All great cities sit on river banks, and the very great city of Bordeaux is no exception to this rule. From the time of the Romans onwards, this was the harbor along the river Garonne that brought Bordeaux its wealth and importance with the huge trade with the rest of the world.
After the departure of the Romans, the center shifted away from the quays to the district just behind, with an entrance to the port leading off the area known as Saint Pierre. This was the heart of the city, getting its name from Saint Pierre or Saint Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. In the 12th century, the city expanded with the growth of trade and the skilled artisans who arrived to serve the inhabitants.
St Pierre church was built in the 15th and 16th centuries on the site of the old Gallo-roman port, at that time the center of the old town. Bordeaux prospered then changed hugely in the 18th century when the medieval walls separating the Saint Pierre district from the river and the port were torn down.
It opened up the city in the golden era of neo-classical architecture and Bordeaux became a place of gracious, beautifully proportioned buildings of warm yellow stone. Today the Saint Pierre quarter is still full of buildings from this great architectural era which you can easily cover on a self-guided walking tour.
Walk Through the Past
Start at the Place de la Bourse, which opens out onto the river and splash through the miroir d’eau, a mirror of water that reflects the glorious Palace behind. Then walk up the little rue Fernand Philippart (the old rue Royale) past the house of the merchant Castagnet. Number 16 was built in 1760 to show off Castagnet’s riches. At the end of the street, you come to the Place du Parlement. The Place itself is an architectural delight with a fountain at its center.
Take the Rue Parlement Ste Catherine past no 11 where Bordeaux’s first tycoon, Nicolas Beaujon, was born in 1718. Walk back then down the Rue du Parlement to the church of St Pierre where there’s an organic market in the Place every Thursday.
This is a small but lovely part of Bordeaux. Full of bistros, bars, and individual shops, this gives you a real sense of the old city. The Place itself is an architectural delight with a fountain at its center.
The narrow winding streets once housed the skilled artisans who arrived to set up their businesses and serve the increasingly wealthy merchants and ship owners. Rue des Argentiers was full of goldsmiths, rue des Bahutiers housed men making wooden chests used for storage and transport; candlemakers worked in the rue des Trois Chandeliers, and grain was stored in the rue du Chai des Farines.
At the end of these little streets, you come to the 35-meter tall Porte Cailhau, built in 1494 to commemorate the victory of Charles VIII over the Italians at Fornovo and to mark the entrance between the city and the river. On the riverside there’s a little niche with a lintel above it and a notice telling you that Charles VIII died in 1498 from walking too quickly into just such a lintel.
It seems a sad end for Charles the ‘Affable’. Go inside the tower for the exhibition showing you the tools and materials used to build the city and an audiovisual display of the world of the stone masons, the unsung heroes of these wonderful building. From here you get a wonderful view of the oldest bridge in Bordeaux, the Pont de Pierre.
The Bordeaux Tourism Office welcomes you for morning walking tours of the city featuring the facades of the major monuments, with opportunities to go inside and visit part of the interior. They also offer tours in a 2CV, tours to the wine country, and tours by boat. To give you a taste, here are a few of the many and varied tours available. Bordeaux makes a great center for touring the French Atlantic Coast. Here are a few suggestions of excursions from Bordeaux: