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Anson: A ghost tour of Bordeaux

Jane Anson reports on legendary ghosts in Bordeaux and explores their connections to the French city's famous wine châteaux.

This time last year, I took my daughters on a ghostly walking tour of Bordeaux for Halloween. We went past cobbled squares where 14th century witches were burnt at the stake, a haunted playground on the site of a former convent, and we bore witness a whole pile of French Revolution memories, from the site of the gallows on today’s Place Gambetta to the last resting place of the 289 people who were guillotined here between 1789 and 1794, held in the Basilica of Saint Seurin.

Our guide didn’t mention viticultural ghosts, but there would be plenty to choose from if he had done so. Any region where winemaking stretches back for 2,000 years can hardly escape them.

To greet the most significant ghost, the grandfather in many ways of Bordeaux wine, we should walk to the Bordeaux Opera House on Place de la Comédie. This was the site of a Roman temple (the modern-day Opera House was built to mirror it, and original drawings can be found in the Musée d’Aquitaine) just outside of the city walls that started at the top of the pedestrianised rue Saint Catherine.

It is here that we can imagine the Bordeaux-born Roman poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius sending his servants to haggle for his weekly goods from the bustling market that was held just outside the temple.

Ausonius was tutor to future Roman emperor Gratian, a grammar teacher at a school of rhetoric in Bordeaux and was awarded a consulate in 379, the highest Roman honour. In wine circles he is most famous for the poetry and letters that he wrote from estates that lay to the east of Burdigala, as Bordeaux was then known, that were left to him by his physician father and that he retired to in his dotage.

He gave his name, many centuries later, to Château Ausone, a gift that has meant that although he may be only one of countless Roman ghosts here (and in fact lived towards the end of Roman rule), he is the clearest reminder of the role that the Romans played in developing today’s wine industry. His descriptions of life – most colourfully in descriptions of his fellow professors at the university of Bordeaux who instilled the love of letters into the ‘uncultured minds of the people of Bordeaux’, of a bailiff on his own estate of Ausonius who blamed the poor quality of the soil for a crop failure, and of the beauty of  the ‘smiling and well-tended country of Bordeaux’ with its ‘vine-clad hills’ and its city with ‘streets clearly laid out, houses regularly plotted’ – provide a window into its earliest stirrings.

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From here, the ghost walk could take us through the old town streets to Place du Palais with its stunning Porte Cailhau carved stone gate. This was the main entrance to the medieval city, and once opened on to Palais de L’Ombrière; tax office, customs house and grand residence of the Governor of Guyenne when Bordeaux was a duchy of the English crown. Among the most notable ghosts at this spot is surely Gaillard de Durfort, a French nobleman who embraced the English rule of Guyenne and became Seneschal of Bordeaux. He represents the struggle between the English and the French to keep control of the riches that flowed from the Bordeaux winelands, and was the man who eventually negotiated the surrender of the city to the French in 1451 from this very spot. His lands were forfeited after France fully regained control of Aquitaine in 1453, leading to his swift escape to London by boat from the Bordeaux quayside. Pardoned by the French king in 1476, Durfort was eventually allowed home and is buried in Bordeaux.

This spot, the site of the Palais de L’Ombrière, is teeming with less happy ghosts than the repatriated Durfort. During French Revolution the palace became a prison, and held among its many Revolutionary victims Joseph Fumel, military commander, former mayor of Bordeaux and owner of Château Haut-Brion. It was from this spot that he was walked through the streets, past jeering onlookers, up to Place Gambetta for execution on July 27, 1794 – and almost certainly from there his remains would have made their way to the Basilique Saint Seurin.

There is just one more ghost that we have time for on this tour. For this, we need to head over to the other bank of the Garonne river as it flows through the city, to the Quai des Queyries. Here, by the entrance to the botanical gardens, is a bronze bust of Toussaint Louverture, a former slave who led a rebellion in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti) and later became a general in the French army, helping fight British and Spanish troops.

It stands as a reminder of the ghosts of the slaves that passed through Bordeaux and played a key role in building up its financial importance. Hard to find a European port city that doesn’t have links to the slave trade of course, and Bordeaux was small scale compared to some (around 500 ships made slaving expeditions from the Chartrons quays for example, compared to Liverpool’s 5,700 expeditions). But these are still ghosts that are too often forgotten.

There were early signs that Bordeaux was to resist the slave trade. In 1571, a Normandy captain sailed into the Port de la Lune and took a berth on the Chartrons quays with slaves on board that he was planning to sell, until the city’s Parliament issued an order for him to be expelled and the slaves to be freed. A century later, Louis XIV’s minister of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert rebuked the Bordeaux parliament for local merchants relying on Dutch ships to export their wine and grain instead of running expeditions themselves. Colbert’s son visited the city in 1670 and reported that ‘not even three bourgeois in Bordeaux own a ship’.

But from 1672 onwards there were regular expeditions, at their height in the 1700s. Bordeaux négociant and ship owner Pierre-Paul Nairac launched 25 slaving expeditions between 1740 to 1792. Toussaint Louverture stands as an important memory of this, with his statue opposite the Chartrons quayside looking upriver to the Atlantic Ocean and so following the trajectory of those long-ago ships.

Despite his military success in Saint-Domingue, Louverture’s fortunes reversed when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power and revoked the abolition of slavery. He was forcibly returned to France and died in the Jura in 1803. One year later Haiti declared its independence, and Louverture is rightly recognised as one of the heros of the abolition of slavery. The statue, by Haitian artist Ludovic Booz, was donated to Bordeaux by the Republic of Haiti in 2005. And we can hope that his ghost might just be content to return to Bordeaux at times – his son Isaac lived, died and is buried here.

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