Aliénor, Duchess of Aquitaine, married first the future King of France and gave him up for Henry the second of England with whom she had a ‘difficult relationship‘. Her long and eventful life is regarded with pride by the Bordelais, and it marked the beginning of a three-hundred-year period when Bordeaux (and its wine) belonged to the English crown. Needless to say, the battle where the English were defeated after a hundred-year war and the Duchy returned to French control, is better known in Bordeaux than is Agincourt or Waterloo.
The French take philosophy seriously and in the galaxy of French philosophers, Michel de Montaigne, a one-time mayor of the city and the Baron Montesquieu, have central positions. The latter’s family home at Labrède is maintained as a memorial to him, and to his contribution to French political philosophy. His principal work was ‘the Spirit of the Laws’, where he made the case out for a separation of political power between state institutions, and so strongly influenced the framers of the US constitution. Even for those with no interest in the philosopher’s musings, the family home which is a picture book castle, 10 miles south of the city centre, is worth a visit.
Not connected to the city but associated with the area to the south-east around St Macaire, are two French cultural luminaries of the 19th and 20th centuries, Toulouse-Lautrec and Francois Mauriac. The former is buried in the churchyard at Verdelais not far from a family home – Chateau Malrome – while the latter, a noble laureate writer but not well-known outside the francophone world, lived much of his life at Chateau Malagar – a few miles away at St Maixant. The latter house can be visited but has little appeal for those who are not devotees of French literature. Toulouse Lautrec’s grave at Verdelais is a quite modest affair but the church has a reputation for miraculous cures and is quite interesting in a mystical, spooky sort of way.
In the folklore of the city a special place is reserved for ‘Les Girondins’ who, during the early years of the French revolution, were the deputies elected to represent the city in the revolutionary assembly. Being moderates, they fell foul of the more radical elements of the revolution, and were assassinated in the days when ever more extreme cliques successively usurped power in Paris. Their monument today is a tall column with an elaborate display of horses and buxom women in bronze at its base, and can be found on the Place des Quinconces. The valuable bronze was requisitioned towards the end of the last war to be used for armaments and it was believed the magnificent sculpture had been lost forever. By sheer chance, they failed to reach the foundry furnace and were found in a scrapyard to be eventually restored to their place of honour in the city’s principal open space.