Highlights of Bordeaux

Forget everything you might have heard about Bordeaux being grimy and run down. Since several years ago, that image is a thing of the past. On my latest visit to the city on the banks of the Garonne, I could see for myself what a bit (or rather a lot) of sandblasting and tons of fresh paint can do to turn Cinderella into a shining beauty. Add to this miles of pedestrian shopping streets, a cable and noise free tram, green zones and parks, not to mention delightful river cruises and you have a city worth visiting for more than just a few hours, mostly spent at wine tastings.

With over 300 historical 17th and 18th century buildings (only Paris has more) Bordeaux is a paradise for history and architecture fans like myself.

Sadly, I only had half a day but it was enough to get am impression of the highlights which now make Bordeaux so attractive to locals and tourists alike.

Rather than exploring on my own, as I usually like to do and due to the limited time, I went with a tour guide. Great choice! The delightful Bruno Beurrier who likes to be addressed as Mr. Butterdish ( www.bcommebordeaux.com) was full of details and stories and certainly knew how to show as around.

Meet Bruno Butterdish

Meet Bruno Butterdish

Starting point was the elegant Grand Theatre on Place de la Comedie. Opened in 1780 the building was designed as a temple to art by Victor Louis.

teatre

Prevailing performances are and have always been ballet, but it also served as an opera house. In 1991, the interior was restored to its original colors of gold and blue and the result is breath taking. Thanks to Bruno, we had the chance to sneak into one of the balconies and get a glimpse of the rehearsal to a very modern ballet version of The Tempest. I would have loved to see the performance but, sadly, there was no time.

ceiling

gallery

seats

Opposite is the equally grandiose and restored Grand Hotel with a restaurant run by Gordon Ramsey on the ground floor.

grandhotel

Place de la Comedie marks one end of the mile long Rue Saint Catherine, a pedestrian shopping street lined by countless shops from designer to economic. I could escape for a moment to look at librairie mollat, a 120 year old massive bookshop where I could habr browsed for hours.

Bookshop Mollat

Bookshop Mollat

Meandering through the historical center in the direction of the river, Bruno stopped at one remaining black wall to point out to us the before and after of Bordeaux’s face lift.

We passed the huge Cathedral of St. Andre dating from the 11th century although the majority of the construction and looming towers are from the 14th and 15th century. In the setting sun of the afternoon, the sandstone just glowed.

cathedral

Bordeaux also features some striking  examples of modern architecture which of course didn’t need any sandblasting. One is Europe’s longest vertical lift  bridge, Pont Chaban-Delmas which spans the Garonne.

Vertical lift bridge

Vertical lift bridge

Another, surprisingly, the Court of 1st Instance, a cone shaped courthouse with courtroom located in pods.

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And, finally, Bordeaux’s latest attraction: La Cite du Vin, a museum cum amusement park  which only opened this year.

Cite du Vin

Cite du Vin

Bruno timed his tour perfectly, because as night fell, we came to the highlight of highlights: Place de la Bourse and the water mirror in front.

Seeing the beautifully illuminated historical buildings arranged in a semi circle reflected in the water is pure magic.

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What I missed out on are the several river cruises available, starting from Bordeaux. From just a short pleasure trip to longer ones into the vineyards of surrounding Acquitaine and further afield, they would be another highlight to add to the list.

For further information please consult: http://bordeaux-river-cruise.com/

One thing is for sure: I’ll return with more time to enjoy the things I had to miss and certainly to attend a ballet performance in the Grand Theatre.

 

La Cite du Vin/Bordeaux

Come with me on a tour of Bordeaux’s brand new landmark: La Cite du Vin. The only thing which surprised me was that it took so long to come into being. Bordeaux is after all the capital of wine and THE appropriate location for an outstanding wine museum.

Well, here it is, opened only this year. La Cite du Vin  is much more than a museum, it’s also an indoor amusement park and an architectural masterpiece. Designed by Anouk Legendre and Nicolas Desmazieres, the 55m high building rises into the sky close to the river Garonne. The shape alone is food for discussion.

cite

To me, frankly, it looks like a boot whereas it is supposed to represent a decanter or wine glass which no doubt is more appropriate.

Be prepared for high tech and..darkness. I am a great museum fan, but, I’ll say so right from the start, this is not my favorite. But, go and judge for yourself.

The entrance

The entrance

The huge structure spreads over 10 levels and you follow the parcours permanent right to the top. Along the way you learn everything there is to know about wine. History, cultivation, commerce, transport, you name it, you will find it.

At the entrance you are provided with massive earphones and a hand held gadget because interactive is the key word of this museum. Huge screens tell stories whilst an audio guide whispers into your ear. The screens, displays and images are the reason why this place is so very dark, something that made me feel claustrophobic. Everybody shuffles around with their earphones and gadget, it resembles zombie central. Nobody can talk to anybody else and discuss the exhibits and you can’t ask any questions either because an audiotape doesn’t answer.

I liked the mural about ancient wine cultivation and the bottles, encrusted with shells, recovered from the sea.

bottle

mural

screens

wines

At the ground floor there  are also shops where you can buy wine and a Café. To enjoy this kind of museum cum amusement park you have to be a fan of high tech, otherwise you might run outside after just 40 minutes as I did, to let me eye rest on the waters of the Garonne and enjoy the sunshine after all that darkness.

For quite a detailed guide please consult: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/photo-essays/2016-02-25/bordeaux-s-81-million-cite-du-vin-aims-to-be-the-guggenheim-of-wine

Apart from the eye catching shape of the building, it has, in my opinion, nothing in common with the Sydney Opera House or the Guggenheim in Bilbao to which it is compared, both of which  I have visited.

 

Via del Portico – Sagunt

Approaching Sagunt coming from Valencia you can’t miss the awesome sight of the massive castle on top of the hill dominating the city. It stretchesfor about 1km in length, plenty to walk around and explore. Below it on the same hill are other historical sites like the Roman Theatre, the Forum and, near the bottom, the Jewish quarter.

Sagunt castle

Sagunt castle

Roman Theatre

Roman Theatre

Entrance to La Juderia

Entrance to La Juderia

Before undertaking the steep hike up the hill, I went to see a fascinating discovery in the city center itself. Via del Portico adjacent to Plaza Antiga Moreria was the main approach road to Sagunt in Roman times. The perfectly straight road was covered by rubble and layers of other buildings, most recently a football field, until it was discovered when modern apartment and office buildings were constructed on top.

roadbest

Excavations revealed a massive area with the well preserved road, bordered by pillars which once supported a roofed arcade with shops and houses. Canalization is clearly visible as are the imprints of carts which drove along on their way to the prosperous Roman city.

The remains of other houses, side roads , cisterns and even discarded building material and lead pipes give an impression of what it looked like so many centuries ago.

pilars

houses

Discarded Roman bricks

Discarded Roman bricks

Lead pipes

Lead pipes

I had the privilege of a private guided tour by Carmen Antoni Balazan, an archaeologist who now looks after the museum/exhibition and was involved in the excavations. She told me that it wasn’t clear if this access road was a part of the famous Via Augusta which led from Rome to Cadiz but it’s possible.

The exhibition is impressive, because the road and houses are displayed beneath the black pillars which are the foundation of the building which was constructed above. In interesting combination of ancient and modern architecture.

To see this you must make an appointment at the nearby tourist office in Plaza Cronista Chabret.Admission is €1.

 

A different kind of history in the Port of Sagunt

When I decided to visit Sagunt, I wanted to follow ancient history. To see the site of the famous siege of Sagunt, Hannibal versus the Romans, the all important Second Punic War, the castle on top of the hill, the Roman forum and theatre.

Castle of Sagunt

Castle of Sagunt

Roman theatre

Roman theatre

I did all that, but what surprised me when I made my way to the Port of Sagunt was that there are remarkable structures and buildings related to a much more recent past. The Industrial Revolution and witnesses to the steel making industry in Sagunt which began to flourish in the 19th century and contributed to economic growth.

Alas, such wealth was short lived. The last steel ovens closed in 1984. I took the bus from Sagunt railway station and, at the driver’s advice, got off at the market to see what is known as Horno Alto. By the way, the market was in full swing and is enormous, but I didn’t stop because it’s quite a hike to reach this remarkable structure.

Horno Alto no.2

Horno Alto no.2

iron

It’s a restored 64 meters high steel oven which you can visit and which is dramatically illuminated at night. It was just me and two American tourists,  who exclaimed in awe:  “looks like a space ship”. It does, when you are standing at the bottom it’s just huge.

The Port of Sagunt has many more streets and parts which remind you of the industrial times. The barrio de los obreros is one and next to the Horno, now derelict warehouses. The atmosphere is eerie and impressive at the same time.

warehouse

From the Horno Alto it is another long hike along the Avenida del Mediterraneo to reach the beaches. It’s well worth the effort, because the beaches are fantastic. Playa Almadra, Playa Corinto and Playa Malvarrosa to name but a few cover a total of 10km. White, sandy with dunes and interesting vegetation you should bring swimwear for a dip in the crystalline waters when making a trip to the port of Sagunt.

beach

canet

plants

Even in the height of summer you will be able to find a quiet spot, they are just so vast. Cafes, restaurants and the occasional chiringuitos line the promenade.This side trip is an absolute must when visiting Sagunt.

bar

El Greco’s Toledo

Dominikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco, was born in 1541 on the Greek island of Crete. He started out as a painter of icons, then moved on to Venice where he became acquainted with the works of Tintoretto and Tizian.

It’s unknown how and when he came to Toledo, but it’s in this city where he created his best known works and where he lived until his death in 1614.

My recent visit to Toledo had several purposes and aspects, but on of them was, of course, to see the great master’s works, home and museum. 2014 put El Greco and Toledo in the spot light because of the 400th anniversary of his death and many events, the traces of which persist today, were held in Toledo.

I was always fascinated by the unique style of his portraits. The elongated, serious faces are instantly recognizable. El Greco painted mostly religious scenes and, in Toledo, finally got much coveted and needed commissions to create paintings for several churches and the cathedral.

He also made a name for himself with the aforementioned portraits. What he did little was paint landscapes. One of them is the View of Toledo, which creates a dark and even menacing image of the city.

320px-El_Greco_View_of_Toledo

Naturally, having seen the painting, although only in reproductions, I was curious to find out how and if the reality differs from the image created by El Greco.

It does. The two most famous landmarks of Toledo, Alcazar and Cathedral are not in their real place. The river Tajo meanders in a different way and, most surprisingly, the city walls are missing. Why that is, is anyone’s guess but it’s interesting to compare an artist’s impression with reality. The painting is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, not in Toledo.

I made my way to the modern El Greco museum with a sculpture of the artist in front and lovely gardens inside.

grecomus

garden

elgreco

El Greco, who cherished a rather lavish lifestyle, rented rooms in the Palais of Marques de Villena close by. His famous work The Funeral of Count Orgaz hangs in the church of Santo Tome for which it was created.

220px-El_Greco_-_The_Burial_of_the_Count_of_Orgaz

You can practically go from one church to the next in Toledo and find creations by El Greco in many. Despite finally making a living from his work and a name for himself, he failed to get commissions from King Philipp II, although he tried very hard. He died leaving huge debts.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that his originality and superb craftsmanship were really appreciated and Expressionists were influenced by him.