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Saint-Simeón: A cinema housed in a church

The Utopia cinema in Bordeaux boasts a stunning location, having taken up residence in an old neglected church right in the city centre. This unusual setting heightens the charm of this experimental arthouse cinema.

Over the years when I used to go and buy candles from Bourdy, the small candlemakers on Rue Saint-Siméon, I would venture a little further towards Place Camille Jullian to catch a glimpse of a building that was deteriorating before my eyes. It was such a sad sight to see the old Saint-Siméon church exposed to the harsh elements, all grey and dilapidated, and relegated to the role of car park. But the church had already gone through a whole host of other adventures before ending up in this guise.

In fact, very few churches have been home to such a diverse range of activities. This historic place of worship in Bordeaux underwent a series of transformations over the years, but was abandoned during the French Revolution. So far, not a particularly remarkable story. However, shortly after, it was turned into a saltpetre storage depot. Here, saltpetre was mixed with sulphur and coal to produce gunpowder. In 1833, the Laporte brothers established a naval school for youths and new recruits here, as well as a gymnasium. In the late 19th century, a canning factory set up business here.
It is said that the key-like device used to open sardine tins was invented in this factory. But I would err on the side of caution, because I’ve read that other French regions and different countries have laid claim to this invention. The building subsequently became a bicycle shop, before finishing up as a car park.

In 1999, the Utopia cinema took over the premises. This experimental arthouse cinema, with its independent and carefully selected programming, is also a venue for evening debates. A small restaurant has been opened in the entrance lobby. I love strolling through this timeless, warm and intimate space, flicking through newspapers or reading leaflets arranged on the church furniture which blends in so well with the stained-glass windows. I can almost hear the joyful cries of the young ship hands who were schooled here.

I can also sit down on the terrace overlooking Place Camille Jullian. The name Camille Jullian brings back more memories for me, as my old high school was named after him and is affectionately called ‘Caju’. Camille Jullian was a famous historian who taught in Bordeaux and wrote a major and still-influential work on the history of Gaul. But I have to be honest. The Utopia’s café is also ideally located for a break from a shopping spree between Rue Sainte-Catherine, with its major stores, and Rue du Pas-Saint-Georges and the lanes around Bordeaux‘s old town, where the more exclusive boutiques can be found.

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