“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.

There are different ways of using the guidebook, choosing your starting point according to the time of day or according to a specific desire, say. I instead opted to pick a neighbourhood, and decided to go for one which is not a natural destination for me: “Bordeaux Sud”, i.e. page 43 of the book.

That is how I ended up on Cours de la Marne, which was already in full swing with people drawn to the area to stock up on groceries at the Marché des Capucins. This is a rootsier Bordeaux than the smooth Unesco-friendly areas further north. The guidebook suggested I check out the hairdressing salons offering “tresses africaines”. I spotted a couple but they were both closed, plus my hair isn’t exactly made for braids, so instead I turned into Cours de l’Yser to find Bordeaux Safari’s recommended Portuguese drinking hole, Le Contraste.

As loyal readers already know, Invisible Bordeaux enjoys featuring hairdressers.
Le Contraste's pavement terrace was entirely taken over by down-to-earth males who looked like they owned the place. Plenty of tables were free inside though so I took a seat and ordered a coffee. The €1.10 beverage tasted like it had come not from Portugal but straight out of a 1960s movie starring Alain Delon and Catherine Deneuve; it felt very much like I was in a reassuringly timeless version of France which is now having to contend with the rise of the Starbucks and Nespresso take on hot drinks. Looking around there was an old-school table football set in the corner and the wall was covered in posters celebrating patrons who had won cash by playing “Amigo”, whatever that is. I picked up an Amigo card anyway and now have to cross off seven numbers to be in with a shout of my winnings being displayed in the bar. A TV screen wasn’t showing Porto-Benfica as Bordeaux Safari claimed it would be, but rather Britney Spears on the music video channel MCM.

Inside Le Contraste. Most definitely not the kind of place where your name gets written on a plastic cup.
The guidebook suggested I move on to page 11 and Palais Gallien. This was some distance away but I did what I was told and soon rolled up alongside the ruins of Bordeaux’s Gallo-Roman amphitheatre. A compact food market was in position on the small esplanade – the market has recently relocated here from Rue Fondaudège where work is in progress on the city’s fourth tram line. It certainly made the area feel more alive than ever, and possibly obscured the view of the ruins for visitors on the city’s little tourist train; it stopped in front of me for all of 30 seconds while a recording gave the world’s shortest account of Palais Gallien’s history.

By Palais Gallien, smell of roast chicken not included.
But it was nice to know that the official tourist itinerary and my Bordeaux Safari trip had overlapped just the once, albeit for 30 seconds. The guidebook then sent me back to the city centre and to Place de la Victoire, to admire the local “fauna”. 

By “fauna” they were referring to the two bronze tortoises created by Czech artist Ivan Theimer, which appear to be a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike. Staying put for a few minutes and enjoying the endless view along the full length of Rue Sainte-Catherine, I was reminded of what a diverse, cosmopolitan hub La Victoire really is: dads with pushchairs, mums with toddlers, old people, young people, people hanging around with no visible purpose, people carrying surfboards, people carrying groceries, joggers carrying baguettes, you name it, all human life is here (to quote The Divine Comedy, who I was delighted to find out will be performing at Le Fémina in February 2017).

While humming a Divine Comedy tune to myself, I made my way to my next stop: Place Sainte-Croix. The book promised me a delightful aperitif in the shade of the trees, but none of the bars had yet to open their doors – so I’ll have to take Bordeaux Safari’s word for it. Instead I checked out forthcoming shows as advertised outside the TnBA (Théâtre national de Bordeaux en Aquitaine), then admired the spectacular façade of Sainte-Croix church – while doing my best to ignore a fellow cyclist urinating in full view just a few metres away. Note to mayor Alain Juppé: there are possibly not enough public toilets in Bordeaux.

Bordeaux Safari’s next suggestion was conveniently nearby: it was now sending me to Café Pompier, which Google has since told me is a café/bar/concert venue run by students of the neighbouring Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Once again though I was out of luck, or perhaps it was still the wrong time of day: the place was closed so I had to content myself with taking photos of the inscription above the door, which would suggest the “pompier” in the café’s name is a direct reference to the building’s past.

Outside the TNBA and traces of Café Pompier's past life (poste de secours contre l'incendie).
From that page 39 entry I was sent on to page 16 and the Utopia cinema, arguably the coolest arthouse cinema in the city and the subject of an Invisible Bordeaux post some time ago. I wasn’t going to be taking in a film this time, but I did head inside to decide what film I would theoretically have chosen to see. (It would probably have been the showing of “South”, a 1998 documentary about a racially motivated murder in America’s Deep South.)

Bordeaux Safari then offered two options, and I identified with the one suggesting I would stick around at the Utopia for a debate in the presence of the film producer. It consequently told me to turn to page 84 where it humourously announced that I had simply lost and that my day had been a failure because of my poor decision-making. I suppose I’ll just have to play again!

Game over outside the Utopia cinema.
The book was wrong though, the time spent in its company hadn’t been a failure at all. Bordeaux Safari’s strength is that it actually makes the unexpected happen, taking readers out of their comfort zone. In a way, the descriptions of places in the book are almost incidental and, given the number of typical Bordelais references, are possibly aimed more at locals than tourists. What is more important is what the visitors make of the places where they end up. 

Between designated spots, my Sunday morning Bordeaux Safari took me off the beaten track through flea markets, along cobbled side streets and through tiny squares where cars were double-parked just like in the old days. On my travels I also spotted some mosaic signs and a great old justice de paix” building (now the city's lost property office) which I’d never seen before. Above all, Bordeaux Safari uncovers and highlights the authentic, grassroots side of the city that doesn’t appear on postcards or in glossy magazine features, and for that reason alone it comes fully approved by Invisible Bordeaux.

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