Bordeaux Discoveries

The majority of cities in  Europe can boast a  cathedral, a fortress or two, some quarters that retain a quaint historic appearance and at least one showcase public park and they are doubtless all worth visiting. But it is the small, obscure and sometimes trivial features of a city that often linger longest in the memory  and make a visit special. Bordeaux has most of those standard attractions but it also has many less obvious curiosities that receive little promotion and sometimes are not easy to track down. A traveller who is looking for a less 'mainstream' view of Bordeaux might like to pick up the standard issue tourism map from the city centre tourism office (100 metres from the Grand Theatre) and ask the staff behind the counter to pinpoint the location of the following:

Rue Notre Dame in the Chartrons district

This, in addition to hosting a range of antique and bygones shops, has one of the least 'updated' cafe/bars in all of Bordeaux. To set foot inside is to take a step back into the 1940's or possibly one or two decades earlier. The decor is so dated that it  could be used as a  mood board by any designer styling  retro interiors for loft apartments. Such establishments rarely seem to survive their founding proprietors and so this piece of social history is unlikely to be available to future generations of visitors. An aperitif here will cost you considerably less than at one of the cool riverside bars and when you next watch an old monochrome french movie it is likely to evoke a real sense of deja-vu.

Les Bassins a Flot at the end of Bordeaux's now smart riverside promenade:

This neighbourhood has yet to receive the regeneration treatment that is endemic to all modern city's and here it is still possible to glimpse remnants of the busy commercial port that migrated downstream as ships grew in size and needed deeper water under their keels.  But while the basins can provide a pleasant stroll for those with a taste for small boats and colourful flotsam it is the massive concrete structure in the Northwest corner that is the piece de resistance. Military historians appreciate the importance of the extended battle that took place during the 2nd World War for  control of the Atlantic but it was not a battlefield site that provided any monuments. The somberly brutal  U-boat pens that loom over the current fleet of pleasure craft are a stark reminder of how the submarines that they sheltered came close to delivering a final victory to Nazi Germany. Much of the interior is now occupied by a gallery which, when open for exhibitions, is an atmospheric  (sometimes spooky) visit regardless of the culture on display.

The Jardins Public en route to the city centre

Here  there is a far less gloomy example of violent confrontation - a Punch and Judy Show or  'spectacles des Guignols Guérin'  This is of course an entertainment for children but well behaved adults are also admitted. During the school holidays performances are every day and otherwise on Wednesdays and weekends. While the dialogue may be lost on those, like the author, with limited french it is still easy to follow as the storyline would be as easily recognised at an English seaside or a park in Florence. If refreshments are required after the villains have been booed and chased off-stage, on the other side of the park the Orangerie serves cold drinks. These can be consumed while lazing on wooden loungers and people, (and poodle) watching (the poodles are the ones with the better taste in diamante accessories).

The Tour Pey Berland in the heart of the city

If you have  already toured several european cities you may be forgiven for feeling that you have saluted enough ancient architecture and should be spared another litany of neo-gothic/ byzantine/ romaneque/ alterpiece/ bones of St Obscure/stained glass pilgrimage/ visit to crypt charged extra. A smart compromise is to skip the cathedral's interior in favour of its bell tower - the Tour Pey Berland. Built detached from the main structure for fear that bell ringing might lead to that building being weakened the interior of the tower can be climbed to reach a gallery offering uninterrupted views of Bordeaux's rooftops. The charge is just a few euros so don't forget to take your camera with you to get those snaps that, with a little photo-shopping, will make stunning prints. Less frequently open, but with an equally photogenic viewpoint is the bell tower of  St Michel (locals know it  as "La Fleiche").  This towers above the riverside frontages in that down-at-heel district of the city where sweet mint tea is the customary drink and couscous or tajines are the local cuisine

The Capucin Market beyond St Michel

Here the religion is food - sauteed, grilled, steamed, baked, creamed, chilled, roasted, smoked, marinated, squeezed, stuffed, caramelised, shredded, poached , minced, salted, diced, flambeed ,....  and the absolute best time to visit this shrine to gastronomy is before 10am on a Sunday morning for a breakfast of oysters and white wine. Of course if that is not possible then on any morning a coffee and croissant at either of the booths inside is a chance to breathe the aromas and feast with your eyes on the produce and provender. If you see mi-cuit Agen prunes on any of the stalls buy some without hesitation. These are prunes like no others.

An invitation to explore 

This list does not scratch the surface.These five are just a sample of Bordeaux's more off-beat pleasures. There is not time  to include the little back street theatres such as the Boite de Jouets:  the cider maker who has the cheek to press and sell his wares from the heart of the wine merchant's district;  the co-operative atelier and arts space that is the 'Garage Moderne', the lido that operates on the lake at the end of the  the Line C tram route (destination Les Aubiers); the auctions (Encheres ) held at Quai de Chartrons or Rue des Cordeliers     whose regular sales turn up all manner of treasure trove;  'the palace' that was never a palace; the apartment block on Rue St Francois that in the 1850s already offered gas lighting and elevators.

As these pages are an open, user-edited, publication  those fortunate enough to explore the city for themselves can add their own discoveries. Happy hunting.