Bordeaux and its countryside include domestic buildings that are an integral part of the landscape and the local culture. Its unlikely that you would travel far through the rural backroads without encountering a village lavoir – a communal laundry facility where the luxury of cold running water is supplemented by a roof and a stone wash trough.
Similarly, the landscape is dotted with towers which may at first appear to be for defence or to be derelict windmills, but turn out to be elaborate pigeon lofts (pigeonniers) where a stock of fresh meat could be maintained by those with the wealth and status to afford their construction. Today they are likely to have only ornamental functions and serve primarily to boost property prices.
Less obvious than the above are the surviving Bastide towns – examples of early town planning, or at least medieval property development. They were created largely during the period of Royal English rule when warfare, pestilence and disorder reduced populations and made land worthless when no peasantry existed to cultivate it (and pay taxes). By creating planned settlements with enclosing walls, gates and a layout that assisted in their defence, feudal magnates sought to attract and retain displaced peasants who could be defended from depredations (and could be taxed).
Their layout usually follows a similar pattern of a central square with radiating streets that assisted the defenders to quickly reach any threatened breach of the walls. Not all such property developments were successful but sufficient numbers have stood the test of time to populate the landscape with small towns that retain substantial vestiges of their walls and principal gates, and a central square that offers a pleasant place to sit and absorb a local history lesson over a coffee.
Sauveterre, Créon, Libourne, Cadillac, Monségur and Eymet are examples that feature in some of our tours.
Cadillac -Town gate
No balanced picture of Bordeaux’s landscape can omit the heritage of religious buildings:
- St Michel in Bordeaux’s old quarter which has, like the Cathedral, a separate bell tower, the second highest in France, and modern stained glass to replace that lost to wartime bombs.
- The ruins of La Sauve Abbey, a Benedictine foundation that was such an important centre that it created the village that lies at its feet and was a waypoint for the thousands of pilgrims headed to Santiago de Compostela during the middle ages.
- The underground church at St Emilion carved out of the bedrock limestone and, above ground, the cloisters of the monastery and convents that provide a quiet break from the crowded streets.
- The Cathedral at Bazas, which dominates this small town’s market place and reminds us that this was an important settlement before the Romans arrived, and maintained that importance until the 15th-century, since when it has sunk slowly into obscurity.
- The Church at Verdelais – credited with miraculous cures and a site of pilgrimage today for that reason.
And, if religious architecture and folk buildings are not of interest, there is also the military complexes of Vauban at Blaye and Fort Médoc or, for something very different, in Bordeaux, the U-boat pens (Base Sous-Marine). These were constructed during the early years of World War II to shelter German submarines targetting allied convoys. They still stand – brutal, concrete structures – and are a grim reminder of the battle of the Atlantic. Now they play host to art exhibitions. If one is on when you are in Bordeaux it’s worth paying a visit to experience their forbidding interior.