It's been another interesting twelve months feeding the beast that is Invisible Bordeaux, with highlights including some memorable ev...

Farewell 2016: the year’s most-read Invisible Bordeaux items

It's been another interesting twelve months feeding the beast that is Invisible Bordeaux, with highlights including some memorable evenings performing The Shuman Show (the first instance of a blog item being turned into a full-on live music extravaganza), and a bizarre afternoon spent monitoring the progress of my "Welcome Arthur 2016 remake" video as it rose to number 13 in the Youtube France trending chart, courtesy mainly of a nice plug on the Sud Ouest website

But to sign off for this year, we give you this traditional festive season rundown of 2016's most popular articles. Have you read them all? Click on the titles or associated pictures to check them out!
The resident astrophysics research unit has since moved out, but much of the legacy equipment remains on site at what was the Observatory of Bordeaux, the various components of which I was able to examine during the final open day to be held there.
A reader told me about an unusual hôtel particulier in the city's Saint-Seurin district. Heading over there, it was obvious that the house deserved not only its own article, but also the enviable unofficial "Bordeaux's coolest house" accolade. Unless you can think of one that is even cooler...
With the valuable support of archivists at Sud Ouest, I ploughed through old newspaper cuttings with a view to reconstructing one of the most raucous nights in the city's recent history, during the tumultuous month of May 1968. The most pleasing end-product of the exercise was when Sud Ouest themselves reported on the research in a new newspaper article looking back on the events that took place 48 years ago. Things had come full circle.
The story of the Alhambra brought back a lot of memories for a lot of people in Bordeaux and beyond, all of whom seemed to cherish the concert hall and the eclectic range of shows it put on. This piece also led to a collaboration with local music authority Philippe Serra, who selflessly shared tales of events he had attended there in a sister article.
This was a job that somebody had to do, so I took it on: to collect the good, the not-so-good and the sometimes astounding names of hairdressing salons in and around Bordeaux. Beware, the piece contains lots of "hair" and "tifs". And, despite that (or perhaps it's the reason why!), this was the year's most-read Invisible Bordeaux item.

And now, roll on 2017!

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Every day, thousands of vehicles drive along Quai de Paludate and past Château Descas, which is simultaneously one of the most spectacul...

Château Descas: the wine merchant’s warehouse turned nightclub... which is now an empty shell

Every day, thousands of vehicles drive along Quai de Paludate and past Château Descas, which is simultaneously one of the most spectacular and one of the most mysterious buildings in central Bordeaux. I thought it might be interesting to investigate the subject!

Although the central section of the building currently lies empty, it is best known as having been the eponymous offices and wine cellar of the wine merchants Descas, whose founder Jean Descas (1834-1895), an Entre-Deux-Mers wine barrel manufacturer turned trader (and also the mayor of his hometown Camiran), first installed his then 20-year-old company here in 1881. The location was strategically close to Saint-Jean train station, giving him easy access to the burgeoning railway delivery network, and thus an extra edge over his counterparts who were traditionally positioned further north in the Chartrons district. This decision was also compounded by Descas’s focus on supplying affordable wine to customers in France, while the Chartrons players built their wealth on the high-end export market.

The property acquired at an auction by Jean Descas had, since 1661, been home to the city’s first general hospital, Hôpital de la Manufacture, the ancestor of today’s “CHU” (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire). For many years the establishment also provided a safe haven for abandoned children, with a peak of just under 900 being accommodated around the time of the French Revolution in 1789.

The way it was: Hôpital de la Manufacture in an 1830 portrayal by the lithographer Légé; picture borrowed from, the website which was expertly curated by the late, great Hervé Guichoux.
Jean Descas called on the architect Alphonse Ricard to transform the place into a grandiose celebration of Descas’s nouveau riche wealth and success, resulting in the fascinating exterior which can still be admired today. Features include countless mascarons, sculpted figures that represent Mercury and vines, dragon-shaped bas-reliefs, Jean Descas’s initials above the main entrance, chimneys that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are functional, a number of tiny balconies and, topping off the edifice in style, a vertigo-inducing lookout tower.

Plenty to spot, from the lookout tower to Jean Descas's initials, and the face of a man who appears to be surrounded by a full year's supply of grapes.
During the wine trading years, the building was reportedly as impressive inside as it was from the outside. Throughout the 10,000-square-metre warehouse, which was accessed from behind the building via the former hospital courtyard, Descas could store up to 1.5 million bottles. A then-ultramodern system of elevators and wagons made it easy to handle and manoeuvre stocks whenever necessary, something which had been a constant challenge for Chartrons-district counterparts in their more conventional facilities.

The company and its château warehouse continued to go from strength to strength for the best part of a century, until they were taken over by the Merlaut family in 1979. Descas’s assets were relocated to the right bank of the Garonne and a modern-day warehouse just off Quai de Brazza. This remains Descas’s head office and is where its director Denis Merlaut monitors the group’s many contemporary business interests, which range from wine production and trading to the ownership and rental of business units.

Mercury and Vine.
Château Descas still belongs to them (the actual storage warehouse was demolished in 1984), but to many it is now synonymous with fading memories of Bordelais night-life! For, in 2001, the château was transformed into a cabaret-nightclub, le Caesar’s, newly evicted from a quayside warehouse that was about to be demolished. Le Caesar’s wanted to become a direct tenant but Denis Merlaut didn’t believe this to be a viable option. Instead, the city council - who were keeping a close eye on le Caesar’s predicament, possibly because the manager was a close friend of several councillors - came to the rescue and rented the building, subletting it on to the nightclub throughout the duration of a two-year lease.

Then the château was turned into a short-lived disco known as le Rikiki Palace, which hosted DJs including Bob Sinclair. The following, final nocturnal incarnation was le Mystic, a “restaurant-club” described by observers as a “haunted venue” where little people manned the door and, even more bizarrely, a gigantic animated mask served as master of ceremonies. Business ceased in 2007.

And, ever since then, an ugly legal battle has been underway between Descas and Bordeaux city council over unauthorised structural work carried out inside the building (which included the complete gutting and removal of the third floor), as noted when the municipality’s lease expired in 2003. Descas are claiming damages of 6 million euros to get the premises back into shape, although the ongoing legal efforts have been undermined by the use of the building beyond 2003 to house Rikiki Palace and le Mystic.

Which brings us to the present day’s empty shell, albeit one which is flanked by two wings which are occupied by various companies, associations and even a bar, le Point Rouge, not to mention the swish old people’s residence which has gone up behind the château, sandwiching what GoogleEarth would suggest is a pleasantly symmetrical garden/square.

The current view from GoogleEarth. The next time I go back I'll try heading round the back via rue... Jean Descas! 
This aerial view from sometime between 1950 and 1965, as featured on the fantastic website, clearly shows the extensive warehouses behind the château.
Back in front, to add to the haunted nature of the building, a long-disused “restaurant club” sign still hangs above the main entrance, and many of the “windows” (across the whole of the first floor and much of the ground floor) are actually wooden panels that have been painted to look like panes of glass; they are in fact convincing “trompe-l’oeils”!

Ground-floor trompe-l'oeils: Ceci n'est pas une fenêtre. Et ceci n'est plus un restaurant club.
But perhaps everything is not lost: peering through one of the (real) ground floor windows, lights were on, and low-key renovation or maintenance work was in progress. It will be interesting to keep track of what happens to the building; perhaps the legal wrangling will soon be in the past and, once again, Château Descas will come back to life.

A naughty look at the inside view where work appears to be in progress in between the marble columns.
> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Château Descas, quai de Paludate, Bordeaux
> When I went to view Château Descas (on what happened to be the coldest morning of 2016), I was accompanied by the delightful Noémie and Sarah, students at the IJBA school of journalism in Bordeaux. Thank you both for coming along and for filming a report about Invisible Bordeaux, which went something like this:
> Finally, Château Descas is a subject that was suggested to me by a number of readers, including Byron Sharp and Karen Ransom, both of whom are based in Australia. I hope you have enjoyed the read, Byron and Karen!  
> Ce dossier est également disponible en français !

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One sight which is visible from most points along the waterfront in central Bordeaux is the Bouliac radio mast, the tallest man-made st...

Pylône de Bouliac: the vertical line on Bordeaux’s horizon

One sight which is visible from most points along the waterfront in central Bordeaux is the Bouliac radio mast, the tallest man-made structure in Gironde and the 20th tallest structure in France. Why is it there and what purpose does it serve?

The mast goes by a number of names according to where you look: antenne TDF (which originally stood for TéléDiffusion de France), pylône TDF or pylône de Bouliac. You might think that one thing that cannot be disputed is its height, but even that information differs in places! Most sources record it as measuring 252 metres, some round it down to 250 metres while others downgrade it to a lowly 232 metres. Whichever figure it might be, if you can picture the Eiffel Tower, the Bouliac mast tops out at the equivalent of a bit above mid-way between the second and third platforms.

This is kind of how things would look if the Bouliac mast was in central Paris.
(Eiffel Tower picture source: Wikipedia.)
Whatever, weighing in at 700 tons and positioned on a concrete base which is four metres thick, the mast is definitely an imposing beast. Perched as it is on the 80-metre-high mound that has earned the town of Bouliac the nickname “le balcon de Bordeaux”, the tip of the mast is actually the highest point in the département. And, as you can probably imagine, the mast emits signals beamed in via satellite by nationwide FM radio stations, digital TV channels and telecoms operators.

The mast was first installed in 1957 and was soon ranked as one of TDF’s seven main transmission masts; illustrious counterparts on that list include the aforementioned Eiffel Tower and the Pic du Midi in the Pyrenees. The pylon was replaced in 1988 but, that short overhaul period aside, the antenna has been a permanent fixture on the Bordeaux skyline for almost 60 years. Around 1 million people are served by the signals it emits, either directly or via one of six relay antennae that are strategically positioned throughout Gironde (Arcachon, Bordeaux Caudéran, Langoiran-Portets, Latresne, Lesparre and Soulac).

Close-up views of parts of the mast including the tip and the base.
There is more to the facility than simply broadcasting though. In 2013, buildings at the base of the mast were converted into TDF’s first ultra-modern datacenter (codename: le ProxiCenter de Bordeaux Bouliac) used by telecoms operators, service providers and local councils as a hyper-safe and secure place to store their digital assets. The online presentation of this offering is particularly impressive, with much talk of sustainable development, the “free cooling” air conditioning systems used in the computer rooms, biometric access control systems and the like. Oh, and the fact that it would take a long time for floodwaters to reach Bouliac, which also enjoys the added advantage of not exactly being a seismic hazard zone. So if you too have valuable data that you would like to store elsewhere than on your external hard drive, look no further.

Anyway, as you gaze upstream along the Garonne river taking in the waterfront, the Miroir d'Eau, the buildings and the bridges, do not forget to gaze upwards towards Bouliac, the balcony of Bordeaux and the TDF mast!

Yes, that's our pylon over there on the left, beyond the Miroir d'Eau and the Pont de Pierre.
> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Pylône de Bouliac, route Bleue, Bouliac
> Clicking here will take you through to Wikipedia's guide to the tallest structures in France
> Cet article est également disponible en français !
> And if you want some mystifying information about what can be found in the "ProxiCenter", then check out this video clip:

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Congratulations Charlotte Grandjean, who is the winner of the competition which ran on social media to celebrate Invisible Bordeaux'...

#InvBdx5, the fifth anniversary competition: and the winner is...

Congratulations Charlotte Grandjean, who is the winner of the competition which ran on social media to celebrate Invisible Bordeaux's fifth anniversary! 

Charlotte, a Dane living in Marseille who took part in the competition on Facebook, wins two nights’ bed and breakfast accommodation for two people at Novotel Bordeaux Lac, along with two 2-day Bordeaux Metropole CityPass tickets, offering unlimited travel on public transport and reduced rates for guided tours and admission to museums.

Big thanks to everyone who took part in the competition on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and extra special thanks to the good people of Novotel Bordeaux Lac and the Bordeaux Tourism & Conventions for partnering with the blog. 

Charlotte, see you in Bordeaux!

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A few weeks ago, reader Conchi shared a link on her Facebook page which led to the Institut National de l'Audiovisuel 's websit...

New video: 'Welcome Arthur', the 2016 remake

A few weeks ago, reader Conchi shared a link on her Facebook page which led to the Institut National de l'Audiovisuel's website and a delightful if somewhat bizarre short film entitled "Welcome Arthur".

The film serves as an instant journey back in time to Bordeaux as it was in 1962. And, as its central character is an Englishman on a bicycle, Conchi suggested I work on a contemporary remake! This was a challenge that I absolutely had to take on...

Here then is the end-product, which is the result of a fun morning spent in the city with my son Dorian handling camera duties. I hope you enjoy our attempt to a draw parallels between the city as it is today, and as it was 54 years ago!

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In the days that followed the recent publication of a piece about the Alhambra concert hall , I was struck by the number of stories share...

Philippe Serra's Alhambra scrapbook

In the days that followed the recent publication of a piece about the Alhambra concert hall, I was struck by the number of stories shared by people in Bordeaux, who clearly cherished many happy memories of the venue.

Many of the tales I read were recounted by Philippe Serra (pictured left), one of the contributors to a benchmark book about the local music scene, Denis Fouquet's "Bordeaux Rock(s)". For Invisible Bordeaux, Philippe kindly agreed to talk us through some of the events he attended at this iconic venue, in some cases drawing on his draft memoirs of the 1962-1972 period. Here then are a number of snapshots that will take us back through time, but in each case the backdrop remains the same: we give you the Alhambra.

October 1963: Gene Vincent

"I attended this concert more out of curiosity than because I was familiar with the artist. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise. He may have limped but he was full of energy, clad in leather yet demonstrating heightened sensitivity, he boasted a distinctive and yet almost inexplicable stage presence. At the time we hadn't begun to regularly use the word "charisma", but that is certainly what it was. In my post-war childhood years I had admired Line Renaud before becoming a jazz enthusiast, and I hadn't exactly been drawn to rock'n'roll. By the time I left the Alhambra that night, I had become a rock'n'roll convert, although my faith was still very fragile!"

Chuck Berry, hooked up to his 30-watt Vox amp.
(Picture courtesy of Christian Perez)
March 1966: Chuck Berry

"This was an unmissable event! Memphis Slim, Ronnie Bird, Antoine and Chuck Berry. I was astonished by the latter's energy combined with his notable economy of means: Berry's red Gibson guitar was plugged into a small 30-watt Vox amplifier that wasn't even fed through the house PA. Then again, the Alhambra PA was probably no more powerful than Chuck's Vox amp! Rock concerts still retained a music hall format at the time, with a support bill comprising a host of artists. You would sometimes even see tightrope walkers! If my memory serves me well, the Chuck Berry show opened with a performance by a foot juggler…"

November 1967: Pierre Henry

"Pierre Henry was like some kind of DJ beamed in from the next century, setting up his tape players, mixing desks, amplifiers and what seemed like generators, inside a boxing ring positioned in the middle of the Alhambra's Casino hall. His attitude was unpretentious and down-to-earth, even though he was piecing together an other-worldly concert. Sound was fed through ten separate channels into groups of speakers that formed a sort of magic circle surrounding listeners lying on mattresses. I was there ahead of the event and helped out as best I could with the final fine-tuning, which involved hanging huge sheets from the ceiling down to the floor at strategic points, so as to improve the acoustics of the cube-shaped venue. On the night of the performance, no doubt distracted by the large crowd of excitable youths, I barely noticed that the whole set-up had been shifted into the Alhambra's other hall! Despite its oblong shape, the permanent stage and the balcony which ran around the three other sides, it turns out that the theatre was a better match for the perfect sound which was sought than the ballroom where we had put all our efforts into setting things up.

What still remains with me is the light show which was projected onto the ceiling, the first psychedelic show I'd attended. Scarlet amoebic shapes surrounded by shades of yellow, branching out in all directions against a dark green background. The Paul Henry concert was a strange and captivating personal experience, giving me the impression of being totally immersed within the living art of our time."

November 1967: Living Theatre's Frankenstein

"This was the bravura piece of the outrageous Living Theatre company. They made use of a huge amount of scaffolding which no doubt accounted for much of the ten tons of equipment that their leader Julian Beck spoke of in interviews about the show. This new interpretation of Mary Shelley's classic tale was ideally designed to provide its receptive audience with an unforgettable experience by unparalleled theatrical performers."

November 1969 > Soft Machine

"The Alhambra was almost an embryonic multiplex with its hall, its bar, its lobbies and its two main venues: on one side there was the casino which, other than its small stage featured nothing but a dancefloor; while to the other side was the concert and theatre hall. The large door which separated the two was almost always closed. On this occasion it was open, enabling the public to mill between the two venues to enjoy the "Guinch Experiment" that formed part of the Sigma 5 arts festival. Music-wise, two groups were on the bill: Soft Machine and the Ronnie Scott Band. The use of the twin stages meant the bands could perform simultaneously. The stalls had been removed from the theatre and in the middle of the venue there was a massive inflatable installation that had been conceived by the visual artist Jeffrey Shaw. But I didn't get to see much of the band there as I only had eyes for Soft Machine, who were performing next door. The floor of that venue was entirely covered with balloons and, incredibly, mid-way through the performance, an elephant suddenly appeared; its sole task appeared to be that of going about bursting the balloons! You can imagine the chaos that ensued! Of course, I might not have been quite so surprised at this turn of events had I seen the elephant (on loan from a travelling circus) promoting the unforgettable show in the streets of Bordeaux that afternoon. My most vivid memory of the concert is an intense 20-minute drum solo by a bare-chested Robert Wyatt, who had been given completely free musical rein by his bandmates. 

Left: the Ronnie Scott Band with large inflatable contraption (Sigma archives). Right: Robert Wyatt mid-solo (photo: Anne Lafosse).
This was the first time I'd ever been so close to a musician of this calibre, I could almost reach out and touch him. Even though I remember that he was positioned higher than us on the raised platform, the memory that remains is of him being entirely surrounded by the audience, including myself, and we were all bewitched by his performance!"

November 1979 > The Stranglers 

"This was a couple of years before the release of Golden Brown, but there was already a sense that the Stranglers' punk sound was making way for a more tuneful approach. I listened carefully to this fine band and enjoyed them thoroughly, but I kept a particularly close eye on Jean-Jacques Burnel's legwork. This wasn't because he was the group's resident Frenchman but rather because he was the bassist, and I'd taken up that very instrument. Bordeaux musicians, whatever their level of proficiency, made a point of coming to the Alhambra which for long had been the perfect place to admire the greats, and perhaps to borrow, more or less consciously, new things from them in this permanently-evolving world of rock culture!"

Concert ticket including
 the "quartet" reference.
(Philippe Serra collection)
April 1981 > Larry Coryell quartet

"I appreciated the all-round versatility of the fine guitarist Larry Coryell, who was back in an acoustic period. I had even enjoyed him as a singer on the album The Real Great Escape, but the concert ticket had this date enigmatically billed as the "Larry Coryell quartet". As it turned out, alongside Larry there was another six-string virtuoso, Philip Catherine and even, I seem to recollect, a third guitarist, namely the impressive Paco de Lucía. It was an absolute delight! The Alhambra, in keeping with the Granada reference of its name, always knew how to spring surprises on its audiences!"

November 1981 > Indoor Life, Rita Mitsouko and Bernard Szajner

"As part of the Sigma 17 arts festival, the Alhambra put on a show that gave equal billing to a number of artists: the progressive new wave outfit Indoor Life, whose lineup featured a trombonist - I had already seen them in concert at the Grand Parc salle des fêtes (at the time, US avant-garde artists were very keen on Bordeaux); Rita Mitsouko, a likeable duo whom you never would have thought would later produce a video that achieved worldwide success; and Bernard Szajner, who had invented a laser harp which he demonstrated masterfully. 

Bernard Szajner and his laser harp. (Source/photographer unknown)
Gérald Lafosse, the son of the founder of the Sigma festival, had recognised the immense potential of an innovative light show at the Pierre Henry concert, and had consequently began a career in stage lighting. He worked for Szajner and moved to Paris. When Szajner's laser harp joined Jean-Michel Jarre's setup, Gérald followed suit. And that is how he went on to conceive the atmospheric lighting of the global synth star's colossal concerts in China and elsewhere. Which just goes to show that a straightforward show put on at the Alhambra could ultimately lead to far greater things..."

Cover of the tour programme.
(Philippe Serra collection)
February 1982 > "Les Disques du Crépuscule" artists on tour

"This fashionable record label offered a great lineup of artists on a tour that went by the name of "Some of the interesting things you'll see on a long-distance flight". It included Tuxedo Moon vocalist Winston Tong (from San Francisco), Manchester's The Durutti Column, Richard Jobson (London), Paul Haig (Edinburgh) and the Parisian band Antena. Of the bunch, the one I remember best is Durutti Column, which was essentially the project of a solo performer on guitar. This reminded me of an expression I'd often heard in my youth: "Every Englishman is an island". And I believe that it was, for the punter that I was, my final gig at the Alhambra. "

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What is the connection between the 1968 summer Olympic Games in Mexico City and the Gironde towns of Braud-et-Saint-Louis, Cestas, Les...

Swimming in sunflowers: Gironde’s 'piscines Tournesol'

What is the connection between the 1968 summer Olympic Games in Mexico City and the Gironde towns of Braud-et-Saint-Louis, Cestas, Lesparre-Médoc and Saint-Médard-en-Jalles? The answer involves swimming… for we give you the remarkable “piscine Tournesol”!

The story goes that, at the 1968 Olympics, the performance of France’s swimmers was particularly disappointing. This resulted in a nationwide action plan that was launched the following year by the State secretary for Youth, Sport and Leisure to bring swimming to the masses. The plan, codenamed “1000 piscines”, provided a structure and support for the construction of affordable pools, which would in turn make swimming more easily accessible.

Although the number of pools built as part of the plan ultimately fell short of the symbolic figure of 1,000, between 600 and 700 establishments reportedly came to be built. Various designs were rolled out, with poetic names such as “Plein-Ciel”, “Plein-Soleil” and “Caneton”, but the most distinctive and memorable was surely the sunflower-inspired “Tournesol”. This became the archetype for the deployment of the “1000 piscines” strategy and, over the course of the 1970s and early 1980s, 183 piscines Tournesol were built throughout France.

The Tournesol pools in Braud-et-Saint-Louis (top) and Cestas.
The curious futuristic design was the work of the architect Bernard Schoeller, who collaborated with the engineer Thémis Constantinidis on the conception of the structure, and with the company Matra for the choice of materials to be employed for what was to be, in essence, mass-produced pre-fabricated units, right down to the filtering and heating systems, the changing rooms and even the lavatories. 

Design and overall concept of the Tournesol pools, as featured on (contributor: Lionel Grandadam).
The circular structure conceived by Schoeller with Constantinidis measured 35 metres from side to side, totalling a surface area of 1,000 square metres at the heart of which was positioned a 25-metre pool. The structure was to be formed by 36 metallic arches, which combined to create a dome which would be six metres high at its apex. The elements that formed the shell were to be made out of polyester, every other segment comprising seven porthole-like windows. Significantly, two of the sections would be mobile, running on a rail system and making it possible to open the roof 60° either way. This resulted in the piscine Tournesol’s most notable feature: the ability to be instantly transformed, whenever the weather permitted it, from an indoor pool into an outdoor pool (at least over a 120° span) bearing in mind that, in most cases, a grassy area would complete the picture, enabling swimmers to head outside and sunbathe between dips in the water.

The rail system which enabled the switch from indoor to outdoor pool status. Pictures taken in Cestas.
After a prototype was successfully built in 1972 in Nangis, to the east of Paris, a first “series-produced” model was opened in Roissy-en-Brie later that year. Both have since been demolished. All of which brings us to la Gironde and its grand total of four piscines Tournesol. Three went up in 1975 in Cestas, Lesparre-Médoc and Braud-et-Saint-Louis. The Saint-Médard-en-Jalles pool followed in 1981. The Gironde pools came in various colours. The Cestas shell was produced in a shade of yellow, while the Braud-et-Saint-Louis and Saint-Médard domes were pale blue. The Lesparre offering was the eminently collectible burgundy (Médoc?) red. But what has become of them?

The Cestas pool is doing very well thank you. It is located on a large sports complex just off the A63 motorway, making for the pleasing sight of swimmers mingling with footballers, rugby players and tennis players. If you want to enjoy a swim there, admission will set you back just €1.60 euros. The Braud-et-Saint-Louis pool is also operational, although there is much talk about its fate and it may soon make way for a more ambitious “centre aquatique” offering smaller pools for toddlers, water-slides and the like.

Scenes from Braud-et-Saint-Louis, including the reception area (top left), the prefabricated changing rooms (top right) and, bottom right, the outdoor foot bath located by the joint between the two moving panels.
If so, it would be replicating exactly what happened in Saint-Médard-en-Jalles where the piscine Tournesol was a shorter-lived venture. In a state of disrepair after 26 years of use, it was dismantled in 2007 to make way for today’s modern swimming complex, which retained the 25-metre pool from its previous incarnation.  

Saint-Médard: the way it was (source: Saint-Médard-en-Jalles, au fil du temps) and the way it is today.
Let’s finish off in Lesparre, where the dust has more or less settled after the recent demolition of the structure, which had come to be regarded as an eyesore for visitors and locals as they drove into this quaint Médocain town. The pool had been closed since June 2014, although the original plan was to refurbish the facility. Then came the news over the summer of 2016 that the pool was to be erased completely, and the €70,000 demolition job was completed in September. As I saw when I visited the site, nothing remains of the pool (other than a small technical unit) and the area has been totally covered in sand. Once again, plans are gradually taking shape for a more substantial swimming complex to serve the surrounding area. 

Lesparre: top right, the pool as it was (source:; main photo, demolition work in progress (source:; bottom right, the scene today. 
If you’ve been reading carefully, you have therefore no doubt worked out that, of Gironde’s four piscines Tournesol, only two remain, and the future looks particularly uncertain for one of the two! A part of me does think this is a shame, however old-school and rudimentary Tournesol pools may seem in an age of big-thrill water parks. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way: while Gironde’s sunflower pools have fallen into disrepair and become regarded as eyesores, elsewhere they have been meticulously maintained and have even been officially listed as 20th-Century Heritage: the “Patrimoine du XXe Siècle” label has been bestowed on piscines Tournesol in Marseille, Carros-le-Neuf (near Nice) and even in Biscarrosse in Gironde’s neighbouring Landes department. What is more, they are cherished by many in France, with online traces of this affection including regular appearances on the Architectures de Cartes Postales website, and the delightful @laffairetournesol Instagram account.

Laure Manaudou, pictured at the 2004 Olympics,
praying that she would one day be featured in
an Invisible Bordeaux item (source:
But perhaps the most important thing to consider is whether the French became any good at swimming! According to online records, after the 1968 debacle, it wasn’t until 1984 that France secured an Olympic swimming medal, through Frédéric Delcourt (200m backstroke silver) and Catherine Poirot (100m breaststroke bronze). Then there were a few more lean years until Laure Manaudou won the 400m freestyle gold in 2004, matched by Alain Bernard in the 100m freestyle in 2008. Others to follow in their footsteps include Camille Muffat (400m freestyle, 2012), the men’s 4x100m relay team (2012), Yannick Agnel (200m freestyle, 2012) and Florent Manaudou (50m freestyle, 2012). So the “1000 piscines” action plan didn’t do so badly after all…

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One of the more unusual outings on offer over this year’s European Heritage Days weekend was a guided tour of the PIC, or Plate-forme...

Inside Cestas’s PIC (Plate-forme industrielle du courrier)

One of the more unusual outings on offer over this year’s European Heritage Days weekend was a guided tour of the PIC, or Plate-forme industrielle du courrier, the massive postal sorting office that can be found in Cestas, just off the A63 motorway to the west of Bordeaux.

Having often driven past this massive facility, I was particularly looking forward to enjoying the inside view, so there was a definite sense of anticipation as we joined a group to be ushered inside in scenes reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 

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Over the past few weeks, you have possibly enjoyed the accounts of the joint Invisible Bordeaux/ Bordeaux 2066 roadtrip to the four cor...

New video: the extreme Gironde roadtrip!

Over the past few weeks, you have possibly enjoyed the accounts of the joint Invisible Bordeaux/Bordeaux 2066 roadtrip to the four corners of la Gironde: north, east, south and west. 

The adventure is now also available as a scintillating Youtube video, so sit back, relax and follow us as we visit the remains of a brothel in Captieux, the wharf in La Salie, admire some boats in Le Verdon-sur-Mer, and study some trees in Saint-Avit-Saint-Nazaire. All you have to do is hit the play button and make sure your internet connection remains stable for the next eight minutes! Enjoy!

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This is the third and final part of a travelogue following Bordeaux 2066 ’s Vincent and me on our quest to visit the extreme northern, ea...

The Gironde four corners road-trip > Part 3: west (La Salie and its wharf)

This is the third and final part of a travelogue following Bordeaux 2066’s Vincent and me on our quest to visit the extreme northern, eastern, southern and western points of the Gironde over the course of a single day. So far we have viewed memorials in Le Verdon, admired some trees in Saint-Avit-Saint-Nazaire and, a-hem, explored a former brothel in Captieux. What would the département’s westernmost point have in store?

It was now 6:30pm and we had driven some 485 kilometres by the time we parked our car in the shade of the pines at la Salie Sud beach, on the Atlantic coast more or less mid-way between Arcachon and Biscarrosse. Venturing out onto the sandy pathway over the dunes to the sea we gained a little height and enjoyed our first view of La Salie’s distinctive – and controversial – landmark: “le Wharf”.

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In the first part of this travelogue recounting an attempt to visit Gironde’s four cardinal points over the course of a single day, Bor...

The Gironde four corners road-trip > Part 2: south (Captieux and its former brothels)

In the first part of this travelogue recounting an attempt to visit Gironde’s four cardinal points over the course of a single day, Bordeaux 2066’s Vincent and I successfully conquered Le Verdon and its countless memorials, followed by Saint-Avit-Saint-Nazaire and its nothingness. From there we headed to the département’s southernmost point, Captieux.

We arrived in a part of Captieux known as “Le Poteau” at around 4pm, 380 kilometres on from our starting point. Looking south we were gazing into neighbouring département Les Landes. A large milestone was in position at the border between the two administrative areas although Vincent soon spotted an anomaly: beneath the painted inscription correctly identifying the road as being the D932 were traces of the milestone’s previous location on the Nationale 10. Isn’t it great to know that milestones don’t die, they’re just recycled and turn up elsewhere!

"D 932" painted over the section which used to read "Route N 10"
Moving a little northwards along the road, Vincent was determined to check out the remains of Gironde’s southernmost building, to establish whether it could be connected with what is one of the most unusual, surprising and sordid tales to be told: that of the brothels and prostitutes of Captieux.

The story goes back to 1950 when the US military set up an ammunition depot which spread out over no less than 100 square kilometres in the Le Poteau area. The structure remained there until 1967, by which time President De Gaulle had called an end to US military bases in France. But, in the meantime, the substantial presence of military personnel had also resulted in the influx of prostitutes who would operate out of hastily-built brothels along the départementale road.

After the US military departed, the brothels remained, despite having been outlawed by the “Loi Marthe Richard” way earlier, in 1946. Business continued to flourish throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, the prostitutes reportedly selling their services to young men seeking their first taste of sexual healing, rugby teams in celebratory mood, travelling salesmen, truck drivers who would engineer a detour through Captieux, and other miscellaneous visitors from all over who knew exactly what they would find in Captieux. There were many shady dealings surrounding this obscure subculture, and it is said that relations between pimps would often turn nasty.

As we are about to find out, this used to be a brothel.
The most astonishing thing is that the authorities turned a blind eye to what was going on, although one reliable source has since told us that Captieux was regarded as a convenient arrangement: “there was an unwritten deal with the Bordeaux milieu: the city itself remained clean and the whores were out there in the country for Sunday night escapades and troisième mi-temps adventures.” (The raucous rugby equivalent of the nineteenth hole!)

That remained the state of affairs until everything came to a head in 1987 with a massive police raid on the area, which resulted in around 100 arrests and the 14 remaining establishments being closed overnight. Many of the makeshift structures were dismantled or more or less disintegrated. Lengthy trials followed and led to even lengthier prison sentences for those judged to have been responsible. Subsequently, Captieux slowly picked itself up and evolved back into being the quiet and peaceful country village it had presumably been until the 1950s!

Back to 2016 though and our roadside ruins! Vincent and I sliced our way through overgrown greenery to the walls of the building, made our way through what appeared to be the main entrance, and came up against what resembled the counter of what must have been a reception area. We were most definitely inside a former brothel. To our left was the door to a room where there were even remains of carpet pasted to the wall. Over to our right was another room which enjoyed the added bonus of an en-suite shower cubicle. We continued exploring but took great care as everywhere we looked there were tiles that hung precariously from what was left of the roof. 
Inside the former brothel, including what we think was the reception area (picture on the left).
Back outside we made our way along the side of the building and inspected the walls. At one end we spotted faded hand-painted depictions of female faces, and letters that appeared to spell out “La B“. Had other letters disappeared completely over time? Were we misreading what we saw and was the establishment either “le Bambi” or “le Bilitis”, both of which are referred to on this page?  With that enigma in mind, we left the brothel behind and drove into Captieux itself, a few kilometres to the north.

"La B" (?) and its alluring female figures.
We stopped off in a café for a refreshing fruit juice, and quizzed the landlord about Captieux’s dark past. He certainly didn’t appear to be too perturbed by our question, which suggested the subject was anything but taboo. The landlord, who emphasized the fact that he only moved to Captieux 15 years ago, in turn asked another customer about his memories of the establishments (the customer recalled there being two to three girls in each brothel) before calling a correspondent to try to find out the name of the mysterious “La B” building we had found ourselves in; he promised to get back to us with the answer. [Much later, a piece in local newspaper Sud Ouest featured pictures of “our” brothel and we were able to establish that its name had in fact been “La Baraque”.]

As we were paying for our drinks, he shared the tale of an acquaintance who, back in the day, was one of a group of youths who didn’t have much money. Every Saturday night, they would each throw some cash into a kitty, and each person’s name would go into a hat. Whoever’s name got pulled out of the hat was treated to a jointly-funded session with one of the Captieux ladies.

And it is with that image in mind that we departed, with one further destination to reach in our four corners challenge: we were aiming for La Salie on the Atlantic coast, Gironde’s westernmost point.

What is there to see at the extreme western point of the Gironde département? Find out in the final episode of this travelogue!

The Invisible Bordeaux/Bordeaux Four Corners roadtrip is also available as a motion picture. Enjoy!

> La version française de ce récit est à retrouver du côté de Bordeaux2066 ! 
> 2019 update: Sud Ouest released a fine long-read feature about Captieux and its brothels (a subscribers-only article available here), which included this incredible eye-witness account of the area as it used to be:

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Loyal readers will remember past adventures in the company of Bordeaux2066 ’s Vincent Bart, which include travelling to the point in ...

The Gironde four corners road-trip > Part 1: north and east (Le Verdon and its memorials, and Saint-Avit-Saint-Nazaire and its trees)

Loyal readers will remember past adventures in the company of Bordeaux2066’s Vincent Bart, which include travelling to the point in Puynormand where the Greenwich Meridian converges with the 45th Parallel, and cycling the full length of the Eau Bourde river.

Meeting up once again, the challenge we set ourselves this time was to set out on a day-long road-trip that would take us to the extreme northern, eastern, southern and western points of the Gironde (mainland France’s vastest département), secretly hoping that something interesting might happen somewhere along the way. To achieve this, we plotted our route and set out early on a Sunday morning from Saint-Aubin-de-Médoc, knowing full well that we were about to drive almost 600 kilometres together, i.e. the equivalent of travelling to Paris.

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“Bordeaux Safari” is a distinctive yellow guidebook which can be spotted in bookshops in and around the city. Its publishers, Deux Degrés...

Visiting the city using Bordeaux Safari as my guide

“Bordeaux Safari” is a distinctive yellow guidebook which can be spotted in bookshops in and around the city. Its publishers, Deux Degrés, recently got in touch with me to find out whether I would feature the book on the blog. Of course, I don’t simply produce book reviews upon request, but in this instance I did think that, by putting the book to the test, I would be able to get some interesting results.

Bordeaux Safari’s tagline is that it is “le guide dont vous êtes le héros”, in other words the reader is the central character and the book serves as an interactive roleplaying device that moves the aforementioned hero from point to point throughout Bordeaux, seeing and experiencing the different facets of the city. And so it was that early on a sunny Sunday morning, I set off on my bicycle without knowing where exactly I was headed.

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The annual European heritage days take place on September 17th and 18th. Hurrah! As always, there are hundreds of options available, mak...

Journées du Patrimoine 2016: the Invisible Bordeaux selection!

The annual European heritage days take place on September 17th and 18th. Hurrah! As always, there are hundreds of options available, making it difficult to know where to start.

So, to make things easier for you, Invisible Bordeaux has once again been looking closely at what’s on offer and here is a small selection of some of the more unusual and eye-catching visits... although this year’s choices come with a twist: all of these activities lie outside Bordeaux. Meanwhile, the full list of venues and visits - in Bordeaux and beyond - can be found on the official event website.

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During a recent family stay in Québec City, Canada, I was able to witness a little piece of Bordeaux history which is now on permanent di...

Fontaine de Tourny: a little piece of Bordeaux in Québec City

During a recent family stay in Québec City, Canada, I was able to witness a little piece of Bordeaux history which is now on permanent display outside the Québec province’s parliamentary building on Avenue Honoré-Mercier: the Fontaine de Tourny.

The fountain has already featured on the blog, as part of the investigation into the Léon Gambetta monument which was the centrepiece of the Allées de Tourny throughout much of the 20th century. At the time, the Allées were bookended by two ornate fountains which were first installed there in 1857. Just like the Gambetta monument, the fountains were removed during the 1960s overhaul of the esplanade (the main aim of which was to install an underground car park). As their upkeep was considered too costly, the fountains would never return.

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A few weeks ago Invisible Bordeaux reported on the new spaceship which has been installed at the ovniport (UFO landing pad) in Arès , a...

A new UFO has landed at the Ovniport d'Arès, part 2: meeting the designers!

A few weeks ago Invisible Bordeaux reported on the new spaceship which has been installed at the ovniport (UFO landing pad) in Arès, at the northern tip of the Bassin d’Arcachon. I recently caught up with the most excellent gentlemen who designed the stationary flying saucer!

A friend of mine had spotted the previous Arès spaceship on the car park of trailer company Sud Ouest Remorques in Saint Jean-d’Illac. I stopped there to get the full story and found out that two employees, Luc Albingre and Thierry Rouzade, were behind the design and manufacture of the new spaceship. I arranged to meet Luc and Thierry to find out more, and this is what they told me:

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