During Antiquity, the River Garonne was the fastest link between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, hence the inevitable interest in this strategic, potentially lucrative region. And indeed, over the course of history, it was inevitably the crescent-shaped port – poetically known as the Port de la Lune ('Port of the Moon') – at the very heart of Bordeaux city that has inspired greed, desire, trouble and strife.

Burdigala

The Bituriges Vivisci, a Celtic tribe, settled on swampy marshland around the mouth of the tiny Devèze River – a left-bank tributary of the Garonne – in the 4th century BC. The city fell under Roman rule from around 60 BC and quickly emerged as a hub of tin and lead trading in the Roman Empire. The first vines were planted. Magnificent temples, baths, an aqueduct and an amphitheater were constructed; a glass scale model in Bordeaux’s Musée d’Aquitaine shows the 20,000-seat arena – today ruins in Saint-Seurin known as Palais Gallien – in its Roman heyday.

In the 3rd century AD Burdigala became the capital of Roman Aquitaine. Ramparts were constructed around the city in AD 271, and ancient grave headstones (found today in the Musée d’Aquitaine) of traders from far-flung spots in the Roman Empire, used as foundations in the ramparts, show just how prosperous and cosmopolitan Roman Burdigala was. Wine from here, transported in distinctive flat-bottomed ceramic amphora, was purportedly even served at the emperor’s table in Rome.

The Middle Ages

The collapse of the Roman Empire opened the floodgates to a wave of invasions by the Vandals, Visigoths, Franks and other Germanic tribes from the north. The newfangled faith of Christianity arrived in the region, churches were built, and the first pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain rolled into town. In 778, following the disastrous Battle of Roncevaux Pass, when Basque troops ambushed the army of Charlemagne on a high mountain pass in the nearby Pyrenees, Charlemagne laid many of his loyal knights to rest in Église St-Seurin, the city’s oldest church built on top of a Gallo-Roman necropolis. In the 11th century, the region fell into the hands of the Dukes of Gascony and later the Duke of Aquitaine.

English Rule

In 1152, as part of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s dowry in her marriage to the would-be King Henry II of England, Bordeaux fell under English rule. Thus, began a golden period for the city. The English fondness for the region's red wine (known as claret across the Channel) provided the impetus for Bordeaux' enduring international reputation for quality wines. King Henry II quickly gained favour with locals by granting them tax-free trade status with England and all too soon Bordeaux enjoyed a buoyant wine trade with their friends across the Channel, les anglais. The city cathedral Cathédrale St-André was built and from 1227 new walls incorporating the artisan quartier of Saint-Paul – home to iron forgeries, carpenters and blacksmiths – in the south of the city and later Saint-Michel were built: the Grosse Cloche in Saint-Paul is the only remaining part today.

At this time, Bordeaux counted a population of 30,000 and covered an area of 170 hectares. But turbulent times were lying in the wings. Increasing hostility between the English and French degenerated into the Hundreds Year War in 1337, fought on and off until the middle of the 15th century when Charles VII’s decisive victory at the Battle of Castillon (1453) ended the war and annexed the Duchy of Aquitaine – and Bordeaux – back to France. Thus ended 300 years of English domination.

Renaissance & Religious Strife

To prove his absolute authority over the city and safeguard it from future attack, Charles VII had an enormous defensive fortress, Château Trompette, built facing the River Garonne on Esplanades des Quinconces (in 1818 the substantially weakened fortress was razed to make way for today’s vast open square) and a garrison, Château du Hâ (one tower remains), constructed on the city’s southern fringe. In 1495, to honour Charles VII's victory at the Battle of Fornovo and conquest of the Kingdom of Naples, the grandiose Porte Cailhau city gate was constructed by the river. Exposed to the intellectual and artistic splendours of the Renaissance during his campaign in Italy, Charles VII returned to Bordeaux brimming with a heightened desire to show off the monarchy’s increasing absolutism.

Renaissance ideas of scientific and geographic scholarship and discovery assumed a new importance, as did the value of secular matters over religious life. Bordeaux University, founded in 1441, was a hotbed of intellectual thought and activity at this time. The city parliament, existent since 1462, served as a voice-piece for the many Humanists in its ranks and it is thanks to the moderation and level-headedness of leading humanist, writer and philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533–93) – mayor of Bordeaux between 1581 and 1585 – that the city survived the Reformation and tumultuous Wars of Religion between the Huguenots (French protestants), Catholic League and Monarchy relatively unscathed.

Booming Trade: Merchandise & Slaves

In the 17th and 18th centuries Bordeaux was a thriving commercial port. Trade was initially two-way: merchant ships laden with Bordeaux wine, oil, flour, silks and other local products sailed to the West Indies and Caribbean, returning with coffee, cocoa, cotton, indigo, spices, sugar and tobacco. But all too soon, the commercial temptations of triangular trade proved too lucrative to resist. Merchandise from all over Europe was shipped from Bordeaux to ports on the East African coast where it was traded in for African people; the slave ships then continued to the Caribbean (mainly Santo Domingo) where the Africans were sold as slaves, many to work on sugar plantations. Ships returned to Bordeaux stuffed full of colonial goodies. The entire voyage took 18 months. In Bordeaux’s historic trading district of Chartrons, a memorial on the quayside remembers the first slave-trade vessel that set sail from Bordeaux in 1672 and the subsequent 500 voyages dispatched from Bordeaux until 1837, effectively deporting an estimated 150,000 Africans to the Americas. The logbook of the slave ship La Licorne, displayed in the Musée d’Aquitaine, is not a pretty read.

Modernisation & Belle Bordeaux

Urban planners razed city walls and dozens of dimly lit, narrow streets in the 18th century to transform the outdated medieval city into the elegant and belle Bordeaux in place today. Grandiose place de la Bourse (originally called place Royale), with its eminently elegant horseshoe form, was landscaped; work began in 1775 on a bridge to link the left and right banks; wide riverside quays designed for promenading at leisure were constructed; and the spectacular cupola-crowned Grand Théâtre – a model for architect Charles Garnier’s opera house in Paris – was unveiled with much pomp and ceremony in 1780. The arrival of the railway in 1837 only served to bolster port activity still further.

Bordeaux at War

During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and again at the start of WWI, when Germans threatened to advance on Paris, the French government sought refuge in Bordeaux. In June 1940, the government moved first to Tours in the Loire Valley and then Bordeaux, although this did not save the city from heavy bombings by German troops, Nazi occupation or subsequent Allied bombings during WWII. Between 1941 and 1943, the city was a key air and submarine base for the Germans who used 6000 prisoners of war to construct five reinforced-concrete submarine pens – today an exhibition and concert venue – at the port. French troops only reoccupied Bordeaux in August 1944.

Mayor Extraordinaire Twinset

Modern Bordeaux prospered under two radically progressive mayors: left-wing Gaullist Jacques Chaban-Delmas (1915–2000), who served a record-breaking eight terms, or 48 years, as Mayor of Bordeaux from 1947 until 1995; and his equally admired, right-wing successor Alain Juppé (b 1945), still in office. In September 1969 Chaban-Delmas, while serving as prime minister under French Président Georges Pompidou, famously shared his radical vision of a ‘nouvelle société’ (‘new society’) in France during a speech in the National Assembly, outlining economic and social principles that remain as pertinent half a century later. A monumental bronze statue of Chaban-Delmas stands tall in front of the cathedral on place Pey Berand.

Bordeaux experienced a dramatic renaissance under Alain Juppé (b 1945) in the 1990s, shedding the languid, Belle au Bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty) image that had quietly snuck up upon the southern French city. He pedestrianised boulevards, restored neoclassical architecture, created a high-tech public transport system and reclaimed Bordeaux's former industrial Bassin à Flots (wet docks) in the Bacalan district. In 2007, half the city (18 sq km) was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list of treasures, making it the largest urban World Heritage Site. Aquitaine's Sleeping Beauty was back in the game.