A French facelift

Bordeaux is a bit worried that nobody looks beyond its wines. It is not complaining, mind you, just fretting. After all, the city did not win the title of ‘best European destination of the year’ on the strength of its luscious reds alone.

Just a decade ago, Bordeaux had slipped into near obscurity, become Europe’s Sleeping Beauty (La Belle Endormie, for the linguists among us).

I was unable to associate that name with the youthful, vibrant city I was seeing around me. Every café was bursting at the seams with locals chugging beer and enjoying the spring sunshine. All the premium stores and boutiques on Rue Sainte Catherine – the longest shopping street in Europe – were doing brisk business, even in the absence of “Sale Sale” signs.

Alfresco

It seemed far removed from a time when the city suffered from congested roads, buildings covered in soot and derelict warehouses near the river. One man, the mayor and former Prime Minister, Alain Juppé is responsible for Bordeaux’s transformation into its current avatar. Over a decade ago, he set about the process of injecting life into his city, pedestrianising the elegant boulevards in the heart of Bordeaux, cleaning up the neglected 18th century buildings and introducing spiffy trams. And the trams themselves: silent and futuristic, using power from underground cables so that ungainly electric wires do not crisscross overhead, marring the gorgeous skyline.

The makeover, which started in the late 1990s, really took an upswing around the turn of the millennium. In that sense, the city was not a Sleeping Beauty but a Cinderella, only in reverse. In a few years, the city was so spruced up that more than half of Bordeaux found its way into the UNESCO list, making it the largest urban heritage site in the world.

Architecture1

Architecture2

I was staying at the Grand Hotel, right opposite the Opera House, known as the Grand Theatre. And there really was no point feeling sceptical about the recurrence of the word grand, for these buildings are nothing but. The first thing that struck me when drove into the city was the magnificence of the neoclassical buildings – somewhat like Paris but on a smaller, more intimate scale. In fact, it is said that the stately buildings of Paris had derived inspiration from Bordeaux’s.

OperaHouse

Bordeaux is extremely charming, unpredictable; as I stepped out of the hotel, right in the middle of the bustling Place de la Comedie, I came face to face with The Face, a contemporary street installation by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa. This uber-modern artwork looked on to the streets passively, an antithesis to all the grandeur surrounding it, and completely unperturbed by that fact. Yet it did not strike a jarring note on the old-world allure of the square. That is the soul of Bordeaux, the new in harmony with the old, making it easy for locals (and visitors) to embrace both.

Face

On an exploratory walk, I found Bordeaux a classic European town: cobblestoned streets, al fresco cafés and wrought iron balconies jutting out of buildings like curious children. The limestone facades in the old town glowed a burnished gold in the early evening sunshine. And everyone on the streets seemed young, carefree and just happy to be there. So was I – happy to be in Bordeaux, I mean.

And like all great cities, a river ran right through its centre – the Garonne – inviting people to rendezvous there at all times of the day. The riverside also owes its facelift to Juppé, who made it a welcoming place, perfect for both solitary walks and social chatter. The avant-garde water mirror there – le miroir d’eau – is a shallow pool on a granite square on the broad pavement.

Initially it stayed perfectly still, reflecting the splendid, symmetrical buildings of the Place de la Bourse, the royal square dating back to the 18th century. Fittingly, the water mirror has been called the most beautiful puddle in Europe. It is the kind of puddle that makes you want to roll up your trousers and wade right in, and later blame it on your inner child.

WaterMirror

WaterMirror1

It had just stopped drizzling, the sun still playing hide and seek with the clouds. A couple with bright red umbrellas walked on the water (no Jesuvian miracle here; this pool is just a flat strip of water, designed to be a mirror), breaking the general air of greyness, especially in the reflections.

The fountain jets in the middle of the pool suddenly sent up fine, cooling mists, making it seem like the clouds had descended upon us that afternoon. These sprays were created with summer days in mind; other cities have public swimming pools, Bordeaux has a set of fountains. This was possibly my favourite place in the city, a spot I returned to at different times in the day to see the magic of sunlight upon it.

Sitting there, watching children and adults splash about in the water, I thought back to something I heard earlier in the day. Nathalie Escuredo, an expert wine grower (one of the emerging women champions in the region) had said, “Here in Bordeaux, many of life’s problems are solved over lunch and dinner. When we meet friends, we drink coffee for two minutes and talk for two hours.”

Truly, in Bordeaux, there was a pleasant sense that time is but a wispy concept and not to be given much importance. And I believe that is just how things ought to be everywhere.

Oh, and all that I said in the beginning about Bordeaux being more than just wine? That does not mean that the city does not take its wines seriously. After all, the Aquitaine region of France, where Bordeaux is located, has close to 8000 chateaux producing world-class wine.

Vineyards

Nor does it mean that I went away without tasting them. I spent an entire morning at the Ecole du Vin (wine school) sipping, swirling and spitting with a small group of wine novices, as Escuredo introduced us to the wonder that is Bordeaux wine. And on the ground floor of the school was the Maison du Vin bar, serving the best local wines, along with nibbles.

When Her Majesty, the Queen of England visited Bordeaux, she described it as “the very essence of elegance.” This was way back in 1992, before Bordeaux assumed a fresh lease of life. I can only wonder what she would call it, if she were to visit again today.

THE INFORMATION

Getting there

Fly to Paris direct from Mumbai or connecting via Mumbai from Delhi on Jet Airways (Rs. 41,000) and take a fast train to Bordeaux, a journey of just over three hours.

Where to stay

The Grand Hotel De Bordeaux and Spa guarantees a luxury stay in a heritage hotel, whose neoclassical façade was originally created by architect Victor Louis in 1776 (Superior Room with Breakfast from €375 / Rs. 26,000). For a mid-range budget option, stay at the Quality Hotel Bordeaux Centre, a no-frills but popular hotel (Classic double rooms from €99 / Rs. 7000).

What to see and do

Take a walk in Bordeaux’s Golden Triangle, an area littered with beautiful neoclassical buildings and bounded by three fine boulevards, Cours Clemenceau, Cours de l’Intendance, Allées de Tourny. And then head to Place de Bourse, opposite the river and the water mirror, for more majestic buildings. Back at the Place de la Comedie, catch a concert or ballet at the Grand Theatre.

Join one of the beginner or advanced wine appreciation workshops at the L’Ecole Du Vin.

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A slightly edited version of this was published in Outlook Traveller, August 2015 issue.

We’ll always have Paris

“Suddenly a train appeared. Women cried out with terror. Men threw themselves to one side to avoid being run over. It was panic.”

This is not a sensational newspaper report of a train accident; this is the reaction to the first ever motion picture screening by the Lumiere Brothers, as described by an astute observer. He goes on to end with “It was panic. And triumph.”

We are standing in front of Hotel Scribe when I hear about this. This was once the Grand Café, where this momentous event – ten films in the course of 20 minutes – took place on December 28, 1895. In a nod to its heritage, Hotel Scribe has a restaurant called Café Lumiere, with a plaque on the wall.

Hotel Scribe
(image courtesy: Hotel Scribe)

Clearly, Paris has a long and enduring relationship with cinema, and on this cinema walk, I hope to explore a small bit of it.

Woody AllenThe walk starts with a peek into one of the locations from Woody Allen’s recent ‘Midnight in Paris’ (2011). Allen has set some key scenes in Polidor, a once fashionable bistro and hangout of artists and writers. Walking into Polidor, I get a feeling that I have stepped into the early 1900s – much like the film’s protagonist, who travels back in time to the 1920s, an era when literary greats like Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein lived in the city. ‘Midnight in Paris’ is Woody Allen’s third movie set in Paris and his love song to the city, possibly his favourite only after New York.

While it is interesting to hear about ‘Midnight in Paris,’ we want to know about the more popular movies set in Paris and so head off to another neighbourhood. Along the way, Juliette points out filmy landmarks like the Pont des Arts (Amelie) and Hotel Regina (The Bourne Identity).

Funny FaceOur destination is Place Vendome, the elegant Parisian square lined by jewellers like Cartier, Boucheron and Van Cleef & Arpels. However, the star in our eyes here is Hotel Ritz which has seen innumerable films, including three starring Audrey Hepburn (no less than six of her films were shot in Paris). Standing here at Place Vendome on a grey, rainy day, we watch Bonjour Paris – a delightful song taking us through the city with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn – from ‘Funny Face’ (1957) on Juliette’s iPad as she struggles with an umbrella that threatens to break free any moment.

Why Paris, I ask Juliette, why not any other charming European city like, say, Rome or London? That’s when I learn about the Hays Code American cinema had imposed upon itself in 1930 (lasting till 1968), which stipulated that no film should “lower the moral standards of those who see it.” According to Juliette, American film censorship at that time was strict, but for some reason, far more lenient with movies based outside the USA. She believes that for many Americans at that time, Paris offered a kind of fantasy escape (she calls it a sense of liberation), prompting filmmakers to script their movies around the city of lights.

Juliette

Juliette should know, given her Master’s degree in cinema history and experience as a production assistant.

Even without the influence of such moral policing, Paris has always been popular among Hollywood filmmakers; since 1900, nearly 800 Hollywood movies have been set here. And can Bollywood be far behind? ‘Sangam’ (1964), famously the first ever Indian movie to be filmed abroad, had a few song sequences set in Paris, followed soon by ‘An Evening in Paris’ (1967), shot almost entirely here. Someone pipes up with a remark on ‘Queen’ (2014), that complete entertainer with its clever shots of the Eiffel Tower as an omnipresent feature of the city.

Juliette is obviously at sea when we talk about Bollywood – why not start that tour, we ask – and we get back to talking about how Paris is strewn with filming locations. Not entirely surprising, given that, on an average, three feature films are shot in the city every day.

There are all the usual suspects like Champs Elysees (The Devil Wears Prada), Arc de Triomphe (Casablanca), Montmartre (An American in Paris, French Kiss, Moulin Rouge), all of them locations for films with strong Paris connections. Then there is the Louvre (The Da Vinci Code), about which I discover an interesting story. It is not easy to get permission for shooting at the Louvre, and for The Da Vinci Code, the then President Jacques Chirac, with a keen eye on economic gains, had to intervene. The museum acquiesced to filming for six nights, with the condition that the set be dismantled every morning.

Davinci Code

Much as it is fun visiting these locations, it is even more fun to listen to trivia from Juliette along the way. For instance, ‘Moulin Rouge’ (2001), that quintessential Paris movie, was shot almost entirely in a studio in Australia, with city shots digitally produced. And for ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ Meryl Streep never travelled to Paris; so much for that glamourous fashion week.

Moulin Rouge

The Devil Wears Prada

We end the tour, fittingly, at Hotel Scribe, with a brief stop for a moment of revered silence. Later, I read that one of the Lumiere Brothers had remarked, “The cinema is an invention without a future.” If only he knew.

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A slightly edited version of this was published in the Hindu Business Line on June 19, 2015 – read it online here.

Chasing chateaux in Loire Valley

At first glance, chateau Chambord seems like a mishmash of towers, turrets and chimneys. From up close, the impression remains unchanged.

Travel writers have often referred to Chambord as a castle straight out of a fairytale. Me, I think of it as some kind of medieval Disneyland. Except, one designed by the latter’s young visitors (hey, let’s thrown in one more chimney here, it’s such fun), rather than by an architect with a sense of moderation.

This is not to say that I do not like it; I marvel at its size and scale, and the opulence carelessly scattered across every room.

Chambord

In the Loire Valley region in the west of France, vestiges of the country’s royal past take the form of a hundred odd stately chateaux. In all this, Chambord easily stands out as the one of the grandest. Looking at it, it is tough to believe that it started life as a humble hunting lodge of the king Francois I. “Humble” may be misstating the facts a bit, for a mansion with 440 rooms – of which only 80 are open to the public, but believe me, even that is far too much to explore – and 85 staircases, all roofed by over 300 quirkily shaped chimneys.

The fact is that the king, who believed himself rivaled in greatness only by God, wanted his hunting lodge to showcase his power. And every element in the chateau works to that end: from the two massive spiral staircases in the middle of the central hall, to the fading tapestries hung on the walls and the sprawling park that encircles the mansion. Sadly, the high ceilings and draughty rooms made the chateau mostly inhabitable, and the king spent only a total of 42 days here over the years. All this trouble, all this expense, for a stay of six weeks – but then, each visit was a regal jamboree, with 12000 horses accompanying the king to transport his entourage and luggage.

The design of this Renaissance style building is often wrongly attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. On the same king’s invitation, Da Vinci did spend the last years of his life (1516 – 1519) in Amboise in the Loire Valley. But construction of this chateau began only around the time of his death, ruling out Da Vinci’s hand in it (the belief persists that he was the mind behind the spiral staircase, given its clever design). Till today, the architect’s identity remains unknown.

OpulenceI climb up this very staircase and walk through room after room of unbridled splendour: a royal bedchamber here, a library there, an ornate chandelier on a ceiling, a gilded fireplace in a corner. My most pleasant experience here is the time spent on the terrace, taking in the splendid views. I can see for miles all around me: the moat around the chateau, the roads leading up to it laid out in a neat pattern and the lush woods that are still home to hundreds of deer and boars.

Terrace

I find out later that Chateau Chambord has recently entered into an agreement with Udaipur City Palace to link their rich heritage and share knowledge on conservation. This is only fitting, for a castle that could easily pass muster with the most fastidious Indian maharajah.

If you can judge a region on pure grandeur of its buildings, then the Loire Valley proves itself second to none. France’s longest river, the Loire, makes the entire area fertile and prosperous. During the tiresome Hundred Years’ War (between France and England in the 14th and 15th centuries), the Loire Valley played a role of strategic importance. Add to it the region’s proximity to Paris. Therein lies the reason for all the castles here, which were later converted into pleasure palaces by the rich and famous.

The Loire Valley is also home to chateau De Chenonceau, just by the river Cher and also counted among the most magnificent and picturesque in France. What makes this 16th century castle extraordinary is that it was managed and protected by a series of shrewd and capable women. And dating back to an even earlier era is Chinon, the castle where a young Joan of Arc spent some time. Unlike most of the others, which were royal residences or mere status symbols, Chinon, was meant to be a stronghold. Though mostly in ruin today, its location on a rocky outcrop over the river Vienne itself makes it a stunner.

But the Loire Valley is not just about displays of pomp and power in the form of grand chateaux. On my drive through the region, I pass one picture postcard village after the other. Sprawling vineyards are just beginning to sprout leaves and fields of canola flowers keep me company throughout, like bright yellow carpets spread out by the roadside.

canola
(canola fields image courtesy: wikipedia)

roomsMy time in the Loire Valley area ends with another chateau experience at the Domaine de la Tortinière. This time, I am staying at this 19th century chateau converted into a luxury hotel. After a long day crammed with French cooking lessons and wine tasting sessions between all the chateau-chasing, I am glad to put my feet up at this charming castle tucked away in a quiet country lane. It has all the classic trappings of the chateaux from this region – sweeping driveway, pointy turrets and rolling parklands included – but the décor in the rooms borders on the comfortably modern.

chateau
(chateau images courtesy: Domaine de la Tortinière)

The entire valley has been designated a world heritage site by UNESCO, which describes it as an “outstanding cultural landscape.” Not surprising, I think, given its natural abundance and manmade treasures.

Travel Information

To get there, fly to Paris and take the train to the city of Tours, an ideal base to explore the Loire Valley.

For more information on the Loire Valley and to plan your trip, visit Atout France.

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Published in Deccan Herald on June 14 as Chasing castles

Friday photo: Bordeaux

In my recent ten days in France, Bordeaux was a revelation. The world’s largest urban UNESCO heritage site, it blends the old and the new beautifully. Who knew there was anything more to it than wine?

This Friday – after a long time – an image of the “water mirror” reflecting the stately neoclassical buildings at the heart of Bordeaux.

Bordeaux

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Also see: Friday photo series

Happy 125th, Eiffel Tower!

Paris’ most recognisable landmark, the structure that graces a million postcards, recently turned 125.

The Eiffel Tower. Love it or hate it. You cannot ignore it. When you walk through that part of Paris, it feels that any corner you turn, there it is. What is so charming about a tall tower of metal, that it welcomes 7 million people a year, paying a steep fee of €15 to take the lift to the top?

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That’s what I wondered before I saw it for myself. And then I found myself wanting to go there again and again, especially loving it late at night when the lights come on and twinkle in time to the merry lights of the carousel ride on the opposite side of the road.

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And then there are the views of the city from the top, the breeze that threatens to blow you right off and just that happy feeling of being on top of the world…

Here is some great reading on the man behind this engineering marvel – Gustave Eiffel.

“The tower sways around six to seven centimetres (2-3 inches) in the wind” – this and more fascinating facts about Eiffel Tower here.

And finally, some interesting photographs from the time of the construction of this icon.

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