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.
Home to Bordeaux’s former stock exchange and a world-famous water feature, Bordeaux’s Place de la Bourse combines ancient and modern influences to create a welcoming public square.
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.
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.
Connecting the left and right bank of the city since 1819, Pont de Pierre was the first bridge to cross the mighty Garonne River. Its construction was challenging as the river’s current is extremely strong, and it took more than 4,000 workers to construct. Pont de Pierre was the only bridge to connect the two banks for nearly 150 years.
Built in the 13th century, the Bordeaux Cathedral (Cathédrale St. André is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, celebrated for its role in the religious and cultural development of Bordeaux. Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII here. Her wealth benefited both the city and the cathedral, which was subsequently enlarged and lavishly decorated.
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.
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.
Bordeaux’s original port is known as the Port of the Moon 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 and though it saw some decline after the invention of the automobile, today it’s a fun, trendy place to soak in local culture.
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.
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.
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.
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 republican political faction that was one of the first group to openly denounce Louis XVI’s reign and the monarchy in general.
Located in the center of medieval Bordeaux, the Bordeaux Museum of Fine Arts is home to one of France’s largest collections of art outside Paris. The museum was established in 1801 on order by Napoleon to bring art back to the people after works were confiscated during the French Revolution. The museum houses an impressive collection of Italian, Flemish, and French art.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 pilgrimage route called Camino di Santiago (sometimes translated as Way of St. James) stretches across Europe into northern Spain and down to Santiago di Compostela. This sacred path has been followed since medieval times by faithful Christians who seek to worship at the tomb of St. James, as well as other hikers who are inspired by the spiritual “way.”
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