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Bordeaux: The City of Water

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This is the website of travel writer, Michael Turtle. After working in broadcast journalism for a decade in Australia, Michael left Sydney to travel the world indefinitely and write about his discoveries.

Bordeaux, France

It may be known as the region of wine but, to me, Bordeaux is all about the water. The sweet nectar of the vines may be its biggest export but the French city lives – and seems to literally breathe – by the water.

Let’s start with the river: the majestic Garonne. Although Bordeaux is one of the most spread-out cities in Europe, all streets seem to lead towards the river. It is the heart of the urban sprawl, with is connected by the veins of the roads. And it is on this river that Bordeaux was able to build its wine empire, with easy transportation by boat straight out to the Bay of Biscay and into the Atlantic or around into the Mediterranean.

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The name ‘Bordeaux’ doesn’t translate perfectly into English, but it essentially means ‘water by the river bank’. I can’t think of a better way to capture the essence of the city during the summer month I visited. Walking along the riverbank, the sun drawing closer to the horizon, the promenade was bustling. Bikes weaved their way between joggers, families, couples and tourists enjoying the warm afternoon and the cooling breeze.

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It’s peaceful. And then you come across the Water Mirror. The large reflection created by the thin layer of water and the mist being fountained up from it. It looks like the boardwalk is breathing up to us. And as the evening descends, it catches the light in such a perfect way it looks dreamlike.

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It’s not so much a reflection but a window into the soul of the city. Children play; an elderly couple walks hand-in-hand; a man in a wheelchair rolls himself around even though he can’t feel the cool moisture splash between his toes like the others around him.

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I walk along the river for a bit longer and, leaning over the fence, see some beaver-like animals building a home for themselves on the bank – much like the first humans did here in about 300BC.

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I cut up into the town and, wandering past a fountain, see a slightly destitute woman swimming in a fountain to collect coins that luck-wishers have thrown in.

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And then, around another few narrow twists and turns, I come across a public artwork with water weeping out like tears and trickling down onto the tiles.

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When people try to compare Bordeaux to Paris (which they constantly do, in the global tradition of city rivalry), it is always the wine that is mentioned. For good reason, many times. But let’s not forget the water in any future discussions. It is all through the city and it’s what binds the animals, the children, the locals, the visitors – and even the vagrants. It is the lifeblood for all, including the surrounding vineyards themselves.

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UNESCO world heritage site
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more info click here.
You can see all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited here.

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28 Comments
  • David | Dec 5, 2012 at 1:28 am

    I grew up an hour away from Bordeaux, and I lived there for three years in the 90’s and I really do have fond memories of the place, and I really enjoy going back there at times.
    It’s definitely one of the most pleasant cities to live in or to visit in France (way before Paris).

    A couple of details though.
    You say that the city is one of the most spread out in Europe. The actual city (i.e. the commune of Bordeaux) is actually pretty small, but it’s true that the “urban community” of Bordeaux is quite spread out for a French (or European) city.
    Concerning the name of the city, while “Bordeaux” sounds and looks like “Bord d’eaux” (water banks), the exact origin of the name is unclear. It could be that, but it could be other things. The original Celtic name was Burdigala. Its meaning is unclear. It could mean “muddy cove” or “shelter in swamp” (I’ve seen both translations)
    The current name, while it finds its origins in the original name, really comes from the Gascon (the local language before French took over) “Bordèu” that has been “Frenchified” into Bordeaux.
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    • Michael Turtle | Dec 5, 2012 at 1:33 am

      Thanks, David.
      You’re perfectly correct on both those points. As far as the size goes, it is the suburbs and all that I was referring to which is quite spread out. Although, as you say, the historic (and touristy) part is relatively easy just to walk around.
      And with the name, I did read a bit about the old names which had been bastardised along the way. But, for someone who doesn’t speak much French, it’s hard to avoid the apparent meaning in ‘Bordeaux’. Forgive me this one, for it fits my theme :)

      • David | Dec 5, 2012 at 1:39 am

        No problem. You are forgiven. ;-)
        To be honest, most French speakers (myself included when I’m not in etymology mode) think about water when they think about the name of the city (although they think about wine when they think about the city). :-)
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  • Lauren | Dec 5, 2012 at 10:40 am

    Wow, amazing photos! The clouds in the photo of the cathedral are beautiful. I have been to France many times, but never to Bordeaux…now it is definitely going on my bucket list!
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    • Michael Turtle | Dec 7, 2012 at 11:45 am

      Bordeaux is definitely worth getting to. I haven’t seen much of France… this was just as I was passing through. But it’s made me want to go back and see much more!

  • Bama | Dec 6, 2012 at 1:35 am

    I never realized that Bordeaux’s name was from bord d’eaux — or something like that. Very interesting! Those beaver-like animals might be otters. But I can be wrong. A very interesting note on Bordeaux, indeed, Michael! Oh and the photos are superb, as usual!
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    • David | Dec 6, 2012 at 2:39 am

      The animals are “coypus” (ragondin in French). They’re originally from South America but they arrived in Europe a few decades ago and are now very common on river banks, Garonne included.
      Concerning the origins of the name “Bordeaux”, see my previous comment. :-)
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      • Michael Turtle | Dec 7, 2012 at 11:46 am

        What David said. He has become my new France expert! Any story I write about the country will be proofread by him first so I don’t call the “coypus” something along the lines of “beaver-like animal” again :)

        • David | Dec 7, 2012 at 11:54 am

          LOL. Well, coypuses are indeed “beaver-like animals” (they’re both rodents and they do look alike). But I was wrong too, they didn’t arrive in Europe a few decades ago, rather in the 19th century.
          But honestly, if you want me to proofread future posts, feel free to contact me, I’ll gladly do so. :-)
          Now, I don’t know everything about France (who does?), it’s just that here, you’re talking about my home area.
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  • Jennifer | Dec 6, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    Looks like a really fun city to visit!
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    • Michael Turtle | Dec 7, 2012 at 11:48 am

      It’s a very pretty place. Definitely worth a few days if you’re ever in the area.

  • Shanen | Dec 7, 2012 at 10:58 am

    These photos just brought back lots of French memories- I can’t wait to get back there!

  • Lynn Chou | Dec 7, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Haha, lovely post! And why did I never realize the namesake of Bordeau? It’s so obvious now you’ve pointed it out. I’m going to start planning a trip to Bordeaux now… :)

    • Michael Turtle | Dec 11, 2012 at 12:59 am

      Well, as has been discussed above, the name may not have originally come from that. But it does make a lot of sense, regardless! :)

  • Simone | Dec 11, 2012 at 6:02 am

    Beautiful photos! I have a photo blog on water – what better fit than a picture from the city of water???
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    • Michael Turtle | Dec 13, 2012 at 11:08 am

      Ha – a perfect fit! Thanks :)

  • Angela | Dec 17, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    Beautiful pictures, definitely a must stop in France, great water angle ;)
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    • Michael Turtle | Dec 17, 2012 at 9:14 pm

      Thanks, Angela. Yeah – it’s a great place to stop for a few days.

  • Vera | Dec 17, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    Monsieur Turteuille, I have visited Bordeaux, too – though only the hospital, where my brother got his dislocated shoulder treated (a wave smashed him into the ground – the Atlantic ocean is not exactly a bath tub), but it’s on my list for 2013. I’m very sad David pointed out that the coypus are coypus – because I knew that, too, and it’s not often that I know something someone else doesn’t (apart from stuff nobody cares about, like coypus):( I will have to get faster on the comment section – another thing I’m not good at. Anyway, enjoyed the post and looking forward to see the city myself:)!
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    • Michael Turtle | Jan 1, 2013 at 1:53 pm

      I am still impressed you know what a coypus is. I had never heard of them before.
      And I can’t wait to hear what you think of Bordeaux (outside of the hospital, at least). You’ll have to let me know once you’ve been there!

  • Andrew | Dec 26, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    Neat. France is rarely on my list of places to see, but Bordeaux sounds neat. And actually moreso to see it realated to water instead of wine.
    The beaver things look neat. I have never heard of them and the picture looks like rats, but I trust you that they are beaver-like.
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    • Michael Turtle | Jan 1, 2013 at 2:27 pm

      Ha ha.. there is definitely something a bit ratty about them too! :)

  • Anna Ki | Jan 9, 2013 at 10:40 pm

    Hi! Great post. I just returned from a trip to Bordeaux and am loving reading more about the history and random trivia.

    One question I am hoping you or someone else could answer: What is this history behind the bronze turtles in Place de la Victoire?

    Thanks!

    • Michael Turtle | Jan 14, 2013 at 8:55 pm

      Oh, I have no idea, I’m sorry. I had my photo taken with one (for obvious reasons) but didn’t ask anyone about the significance. I hope someone comes along, reads this, and lets us know!

  • Maree | Sep 8, 2013 at 2:56 am

    We are here in Bordeaux at the moment traveling within france for my 50 th birthday. We have done Paris, Nice, Avignon and Montpellier prior to here. So far Nice and Bordeaux are my favourites – I loved Paris too but for some reason Bordeaux feels a little more relaxed, maybe it’s the great home stay apartment right in the middle of the city with a loft and 1800s charm that is swaying me. I found this blog whilst googling the water rats here. Thank you for the coypus info.

    • Maree | Sep 8, 2013 at 2:58 am

      Oh and Michael Turtle we also Aussies where you on triple j once?

      • Michael Turtle | Sep 13, 2013 at 3:57 am

        Ha ha – yes, that was me. Gosh, it feels like so long ago now! :)

    • Michael Turtle | Sep 13, 2013 at 3:58 am

      Happy birthday! That’s great you’ve been enjoying yourself in France. I agree with you that Bordeaux has a really nice feel to it. Paris is fun but it’s a really big city and it can get quite crowded. Bordeaux is definitely more relaxed and there’s a really nice vibrant feel to the city. Enjoy the rest of your trip!

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