Bordeaux is not a city that is naturally associated with bullfighting and yet for many years it had its very own Plaza de Toros in ...

The Bordeaux bullring circuit: Arènes du Bouscat to Floirac and La Brède

Bordeaux is not a city that is naturally associated with bullfighting and yet for many years it had its very own Plaza de Toros in the north-western suburb of Le Bouscat. And even today, the bullfighting tradition lives on in nearby La Brède once a year.

Let’s begin though by rewinding to 1863, when a bullring was set up in the Caudéran area of Bordeaux by a Spaniard named Lopez Vincent: les Arènes Bordelaises. A second, La Benatte, was opened in 1899 in  the Saint Seurin quarter. They operated until the early years of the 20th century, ahead of the more substantial Arènes du Bouscat being opened on May 8th 1921.
The Le Bouscat venue’s 25 stands could hold 10,500 spectators and, as well as being used for corrida meetings, the 41-metre-diameter ring was also used as a backdrop for concerts and wrestling bouts. From 1951 onwards, under the impetus of the renowned promoter Vicente Jorda, a prestigious bullfighting contest known as “L’Oreille d’Or” was held annually.

Pictured right is the legendary bullfighter Antoñete at the Arènes du Bouscat in July 1953, on his way to winning the first of three “Oreille d’Or” titles (he also won in 1955 and 1956). Meanwhile, rare Pathé footage of a 1950 bullfight in progress can be viewed here.

The last “Oreille d’Or” contest was held on June 18th 1961, shortly before the venue was closed down. It had fallen into a state of disrepair and the coup de grâce was reportedly the collapse of a staircase that resulted in the death of a spectator. There were several attempts to save the arena but it was eventually demolished in 1970, making way for a major residential complex that is aptly known as “Les Arènes”. The centrepiece of Les Arènes is a 1974 pink granite sculpture by Israeli artist Shelomo Selinger entitled “La Tauromachie” (see top picture), which harks back to the confrontations between man and beast that took place at that exact spot.

Bullfighting then faded into obscurity in the area until 1985, when meetings began to be held again in Captieux, 85 kilometres to the south of Bordeaux. Corridas are still organised there annually and frequently draw big-name matadors: in 2011, the star attraction was the world number one, El Juli.

Then, in 1988, a dismountable structure was erected in Floirac, in the immediate suburbs of Bordeaux. The venue, which prided itself in its status as the northernmost bullring in the world, was known as Plaza de Goya. The “temporary” 7,000-capacity structure remained in place for almost 20 years (!), before being auctioned off for 35,000 euros in November 2006.

The stands are now used in Fenouillet, to the north of Toulouse, although, at the time of writing, the Floirac arena was still visible on the GoogleMaps satellite picture of the area (right). The arena most definitely is no more though: apartments have now been built in its place and, as in Le Bouscat, the name of the building is a clear reference to the bullring history of its location: Résidence Plaza de Goya.

Meanwhile, in 1999, some 20 kilometres to the south of Bordeaux the small town of La Brède (the birthplace of the writer and thinker Montesquieu) began hosting well-attended bullfighting meetings as part of wider festivities known as la Fête de la Rosière in a temporary structure on an expanse of land known as Pré de l’Espérance.

For a time around 2004, as had already been the case in 1989, there was even talk of a permanent bullfighting venue being built in La Brède, whose mayor Michel Dufranc is a bullfighting enthusiast. But the project was not deemed financially viable by the prospective Spanish investors, who also backed out of a competing project in Floirac, no doubt to the delight of numerous local animal rights campaigners (such as the Collectif Girondin Contre les Arènes, or COGICA).

The La Brède festivities continue to take place every last weekend in June. The name of the event is in reference to the annual crowning (since 1824) of the “Rosière” that rewards the town’s “most virtuous young woman” (candidates are all aged 18). The bullfights are generally “novilladas”, combats between young toreros and young bulls, and the programme also features traditional “jeux de vaches landaises”, which are mayhem-filled contests that involve men (and sometimes women) running, jumping and employing improvised acrobatics around the ring to avoid getting hurt by visibly annoyed cows.

Pré de l'Espérance in the foreground, with La Brède's Église St Jean d'Étampes in the distance.

At the time of writing, there is talk of the municipally-owned land being used to build a privately-funded and privately-run multi-purpose venue that would incorporate its own dismountable 3,000-capacity bullfighting arena… but the project has not been welcomed with open arms by locals who have thus far been kept in the dark about the finer details of the venture. In the meantime, this is how La Brède goes about transforming the Pré de l’Espérance once a year:

> Find them on the Invisible Bordeaux map: 75, Avenue du Président Schuman, Le Bouscat, Rue Léo Lagrange, Floirac, Pré de l'Espérance, La Brède
> Read the French-language memories of two writers recalling events at the Le Bouscat and Floirac bullrings.
> And here is British Pathé footage of bullfighting in Bordeaux in 1950: 

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In the residential quarters of Bordeaux and its immediate suburbs, the streets are dotted with single-storey houses that all shar...

Échoppes bordelaises: the low-rise fixture on the city's skyline

In the residential quarters of Bordeaux and its immediate suburbs, the streets are dotted with single-storey houses that all share a similar design, and yet are all somehow unique: échoppes bordelaises.

The word itself has Occitan roots, descending from “choppa”, which was used in reference to a shop or workshop. As far back as the 15th century, “échoppes” in Bordeaux provided a home and working environment for shop-owners and craftsmen. It is from the 18th century onwards that the city’s échoppes began to be used solely as townhouses, with the lion’s share of the city’s 11,000 échoppes being built between 1850 and 1930. In many districts, they were traditionally inhabited by the working classes (particularly near Saint-Jean station, where many of the railway workers, les cheminots, set up home), although over the years the social lines have become blurred – many are now clearly bourgeois townhouses.

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One of the essentials on the city centre tour of Bordeaux is the central Place Pey Berland square and the 66-metre-tall Pey-Berland be...

Saint-Raphaël: the hamlet Pey Berland called home

One of the essentials on the city centre tour of Bordeaux is the central Place Pey Berland square and the 66-metre-tall Pey-Berland belfry, from which visitors can take in one of the best views of the “Port de la Lune”. But Pey Berland’s birthplace was actually a tiny hamlet on the territory of Avensan in the Médoc, 26 kilometres to the north-west of the city: Saint-Raphaël.

First things first though. Who was Pey Berland? Pey (Pierre, or Peter, in Gascon) was born in 1375 to a father who was a labourer from Avensan and a mother who was a peasant from Moulis. In spite of these humble roots, he 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.

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Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate defeated by Barack Obama in the 2012 US presidential elections, has often acknowledged his affi...

Place du Maucaillou: Mitt Romney’s Bordeaux connection

Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate defeated by Barack Obama in the 2012 US presidential elections, has often acknowledged his affinity with France and all things French. In this article and the twin feature on Invisible Paris, we lift the lid on Romney's French connections...

The language and the knowledge of the country is something he picked up during a two-and-a-half-year stint as a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints missionary to France in the late 1960s, including six months spent in Bordeaux. During that time he and fellow Mormon missionary Steven Bang lived in an apartment at number 4, Place du Maucaillou, in the vicinity of the ever-lively Capucins market. He was stationed there as a 20-year-old from January 1968, after time spent in the northern cities of Le Havre and Brest, and ahead of a six-month stay in Paris.

Agence France Presse recently quoted 79-year-old André Salarnier, the former head of the Mormon chapel in Talence, recalling Romney as being a “big and charismatic fellow” who would “often come to our house for meals and lapped up my wife’s Breton crêpes”... as well as her coq au vin according to some sources. Salarnier also remembers him as being a “natural leader and a charming young man who was very open and very much a Francophile”.

On top of the daily routine of prayer, study and door-to-door evangelisation as a two-man unit with Steven Bang, Romney’s leadership qualities saw him take on additional responsibilities when he was chosen to oversee the work of fellow missionaries throughout south-western France. The pair also became amateur firefighters on one occasion when out driving near Bordeaux. Bang remembers them noticing a building which was on fire. Romney instantly decided to head straight for the building which they entered in order to help with the evacuation effort.

The view today from Romney's front door in Bordeaux.
Romney was in Bordeaux when the mass strikes of May 1968 broke out, bringing the whole country to a standstill. Mormon missionaries were dependent on funds that were sent from the US (they lived on $110 per month), but the money was drying up. Romney sought alternative means of obtaining the much-needed cash by travelling down to Spain to withdraw money from banks there.

On June 16th 1968, Romney was involved in a serious car crash which occurred in Bernos-Beaulac, 75 kilometres to the south of Bordeaux. He was at the wheel of the car which was bringing Mormon French mission president Duane Anderson and others back from Pau, where a small Mormon congregation had been in dispute.

Their vehicle was hit head-on by a car driven by a Catholic priest, Albert Marie, and Anderson’s wife Leola was killed instantly. Romney, who has always maintained he was not at fault (witnesses claimed Albert Marie was drunk when the crash took place), was seriously injured. He was even initially feared dead; the policeman who first reported to the scene allegedly wrote “Il est mort” (he is dead), in Romney’s passport. 

At hospital he came out of a coma. Four days later he was on a Paris-bound train in a carriage that had been chartered by the Church. Ambulances were even authorised onto the platforms at Bordeaux Saint-Jean Station to drop off Romney and Anderson. (This "VIP" treatment was attributed to the fact that Romney's father, George W. Romney, was Governor of Michigan and had until recently been one of the frontrunners in the race to become the Republican party's candidate in the 1968 presidential election.)

In December 2011, Romney told supporters in New Hampshire about his time in France, which he described as “not exactly a Third World country” but adding that “most of the apartments I lived in had no refrigerators”. Was it his Place du Marcaillou residence which he recalled when talking about the “little pads on the ground” he would use in the absence of a working lavatory, adding that “there was a chain behind you with a bucket”?

Bathing facilities were also rudimentary according to Romney: “If we were lucky, we actually bought a hose and we stuck it on the sink... and washed ourselves that way.” He also recalled saying to himself that “Wow, I sure am lucky to have been born in the United States of America”.

Well, that could be how he experienced Bordeaux, or indeed Le Havre or Brest… but possibly does not correspond to the living quarters he went on to enjoy in the capital’s chic 16th arrondissement. Invisible Paris takes up the story here… 

> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Place du Maucaillou: Mitt Romney's former living quarters 
> Subsequent Invisible Bordeaux item published about the Mormon chapel in Talence 
> Car crash photos credited to André Salarnier 
> Ce dossier est également disponible en français !  

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The name is misleading! Impasse de Rue Neuve features some of the oldest properties in Bordeaux, not to mention cobblestones th...

Impasse de Rue Neuve: nothing new!

The name is misleading! Impasse de Rue Neuve features some of the oldest properties in Bordeaux, not to mention cobblestones that have been in position since the 17th century. The name was actually coined in reference to the then-new mansion houses (“oustaus” in Gascon) that were built by noble families on neighbouring Rue Neuve around the Renaissance period.

Pictured above to the right, just beyond the archway, is the city’s oldest house, which historians consider to have been built in the 14th or 15th century. All that remains of the original fortified structure is a single wall and its Gothic-style twin arched windows. The ground-floor carriage entrance has long-since been bricked up. It is believed that the house once belonged to the powerful Soler family, who tussled for many years with the rival Colom family for influence in Bordeaux.

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