On a Sunday afternoon in September, I decide to spend time outside in Bordeaux to enjoy the sun and the ideal temperature. Moreover, I like the architecture of the buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, and the lively streets.
A special guide in an official building
When I arrive by bike in the shopping streets of the city center, I hear the unpleasant hubbub of the crowd. My eyes wander in search of a quite terrasse to sit and have a drink but the streets are too busy to settle there.
I think about going to the Saint-Michel district. It’s lively but not as dense as the streets of the city center. Moreover, I like the area because people with diverse foreign backgrounds, especially Arabic people, live there. When I arrive in Saint-Michel, I enjoy the smell of spices and sugar coming from Arabic or Turkish bakeries and grocery stores. I see several butcher shops with attractive shopping windows. I feel like coming in and buying the delicious meat. On the place Saint-Michel, the heart of the district, the large number of tables and chairs on the terrasses strikes me. Cafés and restaurants use a large part of the square and, on the sunny Sunday afternoon, their terrasses are busy. I then see, in the quieter street leading to the Capucins market, a café that has several free tables. I sit and, from this spot, watch the passersby. I like guessing where they come from and where they’re going. The sun lights up the square and the other side of the street where I sit. These conditions make me want to stay here to sip a coke and read a book. However, as I watch my phone, I remember that the European Heritage Days are taking place this weekend.
What are the European Heritage Days?
Every year, on the third weekend of September, museums and sites which are usually closed to the public open their doors for free across France. The goal is to make cultural heritage accessible to as many people as possible.
I’d like to visit a site that I don’t know yet because I’m curious, especially about historic places. Plus, it’s an occasion to walk in the streets of Bordeaux and enjoy the sun. I can’t think of any specific place to visit. Thus, I ride back to the town hall district where there are many old buildings. Maybe some of them are still open for visiting. After crossing the cathedral esplanade, I see in the Vital Carles street people standing in line in front of a majestic building. The latter intrigues me because, even though I often pass by it, I don’t know what’s in there. The French flag floating on the roof makes me think that it’s an official building. I decide to visit it.
As I wait in the inner courtyard in front of the building before coming in, I read a brochure that gives information about the place. It’s the Hôtel du Quartier Général, the headquarter of the military command for the South-West region. I follow the group of visitors entering the building. Inside, I admire the luxurious decoration. I like its old and elegant look, especially the molding on the high ceilings and the beautiful chandeliers. I feel like I’m in a museum, not in the headquarters of a military command!
I learn that a historical event took place in this building.
The meeting between De Gaulle and Raynaud
Charles de Gaulle decides, in June 1940, as the French government is settled in Bordeaux, to continue fighting. In the office I see in front of me, he meets the president of the council Paul Raynaud who tells him that he’s about to resign. De Gaulle then says that he’ll keep fighting the German, and flees to London shortly after.
As I hear this historical story, I realise that the place witnessed a key event in the French history. I look at the elegant desk and imagine the meeting between Reynaud, sitting behind the desk and de Gaulle, sitting in front of him.
In the room, a small bald man wearing a white uniform is standing in front of the visitors. I see 4 golden stars on his epaulettes. This detail lets me think that he’s a 4-star general, but right after that I find it unlikely that one of the highest-raking officers in the French army welcomes visitors during the Heritage Days. He explains with a calm voice that he’s the general commanding the defence forces in the region, which means that he’s the 4-star general working at the Hôtel du Quartier Général. He tells the visitors about his job, his career path and the activities of the army that I know little about. For example, I learn that soldiers under his command fought the forest fires in Gironde last Summer. Plus, I’m grateful for his time spent meeting the people. I believe his job and his commitment passionate him because he has a smile on his face. Moreover, the general is the commander of the French airforce, which makes him even more impressing to me. I think that, at first sight, it’s hard to imagine that he has so many responsibilities because he seems approachable and friendly.
Then, I go to the following rooms where I find an exhibition of paintings made by painters of the army about French wounded soldiers. Like the general, the voluntary guide seems happy to share his knowledge. He gives a few explanations about each painting. On one of them, I see the signature ‘de Gorostarzu’. I remember seeing this name in an autobiographical book by Hélie de Saint Marc, a member of the Resistance during the second world war. A priest named de Gorostarzu, also member of the Resistance, recruited the young Hélie de Saint Marc as he was a pupil in a Bordeaux high-school. Looking at the modern style of the painting, I guess that the painter is part of the same family as the priest but from a younger generation. Army and war topics interest me probably because several war stories, such as All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, or L’Équipage by Joseph Kessel, are some of my favorite books. However, I read less war books than before because I find them sad.
I leave the building and arrive in the inner courtyard. There, I see five musicians in uniform sitting. They are part of the airforce orchestre. Even though I don’t particularly like classical music, I enjoy listening them play a few music pieces. This short concert organised for the visitors of the Hôtel du Quartier Général is an unusual way to end the visit.
Visiting Bordeaux’s oldest vestige
The afternoon is not over and I’d like to discover another site. Thus, I search for a place which is still open to the public. I find the Palais Gallien, an amphitheatre from Gallo-Roman times. I enthusiastically get back on my bike to go visit this monument that I’ve never seen before.
When I arrive, I’m immediately surprised by the green. I see high plane trees hiding the entrance of the site. Then, I see the ruins standing on the grass in a bad state. Moreover, even though I’m in town, I hear almost only tweets of the birds flying between the ruins and the visiting people talking. No car noise. I try to imagine how the amphitheater looked like but it’s hard to tell where the tiers and the arena were. As I notice the remaining walls in good state, I ask myself if the ruins are from the original amphitheater or if they’re more recent.
A young woman I didn’t see coming introduces herself to the visitors and announces that she’s going to offer a tour. I’m grateful that a guide gives information about the place without me having to organise anything. The walls are from the original amphitheater, which makes the Palais Gallien, built in the 2nd century AD, the oldest vestige in Bordeaux. When I look at the stone structure in front of me, I feel overwhelmed as it was there almost 20 centuries ago. The building could host 20 000 spectators. I find it difficult to imagine such a big crowd here, where the ruins are. The guide says that, the gladiators who fought here didn’t die during the fight. I’m surprised to hear that because I had imagined mortal fight such as in Gladiator. After applauding the guide for her entertaining presentation, I observe the vestiges for a few minutes while walking in the small field.
I leave the place under the low sun at the end of the afternoon, feeling happy to have seen different cultural heritage sites of Bordeaux. Especially, I received explanation thanks to the passionate people hosting the tours.
Which sites have you visited during the European Heritage Days? Which one is your favorite?
Share your experience in the comments!