Looking over Granada

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bewitching Bordeaux

When I made my way to Paris it was after a brief stint in Bordeaux, my first taste of France. The city was beautifully decorated in Christmas spirit. A large Christmas market was being constructed. Large planks of painted green plywood lay on the ground next to a pile of carpenter’s tools. Busy workers shouted at each other in heavy French accents trying to accomplish all they could before the stars and moon became insufficient light. Tinsel and other shiny objects were strewn across populated streets, and the smell of cider cast a spicy aroma through the air. Yellow and white ornamental stars shone bright in trees that encompassed a small park. In the center of the park a pond surrounded a fountain with heavy greenery praising a statue. Smitten couples swaggered across a low wooden bridge and others whizzed by on their bicycles. The night was busy, but not enough to deny the lustful claws of Bordeaux. 
Cathedral Saint-Andre
People were friendly and eager to know my story; where I was from and why I was there, completely contradicting the pompous French stereotypes. Whenever I told them I was from San Francisco their eyes lit up with a curious fascination. When I told them I was close to Sonoma County, the Wine County, they understood why I had stopped through; to pay my respects. Bordeaux is the wine mecca of Western France with almost 300,000 acres of vineyards. They produce red and white blends that are infamous around the world. I wasn’t passing through the country without savoring a glass of big, bold Bordeaux, in Bordeaux. I enjoyed my glass in a plaza admiring the Bordeaux Cathedral, Saint-Andre, resurrected in 1906 by Pope Urban II. In between drags of a cigarette, I arched my neck to contemplate the brilliance of the Tour Pey-Berland, a beautiful and intricate bell tower constructed for the archbishop in 1440. Perhaps the most fascinating observation was the people surrounding me. Bums were scouring the plaza, asking for spare smokes and change (though nobody seemed to notice or care). People danced frantically with conversation, holding a smoke in one hand and a wine glass in the other. It was midday, and again the streets seemed bustling with a subtle contradiction of peace.    
Bordeaux oozes romance and quickly became one of my favorite cities, which says a lot after coming from San Sebastian, a quiet coastal surfer city in North Western Spain with arguably some of the best food in the world. While enjoying a quick view of this city’s surface, there were some complications. Apparently there aren’t many travelers that backpack through Bordeaux, with that said, there were hardly any hostels. In fact, there were none. My travel guide book had failed me. A bit of advice: before you go on an excursion to an unfamiliar part of the world, make sure the guide books you buy are up to date. It will save you some grief. The one hostel I looked up was no longer in existence. While I walked by the hostel several times, circling the block and hoping the sign that said “under renovation” was an illusion, I asked several people of its whereabouts, most of which offered nothing but a confused expression. A taxi driver even pulled over at his own will and pointed me in the direction of the elusive hostel. As I walked to the top of the building it was evident that it was out of business. Walls were busted through, sheetrock lay on the ground in shambles, and old chairs and desks were turned upside down. The sign had not lied, my book had. So I stumbled down the street asking again if there were any hostels. With every desperate plea I received the same pitiful answer, “no.” I suddenly remembered my back up plan (because every backpacker needs one). I wrote down the address of a fairly affordable hotel on a napkin just in case this happened. I pulled the napkin out of my pocket and flagged down a taxi. Fifty euro later I arrived exhausted and elated. The room was the size of a closet, but it was my own room and not a hostel. Although the taxi driver had most likely ripped me off, relief possessed my body and I toppled down on the hard hotel bed.

Garonne River
My two days there were beautiful none the less. I walked the city alone and admired the sights through my camera lens. I stumbled upon the Monument aux Girondins fountain, one of my favorites during the entire trip. A fountain within a fountain, this grandiose monument features a nautical army of stallions led by a powerful man pointing a trident into the air. The fountain honors two of Bordeaux’s greatest men, philosopher and former Mayor of Bordeaux Michel de Montaigne, and Charles Louis de Montesquieu, one of the architects of the "century of the lights." He was not only an intellectual, but also a winegrower (http://www.virtourist.com). I made my way towards the Garonne, a lengthy canal with four bridges that cross it, creating ports in and out of the city. The lights bordering the bridges reflect in the dark water that creates a mesmerizing affect. I walked down the Rue Sainte-Catherine, the city’s main shopping strip. People littered the streets, admiring decorations and contemplating gifts. The giant courtyard of the Place de la Bourse was packed with teenagers and artists; skateboarders skated by deviously while kids surrounded the fountain like a pack of crows. A train rode through the bustling streets in front of the Grand Theater, where patrons formed a line awaiting a much anticipated theatrical performance. Diners dined and wine glasses clinked to the sounds of the streets, it was busy and serene. I took a detour back to my hotel, zigzagging through alleys and narrow cobblestone streets. I bought two tall cans of Heineken and surrendered to my unknown path. Through distorted eyes I noticed a small pastry shop. Inside were pastries I’d never even seen, or could ever imagine. I contemplated hiding somewhere to be locked in overnight. Instead I just pointed to the first thing I saw, a chocolate covered pastry filled with a cream that was oozing out the sides. I swayed blissfully back and forth in the dark alleys of Bordeaux, my eyes crossed, my teeth sharp for mystical mayhem, ready to devour the night.

Delicious Paistry

A drink was called for. I went to a café on the corner from my hotel. I quickly befriended the French bartender, whom became my tour guide. At first we had very brief conversation through broken English and French. She was very direct and blunt, asking “Why do you talk to me? My English is horrible.”

“Because you are pretty, and I don’t know anyone.” She served me a couple more drinks, and we agreed to meet the next night so she could show me around. Once again it was these friendly gestures that expelled all wrongful French stereotypes. We met at her café. She treated me to a drink and I ordered a cheeseburger. One thing about France, it is not cheap. The burger was expensive, around ten euro, but it was the best burger I had on my entire trip (Madrid is a close second). The meat was tender with rich, French cheese spilling out the sides. The bun seemed like it was just baked, warm and soft to perfection. The toppings weren’t overbearing and it had just the right amount of mayonnaise. This was one of the first burgers I had where it didn’t need any modifying. This set the precedent for the rest of the night. We went out to a reggae bar, a small swarthy dive bar that smelled of stale beer and cigarettes. The music grew gradually louder towards the back of the bar, near a small flight of stairs. If you went up there was a dance floor with small picket fence that looked over the bar. Downstairs featured the bathrooms and another bar with a sparkly dance floor and giant horizontal mirror. We ordered our drinks, a mojito that was poured from a tap (apparently mojitos are extremely popular in France, and they found a genius way to expedite making them) and a whiskey and coke, and then we entered the void of the lower story and danced on the sparkly floor. The mirror swallowed us. We were merely silhouettes dancing in another dimension; two strangers, born into entirely different worlds, merged as one. We danced until the sparkles faded, the mojitos ran dry, and the mirror reflected the sky.  

The next morning she picked me up at my hotel and drove me to the train station. We said our goodbyes and I was off to Paris where I would embark on another quest of seeing one of my musical idols, Fink, in a small industrial part of the city that might not even exist. 

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