Saint-Michel owes its reputation to the bustling square and to the basilica by the same name, a great example of Gothic style architecture with some astonishing stained-glass windows. Saint-Michel is the place to stroll on market days, to look for a bargain or to wander among café and restaurant terraces in a decidedly relaxed atmosphere, away from the usual bourgeois image of Bordeaux.
Header image: detail of “Saint-Michel” by Les Instantanés de Bordeaux
The “Saint-Mich” neighbourhood
The neighbourhood known as Saint-Michel, or “Saint-Mich” among locals, is composed of the Canteloup and Meynard squares. A popular bastion of the city centre, it has its roots in the medieval Bordeaux of merchants and craftsmen. The barges dumped their cargo of wood at the bottom of Saint-Michel, feeding the carpenters’ workshops in Rue Carpenteyre and the coopers in rue de la Fusterie. The blacksmiths and gunsmiths of the Rue des Faures, the salt merchants of the Quai des Salinières provided salt to the dry meat and fish shops in Rue de la Rousselle.
Saint-Michel has always brought together people from different social and cultural backgrounds. It is the home of successive immigration movements in Bordeaux. After the Spanish and Portuguese during the first half of the twentieth century came the families of the Maghreb in the 1970s. It is the populations of sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe who come to settle here, close to the Capucins market and the flourishing places of groceries, cafés and flea markets.
The Saint-Michel Basilica and “the Arrow” Spire
The basilica sits in a square surrounded by market places, the terraces of cafes and the playgrounds. The current building succeeds a Carolingian chapel, dedicated to the archangel Saint-Michel. In the 9th century, the church was transformed into a parish of sailors, craftsmen and tradesmen working in the Port of the Moon (Bordeaux).
The district developed in the fourteenth century, spurring the construction of a new church, completed in the sixteenth century under the direction of the architect Jean Lebas. This one is distinguished by its flamboyant Gothic style, and by its independent bell tower (similar to Tour Pey Berland next to Cathédrale Saint-André).
The “La Flèche” (arrow/spire) bell tower stands freely only a few meters from the nave. At 114 meters it is the highest point of the city and also the highest bell tower of the French Midi. Cantoned and buttressed at the corners the campanile houses a set of 7 moving bells and 15 fixed bells.
The basilica was enlisted a Historic Monument in 1846 and a UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998 under the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage Route in France serial sites.
Withstanding to storms and bombs
The spire has suffered many natural disasters and historical conflicts. In addition to the earthquake that shook Bordeaux in 1759, it has been struck several times by lightning. In September 1768 a hurricane blew down the tip of the La Flèche. The bell tower was truncated to the height of 99 m, causing a lot of emotions. Victor Hugo, who during his visit to Bordeaux in 1843 said:
“The tower, although still crowned with an eight-sided block and eight gables, is rough and truncated at the top. We feel that she is decapitated and dead. The wind and the days pass through her tall arches, window-less and without mullions, as through large bones. It is no longer a steeple, it is the skeleton of a steeple”.
(Excerpt from Momies de Saint-Michel, Alpes et Pyrénées by Victor Hugo)
It was not until 1869 that the work of rebuilding the spire in the Gothic style was completed, under the direction of Paul Abadie, architect of the Sacré Cœur de Paris and Saint Front Cathedral of Périgueux.
The bombings of June 21, 1940, which can be detected on the facade of the basilica, did not spare the stain glass windows of the building. They have since been replaced by modernist windows made by artists Max Ingrand and Jean-Henri Couturat.
The Crypt and the mummies of Saint-Michel
In 1791, the directory of the department ordered the removal of the old parochial ossuary surrounding the church of Saint-Michel. Several dozen mummified bodies were then discovered and moved to the crypt located under the bell tower. The “Mummies of Saint-Michel” remained for a long time visible to the public. In the word of Victor Hugo: “These scary faces, this crowd of sinister or terrifying heads”. They moved and were buried in the Chartreuse cemetery in 1979.
There is video set up as part of the visit that tells the stories of the mummies, among which are “The Living Buried”, the “Family Poisoned by Mushrooms”, or “The African” …
The Saint-Michel neighbourhood enchants with the diversity of its colours, especially on market days when it is covered with stalls brimming with fruits and vegetables. It will especially delight the courageous who will climb the 230 steps of La Flèche to reach the highest point of the city for an exceptional 360 degree panorama.