21 June 2009

Au Bord de l’Eau Bordelaise

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s concert with the Orchestre National de l’Aquitaine last weekend provided the impetus for something I’ve long desired to do: namely, to go to Bordeaux when I wasn’t simply visiting family (though I got the chance to do that, too) and to get a good look at the place.

It is, after all, an immensely appealing city, an inland port whose history of prosperity can be seen in row after row of immaculate limestone buildings along the riverfront and throughout the heart of town. Their neoclassical elegance is irresistible to me, really, and it’s led me to think of Bordeaux as la ville blanche, the white city — though Martine Michel informs me that a) it’s really dorée, or golden; and b) before a recent cleanup campaign, the town was pretty grimy and grey.

The Grand Théâtre

No matter: I like it, and one of the best examples of the 18th-century architecture is the Grand Théâtre, home to the Opéra de Bordeaux, where I caught a performance of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, with a terrific cast including Jérôme Varnier and Jean Paul Fouchécourt (the definitive Arnalta) in Robert Carsen’s staging.

But Bordeaux is an old city, and the heart of town has been beating in much the same spot on the banks of the Garonne for a couple of millennia. A few vestiges of the ancient Roman settlement of Burdigala survive, most notably the “Gate of the Rising Sun” of an old coliseum, known now as the Palais Gallien, or Palace of the Gauls: it happens to stand near Martine’s home. There’s fine medieval architecture, too, including the Cathedral of Saint-André, with its detached tower (something of a Bordelais fashion statement), the Porte Cailhau, and the Grosse Cloche.

The Porte Cailhau

The Musée de l’Aquitaine sets out to provide some context for all the city’s monuments, with artifacts dating back to cavemen, plenty of Gaulois pottery, a wealth of Roman bibelots, and castings of the tombs of two of the region’s most distinguished children, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Michel de Montaigne. (Eleanor never spent much time here, being distracted by her duties as Queen of England, but Montaigne was Mayor of Bordeaux for a while.)

Local girl, sorta: Hepburn as Aliénor

A temporary exhibition explores Bordeaux’s role in the slave trade: as the curators note, only a tiny percentage of the local economy was directly linked to transporting slaves, but a bigger chunk of income was derived from transporting products made by slaves, and helping to maintain French plantations and colonies. The willingness to look the city’s complicity in the face spoke well of the museum and of the city itself.

A harbor scene by van Mieghem (1875–1930)

The shipping theme dominated at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, too, where an exhibition of paintings depicted a variety of vessels and ports, storms and sailors, and more than a few prostitutes. Several works by Eugeen van Mieghem, previously unknown to me, impressed me profoundly; evidently, there was an exhibition of his works in New York last year, and I’m sorry I missed it. I didn’t have time to check out the Musée’s permanent collection — but its permanence suggests that I’ll have another opportunity, some other time, right?

Not a ship, yet a prow: The Tour Pey Berland, at the Cathedral of Saint-André

It was a short trip, really, but I had deadline pressures back on the home front, and in any case I didn’t want to exhaust Martine’s hospitality — after all, I want to come back. We had a terrific time at the Saint-Michel Market on Saturday morning and puttering around in the heat and sun before I headed back to Beynes, where the rain promptly began to fall.

NOTE: There is wine in Bordeaux, too, as you may have heard, and though I’ve made some forays into that territory over the years, I’m really waiting until Mark Dennis comes over here to guide me — then I’ll have something to write about!

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