I was high on the luxury and charm that Paris presented to me. It was like I had been seduced by the perfect man who had wined and dined me all summer long and now I had to leave my fairytale. We had a 9 hour drive by coach ahead of us to reach the city of Bordeaux. Travelling through the French countryside was proving to be another romantic affair and I couldn’t help but stare out of the window and dream of spending all year in Paris, eating fresh fruit and croissants. Summer in France was incredibly humid and the air-con the coach provided was no match for such humidity- I just wanted to get to the hotel so that I could shower and enjoy a real meal, with no thoughts of where I’d go or what I’d do after. Interestingly, we stopped over at Chateu de Chombard for about 2 hours, which was an incredible example of the architecture from the French Renaissance and is rumoured to be originally designed by Leonardo de Vinci.
After playing numerous “road trip games” with my Australian pals and being left to stare out in to the countryside again, I realised that I actually had no clue about the city of Bordeaux. All I knew was that it was World Wine Capital and that one had to book a wine tasting at one of the many vineyards and try their first class wine. At the time I felt ignorant for never having googled the city but, my excitement to see capitals like Barcelona, Paris and Amsterdam had overshadowed this little gem.
In retrospect, I couldn’t have made a better mistake because unlike the places I had researched extensively, I didn’t have a map or any fancy apps to dictate my way through Bordeaux. I had to be so sensitive to what was around me and child-like in my discovery of foreign sites. We reached Bordeaux at 7pm with the sun relentlessly beating down on us but I had a new found energy to check in to my hotel room, have a quicker shower and explore the streets with a backpack and camera as my weapons.
Back in Architecture School, one of the very first things we had learnt was “Genius Loci” which simply means the spirit of a place. That sensual experience of a place, the energy it exudes, the way it makes you fall in love with it. Bordeaux was an example of a place whose spirit was intoxicating. Every step was an exciting one. I had to remember landmarks and road names to make my way around. I took photos of absolutely anything because with my new perspective, even the street lamps had gained new meaning. I got completely lost and couldn’t have been happier to go around in circles. To pass the old buildings that had been stained over the years, and the newer sculptures that stood beside them, to marvel at flowers that had been proudly placed on tiny balconies and to see other people enjoying their city.
Having completely forgotten about food, I stumbled into a restaurant around 10pm that said “all day eating but no air-con” and had the best 3 course meal I had had in France. The restaurant was buzzing with families enjoying their meals and loud exclamations in French that I didn’t understand. The wine was flowing and the humidity rising in the little place that chose to be earth-friendly, and my senses were alight, burning like they had never before .I continued my journey around the city and ran in to guys playing soccer in the street-in the streets that I’m so used to cars flowing in and out of, there were guys playing a game of soccer. Imagine that. It’s funny how unfamiliar experiences affect us, how they force us to rethink what “the norm” is. They passed me the ball as I watched the game and I gracefully (hopelessly) passed it back to them. That simple gesture was received without the confusion of fluent French or broken English.
I realised at that moment that I didn’t feel like a tourist, I felt like a traveller. A traveller who had made their way to a foreign land and was allowed to indulge in the joys that the residents enjoyed daily,without the complications of time ,or maps, or apps recommending the top 3 restaurants to visit. Recently I read “The Art of Travel” by Pico Iyer whose words resonated with my own thoughts- these words in particular “Abroad is the place where we stay up late, follow impulse and find ourselves as wide open as when we are in love. We live without a past or future, for a moment at least, and are ourselves up for grabs and open to interpretation. We even may become mysterious — to others, at first, and sometimes to ourselves — and, as no less a dignitary than Oliver Cromwell once noted, “A man never goes so far as when he doesn’t know where he is going.”
Bordeaux possesses the beautiful values of “place making”, a place where the streets belong to pedestrians, and the influence of art, sculpture and architecture are always seen. People are the driving factor behind a city who’s pulsating at every hour of the day. Although, it may not have the landmarks that we see on the TV or the title of “Must-see City”, it has character. As I continued to search the streets with my new pair of eyes, it became dark and the hour no longer “decent” for wondering. I ended the night with a dead camera battery and watching kids skate at 2am on a week night. (As one does in a foreign city)
In an attempt to understand my love affair with Paris and all it’s “wonders”, it brought me to the conclusion that when I travel I want to feel the spirit of a place- free from expectations, itineraries and tour guides. Instead I want to be surprised and get lost in the moment of just being there- I want to be intimate with the city, I want it to change me. Pico Iyer explains this sentiment by saying, “So travel, for many of us, is a quest for not just the unknown, but the unknowing; I, at least, travel in search of an innocent eye that can return me to a more innocent self.” The humble city of Bordeaux did exactly this – It taught me the art of travel.