Located alongside the Garonne River, just at the beginning of the Gironde Estuary, Bordeaux is a historic French city famed for its beautiful chateaux and world class wine. Bordeaux is one of the largest cities in Southwest France, and at various points in its history was second only to Paris in size and prosperity, being known historically as the ‘Port de la Lune’, or ‘Port of the Moon’, owing to its distinctive crescent shaped harbour. Travelers and wine lovers alike can enjoy its stunning historic architecture and landmarks, with styles ranging from gothic and baroque, to neoclassical and modern. Bordeaux’s long prosperity has shaped the geography of the city, with over 40 percent of the city’s urban area inscribed as UNESCO’s largest heritage listed cityscape. Bordeaux’s reputation as a wine region is one of the best known facts about the city, with the quintessential Bordeaux vineyard occupying a position in French wine culture. The city even holds the unofficial title of France‘s wine capital, with over 65 appellations in the region, and a unique museum called ‘La Cité du Vin‘, dedicated to the city’s heritage as a wine producer dating all the way back to the Roman era.
Early settlement around the Bordeaux region of Southwest France can be traced back as early as the 5th century BC, where local Celtic tribes cultivated the region for wine production, which they then traded with other neighbouring groups. Later, following the conquest of Gaul by the Roman Empire, the city grew in importance as the capital of the Imperial Roman province of Aquitaine. ‘Burdigala’ as it was known, prospered under early Roman rule, though as the empire split and declined, the city saw a succession of occupations that ultimately destroyed any chances of stability for some time to come. In the subsequent centuries, Bordeaux came under the rule of the Merovingian dynasty, some of whom are still buried in Bordeaux’s Basilica of Saint Severinus, though the area was yet to recover to the prosperity it saw in the Roman Era. Stability was made further difficult during this time as Viking raids up the Gironde Estuary, and along the Garonne River saw the city plundered.
Bordeaux’s next major chapter of history began with the accession of the Plantagenet dynasty to the English throne in 1152, following Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. At this time, Europe’s complex feudal inheritance systems, combined with no small degree of luck, led to the duchy of Aquitaine, as well as Normandy and Anjou, coming under the de jure control of the English crown. This created a contiguous domain ranging from the Pyrenees to Scotland, known later as the Angevin Empire. The Angevin Empire was the most powerful European state in its time, and the era of Plantagenet rule was very kind to the Aquitanian region. The lifting of taxation and tariffs on trade allowed for wine imports to increase to England, whilst essential imports such as cloth and wheat became substantially cheaper. Whilst the Angevin Empire lost much of its French holdings following the Death of Henry II, Bordeaux and the ‘Gascony’ region remained under English control until the French finally annexed these lands in 1453, bringing to an end of the 100 years war.
Following the reintegration of Bordeaux into France, the city retained a level of autonomy for roughly a century. However, as time progressed, the trend of Monarchical absolutism saw much of this diminished. The 17th century in particular saw upheavals all over France, as the French wars of religion saw Catholic and Protestant forces fight to a standstill on numerous occasions. By the time of the 18th century, Bordeaux was prospering once more, becoming incredibly wealthy as triangular trade, coupled with its commercial location along the route between Spain and Britain, allowed the city to prosper. The city’s prosperity continued to increase in the following centuries, with the 19th in particular seeing the apogee of its power. During this time period, Bordeaux came to be France‘s largest trading port, as well as Europe’s second busiest after London. Here, many of Europe’s New World goods such as coffee, cocoa, sugar, and cotton came into port. It is also from this period that Bordeaux’s large scale urbanisation took place, with much of its distinctive architecture, such as the immense Place des Quinconces being constructed at this time. In the 20th century, Bordeaux mostly escaped much of the destruction brought on by the world wars, serving on multiple occasions as the seat of French government in lieu of the more exposed Paris, the only visible legacy of this time lies with the Italian submarine base, constructed during the war to assist Germany with Atlantic submarine warfare.
France‘s Wine Capital
Of course, no tour of Bordeaux would be complete without exploring what makes the city so famous, its wine. Wine tourism is one of the main attractions in the region, with Bordeaux wine renown the world over as some of the best, and sometimes the more expensive. Bordeaux is known for both its white, and red wine varieties, with grapes such as Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc being the more common white varieties, while Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec are the more common red grapes grown in the region. Bordeaux wine is often characterised by their distinctive blends, the proportions of which give the Bordeaux Chateaux their distinctive flavour. Red blends often feature a ratio of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc, and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, with the final part changing depending on which grape was used for the main body. The whites on the other hand typically feature an 80% Sémillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc blend, though of course with both types of wine there is a huge amount of variation both in the types of grape used, and the soil and growth conditions. There are a number of distinct wine classifications that ascribe quality and grade to Bordeaux wine, being determined by which part of the region the vineyard is in, for those interested in learning more about the intricacies of wine tasting, a wine tour is a great way to learn from some of the experts. Heading out to some of the vineyards directly can also make for a great tasting experience, just be sure to find out beforehand which vineyards have this on offer.
Travelling to Bordeaux
The Bordeaux region is rich in both its built, and natural heritage, leaving travellers spoiled for choice on a tour of Bordeaux. Starting in Bordeaux city is the best way to situate oneself before embarking on a food tour, or wine tour in the surrounding region. Dotted across the city are landmarks and edifices that display the city’s heritage dating all the way back to its Roman origins. On this note you may want to start with the Palais Gallien in downtown, here you can find the ruins of an ancient Roman Amphitheatre, the only one of its kind in the Aquitanian region, and impressive despite dating back to the 3rd century AD. Nearby on the west side of the Pont de Pierre are some of the city’s most recognisable landmarks, making the downtown area the perfect place for a walking tour. One of the most recognisable landmarks here is the famous Place de la Bourse, built in the 18th century, just as the city was entering its golden age, it features a distinctive neoclassical design that characterised French architecture at the time. Also built around this time is the nearby Grand Theatre de Bordeaux, with its imposing Corinthian column façade marking it out. Just to the north you can find Europe’s largest square, the Place des Quinconces, which features two 21m columns symbolising commerce and navigation, with ornately decorated marble statues flaking its sides. Several famous churches can be found around here as well, including the Bordeaux Cathedral (Cathedral of Saint Michael), the Cathedral of St. Michael, and the Basilica of St. Severinus. The first two cathedrals both feature distinctive gothic architecture, and date to around the 14th-15th century, while St. Severinus is more medieval in style and dates back to the 11th. The site of St. Severinus is older still, having been used as a site of Christian worship since the 3rd century AD.
For those interested in delving deeper into the region’s history, Bordeaux’s heritage is well represented across the city. This can be seen in the abundance of museums, exploring French art, culture, and of course wine. For art lovers, a trip to the fine arts museum can see works from famous artists such as Renoir, Matisse, and Picasso, and for those interested in history, the Aquitaine Museum showcases the regions history and legacy, featuring exhibitions on the city’s history as a trading port, as well as the darker legacy of Triangular trade. Of course no collection of museums in the region would be complete without an homage to wine, and to this end the new Cité du Vin museum was created. Featuring a stunning modern design, 10 levels, and a panoramic view of the city, this museum is devoted to everything wine, and is a must see on a tour to Bordeaux. For those looking further afield, a day trip out of the city can offer several unique experiences. To the southwest of the city lies the seaside resort town of Arcachon, here you can find pristine white sand beaches stretching along the coast, perfect to unwind after a long trip of wine tasting. Alternatively, to the north you can explore the town of Blaye, here you can find a well preserved 17th century citadel, which historically was used to defend the Gironde estuary from attackers. One of the best way to take in all of Bordeaux’s sights and amazing history is with a small group tour, Odyssey specialises in this kind of tour, offering a tailored and familiar guided tour, ideal for the discerning or senior traveller.
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