Over the years, my views of Bordeaux have been gained either riding a bike, as a pedestrian, behind the wheel of a car, or from the seat ...

From Blanquefort to Gare Saint-Jean: the view from a suburban train

Over the years, my views of Bordeaux have been gained either riding a bike, as a pedestrian, behind the wheel of a car, or from the seat of a bus or tram. It struck me that one vantage point I hadn’t really explored was that of the suburban train.

The time had therefore come to report to Blanquefort railway station and buy a €4.30 ticket for the 35-minute journey into Bordeaux’s Gare Saint-Jean. The big question before the train arrived was would I spot anything new from this rear-window vantage point? The answer was not exactly a resounding “yes” or a definite “no” but somewhere in-between: it would simply provide a sample of the city’s suburban living quarters and landscapes, some of which we’ve almost stopped noticing.

Boarding the train in Blanquefort with five other passengers (on a Saturday morning, these trains are not exactly buzzing with life) the initial surrounding environment is marshy wasteland with factories in the distance on one side, and work in progress on the future “tram-train” connection with the Médoc on the other. Then everything suddenly turns green with what is the first - but will not the last - sight of expansive vineyards.

The vineyards of Blanquefort.
Approaching Bruges things get a bit more chaotic with railway sidings and lots of industrial waste stacked up beside factories which may or may not be operational, before the line crosses the Rocade ring-road and draws into the station. Presumably nobody gets on or off the train at this stage, because I reckon the train remains stationary for, at best, 10 seconds.

From here, the environment switches from industrial to residential: compact homes with their compact gardens and compact pools (it always feels wrong to look at a private swimming pool from a train), multi-storey apartment blocks, and more rudimentary houses with chickens running around in the backyard (disappointingly, chickens turn out to be the only animal I spot on this commute).

Heading into Le Bouscat, the railway line rises above ground level and there is the sudden sense of being a dominant presence over the scenery, with an almost grandstand-like view over amateur football matches and ultimate frisbee training sessions which are in progress. At one stage, before pulling into Caudéran-Mérignac station (as featured in a standalone article on the Bordeaux 2066 website), there is even a glimpse of the Bordeaux-Le Bouscat hippodrome although sadly there are no horses on the course. Indeed, chickens were the only animal I would spot on this commute.

Ultimate frisbee training (possibly a pre-match warm-up) and a fleeting glimpse of the racecourse (beyond the digger at the end of the lane).
On into Mérignac proper and, more or less at the point where the railway track crosses the river Devèze near Parc de Bourran, the first views of the Bordeaux skyline can be enjoyed over to the left: the spires of the cathedral and Saint-Michel, the twin towers of the Cité Administrative and, further in the distance, the pylons of both the Chaban-Delmas bridge and the Pont d’Aquitaine. As with most points of interest on this journey, I am so slow to react that by the time my camera is ready the sight is long gone.

Then the train pulls into the multi-modal public transport hub that is Mérignac-Arlac, with its range of tram and bus options for onward journeys. For some reason, here and here alone the name of the station is displayed both in French and what I think must be Gascon. If you know why this should be, do get in touch.

Bilingual signage at Mérignac-Arlac.
The next section of the commute is arguably the most interesting: a tiny fun fair adds a lively splash of colour; a “bassin de stockage” (rainwater storage reservoir) is dry; and, alongside the Krakatoa concert venue, a big sleeper bus (with, in case there was any doubt, the words “SLEEPER BUS” written on the side) has been parked. I later work out that it might just be the means of transport of popular French duo Cats on Trees, who are performing there that night and who have obviously arrived nice and early. In hindsight, I was quite excited to think I almost saw them (even though they would probably have still been in their pyjamas at that point). Anyway, despite almost seeing Cats on Trees in the car park, chickens still rate as the only animal I spotted on this commute.

Onwards into Pessac, and up and over to the right more vineyards come into view (in all likelihood belonging to Château Haut-Brion). With this being vendanges season, grape-pickers can be seen hard at work at the end of each row of vines. The train pulls into Talence-Médoquine station but doesn’t stop; the station no longer appears to be operational and is in a poor state of disrepair.

The architecture of the Bordeaux 'burbs.
From then on, the railway line runs down in the depths, now well below ground level. Other than the occasional metal footbridge, there is nothing to see between the tall walls on either side and the Talence sky above. The train slows down as it nears Gare Saint-Jean, where the single lines flow into a vast complex of railway tracks. The skyline is now that of the city with the sight of cranes, Église Sacré-Coeur and then the massive glass-and-metal roof of the station itself. The train finishes its journey: we have reached Bordeaux.

Alighting in Bordeaux.
Thinking back, there were therefore no “Eureka” moments on the journey, and no moments where I suddenly spotted something that struck me as being unexpected or unusual. But the journey does once again demonstrate that there is far more to Bordeaux and its suburbs than 18th-century architecture and échoppes. It shows that the city and its surrounding area form a rich tapestry of houses, gardens, high-rise flats, factories, vineyards, sports facilities, greenery and the occasional industrial wasteland.

And I almost got to see Cats on Trees in their pyjamas. 
  • Cats on Trees appear unmoved by our near-miss in this video of a new song road-tested at the Krakatoa that night:
  • And here is their fine hit "Sirens Call":

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