I came to Bordeaux for the wine, I left with more perspective. It was definitely not what I was expecting, but as usual, that is a good thing.
I arrived in Bordeaux on Easter Sunday and most of the city was closed down. It stayed closed until Tuesday. That’s the thing about long term travel, you can really lose track of time – I actually forgot about Easter.
Arriving at the Gare St Jean was a bit of a shock after Paris. The Paris train stations were beautifully up kept, the southern part of Bordeaux was smelly, dirty and run down. I had a homeless guy come up to me while I was trying to figure out the ticket machine, and he wouldn’t leave until I gave him some. It’s not a big deal, but it was a bit of a let down after Paris, where I would expect it more. After reading about what a pretty town Bordeaux was, with lovely architecture, I was a bit disappointed. I expected to love all of France, but Bordeaux and I were just not able to connect. Perhaps after the high of Paris, anything would be a let down? Or another lesson of not having expectations?
My AirBnB was about 20 mins walk south of the downtown core and it actually took until my 3rd day there for me to make it as far as downtown. Which was actually a good thing, because the downtown core was basically just buildings and long roads with nothing else. There was a beautiful big park that I eventually made my way too, as well. But on my first day I found the tourist office and the beautiful walk along the canal, rue St Catherine’s, the pedestrian zone. That was all I really needed at the beginning. I booked a wine tour around St Emilion on my second day and learned all about the wines of Bordeaux. I wandered around, I found a bakery with the best pain-au-chocolate I have ever had and good coffee. I had even more cheese and wine and bread. I did not let my disappointment get me down!
It took me a few days to appreciate Bordeaux. I thought I was just coming for the wine and the and the architecture but what made the biggest impression on me was the Musee D’Aquitaine, the history of Bordeaux. I love museums, of course, because I love history and this one definitely didn’t disappoint. It started with the pre-history of the region showing things like the first signs of our ancestors in the area, art and hunting tools. There was a beautiful “Venus” carved into walls, stones and other tools. The museum takes you through the evolution of humans in that particular region, from cave dwellers all the way to recent history. I was in heaven. I absolutely love sculpture and I studied a bit of pre-history and archaeology. I loved the layout of the museum, showing the history beneath our feet: the ancient artifacts, roman statues, skulls from neanderthals that walked this land. I was swept up in the beauty of the past, literally walking through history so I continued on from Roman times, upstairs to more recent times, and my romantic view of the past took another blow.
Bordeaux used to be a major port town of France, so trade was a big part of its history. Trade of goods, and as it turns out, also the trade of people. Otherwise known as the slave trade. A big part of the second floor was dedicated to this particular history. The museum documented the french slave trade with honesty, showing its brutality and I think a necessary balance of showing the staggering arrogance of the slavers and the terror and confusion of the kidnapped & enslaved. Portions of journals and remembrances from both sides are found throughout the exhibit. I particularly appreciated the juxtaposition of the slavers descriptions of the people they kidnapped as savages and the kidnapped descriptions of the kidnappers as savages.
It was a difficult exhibition to get through. Reading about people’s pain, seeing the ship manifests showing how many human beings they could cram into a hold, imagining what those conditions must have been like. There were accounts of what it was like being sold at auction, being beaten, pictures of women standing chained to each other by the neck. They ended the exhibition with the end of the French slave trade, with stories of the enslaved who became free, of those who died fighting for it. They had pictures of people from African descent and quotes about humanity and freedom. It was moving and a perfect end to the exhibition.
It seems to me that each time I try to fall into the romanticism of the past I get a timely and necessary slap of reality. Paris was all beauty and history and romance. Bordeaux was dirtier, not as beautiful, and gave me a dose of necessary reality. All of it seemed to be in perfect opposition to my experiences in Paris. The area I stayed in was full of homeless people and drug addicts, the roads and the buildings were run down, full of garbage and smelt of urine. It felt a little closer to the downtown east side that any part of Paris I visited (except maybe near the Moulin Rouge). My welcome to Bordeaux was pretty much the polar opposite of my welcome to Paris. And then after soaking in all the beautiful history of Paris, I was reminded of why history was not everything I think. It way more difficult, painful, unjust and gray than I tend to think when imagining the Belle Epoque or pretending I’m having coffee with Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald in a cafe in Paris. So Bordeaux was a good touchstone. And of course great for wine!