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Discover Bordeaux’s fountains through the man who worked on them

Michel Cessateur has been involved with every fountain in the city since the end of the 1970s and now shows tourists his favourites

Michel Cessateur’s tour takes in Bordeaux’s Monument aux Girondins, the city’s Wallace drinking fountains and the Fontaine des Trois Grâces, which runs pinky-red in October as part of a breast cancer awareness initiative Pic: Théophile Larcher / bumihills - Shutterstock / Inga Leksina - Alamy

These days, 73-year-old Michel Cessateur works as a volunteer creating model boats for exhibitions in Bordeaux’s Musée de la Mer et de la Marine.

Another water-based passion runs deeper, however. He was the city’s last fontainier (fountain engineer), helping with the design, operation and maintenance of its fountains and drinking water outlets from the early 1970s to 2009.

‘Living memory’

It is an interest he inherited from his father Robert, formerly a director of the city’s waterworks service.

The mairie has not replaced him and now outsources the role to private companies. 

Despite being well into his retirement years, Mr Cessateur still offers unofficial tours of Bordeaux’s many fountains.

“I am part of its living memory,” he said. 

Monuments aux Girondins to the Miroir d’Eau

His expertise has seen him involved with every fountain works implemented in the city since the end of the 1970s.

These include installations for the Monuments aux Girondins in the 1980s to helping bring the Miroir d’Eau – the longest reflecting pool in the world – from concept to launch in 2006. 

His work has mostly centred, however, on upgrading the city’s water circulation system. The previous hydraulic method generated huge amounts of waste, since the fountain water ended in the local Garonne river.

“I have experience of every aspect of fountain work,” said Mr Cessateur, who has even designed a fountain for a local primary school.

Runs in the family

He is the third generation in the family to have worked in the plumbing industry, his grandfather having settled in Bordeaux and been employed by the mairie too.

“My mother did not want me to do the same as my father. She wanted me to become a dentist,” he said.

That dream was shattered when her son was just three years old and put his hands on his first fountain under his father’s supervision.

He started working for the city in 1971 and was put in charge of the swimming pool pumping station.

He got an opportunity to join his father in the waterworks department in 1972 and gradually gained more and more responsibility.

For the common good

“My father told me that once at the mairie, I should work for the common good. I heeded that advice,” said Mr Cessateur, whose dedication to the job has been the focus of several appearances in local newspapers and on TV shows.

His career trajectory is not unusual for someone of his generation, where formal qualifications were not always necessary and children often followed a long line of family members into the same trade.

While no specific fontainier course exists, the Institut national des métiers d’arts, an association working to promote jobs in skilled trades, suggests learning about carving or sculpture will help.

City tours

Mr Cessateur’s city tours take in eight of the fountains he worked on.

He walks spellbound visitors from the Monument aux Girondins in central Bordeaux to the two fountains on the Quai de Tourny, the Chaperon Rouge fountain, the Daurade fountain, the fountains of Place Georges de Porto-Riche and Place Royale, and finally to the Miroir d’Eau, where the water is just two centimetres deep and designed for people to walk in. 

His encyclopaedic knowledge is evident. Tourists are treated to such nuggets of information as the time the fountain on Place du Marché Royal ran white wine in its pipes on one specific day for three years in a row.

The tour is also an occasion to hear some of his personal stories, including how he was  caught wearing swimming trunks on the job by the city’s mayor – and how he once almost drowned.

Favourite fountain

On one of the smallest streets in his tour is the fountain of Place Georges de Porto-Riche.

He installed the drinking fountain here in 2005, styled on the ones found across Paris which were donated by British philanthropist Richard Wallace some 150 years ago.

Read more: The story of Paris’ drinking fountains gifted by a UK donor in 1870s

It features four caryatids as architectural supports – an allegory of the four seasons, Mr Cessateur explained.

He took such pains to describe the subtle differences between the figures that tourists might have been forgiven for thinking this fountain is his favourite of all the ones he has worked on. Is that true?

“I like them all,” said Mr Cessateur, diplomatically.

The question felt almost like asking a parent to pick his or her favourite child.

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