of the wine trade in France from the Middles Ages to the present day.
Located in what was traditionally the wine merchants quarter of the city, the museum presents artifacts, models and two-dimensional realizations designed to explain the Bordeaux wine trade system. It also tells the stories of the great wine merchant families of the 18th and 19th centuries through documents and personal testimonies. The museum also attempts to educate visitors about the various classifications of wine and different ageing processes used in the local cellars. Artifacts, documents and other enactments provide insight about the Port of Bordeaux and its wine exports. Finally, visitors can sample a couple wines and learn from the experts how to differentiate between certain grape varieties.
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