Saturday, June 22, 2013

Saturday Morning in Bordeaux

I try to hide my impatience when Pater finally comes downstairs for tea, more than two hours after dawn reached  through the skylight to tickle me awake and send me tiptoeing out of the bedroom. After all, we are on vacation, it’s only 9 in the morning, and he will raise no objections this afternoon when I head for my wee siesta. But there are places to go, things to see, and surely all the best finds will have disappeared from the Marché if we don’t go Now. So I hope into the shower, grabbing a bra, clean undies, my dark skinny jeans, and a navy cashmere v-neck from the bedroom now free of any do-not-disturb sleeper.

He, meanwhile, has shaved up nicely, showered, found jeans, checked shirt, and a black cardigan, and I kiss his soap-fragrant neck as we lean over the map spread out on the kitchen table to trace the best route to the Marché aux Puces at Flêche St Michel. It looks as if there’s a stop there on the C line of Bordeaux’ brilliant street-level tramway, the same C-line we took from the Gare St Jean when we arrived last week. So allowing for buying a ticket at the easy-to-use machine, waiting for the next tram (never more than ten minutes, as far as we can tell), and then riding a few stops while people-watching and gazing at the river from clean and comfortable seats, we could be at the Marché within half an hour.

But as long as the weather is decent, we love to feel out a city by walking its streets. This morning the sky’s mood is changeable, but the temperature is comfortable, and we’ve got our ultra-light mini umbrellas in our bags. We decide to head through town rather than walking via the riverfront,  and after a short break for deux cafés, s’il vous plait, at the counter of the corner Café, we set out for Rue Ste Catherine, after passing the pleasingly-proportioned open space of the Place de la Comédie.  Pater is apparently not the only one who woke slowly this grey Saturday morning, and the square’s space echoes with our footsteps, with the bristly swishes of a café employee freshening up the space around the sidewalk tables and chairs.

Rue Ste Catherine, also, is much quieter than usual, although we still occasionally have to dodge a cyclist who, in turn, is dodging a family sprawling their way down its width, a toddler darting over to investigate a passing dog. A young woman screams “Puta!” and rushes over to hug an apparently longlost friend sitting with coffee in the rawer portion of the Rue where it flattens out after the first gentle decline.  The sharp scent of the  street cleaner’s disinfectant mixes with the mellow notes of expresso and croissant’s buttery tones wafting from an oven somewhere nearby. Under it all, keeping it real, sewage inserts its not-quite-offensive pungence into our olfactory awareness occasionally, and there is also a particular scent of damp and ancient stone that rounds out the concert. And dog shit. Even as we walk and talk and point out offerings in the vitrines, we scan the sidewalk ahead, warning each other sharply to step left or right.

Above us, an ouvrier pulls on the rope that lifts a wide orange bucket, full of supplies and obviously heavy, up to the 1st floor, over the lacework of a wrought-iron balcony painted a deep blue.  In a doorway to our right, a street musician is setting up his accordion,  unfolding his stool, and laying out a colourfully woven rectangle on which he places his overturned cap. But before he begins to perform, he seems to be assessing the number of piétons, trying to decide whether there are enough of us yet to be worth squandering his repertoire. Perhaps instead it’s time to grab a café somewhere nearby. The hikers we see just ahead, clad in classic outdoor gear, don’t seem likely to slow for music. The large white cockle shells, marked with a red Cross, that swing gently on their backpacks, announce that these well-booted young men are following the brass cockle shells embedded in the stone pavers down the length of St. Catherine. They indicate that this street has been hiked by pilgrims following the Camino of Santiago de Compostela for centuries. Indeed, when I chat with the German youth while waiting at the next pedestrian stoplight, I learn that they have hiked from Tours, an impressive distance considering how fresh and clean they appear. And considering that both are enjoying cigarettes as they march along the Rue.

The German hikers and the brass road markers they follow are not the only indications of the street’s religious past, now almost obscured by its secular and commercial rhythms. On our right, we pass a small square, the Place Saint Projet, that boasts a narrow monument, perhaps eight feet high, whose carvings are, on every side, weathered so heavily that their features are difficult to discern. No plaque offers any historic details about this obelisk, nor about the impressive ancient fountain carved, almost grotto-like into the facing wall, across the square. I do some research online later, and I find that the square is named after a bishop who died in 674.  Long, long ago, there was a church here, and a cemetery. Traces of these can be found in the nearby buildings that have incorporated some of the church’s structure – its bell tower, for example. Of the cemetery, the only cross that remains is that which commemorates the bishop. It was erected  in the 14th century, long after his death. The fountain dates from 1715. Do most of the shoppers enjoy a little religious history with their lêche-vitrine or do they not even notice?

Like those local shoppers, now almost blind to the rich history around them, we move along. Racks of 10 Euro brightly coloured print leggings along with wide-legged lounging pants are being wheeled out on the sidewalk, next to 18 Euro clubbing dresses made out of gaudy synthetics that are surely flammable. All of this mere blocks from the infinitely more discreet satisfactions of cashmere and silk at Galaries Lafayette or, round the corner from MaxMara and Façonnable, Sonia Rykiel and Max Azria,  Similarly, while the same diagonal rows of square stone tiles clad the entire length and width of this impressive Rue, the stone pavement at the top of the hill more closely resembles the marble of a large and elegant lobby. At the bottom, black and grey circles of discarded and well-trodden gum claim the street for a noiser, more lively, and yes, somewhat rougher crowd. Too, more vitrines are plastered with notices advising of closures, final signs, opportunities to lease. And more pets – dogs and cats both – sit beside downcast owners in doorways, little tin cans on the stone in front of them collecting 10, 20, if they’re lucky 50-cent pieces. Even begging, here, has become too much work with too little hope of reward.

So we’re selfishly relieved when the street morphs again as it tilts gently upward again and heads toward the university, but we’re heading East anyway, working an idea of direction through a tangle of urban non-planning laid down centures ago. Once again, the character of the streets changes. The terraces of the Place where students can sit with their wine or beer or expressos for hours, the bookstores and little boutiques offering inexpensive versions of the hippie, ethnic wear that is still, surprisingly,  worn by 2013 students as we wore it in 1973. .  . These give way to Hallal shops, to Arab women pushing strollers and pulling market carts into spice shops and vegetable shops and even, for a treat or for special visitors, into wonderful little patisseries such as the one we couldn’t resist, one where the shy vendor recommended little bundles of marzipan-filled sweetness and rich cousins to baklava. In the doorways of some of these shops, the women’s relatives survey the streets, calling across to each other or clustering in urgent or casual conversations, depending on the moment.


Let’s pause here, on a corner, with our maps, before we head to the Marché Aux Capucins to sort out some lunch.  Perhaps I'll tell you more about hat later . . . . Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed sauntering down Bordeaux’s Rue Ste Catherine with us. . . Now tell me, do you take pleasure in walking when you visit a new city? And do you have streets you love to explore by foot, or streets your feet know by heart, in your own home town?

13 comments:

  1. The only way to visit a new place is on foot because there are so many small things to discover. Have you noticed the coquilles painted on the sidewalk on rue St. Jacques in Paris? One long street can have many different personalities. I have learned so much about France just walking in the streets for hours. By mid-afternoon, however, after lunch with a little wine, I am always ready for my little siesta.

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    1. I've never noticed those coquilles, but as soon as we get back to Paris, I'm going to look for them.
      We sound much alike in the pattern of our days -- I love my little afternoon nap here, after lunch & wine.

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  2. 'Puta' means 'whore' in Spanish, it's an offensive term. Maybe you misheard? Not an endearment between friends, if that's what they were. It jumped out of your gentle, richly descriptive text in a very jarring way, an effect I'm not sure you intended, I winced.

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    1. Sorry if I made you wince -- this was the word, and I do know what it means, and it was used as an endearment -- just the same way you might hear young women where I live call each other Bitch as they greet each other with a hug and a laugh. Or maybe you don't hear that where you are -- it depends on the neighbourhoods certainly, but it's often an affectionate rather than aggressive salutation. Not for me and mine, but that's what's interesting about walking a long road that changes character. Thanks for being such a careful reader that you caught this subtlety.

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    2. Well explained, mater! The world is full of things and beings which jar us. That's the best part of travel for some of us: to be expanded, exposed and invited to ask, "What's that mean?"

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  3. Great post! I almost exclusively walk. (As you know, when I was last in Europe, I set foot in one car.) And my sister is now walking the Camino (as of today).

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    1. It really is the best way to experience a new place, isn't it?!
      And best wishes to your sister as she begins her trek. I'm both envious and admiring.

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  4. The walk along the street is very vivid in my imagination. Do love your attention to detail mater!
    Looking forward to the next instalment. Enjoy your lunch!

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    1. Thanks, Lesley. I will admit that I took my time writing this one, building up the layers of description. so glad you liked it.

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  5. So descriptive it felt like I was walking along with you!! What a fabulous trip you're having.

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  6. I'm just checking a few blogs before heading up to bed. I'll take with me the outline of your walk in which you employed all of your senses, and I'll fill it in with my own memories of France as I drift off to sleep. What a lovely way to end my day. Thank you, Mater.

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  7. One of my favourite posts ever! That's how I like to experience a place- not so much by trekking through the tourist attractions, but by getting lost in the streets, soaking up atmosphere, and people-watching.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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