Bordeaux is naturally associated with the Garonne, but historically the city developed along the banks of two smaller rivers which ran i...

Underground, overground: tracking the river Devèze from Mérignac to Bordeaux

Bordeaux is naturally associated with the Garonne, but historically the city developed along the banks of two smaller rivers which ran into the Garonne: the Devèze and the Peugue. Both streams continue to flow but, in central Bordeaux, have been driven underground. Invisible Bordeaux decided to follow the course of the Devèze to find out what remains of this significant river today.

The Devèze emerges from the undergrowth in Mérignac, just east of the runway of Mérignac airport. The source is easy to locate: a prominent permanent advert for the Sexy Center sex shop can be seen nearby! Whilst in its infancy, the Devèze runs behind a number of nondescript office buildings and bus depots. A path runs alongside it but there are a number of obstacles along the way… cyclists take note!
The point where the Devèze emerges from the ground, easily located (possibly even from planes coming in to land)
thanks to the Sexy Center ad nearby!
Less than one kilometre downstream, next to a Siemens facility, the river disappears underground for the first time, although it soon becomes clear that the enormous pipes go on to feed an artificial lake, or rather the Beaudésert “bassin de stockage des eaux de pluie” (rainwater storage reservoir), also known to anglers as Étang Innolin. This scenic expanse of water is part of a wider network of large plots designed to regulate the flow of streams and rainwater to avoid flooding in central Bordeaux (a standalone subject that features elsewhere on the blog). 

The Siemens offices where the Devèze disappears underground before flowing into Étang Innolin.
The Devèze is subsequently channelled back underground and passes below the Rocade ringroad (more or less where a Buffalo Grill restaurant can be seen) and then into central Mérignac. At this stage it flows through an area where leafy forests have continued to be maintained, and yet there is no sign of the Devèze on the surface. It does later re-emerge though, hemmed in by concrete walls but sided by a short, scenic pedestrian-only walkway which has, appropriately enough, been called “l’aire piétonne la Devèze”. 

The approximate points where the Devèze passes, unnoticed, under the Rocade ringroad and central Mérignac, before re-emerging and getting its own footpath!
The Devèze then enjoys a starring role in the Parc de Bourran, the grounds of a mansion where vines were cultivated for many years until a landscape gardener, one Louis Le Breton, overhauled the terrain towards the end of the 19th century. Le Breton made use of the Devèze to create a large pond which can still be seen today. The Devèze also feeds a spectacular artificial waterfall before flowing under a “Medieval” bridge, installed in 1890 as part of Le Breton’s designs, although it is uncertain whether the bridge came from elsewhere or whether it was built specifically for Parc de Bourran.

The "Medieval" bridge.
The Parc de Bourran waterfall, pond and the spot where the Devèze makes a discreet exit from the park.
From the park the Devèze flows down large pipes and through a small area of overgrown greenery, before being conducted beneath a railway line. This is, from what I can make out, the last we see of the Devèze at ground level (and it is not at its most beautiful by now: during the short time I was there the sight of two rats reminded me that the river was used as a natural sewer for many years). 

The last sight of the Devèze before having to resort to street-names to plot its course.
From then on, plotting the course of the Devèze was a case of cross-referencing between Googlemaps and documents produced by the greater Bordeaux authority (Communauté Urbaine de Bordeaux, CUB), although there are other tell-tale signs that the Devèze is never far away: shortly after the railway bridge, still in Mérignac, come Rue de la Devèze and Square de la Devèze. These are followed by street-names that serve as a reminder of the water-reliant trades that used to be there, such as Rue des Lavoirs (wash-houses) and Rue des Teinturiers (textile dyers). Every now and then, the sound of fast-flowing water can also be heard through manhole covers. The Devèze enters Bordeaux proper along the southern edge of Chartreuse cemetery. There too, the street-name hints at what lies below: we are on Bordeaux's Rue de la Devèze. 

In past times, from here the Devèze flowed more or less in a straight line towards the area where Saint-Pierre church can now be seen. This was where the city’s earliest port was located up until the 10th century, by which time the waters of Port Saint-Pierre had become too clogged up with mud.

Further upstream, the Devèze was partly diverted towards the Peugue, and the port area was gradually built over. Near Place Saint-Pierre, on Rue de la Devise (a name by which the Devèze was also known), an information panel now refers to the bygone presence of the river. Meanwhile, the commercial heart of the city developed around the Peugue (most notably around what is now Place Fernand-Lafargue) but the Peugue riverside areas became notoriously rough and insalubrious. To eradicate this, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries work was carried out to drive the flowing water underground for good. The channelling operation was eventually complete in 1868.   

Rue de la Devise and Place Saint-Pierre, where the city's earliest port was located, fed by the Devèze.
The Devèze’s permanently diverted course now takes it through the Mériadeck quarter ahead of meeting up with the Peugue - which has similarly made its way into Bordeaux from Pessac - around the junction between Cours d’Albret and Rue des Frères Bonie. Once again, from then on, tracking the course of today’s dual underground river involves map-assisted guesswork, although it is generally acknowledged that the waters flow under Cours d’Alsace-et-de-Lorraine through a pipe which is 4.80 metres wide and 3.30 metres high. The presence of the merged rivers is even highlighted in a bas-relief sculpture that can be spotted on the corner of the Cours and Rue Sainte-Catherine: the sculpture features the goddess Divona (the goddess of divine sources, from which the name Devèze derives) and a male counterpart (representing the Peugue, which derives from the Latin pelagus, meaning the overflowing waters of a river). 

The approximate point where the Peugue and Devèze meet, as later celebrated in this bas-relief.
The two streams complete their course with a man-managed concrete-and-metal outlet on the banks of the Garonne, releasing water into the city’s main river as and when deemed necessary.  

An unceremonious end to the trek, near the Pont de Pierre.
In all, the waters of the Devèze have flowed 10.45 kilometres from the Mérignac source to the banks of the Garonne. Hidden away for much of that time, it is now difficult to conceive how vital the river once was to the city, as testified by the 4th-century Latin poet and teacher Ausonius who wrote this about the Devèze: "Hail fountain of source unknown, holy, gracious, unfailing, crystal clear, azure, deep, murmorous, shady, and unsullied. Hail, guardian deity of our city, of whom we may drink health-giving draughts, named by the Celts Divona - a fountain added to the roll divine!"  

You can also enjoy a video version of this feature:

1 comment: