A Richer Bordeaux: The famed French city has found a new soul

The famed French city of Bordeaux has found new soul after decades of being buttoned-up.

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By Ceil Miller Bouchet
Sunday, March 28, 2010

It's my first day back in Bordeaux, France, and I'm following a slight man in a Panama hat as he threads through the narrow cobbled grid of the old wine-trading neighborhood. Local artist Arnaud Faugas is taking me to see his work. We emerge by the Joan of Arc statue that anchors a short parkway leading down to the riverfront. "This is where rich wine merchants built townhouses in the 1700s," he says. "Just look at that elegance, that harmony between the rounded balconies and the line of the trees." I'd like to gawk, but he's already turning onto a side street and getting out his key. The gallery's closed today, so we're alone when he turns on the lights.

His watercolors of city festivals line the long, narrow space, popping under the spotlights. A jubilant crowd lives it up at the wine festival. Quivering blossoms twirl at the flower festival. My favorite painting, though, is a Technicolor scene of Bordeaux's very serious Grand Théâtre gone crazy (must be the dance festival) with its marble statues of Roman muses come to life, shimmying atop their Corinthian columns.

Not long ago, such public joie de vivre would have been unthinkable here. Even in a painting.

"You know," Faugas says softly, bringing me back to reality, "I started painting a joyful Bordeaux even before the changes here.

"I began painting these because something had changed inside me."

He walks over to the espresso machine at the back of the gallery. "The Bordeaux of my youth was a black city," Faugas continues, "covered with soot" from pollution and exhaust that had darkened the city's limestone facades over the years.

As we sip our coffee, he reveals the rest. "What I'm doing now is thanks to my time in the States," he says. "When I left Bordeaux in my twenties, I was unhappy with my business career. When I returned to Bordeaux years later, I discovered I knew how to paint." He pauses.

"Understanding another culture freed me to become the person I wanted to be."

I nod in agreement. But it was only later that I would realize what he really meant.

***

Twilight was falling as I biked across the heavy stone bridge spanning the Garonne River. I had read earlier, on some historic marker, that "when memories fade, only stones recall past glory." Bordeaux's riverfront architecture, designed by experts sent south from Versailles in the 18th century, certainly still evokes royal power and splendor. Then, the city was Europe's busiest port, a cosmopolitan place flush with a lucrative colonial sugar trade. Today, those imposing stones form a backdrop for modern fun along the new riverfront promenade.

Near the foot of the bridge, kids splashed in the Miroir d'Eau: a vast reflecting pool that, every 15 minutes, seemed to float away as underground spouts sprayed a knee-high mist into the air. Upriver, Elvis Presley's suave baritone boomed over loudspeakers as middle-age couples twisted and swung at the quayside dance class. I was having a hard time reconciling the Bordeaux I once knew -- of traffic-choked squares, dour faces and grime-covered architectural treasures -- as I carefully avoided cocky skateboarders en route to the riverfront skate park. And then I spotted the perfect bar, ideally situated for enjoying the waterside view. Unfortunately, there was only one seat available on the terrace, next to a man drinking a draft beer. Leaning my bike against the guardrail, I quickly decided the pleasure of a cold aperitif was worth approaching a stranger.


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