A Tale of Two Cities
During the last weekend in May, Bordeaux’s Fête le Vin will set up shop in Liverpool to coincide with the start of the Tall Ships Regatta. The two cities have both become thriving honeypots for business and tourism
the mersey and the garonne were once the major economic arteries of
their cities. Liverpool and Bordeaux were powerhouses of Atlantic trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, both playing a critical role in the empire-building of their nations. The two cities’ histories flowed in parallel, as each entwined its identity around a broad, surging water-way. The name Liverpool is born out of the river; in Old English liver means thick or muddy, and pol means creek or pool. Bordeaux means ‘by the side of the water’.
To approach Liverpool or Bordeaux by boat, is to glimpse these illustrious ports through the eyes of the sailors and immigrants who crossed the Atlantic, then journeyed inland on the river. Liverpool’s Pier Head was the point of departure and disembarkation for passenger ships for over 300 years. Today, the river-traveller is met by the iconic sight of the ‘Three Graces’ - a triumvirate of grand and ornate early 20th century buildings designed to trumpet Liverpool’s commercial pre-eminence. These historic behemoths, and other Victorian buildings, cast imposing silhouettes against the backdrop of the impeccably-restored docks.
The docks of these cities once echoed with the cacophony of maritime trade - seamen rushing to unload the precious cargo of tall ships from across the Atlantic, while merchants barked orders, and local boys and girls advertised hot pies in shrill voices.
If you arrive in Bordeaux by boat, the city’s emblematic neo-classical architecture, rendered in the sandy-toned local limestone elicits a similar intake of breath. The view of the Place de La Bourse, designed by celebrated Parisian architect Georges Eugène Haussmann, and the Place des Quinconces, Europe’s largest public square, is little-changed since the days when Bordeaux was at the epicentre of the Triangular Trade between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean.
The Golden Age
In the last decade both Liverpool and Bordeaux have undergone dramatic
transformations from shabby, economically underperforming cities to thriving honeypots for business and tourism. Both cities’ architectural grandeur has been landed by UNESCO. In 2004 the global heritage watchdog proclaimed Liverpool’s ‘Maritime Mercantile City’ as a historic hub for international trade and docking technology. Bordeaux received its own accolades from UNESCO in 2008, when the ‘Port of the Moon’ was declared the best expression of Enlightenment architecture. In that era, towns were designed to be ‘melting pots of humanism, universality and culture’.
The backstreets of both cities are studded with architectural gems too. Liverpool’s Hope Street is a well-preserved Georgian neighbourhood, and St. George’s Quarter is a near-perfect Victorian one. Bordeaux’s Chartrons is packed with échoppes - artisans’ cottages, constructed between the 14th and 18th centuries, and you’ll find stately neo-classical private houses, dotted throughout the city.
It’s not just the beautiful buildings, but what took place within them which make Liverpool and Bordeaux so compelling. Bordeaux of course is synonymous with wine, and Liverpool has spawned some of the world’s favourite pop artists, earning it a new accolade in 2015; UNESCO City of Music.
The City Reborn
Ambitious urban renewal projects were initiated in the late 1990s in Liverpool and Bordeaux, coupled with huge investment in tourism and the arts, which has lead to a significant economic resurgence. Liverpool ONE inaugurated in 2008, is a shopping and entertainment complex close to the waterfront which cost £920 million. Other re-development areas like Rope Walks with its industrial-era warehouses, skilfully integrate the city’s ocean-going past with contemporary urban design.
A former timber yard, the Baltic Triangle, has been transformed into a hothouse for young talent. Artists and entrepreneurs incubate their ideas in custom-built beach huts and hold ping pong duals onsite. With its streetfood pop-ups and live music stages, it compares to Bordeaux’s Darwin
Ecosystème. This stunning post-industrial space, decorated with virtuoso graffiti, houses everything from work spaces for young creatives, to breweries, organic restaurants, urban farms, skate-parks and bike polo arenas. Regeneration of the city’s derelict quays and, recently, the Bacalan area where a 21st-century food market has just sprung up facing the Cité du Vin museum have re-invigorated the ancient city, helping to lure 6 million tourists a year.
The Liverpool Tate, housed in a refurbished warehouse, overlooks a glassy pool of water on the Grade 1-listed Albert Dock. Inaugurated in 1988, The Tate is a hive of debate and discussion, hosting talks and workshops. Across Liverpool, the arts are fuelling a cultural renaissance celebrating the distinctiveness of the city. Sir Peter Blake, the artist behind the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album cover has emblazoned a passenger ferry on the Mersey, The Dazzle, with his colourful and kaleidoscopic designs as part of the city’s art biennal. The Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in one of Bordeaux’s largest and most impressive colonial-era buildings, the Entrepôts Lainé, a former food depot. This Cathedral-like space was renovated in 1977 to become an exhibition space, which quickly acquired an impressive collection of artworks.
The once bustling waterways and thoroughfares of Liverpool and Bordeaux languished during the post-industrial era, but thanks to visionary leadership and hard-won investment, they are vigorously casting off the shadow of late 20th century decline. Today, vast Cruise-liners anchor in docks once written off as relics. With high speed rail links, investment of capital and ideas in business, and more urban regeneration in the pipeline, the future looks bright for these two former maritime titans.
Bordeaux’s Place de la Bourse reflecting in the Miroir d’eau.
The Three Graces.
Darwin Ecosystème in Bordeaux.
Liverpool, roof terrace.