After ten years of extensive refurbishment work, the Muséum de Bordeaux - Sciences et Nature , the city’s natural history museum, will ...

After ten years of extensive refurbishment work, the Muséum de Bordeaux - Sciences et Nature, the city’s natural history museum, will be reopening to the general public on March 31st. And Invisible Bordeaux was lucky enough be given a sneak preview of what can be expected, so this way please for an exclusive heads-up! 

The rebirth of the Muséum is the latest chapter in its long history, which stretches back to the end of the 18th century when two eminent local dignitaries - the academic Professeur Latapie and the ship-owner Bernard Journu-Auber - donated their private collections to the city on the premise that they be put on public display. Bordeaux upheld that promise, initially in the Hôtel de l’Académie on Place Bardineau, before transferring the pieces to a former private mansion house, Hôtel de Lisleferme, within the grounds of the nearby Jardin Public. This move occurred in 1862 and the ever-expanding inventory of the Muséum has remained there ever since.

This is how it looked the day Invisible Bordeaux was there, but this photo will be updated shortly once the fences have been removed!
Fast-forward then to the early years of the 21st century, by which time the ageing premises were no longer fit for purpose. The decision was therefore made to renovate and extend the museum, with a view to meeting new and stringent safety norms for visitors and exhibits alike whilst enhancing the building’s green credentials, to make the visitor experience as enjoyable and accessible as possible, and to totally revise and modernize the circuit to appeal to new audiences and expectations. All of the above was to be achieved by combining the respective talents of architect Sébastien Loiseau and his agency Basalt Architecture, the Franco-German interior designers Die Werft, the local graphic design agency Studio Kubik, multimedia specialists Drôle de Trame and digital interaction agency Opixido.

The 16-million-euro overhaul eventually took the best part of a decade. That may seem like a long time, but many factors came into play, as was explained to me by Julien Diez, head of multimedia infrastructure and lighting, as we toured the Muséum: “As well as the refurbishment and redesign of the main building, a whole new 1,000-square-metre conservation unit was built from scratch on a plot of land in northern Bordeaux, near Pont d’Aquitaine suspension bridge. And the transfer alone of the million specimens that form the museum’s collection of exhibits was a long, painstaking and laborious process.”

Part of a colour-coded permanent exhibit in the reception area.
Furthermore, interior work on the main building was also delayed by a major hailstorm in May 2018 which resulted in substantial flooding and damage. This was an unexpected event which, Julien says, “had a massive impact on team morale, but everybody quickly pulled together to overcome this massive setback”. And everything is now very much on track for the museum reopening on March 31st. 

What can visitors expect? At any given time, the museum will be showcasing around 4,000 exhibits, and given the aforementioned extent of the full collection, a number of temporary (lasting four to ten months) and semi-permanent (duration of three to five years) exhibitions are planned on various themes, meaning that no two visits will ever be exactly the same. The first, long-term semi-permanent display is focused on the Aquitaine coast, utilizing modern staging techniques to highlight local species of wildlife. 

Part of the "Littoral Aquitain" exhibit.
On the top floor of the building, the impressive “Galerie Souverbie” delivers the Muséum’s permanent fixtures, featuring timeless cabinet displays that hark back to museums of old, but that are combined here with intricate lighting, modern video and cutting-edge multimedia resources that bring the exhibits in line with 21st-century technological capabilities. Julien mentions that, in all, the Muséum now boasts no less than “22 interactive terminals, 18 video displays and 10 listening stations comprising content that will be evolving over time for various audiences and events”.

Some of the permanent exhibits in the magnificent "Galerie Souverbie".
During my visit the team was trying out various lighting configurations, making for atmospheric shots such as this one!
There are many other innovations to be witnessed, and which digital communications trainee Marthe Spielmann also proudly details during our visit. One is the “Early Years Museum” area on the ground floor, “where everything in terms of messaging and format has been adapted to children aged six and under, working around the theme of gestation, birth, growth and development”. 

Inside the Early Years Museum.
Another in-house creation is what Marthe calls a “chariot de médiateur”, a tailor-made compact trolley system which museum staff can use for their talks, workshops and demonstrations, enabling
An ultra-mobile, space-saving
"chariot de médiateur"!
them to be far more mobile than previously, and freeing up more space for the exhibition proper. An additional change which has also freed up space is that all the museum’s administrative offices have been transferred to the neighbouring pavilion, meaning that in the main building almost every square inch is dedicated to the visitor experience, maximizing exhibition space and accessibility.

In fact, the Muséum has actually grown in surface area by opening up a whole new 500-square-metre exhibition area located underground, beneath the terrace area that lies in front of the building. Julien explains that this new set of rooms “will be used to host temporary exhibitions, starting out with a show entitled “Très Toucher” focused on the sense of touch, along with a look back on the renovation of the Muséum. Forthcoming exhibitions include one about laughter, and one about African wildlife”.

Down in the new basement exhibition area.
Further innovations lie behind the scenes, such as the installation of a drain water heat recovery system which is fed by pipes that cross the Jardin Public. The heat and energy extracted and harnessed from domestic waste water is regulated by heat pumps on site, and enables the Muséum to be heated during winter months and cooled during summer months, making this 18th-century building one of the most eco-friendly places around!      

Behind-the-scenes drain water heat recovery pumps!
Finally, one aspect which I have found particularly striking over recent months is the way the Muséum has embraced social media, regularly feeding their Youtube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter channels with fun and informative updates about work in progress, whether showing exactly what it takes to displace a giraffe (AKA "Kailou") or an elephant ("Miss Fanny", previously a fairground attraction, acquired by the city upon her premature death aged 33 in 1892), to one-on-one interviews with members of the 20-strong “équipe fantastique” who have brought the Muséum back to life. Do check them out, although the content available there is, like this article, just a trailer for the real thing… which is coming soon! 

> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Muséum de Bordeaux - sciences et nature / Natural History Museum, Jardin Public, Bordeaux.
> The Muséum is open every day except Mondays, 10:30-17:30 (October > March), 10:30-18:00 (April > September).
> Admission: 7 euros when temporary exhibitions are on (concessions 4 euros), 5 euros when there is no temporary exhibition (concessions 3 euros). Admission for children: 3 euros at all times.
> Big thanks to Julien Diez and Marthe Spielmann for warm welcome and the fantastic personal visit! 

> Ce dossier est également disponible en français !
> To sign off, there has been much media coverage of the Muséum in the weeks leading up to its reopening, but this Bordeaux Mag video report stands out as being a particularly good introduction: 

The third episode of the monthly Invisible Bordeaux podcast is now available for your listening pleasure and features quality French-l...

The third episode of the monthly Invisible Bordeaux podcast is now available for your listening pleasure and features quality French-language conversation with Mickaël Baubonne, the man behind the Métro de Bordeaux association, which aims to develop a metro/regional railway network in and around Bordeaux between now and 2030.

The project is seeking to resolve mobility and public transport congestion issues currently being encountered in the area, and has been built around thorough research into the subject that is detailed in a full report available online. During our conversation we touch on the feasibility, scope and scheduling of the project, as well as what makes this different to the previous VAL concept which emerged in the 1980s.

Here then is the podcast, which you'll also find on miscellaneous platforms including Anchor, Apple Podcasts/iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, PocketCasts, Podbean, RadioPublic, Overcast, Podcast Addict and Stitcher. Feel free to hit the subscribe button on the platform of your choice! And scroll on down for all the links you need to find out more about the Métro de Bordeaux initiative.

Further information about the Métro de Bordeaux project:
> Métro de Bordeaux official website:
> On social media: Twitter / Facebook 
> A public information meeting about the project will be held on Thursday April 11 2019 at 18:30 at Espace Malbec, 250 rue Malbec, Bordeaux. Follow Métro de Bordeaux's various channels for additional information.

After spotting a tweet published by one Matt Guenoux , featuring an aerial timelapse of Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle airport taking shape b...

After spotting a tweet published by one Matt Guenoux, featuring an aerial timelapse of Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle airport taking shape based on pictures available on the fantastic IGN Remonter le Temps website, I thought it might be interesting to attempt something similar for Bordeaux, and quickly came up with the idea that the Mériadeck quarter would be the perfect subject matter!

So, here's the end-product, a 1-minute compilation of aerial photos stretching over a 95-year period that shows just how much the area has changed beyond recognition, from a grid of narrow streets and low-rise homes to the esplanades, walkways and office blocks of the urban jungle with which we are now familiar, and which Invisible Bordeaux documented in an article you'll find here. Enjoy the video, and if you scroll down a little further you can read about some of the things to look out for! (Although you might have to hit pause!) 

1924: The tight grid of narrow roads that made up the old, residential Mériadeck quarter, crossed from top to bottom by rue Dauphine, which later became rue Docteur-Charles-Nancel-Pénard (one of the streets that lead onto Place Gambetta). Among the sights clearly visible and that will remain so throughout the 95-year sequence: Chartreuse cemetery and Saint-Bruno church to the left, the Palais Rohan city hall and gardens to the right of the centre, Saint-André cathedral to the right, and the Palais de Justice law courts, bottom right.

1950: The focal point of the picture is still the square-shaped Place Mériadeck, a meeting point and hive of activity for locals.

1956: To the immediate north of Place Mériadeck, a square plot has been cleared to make way for the area's first high-rise building.

1961: The Résidence du Château d'Eau tower block has gone up. It turns out to be the only building to be completed from the original plans for the district.

1965-66: Further demolition work has cleared other plots close to Résidence du Château d'Eau. To the south, new modern extensions to the Ornano fire station are built (inaugurated December 1966).

1967-70: Far more space is cleared and the rectangular Post Office building has now appeared.

1973: Place Mériadeck is wiped off the map for good. 

1976: The whole southern flank has become a building site, the first cross-shaped apartment and office blocks have appeared in the north-western corner, the circular, Guggenheim Museum-like Caisse d'Epargne building is beginning to take shape, and a huge chunk has been cut out of rue Docteur-Charles-Nancel-Pénard.

1979: New arrivals include the Mériadeck shopping centre (which opened the following year), the Gironde préfecture building and, less visible from above, the Communauté Urbaine de Bordeaux block (now Bordeaux Métropole). 

1980: Raised walkways between the different sections appear, further cross-shaped apartment blocks appear on the southern flank.

1984-85: The star- or flower-shaped Patinoire skating rink (and arena-circuit concert venue) emerges bottom left. The trees and water features of the central esplanade are clearly visible. A little further to the east, just to the north of Place Pey-Berland, the Saint-Christoly shopping centre and apartment block is being built.

1989: The Lego-brick-like Aquitaine regional offices can be spotted over by Chartreuse cemetery, while the south-eastern corner of the area now boasts Novotel and Ibis hotels. A little further to the west, the municipal library has gone up. 

1991-96: Opposite the library, the Conseil Départemental de la Gironde has installed its new premises. From this point onwards, most of the available space is occupied and new developments are few and far between.

1998-2000: The most notable addition to the area is the Richard Rogers-designed law courts over on Cours d'Albret. 

2004: Nearby, Place Pey-Berland has been closed to road traffic to accommodate the new tram network and becomes fully pedestrianized.

2010-12: The Mériadeck effect extends to the north-east, as modern apartment blocks go up across the road from the La Poste building. Judged to have aged badly, the La Croix du Mail building is demolished and makes its way for the Cité Municipale, that can be seen in the 2019 GoogleEarth shot.

Of course, there is plenty more to spot. Do get in touch if Invisible Bordeaux has missed out on something, whether vital or trivial!

> Cet article est également disponible en français !

It is 10:18pm on Thursday 24 September 1959. At Bordeaux-Mérignac airport, a Douglas DC-7C propeller-driven aircraft (the very one pi...

It is 10:18pm on Thursday 24 September 1959. At Bordeaux-Mérignac airport, a Douglas DC-7C propeller-driven aircraft (the very one pictured above, registered F-BIAP) readies for takeoff on the second leg of TAI Flight 307, the regular connection operated by the French airline Transports Aériens Intercontinentaux (TAI) between Paris and Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, via Bordeaux and Bamako in Mali. 

The Mérignac stopover has lasted two hours and everybody on board – nine crewmembers and 56 passengers – is in good spirits as the plane levels up on runway 23, the airport’s main takeoff and landing strip. There is moderate wind and a light drizzle, but visibility is fair. Chief pilot Maurice Verges and copilot Jean Bouchot are given the all-clear by air traffic control and at 22:23 the DC-7 sets off on its eight-hour flight to Bamako.

After routinely leaving the ground the aircraft ascends to an altitude of 30 metres but fails to climb any further and even starts to drop. At a spot situated just over 1,000 metres from the tip of the runway, some 2,950 metres on from its initial departure point, the plane clips some of the tall trees (22.5 metres high) that form the dense “Landes de Boulac” pine forest on the territory of the village of Saint-Jean-d’Illac. Knocked off course, the right wing becomes damaged and the plane falls to the ground, the fuselage breaks up into pieces and wreckage is instantly strewn over a distance of several hundred metres. Multiple explosions occur resulting in a number of fires which quickly spread to the trees, although the damp ground prevents the fire from extending beyond the crash site.

Top right: the tip of Mérignac airport runway 23 (or 05 if approaching in the other direction), and bottom left, the approximate crash site, much of which now comprises small industrial units. Wreckage was spread over several hundred metres, mainly to the area that lay to the right of the aircraft's trajectory (orange line). Map/satellite data: Google.
In the immediate aftermath, rescue efforts are hampered by darkness and the sheer inaccessibility of the area; the rudimentary road structure means emergency vehicles are unable to approach any closer than 800 metres to the impact site. Miraculously, twelve passengers are found to have survived, having been thrown from the aircraft. They are rushed to hospital in Bordeaux, where one will later die. The crash of TAI Flight 307 therefore ultimately results in the death of 54 people, including all crewmembers.

A picture of the crash site, with wreckage visible in the distance. Picture credited to International Magazine Service for Paris-Match/Marie-Claire, source: Amazon.
So, what happened? In the report into the investigation released by France’s Bureau Enquêtes-Accidents de l’Inspection générale de l’aviation civile, sécurité et navigation aériennes (nowadays simply referred to as the BEA, Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses), three key factors were earmarked. Firstly, the two-year-old aircraft’s lights were not in operation. This may not immediately strike you as being an issue, but it is when combined with the second factor, namely that there were also no lights on the ground in that area to enable the pilots to have a sense of how low they were. Which takes us on to the third and most critical factor of all: the pilots were not paying attention to the altimeter and therefore had absolutely no knowledge of how low they were flying.

When replicating the same conditions during a reconstruction flight in Brétigny, near Paris, the Bureau established that an increase in speed during a very short critical phase (lasting around 10 seconds beginning 40 seconds after full throttle) can considerably reduce the aircraft’s rate of climb or even cause a loss of altitude, and that with a lack of visual references the pilot “may follow a line of flight that will bring the aircraft back near the ground if, during this period, optimum climbing speed is not maintained and the altimeter is not carefully watched”.

Returning to the scene of the crash today, much of the area is occupied by small-scale industrial units, although immediately beyond that a wide expanse of farming land can be found, along with clusters of dense pine forests, much like the area where TAI Flight 307 crashed. Even now, it is easy to imagine how isolated and out-of-reach the crash site must have been in 1959, despite being so near to what was already a major airport for its time. One section of the woods where I go wandering appears to have been transformed into a makeshift rubbish dump, which doesn’t seem to be the most dignified of destinies for this historic site.

The scene in the area today, with a dense pine forest still thriving to the right.
A closer look at part of the forest of apparently young pines.
Not the most dignified of memorials...
As I’d expected, unless I missed something there is no information panel or memorial of any kind to the tragic events of September 1959 on site, but to the southern flank of Chartreuse cemetery in central Bordeaux a lasting tribute remains. For that is where you will find the final resting place of copilot Jean Bouchot (aged 32), mechanic Yves Gosse (32), trainee mechanic Raymond Savina (38), steward André Paupy (28) and air hostess Chantal Perrault de Jotemps (35), along with the remains of 14 passengers bearing the names Barge, Bordelanne, Darlan, Delaunay, Duchamp, Duhart, Dussaut, Mensah, Morris and Tanon. 

Sixty years on, this air disaster – the most deadly to have ever occurred in the area – seems to have faded into the mists of history, so hopefully this article will help keep the memory of the event alive, and possibly even raise awareness of that sad night in 1959 when a Transports Aériens Intercontinentaux DC-7C sadly failed to reach its destination. 

> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: TAI Flight 307 crash site, Boulac district, Saint-Jean d’Illac & TAI Flight 307 grave and memorial, Chartreuse cemetery, Bordeaux.
> The disaster has its own Wikipedia entry
> Information for this article was also culled from and the official BEA report of the investigation into the accident.

> Picture of the F-BIAP Douglas DC-7C from
 which features many other picture postcards issued by former airlines.  
> Ce dossier est également disponible en français.

The second episode of the monthly Invisible Bordeaux podcast is now available for your listening pleasure and features quality French-lan...

The second episode of the monthly Invisible Bordeaux podcast is now available for your listening pleasure and features quality French-language conversation with the multi-talented, multi-dimensional artist Nirina Ralantoaritsimba. 

Nirina first got in touch with me around the time she released her novel Nous sommes les ancêtres de ceux qui ne sont pas encore nés. This alone would have been a good enough reason to touch base, but I then realised she was also a film-maker (her latest offering is the short-form film Bumper) as well as operating in a number of other fields, from painting and calligraphy to tuition! 

Here then is the podcast, which you'll also find on miscellaneous platforms including Anchor, Apple Podcasts/iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, PocketCasts, RadioPublic, Overcast, Podcast Addict and Stitcher. Feel free to hit the subscribe button on the platform of your choice! And scroll on down for all the links you need to delve into the wonderful world of Nirina Ralantoaritsimba! 

Click here if player does not display properly on your device.

> Nirina's official website with a full overview of her output is here:

> You can find the ebook version of her novel, Nous sommes les ancêtres de ceux qui ne sont pas encore nés, over on Librinova or via other outlets including FNAC. Paper copies can be ordered directly from Nirina by email (nirinaralanto[a]

> For up-to-date information about Bumper (Le Créneau in French) check out the film's Facebook page or else Nirina's website.

> Nirina's web series Mon week-end chez Mémé, Scribo and many other videos are available on her Youtube channel

> Information about Nirina's writing workshops and lessons is available here:

While it may have been relatively quiet here on the blog, the Invisible Bordeaux machine has in fact been very busy behind the scenes, h...

While it may have been relatively quiet here on the blog, the Invisible Bordeaux machine has in fact been very busy behind the scenes, hard at work developing a couple of new and exciting outlets. And it gives me great pleasure to reveal the first of those new channels: we give you the Invisible Bordeaux podcast! Hurrah!

The concept is straightforward: microphone in hand, I will be getting out and about, meeting local movers and shakers from all walks of life, to talk about their personal paths and projects, or to get their take on all things Bordeaux- and Gironde-related. Art, culture, history, local heritage, politics, sport... you name it, anything goes. There may even be a bit of wine talk from time to time! 

The podcast will be a monthly beast (new releases around the 10th of each month), and primarily available in French... albeit with a few extra-special, eminently collectible all-English-language episodes also on the cards!
This first episode sees me in conversation with my occasional road-trip travelling companion, Vincent Bart, now best-known as one of the mysterious individuals behind the Front de Libération Bordeluche face au Parisianisme social media accounts, who have become the go-to source for opinionated analysis of everything from local infrastructure to property prices and the weather. You can listen to the show by clicking on the play button you should be able to see just above, and you'll also find the Invisible Bordeaux podcast on platforms including Anchor, Apple Podcasts/iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, PocketCasts, RadioPublic, Overcast, Podcast Addict and Stitcher, with others coming soon. Listen, subscribe, enjoy! 

The Invisible Bordeaux blog was launched seven years ago, on December 1st 2011, and ever since has delivered a steady succession of arti...

The Invisible Bordeaux blog was launched seven years ago, on December 1st 2011, and ever since has delivered a steady succession of articles, interviews and reports about some of the city’s lesser-known sights, stories and people. 

Right now, as a direct result of what the blog has become over the years, no less than three separate Invisible Bordeaux-related projects are taking shape behind the scenes, and I am very much looking forward to unveiling the various spin-offs from early 2019 onwards. I’m not going to reveal too much for now, but rest assured some interesting formats, encounters and stories are being developed and will soon be coming your way! 

Soooo, over the coming weeks, on the various Invisible Bordeaux social media channels, I will be promoting some archive reports that are hidden away in the depths of the blog… while working hard on what comes next! 

Enjoy (re-)discovering these past items via the Invisible Bordeaux social media accounts, and watch this space for the next chapters in the Invisible Bordeaux story!  

> Stay tuned by following Invisible Bordeaux on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram!  

After occasionally bumping into tour guide Marie Hallier at various functions in Bordeaux and featuring an article she had written abou...

After occasionally bumping into tour guide Marie Hallier at various functions in Bordeaux and featuring an article she had written about the colour of the Garonne river on the blog, Marie suggested we team up, along with Bordeaux Expats’ Mike Foster, for a day travelling along the right bank of the Gironde estuary. 

Having recently returned from a cycling tour of that area, I was keen to go back and take in some of the sights I may have missed the first time round. Along with Mike, we were also very much looking forward to spending some quality time in the company of a renowned guide whose territory stretches from Bordeaux to the Médoc and the Bassin d’Arcachon, and who has become especially regarded as an authority on the north bank of the Gironde estuary and the wine-growing (and brandy production) area around Cognac. 

And so it was that we joined forces at our designated meeting spot near an exit of the A10 motorway, and hopped into Marie’s people-carrier heading for our first stop, Saint-Georges-de-Didonne, just to the south of Royan. Together we admired Phare de Villières lighthouse and the stone memorial to the Operation Frankton commando raid on Bordeaux (a recurring theme on the blog of late) before driving south to the other side of the “Conche de Saint-Georges”, in other words the bay where the town of Saint-Georges has developed, and on to the Pointe de Suzac, the very spot where the Gironde estuary and the Atlantic ocean merge… although that merger is very much tangible: Marie pointed out the line in the waters where the Gironde’s distinctive brown turns to sea blue!

So this is where the estuary ends and the ocean begins.
But the treasures of the strategically-located Pointe de Suzac extended far beyond the spectacular view: we first ventured into the open remains of a Napoleonic-era guard house and gunpowder magazine before exploring a whole battery of bunkers which were a component of the extensive Atlantikwall means of monitoring and protecting the coastline during Germany’s occupation of the area during the Second World War. The then heavily-protected zone (surrounded by minefields), which became the so-called “poche de Royan” of German resistance post-Liberation, was bombed by off-shore Allied forces in 1945. The Germans stationed here finally surrendered on April 15th 1945.

The Napoleonic guard house and gunpowder magazine. 
From then on the area was first abandoned before being turned into a children’s playground and then a motocross track! In more recent years the local council has gradually turned it into a peaceful rambler's paradise, with its hiking trails and viewpoints. Of course, the Atlantikwall bunkers won’t be going anywhere in a hurry, and we peeked inside a number of them, trying to imagine what life must have been like for the German troops here back in the day. 


Marie’s next plan was to make our way to the scenic village of Talmont-sur-Gironde, via the small resort and marina of Meschers and past the wild bay comprising what Googlemaps labels successively as Banc de Dau et Banc du Bœuf. The ecosystem there is evolving as the area becomes more and more heavily silted over time.

As Talmont had been a stop on my recent cycling tour, again I was looking forward to hearing Marie’s take on some of the more unusual aspects of the village. She didn’t disappoint, sharing tales of the routines of Talmont’s sole remaining fisherman, revealing abandoned plans made first by the Americans to transform the village into a massive military port, and then by the French to convert it into an oil terminal, showing what remains of a lane which separated the Catholic and Protestant graveyards, and explaining the story and symbolism behind the “ex-voto” model boat which hangs from the ceiling in Sainte-Radegonde church. She even gave background information as to why Sainte Radegonde was such an emblematic figure in Charente-Maritime. Other subjects which were raised were the effects of erosion, the canal lock system, recycled cannonballs, disappearing sundials, how a carrelet fishing hut raised money for charity, and the special relationship between Talmont and handcrafted weather vanes. Needless to say, Mike and I were impressed! 

Clockwise from top left: the only fisherman in the village's boat, warnings of erosion, the ex-voto suspended boat, and Mike inspecting the canal lock system.
Back in the people-carrier we were now headed towards Mortagne-sur-Gironde but stopped en route to take in one of Marie’s favourite views over the estuary, at a spot where we were also able to observe the effects of “poldérisation” (the reclaiming of land): after low-lying agricultural land became flooded in 1999, the decision was made to let nature take its course once again, and the resulting marshland is now home to a wealth of fauna and flora. 

Arriving in Mortagne-sur-Gironde, we headed to the heights of the port town, to take in another cracking view over the estuary and to inspect an unusual hand-shaped monument celebrating the achievements of the Welsh prince and soldier Owain Lawgoch (Owain of the Red Hand), who fought for the French against the English in the Hundred Years’ War, notably during the siege of Mortagne castle. The story arguably merits its own Invisible Bordeaux investigation sometime in the future!

But the best was yet to come, as we made our way down to estuary level to visit the rather unique Saint-Martial hermitage. There we and other visitors were greeted by two enthusiastic volunteer tour guides, Patricia and François, who proceeded to theatrically walk us through the site, which began as a hermitage in medieval times, became a monastery in the 18th century and then a shepherd’s haven, before opening to visitors passing through from the early 1900s onwards. And, unusually, the various rooms are either natural caves or were hand-carved out of the cliff-face.

The visit started out with the steep 25-metre climb to the circular bell tower perched at the top of the cliff, reached via a tall, narrow stone staircase. Then it was on to the prayer room and the “salle d’eau” (fed in the past by freshwater springs which have since dried up, although another one has recently been discovered). Throughout, Patricia and François exuded plenty of excess energy which was part contagious and part mystifying, although they took things to a whole new level when we reached the small but very impressive chapel. 

As we entered, we were promised a “son et lumière” show, the first chapter of which was Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah being played through a Bluetooth speaker hidden behind the solid stone altar. Patricia tried to get everyone to join in on the choruses, making for a bit of an uncomfortable, half-hearted sing-song with complete strangers. Then, after François had noisily slammed the door shut in full-on escape game mode, we were treated to various combinations of pulley-operated open and closed slats, demonstrating how the original creators of the chapel played with direct and indirect sunlight. There was much scripted talk of acoustics, statues and stone (often the two clearly lovestruck guides speaking in perfect unison), and the whole experience was as interesting as it was at times surreal. Mike and I were slightly shell-shocked as we got back into Marie’s people-carrier, but we also realized that we had been given an insider’s glimpse into one of the most surprising sights in the whole region.

We felt strangely lucky, privileged even, and were now homeward bound, driving back to where we had met up a few hours earlier. Even the commuting had proved to be an engaging experience: between the various stops there had been much fascinating conversation about Marie’s life as a tour guide, working with travel agencies, tourism offices, cruise ships and private groups, the ever-escalating importance of social media, the relatively unregulated tour guide marketplace in Bordeaux and the unlevel playing field of having to compete with unlicenced cash-in-hand counterparts, and many more subjects besides! 

After we had said our goodbyes, Mike and I reflected on the undeniable added value of having a bona fide guide to lead the way. Marie’s mission was truly accomplished and she can now proudly add the unofficial “Approved by Invisible Bordeaux and Bordeaux Expats” label to her enviable list of qualifications!

> Marie Hallier’s various tours are detailed on her website,, and she can also be found on Facebook and Twitter
> Marie Hallier has also co-authored an excellent guide to the estuary, “Je découvre l’estuaire de la Gironde”, published by La Geste Girondine (pictured here). 
> Photography was not allowed inside the chapel of Saint-Martial hermitage, but a few pictures can be seen online here.  
> Ce dossier est également disponible en français !

As you may have gathered, Bordeaux is making regular appearances in easyJet Traveller, the in-flight magazine available on board all easy...

As you may have gathered, Bordeaux is making regular appearances in easyJet Traveller, the in-flight magazine available on board all easyJet aircraft as they criss-cross Europe in all directions. 

Throughout October 2018, the subject is so-called ghost signs, faded handpainted signs and advertisements that have somehow managed to survive the test of time... and one of the recurring themes on the Invisible Bordeaux blog over the years!

Five of the city's prettiest signs feature in this "listicle", which is a pleasing case of old-school communications and design finding their way into the hands of modern-day travellers!

> You can read the full article by clicking here:
> The full October 2018 issue of easyJet Traveller magazine can be viewed here:

A Sud Ouest article about a solemn ceremony recently held in Cestas to remember the victims of a massive forest fire which occurred ba...

A Sud Ouest article about a solemn ceremony recently held in Cestas to remember the victims of a massive forest fire which occurred back in 1949 prompted Invisible Bordeaux to research the background to this tragic event, which claimed 82 lives.

The story begins around lunchtime on Friday 19th August 1949 at the Pioton sawmill in an area known as Le Murat, mid-way between Saucats and Marcheprime, 30 kilometres to the south-east of Bordeaux. A warden there was lying in his bed and fell asleep while smoking a cigarette (although some accounts suggest it was an unattended stove). The hut caught fire and the flames quickly spread to the rest of the sawmill. The column of smoke was soon spotted from the tall lookout towers in nearby Biganos, Béliet and Cabanac.

This dirt track leads towards Le Murat, where the fire started. Today it is part of the GR655 "Grande Randonnée" path.
The first people on the scene were armed with nothing more than tree branches to attempt to put out the fire, and could do nothing to prevent the flames from gaining momentum and covering further ground. The surrounding trees and bushes, which were particularly dry after a third consecutive summertime heatwave, quickly went up in smoke too.

In these post-war years, the forests in the area were poorly-maintained, dense (resin production was lucrative) and not especially accessible, and fire-fighting methods and resources were far from efficient. There were rushed attempts to set up fireproofing means to stop the wildfire spreading further, but the flames were having none of it and, fanned by strong north-eastern winds, were progressing rapidly towards Le Barp to the south-west. By now, the frontline of the fire stretched five kilometres across, and additional attempts were made to contain its progress. However, overnight, the winds changed direction, prompting the forest fire to make rapid headway, this time in a westerly direction, covering up to four kilometres per hour and soon threatening the villages of Salles and Mios.  

Fighting the flames armed with buckets of water and branches. Source: INA video.
Homes and barns going up in smoke. Source: Sud Ouest.
Then, by mid-morning on Saturday 20th August, it was thought that the forest fire had finally been brought under control when, suddenly, the winds changed direction once more, continued to gain strength and sent the flames back in a north-easterly direction. The forest fire picked up yet again, this time more powerfully than ever, including in areas where the flames had previously died down. Over the course of an incredible 20-minute spell, the fire engulfed 6,000 hectares of land, instantly and horrifically killing 82 firefighters who had been working to contain the fire on its northern flank. The victims were mainly volunteers from the surrounding villages, some civil servants employed by the Eaux et Forêts State department, and 23 soldiers from a field regiment stationed in Châtellerault, central France. Only seven people survived what instantly became – and still remains – France’s deadliest-ever forest fire.

Engulfed by smoke and flames. Source: INA video.
Throughout that afternoon, the pillar of smoke could be seen from points up to 100 kilometres away and the whole of Bordeaux and its surrounding area were plunged into other-worldly darkness by 5pm (streetlights had to be switched on unusually early that day). Around 10pm, the winds finally dropped and two danger zones remained near Léognan and the Pierroton district of Cestas, but on the whole the situation was now under control, and the final remaining flames were extinguished on Thursday 25th August, following on from a day of national mourning held on the 24th. In all, 50,000 hectares’ worth of pine forest had burnt down along with 710 hectares of bushland. According to contemporary reports (which put the overall death tally at 106), “hundreds” of farms had been destroyed and thousands of villagers had been driven from their homes (more recent accounts state that 60 homes burnt down).

The French head of government, Henri Queuille, was present at the mass funeral held a few days after the fire had subsided. Proceedings were led by the Archbishop of Paris, Monseigneur Feltin, and alongside the villagers were firemen from Kent in south-eastern England, who had been drafted in to support rescue operations in the area.

Dignitaries, mourners and Kent firemen at the funeral ceremony. Source: INA video.
Understandably, for those who had been directly and indirectly affected by the wildfires, life would never be the same again. In comments posted beneath an authoritative online account of the events (on geographer Christophe Neff's blog "Paysages"), one person recalls being 12 years old and losing his older brother in the tragedy – the latter had been carrying out his military service with the army regiment in Châtellerault when he was assigned to these fateful firefighting duties. Another writes about his father, Jean-Max Salzmann, a military ambulance driver who the Army sent into the area alone with his vehicle to rescue people from the villages which had become encircled by flames. Initially feared dead, Salzmann eventually made it home again, but was one of just three of his 30-strong team to make it out alive. He and his counterparts had however enabled dozens of lives to be saved.

All of the villages which the 1949 forest fire almost wiped out – Cestas, Saucats, Marcheprime and Mios – have, over the years, got back on their feet and been able to flourish. The forests have grown back, no doubt taking into account recommendations about organization and a diversified choice of species made by one Pierre Allemand in related articles published by la Revue Forestière Française in 1950. (See archive copies here and here).

Back in the area, the forest fire is a distant memory. Cornfields on the left and pines on the right: diversity at work and a far cry from the dense, resin-heavy pine forests of yesteryear.
But some observers have been vocal in their assessment that the tragic events have almost been erased from the collective consciousness (which is possibly the reason why it has taken so long for the subject to be featured on Invisible Bordeaux…). In recent years, that particular wrong has been partially righted by the release in 2009 of a benchmark publication, Joan Deville’s “L’incendie meurtrier – dans la forêt des Landes en août 1949”, which delivers a definitive overview of the forest fire and the firefighting methods used, as well as compiling the biographical data of every one of the 82 victims.

And, to bring us full circle back to the start of this article, two memorials have been erected alongside the D1010 road mid-way between Cestas and Le Barp, in an area known as Le Puch, not far from Le Murat. The more formal, ceremonial and imposing of the two (pictured above) comprises a haunting bas-relief that depicts the doomed firefighters in amongst the flames. It also lists the names of the locals who perished in what the monument refers to as a “cataclysme atmosphérique”, grouping them according to the communities they came from: Cestas, Léognan, Saucats, Villenave d’Ornon and Talence. The second is a more minimalist, organic pinewood offering, positioned around the spot where most lost their lives. It calls on observers to “respect and protect the forest to honour the memory of the 82 heroes”. Hear hear.

Leaving the area: a lookout tower and a warning sign serve as a reminder of the constant threat that fire represents.
> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Forest fire memorials, D1010, Cestas.
> Much of the information in this piece was initially detailed and shared by the geographer Christophe Neff on his blog "Paysages", in items available here and here.  
> An incredibly detailed account of the events, including further photos and a map showing the ground covered by the fire, can be found on a personal website here. The site also includes a list of the victims and pictures of further memorials in Canéjan and Cestas, here.
> Ce dossier est également disponible en français.

After cycling to Mirambeau , on to Royan and back down to Saint-Seurin-de-Cadourne , it was on to our home straight, although the fi...

After cycling to Mirambeau, on to Royan and back down to Saint-Seurin-de-Cadourne, it was on to our home straight, although the first stop on this, our final day, meant a short eastward detour via Saint Germain d'Esteuil to pay a visit to the Domaine de Brion where ruins of Gallo-Roman-era edifices – a theatre, dwellings and a temple – sit silently in amongst the trees and marshland pastures. 

Back in the 1st century AD, this area was still an island, rising above the surrounded waters which have subsided and been irrigated over time. In all likelihood, a whole settlement spread in all directions, and the eminent 19th-century archaeologist Léo Drouyn believed that the area may have been known as Noviomagus, as referred to in Claudius Ptolemy’s Geography, which around 150 AD exhaustively compiled all geographical knowledge of the 2nd-century Roman Empire.

We started out by inspecting the remains of the theatre, which expert estimates suggest could have stretched to a diameter of around 55 metres and held around 2,500 spectators. This is difficult to believe when looking at the isolated sections which have somehow survived all these years, but still we enjoyed picturing the scene, imagining spectators streaming through the archways and up into the stands. To one side stood a more angular formation, which is what remains of a second-generation construction, a medieval-period tower inhabited by a knight who had been banished to the area after seeking to exact money from locals. The tower had been built from stone used for the theatre!

The remains of the theatre.
Advancing a little further into the wild, we viewed what is little more than the foundation structure of two homes, which are resolutely facing the same direction, suggesting some form of urban planning which may arguably have been applied to other Noviomagus buildings. Indeed, also facing the same direction is what remains of a full-on temple, which was reportedly destroyed by fire in the 3rd century and pillaged over subsequent years. Digs carried out in 1989 and 1991 unearthed a significant number of objects, including a number of bronze statuettes that paid homage to Gallo-Roman pagan gods. 

Gallo-Roman housing.
Inspecting the temple.
So why did this hive of activity fade into nothingness? That is a question for historians to deal with but, if our experience is anything to go by, we had to make our time on site as short as was humanly possible because, given the moist environment, we had to contend with the most humongous, aggressive and hungry mosquitoes we think we’ve ever encountered. It became so unbearable that we barely had the time to read the faded information panels, let alone explore the ruins for ourselves. Did flying insects bring down the Roman Empire’s presence in the Médoc then? Whatever, this little-known place deserves greater exposure, something that local authorities are unable to adequately fund at the time of writing.

Using the nearby north-south railway line as our guide, we glided fairly effortlessly to our next port of call, the picturesque, semi-perched village of Vertheuil. As peaceful as it was on this springtime Saturday mid-morning, it had clearly geared itself up for its steady trickle of visitors passing through, with a series of ten information panels dotted around the centre, providing stories of bygone times and archive yesteryear photos of the village as it used to be. The small-scale heritage trail, known as Le Musée dans la Rue (museum in the streets), takes in predictable sights such as the war memorial, a small fortified castle, the village hall, the church and its neighbouring abbey. But it also taps into some of the fixtures of village life including the bakery, hairdressers and butchers. It is a fine initiative that makes grassroots history instantly accessible to tourists.

Vertheuil fortifications.
We were then magnetically drawn to the largest community in that central Médoc area, the town of Saint-Laurent-Médoc. There was more life about the place there than anywhere we had encountered since Soulac-sur-Mer. Despite being located some 45 kilometres to the north of Bordeaux, the town is now viewed by many as being inside the city’s commuter belt. But while we were tucking into locally-purchased food sat on a bench on the church square, we spotted a coach service to Bordeaux picking up passengers. Watching people saying their goodbyes, the city still felt a long way away. Just as we were about to leave Saint-Laurent, we stopped outside a café and were about to set up shop on the establishment’s terrace with a view to enjoying a pick-me-up combination of coffee and soft drinks. The café staff turned us away, claiming the late-lunchtime hour meant the place was now out-of-bounds for patrons. Feeling simultaneously thirsty, rejected and ever so slightly dejected, we got back on our bikes.      

The most logical route hereon would have meant cycling along the hard shoulder of a busy dual carriageway, so we instead looped around to the hamlet of Benon where, to our immense surprise, in the leafy environment niched in behind a fairly anonymous housing estate lay a remarkable 12th-century country church, Eglise Notre-Dame de Benon. We ventured inside and enjoyed the respite delivered by the cool air there, before trying to make sense of one of the wordiest, most incomprehensible memorials I think anyone has ever positioned anywhere in the world. It appeared to commemorate a service held there in remembrance of a Maltese dignitary who died in a plane crash nearby in 1991. The story certainly appeared to merit further research, but we were all so exhausted from just trying to read the panel that we were reluctant to take things to the next level. We went back outside and instead admired the three church bells visible up high, and which alone provide an instant journey through time, cast as they were in 1776, 1873 and 1886. The eldest (and smallest) of the three bells is even listed as an historic monument.

And the Invisible Bordeaux award for the most incomprehensible plaque EVER goes to...
The linear route then took us through another mid-sized town, Castelnau-de-Médoc (where we were at last able to buy in some drinks!), and on to our final brief stop, outside Saint-Raphaël chapel. This tiny place of worship was built here around the late 15th century on the spot that, in 1375, saw the birth of one Pey Berland to a father who was a labourer from nearby Avensan and a mother who was a peasant from Moulis. In spite of these humble roots, Berland was educated by a local notary before being sent to a clerical school in Bordeaux after the death of his father, then to university in Toulouse. Returning to Bordeaux, he became a priest in Bouliac to the south-east of the city around 1412. He went on to become secretary to the Archbishop of Bordeaux, travelling around France, Italy and England in this capacity, before Pope Martin V appointed him Archbishop of Bordeaux on August 13th 1430.

Pey Berland subsequently went on to become one of the most influential of all figures in medieval Bordeaux, and much of what he instigated (at a time when the city was in profound moral and economic turmoil) continues to live on today. The aptly-named Tour Pey-Berland, the cathedral’s bell tower, the construction of which began under his authority in 1440 (it was completed in 1500), is the lasting landmark which is most naturally associated with him, but he is also responsible for the founding of the original University of Bordeaux (in 1441), Saint-André hospital and a number of secondary schools. Pey Berland, we therefore salute you, as does the virgin mother and child statue positioned at the very top of Tour Pey-Berland, which symbolically faces in the direction of Saint-Raphaël.

By now we were barely ten kilometres from our Saint-Aubin-de-Médoc basecamp. Four days of virtually continuous cycling had taken their toll and our average speed over the final stretch was certainly nothing to get overly excited about, but there was a definite sense of job very much done as we turned back into our street. Via Margaux, Lamarque, Blaye, Mirambeau, Talmont-sur-Gironde, Saint-Georges-de-Didonne, Royan, Le Verdon-sur-Mer, Soulac-sur-Mer, Jau-Dignac-et-Loirac, Saint-Seurin-de-Cadourne, Vertheuil, Saint-Laurent-Médoc, Castelnau-de-Médoc and many more places in-between, we had cycled all the way up one bank of the Gironde estuary and back down the other, and life on the saddle of a bicycle doesn’t get much better than that.

Gironde Estuary cycle tour day 4 mapped out.
And, in case you missed them, here is where you can rewind to day 1, day 2 and day 3 of the Gironde estuary cycle tour!