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Aquitaine THE


Saturday 27 March 2010

Season in the sun Perfect escapes in Bordeaux and south-west France

In association with



A brief history

A road to the past Simon Calder embarks on a journey through space and time, from pre-history to the 20th century, in this dazzling region of France



n one level, the meandering journey beside the Vézère river is simply a joyful drive through a towering landscape of limestone sculpted by nature over millions of years. But dig deeper, and you discover the roots of European civilisation. The north-eastern reaches of Aquitaine is the place to begin a journey through many millennia that stretches across the region to the ocean – and to unravel man’s relationship with this fascinating corner of Europe. The limestone cliffs, riven with caverns, provided prehistoric humans with shelter and security. In return, they have left their mark on the caves of the Vézère valley for the benefit of 21st-century man. The cave of Lascaux bears exuberant sketches of creatures that shared France with humanity 25,000 years ago. After the discovery of this subterranean gallery in 1940, it rapidly became a tourist attraction; the drastic alternation of the atmosphere began to erode the images. The neat solution is Lascaux II, a cave where artists have recreated the cave paintings – and ambience – of the original. Many more prehistoric residences remain downstream, such as the Grotte du Grand Roc and the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume on either side of the town of Les Eyzies. The latter still allows tourists to witness sensitive paintings, though numbers are strictly controlled. A dreamy drive north-west follows the line of the railway whose construction led to many of the discoveries of ancient cultures, and takes you to Perigueux – a city that visibly wears its Roman origins (see page XII). What did the Romans ever do for Aquitaine? Introduce vines, which immediately took to the local soil and have defined this part of the world ever since. You may be aware of St-Emilion only as a name on some of

France’s finest wines. The reality is as complex and rewarding as a good claret. The town drapes itself prettily over hills, presenting a three-dimensional puzzle that is a joy to solve. Hills, in these parts, spell limestone – which means there are more secrets to be discovered. While many visitors are content with the ample wine-tasting opportunities in the district that puts the “noble” in vignoble, you can instead join a tour of underground St-Emilion. It begins by paying respects to the man himself, the eighth-century hermit who moved from his Breton home to Aquitaine and wrought the miracles (such as turning bread into wood) that would lead to his

“The town drapes itself prettily over the hills like a 3-D puzzle” beatification – and the establishment of St-Emilion as a centre of pilgrimage. The human miracle of St-Emilion is the “monolithic church” that rivals the rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia. The usual way to construct places of worship is to start at ground level and build up. This architectural masterpiece is, instead, hewn from a single massive rock: 38m long, 20m wide and 11m high. Could the Holy Grail be hidden somewhere here? Local legend maintains it might. The builders – or should that be diggers? – bequeathed Aquitaine with a marvel that a mixture of ambition and damp have combined, literally, to undermine. In the 12th century, further devotion to the cause of St-Emilion led monks to build an impressive tower above the church. Aesthetically, it acts as a beacon for the town. Gravitationally, its 4,500 tonnes

act directly downwards on the church that has been hewn from the rock. Add in the natural springs that infiltrate the foundations, and you understand why some heavy-duty stabilising work has gone on – and why the guide warns that this is one of the 100 most dangerous places on the planet. And what happened to the relics of the saint himself? They have not been moved to a place of safety, but were removed in 1528 and apparently hurled into the Dordogne river. With or without the great man, Unesco still recognises St-Emilion and its environs as a world heritage site. Leave the 12th-century church tower tottering above St-Emilion and spend the next 20km grafting through the vineyards. The D122 is a prosaic classification for what turns out to be a premier cru among French country roads, flanked by the near-naked vines that, by autumn, will be heavy with fruit. Leave the experts to extract as much magnificence as they can from the wine, while you explore another few centuries of this drive through time. Even in a rented Clio, Cadillac looks irresistible. Partly because of the hot-shot name, but mostly because it is a great example of a bastide. Between 1141 and 1350, around 400 of these towns were built in south-west France. It comprised a fascinating flowering of town planning. Instead of the usual agglomeration of buildings around a church, they were planned within strong fortifications with streets laid out on a grid pattern. The centre was a busy square, secular rather than religious, often with a covered marketplace. Cadillac is a classic example – with the added bonus of the Château des ducs d’Épernon, to the north of the town. “Château” can cover everything from an impressive house to a proper castle, and this is very much at the fortress end of the spectrum. Cadillac also has a link

Historic setting: a church tower presides over St-Emilion CRTA-JJ BROCHARD

to the 20th century, thanks to Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, who founded Detroit – another waterside location. The rest is automotive history. My rental Renault proved well up to the task of finding its way through the autoroute network around Bordeaux and onwards to the coast. Or coasts. The Bassin d’Arcachon is a remarkable bay, almost cut off from the ocean. Fed by the Eyre river, which dissolves into a delta that melts into the shallow bay, it provides ideal breeding grounds for seabirds and excellent vacances terrain for families. You can walk, cycle or ride horses in this serene segment of Aquitaine. The resort of Arcachon itself has a beautiful northfacing beach of soft sand, along with some fascinating 19th-century architecture: like the other great Aquitaine resorts of Biarritz and St-Jean de Luz, the British are rediscovering the joys of their 19th-century winter escapes. So far, all the places on this chrono-geographical journey are firmly on the tourist map. For a final flourish, make your way to an unassuming south-western suburb of Bordeaux called

Pessac. Track down Rue Le Corbusier and you will be on course to discover some of the most intriguing architecture of the 20th century. A group of a few dozen houses were created by the great French architect – and have been overlooked ever since. From a design perspective, they are to France as the Bauhaus creations of Dessau are to Germany, but with the added bonus of being very lived in. Beside the main railway line from Bordeaux to the Spanish border, Le Corbusier created a community of sharp edges but innate humanity. No monolithic tower blocks here: instead, amid leafy streetscapes a range of cubic houses offer residents space, light and a sense of order – something that Cro-Magnon man, across the far side of Aquitaine, would have cherished. Simon Calder flew on British Airways (0844 493 0787; from Gatwick to Bordeaux for a fare of £55, and from Bergerac to Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; for a fare of £30. He rented a car from EuropCar for two days, costing £159.



Travel essentials Getting there n Connections between the UK and

Aquitaine have never been better. The main air hub is Bordeaux’s Mérignac airport (00 33 5 56 34 50 50;, 10km west of the city centre; the JetBus departs every 45 minutes for the city centre. Bordeaux is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; from Gatwick, Luton, Liverpool and Bristol; British Airways (0844 493 0787; from Gatwick; Bmibaby (09111 545454; from Manchester; Flybe (0871 700 2000; from Southampton and Birmingham; and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; from Edinburgh. n Ryanair serves the southern Aquitaine airports of Pau and Biarritz from Stansted, as well as Bergerac’s brand-new terminal – also accessible from Southampton on Flybe. n By train, Eurostar (08705 186 186; has good links from London St Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford to a wide range of stations in Aquitaine. Trains to Bordeaux’s St-Jean station take around seven hours with a change in Lille Europe (a simple transfer) or Paris (which requires a Metro connection across the capital). Fares start at £109 return, with low-cost add-ons from other British stations. n The best approach by road is via one of the Western Channel ports, such as Brittany Ferries (08705 360 360; from Portsmouth to Caen and St-Malo.

Easy driver: sightseeing by car ALAMY





Soulac sur Mer



Pauillac Lacanau

Perigueux Dordogne


Saint Emilion




Bay of Biscay


Arcachon Eyre







Mont de Marsan Dax Adour

Bayonne Biarritz


S PA I N P&O Ferries (08716 645 645; sails from Portsmouth to Bilbao in Spain, providing access to the Pyrenees of Aquitaine.

Getting around n The rail network to and within Aquitaine is excellent. The main line runs from Paris Gare Montparnasse to Bordeaux, continuing to Bayonne,

Biarritz and Hendaye. Regional trains extend deep inland, with services from Bordeaux to Arcachon, Perigueux and Agen, and from Bayonne to Pau. Trains to key railheads connect with buses that provide access to hundreds of towns and villages. n Aquitaine's roads are good and, except in the summer peak, pleas-



ingly empty by British standards. Most autoroutes (motorways) levy tolls (marked “péage”), at a rate of about €7 per 100km. Around the cities, there are usually toll-free stretches. Car rental is available at airports and in town centres (usually at railway stations), making a flydrive or rail-drive holiday easily accessible options.


Cyclists are well catered for, with excellent segregated bike paths in many parts of Aquitaine. And hikers can take advantage of the network of grande randonnée (GR) long-distance footpaths. The flagship route is the GR10 east from Hendaye following the line of the Pyrenees towards the Mediterranean, but there are many others.



A tale of two cities Biarritz and Bayonne

For surf and surprises, visit that it has a passionately strong following. Biarritz people, on the other hand, acknowledge with some sang froid that they are much less supportive of their players, although their team is far more successful. What the locals do share is an enormous pride in being Basque. For you’re in the heart of France’s small Pays Basque here. Its rich takes under 15 minutes to drive heritage is reflected in restaurant from the centre of one town to menus; in the language, Euskara, the other – a remarkably short that is fairly widely spoken; in the journey for a striking change in fast-moving games of pelota; and atmosphere and outlook. in the traditionally styled houses The residents of these cities dotted around both towns. It was revel in their differences – and their rivalry. All of which adds to this time-honoured architecture that enchanted Victor Hugo when the appeal of a visit here. It’s he visited Biarritz in 1843; then a rugby, they’ll tell you, that most neatly illustrates their contrasts. cute little harbour village. Hugo Any Bayonne resident will admit remarked that Biarritz was wistfully that their team is strug- bound to become fashionable gling, but will add with a big smile soon. And it did, big time.

Only eight kilometres apart and proudly individual, the cities of Biarritz and Bayonne revel in their rivalry. By Harriet O’Brien


o close and yet a world apart. Biarritz, on the dramatic Atlantic coast of southern Aquitaine, is a former whaling village that became a gracious resort and more recently also morphed into a cool surfing centre. Bayonne, just 8km inland, is an intriguing little cathedral city of wobbly old timber-frame houses and extraordinary topography, set on the confluence of two rivers: the Adour and Nive. It

Napoleon III famously put Biarritz on the map when, in 1855, he built his wife Eugénie a summer residence on the seafront. Constructed in the shape of an E, the lavish palace remains an iconic landmark. It became a hotel in 1893 and, complete with marblepillared lobby and chandeliers in the lifts, Hotel du Palais still exudes an imperial air. The best way to survey the palace and the wonderfully lowrise town around it is to head for the 1834 lighthouse, unmanned but still in service, on Pointe StMartin, which marks the northern extremity of town – for a €2 entrance fee you can climb the tower from 2pm every afternoon. Southwards, your view extends to Rocher de la Vierge, a dramatically craggy rock offshore, linked to the town by a footbridge and

adorned with a statue of the Virgin Mary. Behind it is the colourful harbour of Port des Pêcheurs from where whaling boats once set sail. It is still used by local fishermen, their nets drying beside a couple of chic restaurants that have been established at this picturesque point. Adjacent is Port Vieux, a small sandy bay where the whales were brought ashore. Come rain, frost, or throngs of summer tourists, a local group meets here every day of the year to go swimming. There are plenty of other beach options, from little Plage Marbella, a haunt of families, in the south, to Plage Miramar in the north. Best for people watching, though, are Grande Plage off the centre of town and Côte des Basques slightly further south. For these are where you’ll see

Travel essentials Eat n La Tantina de Burgos, 2 place Beau Rivage, Biarritz (00 33 559 23 2447). Cheerful bistro renowned for its fresh fish n Chez Albert, allée Port des Pêcheurs, Biarritz (00 33 559 24 4384; Elegant fish dishes served above the old harbour n Côte 57, 7 boulevard Princ de Galles (on Cote des Basques) Biarritz (00 33 5 922 2783). Join the surfing crowd here for cocktails and brasserie dishes n Rotisserie du Roy Léon, 8 rue Coursie, Bayonne (00 33 559 59 5584; restaurant- Atmospheric inn whose regional specialities include roast duckling n Péniche Talaia, moored off Quai Pedros, Bayonne (00 33 559 44 0804; Barge-restaurant serving Basque dishes Sleep n Hôtel du Palais, 1 avenue de l’Imperatrice, Biarritz (00 33 559 41 6400; Doubles from €375 without breakfast. n Radisson Blu Hotel, 1 carrefour Helianthe, Biarritz (00 33 559 01 1313; radisson Well-positioned

comfort above the Côtes des Basques. Doubles from €145 without breakfast n La Villa Hôtel, 12 chemin de Jacquette, Bayonne (00 33 559 03 0120; New boutique hotel five minutes drive from Bayonne’s old centre. Doubles from €80 with breakfast n Péniche Djebelle, moored off Quai de Lesseps, Bayonne (00 33 559 25 7718; Barge-hotel with just two doubles from €140 with breakfast Visit n L’Atelier du Chocolat, 7 Allée de Gibeleou, Bayonne

(00 33 559 55 7023; Chocolate museum and workshop open Mon–Sat 9.30am-12.30pm and 2-6pm; adults €5.60 n Musée Basque, 37 quai Corsaires, Bayonne (00 33 559 59 0898; Tues-Sun 10am6.30pm; adults €5.50 n Musée Bonnat, 5 rue Jacques-Lafitte, Bayonne (00 33 559 59 0852; Wed-Mon 10.30am-12.30pm and 1.305.30pm; adults €5.50 n Musée de la Mer, Plateau de l’Atalaye, Biarritz (00 33 559 22 3334; Large

rue Louison Bobet, Biarritz (00 33 559 41 3000; n Thalmar Thalasso Resort, 80 rue de Madrid, Biarritz Shop n Cazenave, 19 rue Port Neuf, (00 33 559 23 0122; Bayonne (00 33 559 59 0316) n Spa Kemana, adjoining for chocolates and nougats n Artisanat et Tradition, 3 the Radisson Blu hotel rue Port de Castets, Bayonne at carrefour Hélianthe, (00 33 559 59 0964) for Biarritz (00 33 559 22 Basque linens 1213; n Pierre Ibaialde, 41 rue des Cordeliers, Bayonne (00 33 More information n Biarritz Tourism (00 33 559 25 6530) for Bayonne hams and other local produce 559 22 3710;; n Bayonne Tourism (00 33 Relax n Thalassotherapy Institute, 820 42 6464; bayonneSofitel Biarritz Hotel, 13 aquarium open Tues-Sun 9.30am-12.30pm and 2-6pm; adults €8



Gateways to Aquitaine Pau and Bergerac Worlds apart: Biarritz (left) and Bayonne (right) ALAMY; CRTA-JJ BROCHARD; PHOTOLIBRARY.COM

It is a decade since low-cost flights from Stansted first put Pau and Bergerac on the map. Since then air links have blossomed to provide access to the deep south and north-east of Aquitaine. But pause before you race off to your gite or villa: each town has something special to offer. BERGERAC Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, and his notable nose (below), has earned not one but two statues in the centre of this lovely town on the right bank of the Dordogne. Besides the statues, much else is on offer in Bergerac, such as exploring the river aboard a gabarre (traditional barge). The

the odd couple most surfing action. It was back in 1957 that Biarritz became a surfing centre: Peter Viertel, Hollywood scriptwriter and husband of Deborah Kerr, arrived then to shoot a film and brought with him surf boards from Hawaii. With its big waves, Biarritz proved ideal for the sport – and an entirely new culture developed here. But the town is now not only France’s capital of surfing: since the late 1970s, Biarritz has also become its foremost centre for thalassotherapy, with two large institutes each catering for up to 400 people a day and offering a range of seawater therapies. All of which is, of course, a far cry – if a short drive – from pretty Bayonne. This fascinating old port city is the capital of the French Basque people. And it is the oldest bullfighting town in the country, with its arena north of the historic centre becoming action-packed every August and September. But there’s much more besides. Bayonne is charming and quirky in equal measure: you can, for example, stay on a barge-hotel on one side of the Adour river, and eat in a bargerestaurant on the other. Bayonne is effectively three cities in one, each part divided by water. On the right bank of the river Adour is the Saint-Esprit district. Historically part of Gascony it is culturally very different from the rest of Bayonne. It was in this area that Jews escaping the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal were allowed to settle in the early 17th century. They brought with them cocoa beans and subsequently developed a thriving business of chocolate making, for which Bayonne is still renowned.

Drop in: surfers from across the globe head to Biarritz PHOTOLIBRARY.COM

Opposite, on a peninsula formed by the Adour and Nive rivers, is Petit Bayonne, traditionally the Basque quarter. It has latterly become Bayonne’s cultural district, and offers two outstanding museums. Set in a wonderful old Basque house, Musée Basque offers an absorbing insight into local life and history, its beautiful displays ranging from Celtic looking tombstones to rural crafts and a large section on Basque sports. One street away is a little known art treasure: the Musée Bonnat. Housed in a striking

19th-century building, it contains the amazing collection of 19thcentury painter Léon Bonnat, including works by El Greco, Delacroix, Gericault and Degas. On the other side of the Nive river is Grand Bayonne, the ancient heart of the city, which is dominated by a gracious Gothic cathedral. It is set on hill above a warren of narrow, medieval streets lined with colourful little shops. Head to Port Neuf for an appealing combination of fabulous old properties – and enticing window displays of chocolate.

tourist office is at 97 rue Neuve d’Argenson (00 33 5 53 57 03 11; It opens 9.30am-1pm and 2-7pm daily except Sunday (longer hours in July and August). n Sleep: Of half-a-dozen options in the centre, the Hôtel-Restaurant du Commerce at 36 Place Gambetta (00 33 5 53 27 30 50; is good value: a double costs as little as €42, with breakfast a further €8 per person. n Eat: The town centre has plenty of appetising options, with the Restaurant Le St-Jacques at 30 rue St-James (00 33 5 53 23 38 08; plumb in the middle and one of the most intriguing; the name celebrates the pilgrimage to Santiago, and the proprietors – who are Dutch – made a gastronomic crusade of their own to this land of plenty. They use classic Aquitaine ingredients to create dishes with flamboyant twists such as fois gras on a bed of port jelly. n Visit: Start in the 17th-century Cloitre des Recollets, a former Franciscan friary where religion has given way to the worship of wine: the Maison des Vins is housed here, and celebrates the district’s distinctive varieties (00 33 5 53 63 57 57; It offers tastings daily except Sunday. Another vice is catered for: Bergerac is a leading producer of tobacco, and the Musée de Tabac at the handsome 17th-century Maison Peyrarède in Place du Feu (00 33 5 53 63 04 13; celebrates its diamond jubilee this year. In the past 60 years, social attitudes to smoking have changed dramatically, but this museum presents a fascinating

anthropological timeline of tobacco. n Shop: The covered market in the town centre is a lively source of fresh fare each weekday morning; it is augmented on Tuesdays with an organic produce market – and, on the first Sunday morning of the month, a flea market that infuses the old town. PAU When in Pau head straight to the Boulevard des Pyrénées for superb views of the mountain chain. Pau’s location and balmy climate attracted wealthy British tourists in the 19th century, and their legacy can be seen in the city’s wealth of parks and gardens. The most interesting building, is the much-transformed château where Pau’s most famous son was born. Henry IV, “the Good King”, reigned over France from 1589 to 1610 and is credited with inventing the dish for which the city is renowned: poule au pot. The main tourist office (00 33 5 59 27 27 08; on Place Royale is open from 9am-6pm daily (Sundays 9.30am-1pm) n Sleep: The central, two-star Hôtel Bosquet at 11 rue Valéry Meunier (00 33 5 59 11 50 11; has doubles from €67, with breakfast an extra €7 per person. For four-star luxury and great views try the Hôtel Parc Beaumont at 1 avenue Édouard VII (00 33 5 59 11 84 00;, which has doubles from €215 with breakfast an extra €22 per person. Or consider the Hotel Villa Navarre, a handsome property in extensive grounds at 59 avenue Trespoey (00 33 5 59 14 65 65; – which includes arguably the best-located open-air swimming pool in France, with superb views of the mountains. n Eat: A popular, central brasserie, Le Berry at 4 rue Gachet (00 33 5 59 27 42 95) accepts no bookings so arrive early. The magret de canard is particularly good. n Visit: The Musée des Beaux Arts (below) in rue Mathieu Lalanne (00 33 5 59 27 33 02; boasts work by Rubens and Degas. It opens 10am-noon and 2-6pm daily except Tuesday, €3. The Château

Museum (00 33 5 59 82 38 02; opens 9.30am-12.30am and 1.30-6.45pm from 15 June to 15 September, €5. The grounds and gardens are free and open from 7.30am daily. n Shop: Explore the streets behind the Place Clémenceau. Find Pau’s famous sweets, chocolates and other presents in streets such as rue Henry IV and rue du Maréchal Joffre. In the latter, at number 48, Francis Miot creates award-winning and saucilynamed sweets. The Tétons de la Reine Margot are delicious: €8.90 for 150g (00 33 5 59 27 69 51;



The great outdoors

Saddle up for a French adventure Head for the hills and the beauty of Aquitaine’s landscape will soon reveal itself, says Mick Webb CYCLE TOURING For the true cycling enthusiast, there’s nothing to match the Tour de France, and to mark the centenary of the race’s first Pyrenean stage, 10,000 amateur cyclists will be taking on the testing challenge of cycling from Pau to the Col du Tourmalet on 18 July, before the peloton proper takes on the tortuous 174km on 22 July. Then 24 July will see them pedalling furiously from Bordeaux to Pauillac through the undulating vineyards of the Médoc in the individual time trial, the penultimate stage of this year’s tour. And if there’s any doubt that cycling verges on a religion in France, proof is to be found a short pedal from the gorgeous medieval village of Labastide-d’Armagnac (80km north of Pau) at the chapel of Notre-Dame des Cyclistes in Géou; many of the greats of French cycling have left their winners’ jerseys here. ( Luckily, for those of us not blessed with massive lungs and whipcord leg muscles, Aquitaine is well off for flatter lands and gentler, waymarked trails, the best of which are classified as

voies vertes. The longest and most spectacular, la voie verte du littoral, will take you 370km from the Pointe de Grave on the Gironde estuary to Hossegor, just north of Bayonne, passing mainly through shady pineforests and round lakes just behind the line of dunes. From 10-12 September on the northern section of this path, the Ouvre la Voix cyclo-musical festival will take place between Sauveterre-de-Guyenne and Latresne, with frequent stops to enjoy music, theatrical events, family-friendly competitions and, naturellement, wine-tasting ( Also in the Gironde area, Evazio, a company from Bordeaux, offers a sixday tour of forests, coast and vineyards for €649 per person based on two sharing for halfboard in B&Bs and small hotels (00 33 5 56 79 25 05; Inland, in the department of the Dordogne, a pretty 20km ride can be enjoyed through the heart of the Dordogne valley from Sarlat to Cazoulès, while further south a poplar-shaded green route parallels the Canal de Garonne for 87km, between the villages of Meilhan-sur-Garonne

Trailer park: paths meander through the Landes Forest CRTA-C BOUTE

and Saint-Jean-de-Thurac near Agen ( For bike hire, it’s best to enquire at the local tourist office, though if you are holidaying in or near Biarritz, Bike Atlantic of Anglet will rent you a bike and deliver it free, within a radius of 20km. It costs €20 a day or €90 a week (00 33 5 47 64 18 91; You could also take advantage of Bayonne’s environmentally-friendly initiative: free bikes and guides to 40km of cycle paths can be found at locations including the tourist office in the Place des Basques (00 33 820 42 64 64).

MOUNTAIN BIKING Mountain bikers can choose from the region’s 2,500km of sign-posted mountain bike tracks. Among the most dramatic are in the forests of the Barétous valley, with 200km of steep trails. Information about trails and bike hire can be found on Arette-la-PierreSt-Martin’s website (00 33 5 59 66 20 09; Based in the village of Navarrenx, in the Pyrenean foothills, a mountain-biking weekend is being offered by the Béarn-desGaves tourist office. It costs from €115 per person (based on two sharing) for two nights B&B in a chambre d’hôte and includes maps and guides to the 300km of tracks. Bike hire is extra (00 33 5 59 38 32 82; To get a full list of region’s cycling centres and bases, you can download the brochure Cycle Tourism in Aquitaine from

For good intermediate riders, the eight-day Atlantic Coast experience costs £907 per person in July and August. Starting and finishing in Mimizan-Plage, it includes three nights under canvas and four nights in a two-star hotel, based on two sharing and including most meals, but excluding travel to Bordeaux and transfers to Mimizan (0845 00 66 552; In the gentle hills and valleys between Les Landes and Armagnac, you can arrange your own itinerary and ride unaccompaHORSE-RIDING nied from Les Ecuries de Bouau If you prefer four legs to two in the village of Parleboscq (00 33 wheels, a number of equestrian centres offer accommodation and 5 58 44 30 83; horse-riding. The prospect of gal- The cost of six days of riding loping across miles of golden sand through the woods and meadows is enough to thrill even non-riders of the Ténarèze and accommodaand it’s one of the packages avail- tion for seven nights, including able from Aquitaine Adventures. luggage transfer and hire of

horses, is €965, based on two sharing. Alternatively, guided trips comprising two days riding, three nights in a hotel and all meals is €320 per person. Further north, in the medieval village of Belvès in Dordogne, the Hotel Clément V has a four-day package (three nights full-board, two days’ riding) for €730 per person, based on two sharing (00 33 5 53 28 68 80;

HIKING The region has been closely connected with long-distance walking since the 12th century, with France’s four major pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela, as well as two subsidiary ones, all passing through Aquitaine. A number of improvements have been made to the routes for 2010, which is one of



Made in Aquitaine A guide to local crafts Pony tale: trekking is a great way to experience the shores of Aquitaine CRTA-JJ BROCHARD; CRTA-BORDEAUX SAVEURS; GETTY IMAGES

In a small workshop behind the square in Bages, a wine village in Pauillac, Pierre Eveillard is hard at work. A wooden table slopes away in front of him; on it is a flat base, into which tall wicker stalks have been attached, the beginnings of a basket suitable for bread. Tables all around the workshop display other wicker products, all for sale, and made by Pierre and his colleague Carine Koffmann, ranging from egg cups at €5 to large linen baskets priced at €200. Bundles of twigs from 40 different types of willow are propped up all around the workshop, while others are soaking, which softens them up in readiness for the weaving process. While wine-making, Aquitaine’s best-known craft, is becoming increasingly high-tech, some of the region’s other traditional skills, like basket-making, are being revived. There were 140,000 basket makers in France in the years between the two world wars; now there are only 150. Eveillard thinks it important that crafts such as his should be preserved, a view shared by others in the region, such as Ania Canaux. Four years ago she began making organic soap, using high-quality ingredients and a traditional method of production, in which the soap is mixed, moulded and cut by hand. Already the Savonnerie Saponaire has become a flourishing business, selling its products in outlets all over France, as well as online; soon an annexe will be added to Ania’s workshop at Monflanquin, a beautiful village in the Lot Valley, so that she can sell her soap directly to passing visitors.

the Holy Years when the feast day of Santiago (St James) falls on a Sunday, so pilgrims who make the journey receive a plenary indulgence. The coastal route “la voie du littoral” has been waymarked with the famous scallop shell symbol between Soulac-sur-Mer and Hendaye, just before the border with Spain, while a detailed guide to “la voie du piémont” (the GR78), which runs through the foothills of the Pyrenees is now available online at The latter route has some classic pilgrims’ stops and interesting medieval architecture at Oloron-Sainte-Marie, L’hôpital-Saint-Blaise and Ordiarp. Another fascinating stretch of the trail is the 22km stage of “la voie de Vézelay” (the GR65) between Aroue and Ostabat. It’s been granted Unesco world heritage

“The coastal route is waymarked with the famous scallop shell symbol”

valleys and across to the high Pyrenean peaks. In a very different landscape of forests and farmed hillsides, France Randonnées offers the Landes and Bastide d’Armagnac package, a seven-day walk that takes in Labastide d’Armagnac and St-Justin – splendid examstatus for the exceptional quality ples of the fortified towns known as bastides. The cost for luggage of its historical buildings. transport and half-board in small Among other long-distance routes, the most interesting is the hotels is €407 per person, based trans-Pyrenean GR10, which sets on two sharing (00 33 2 99 67 42 out on its journey to the Mediter- 21; Shorter and less demanding ranean through the relatively walks can be found throughout gentle hills of the Pays Basque. If the region, with the pine forests of you can walk just one stage, the les Landes alone boasting one to choose is the Iparla ridge 3,200km of waymarked walks. between the classic Basque vilFor more information, visit local lages of Bidarraye and St Etienne-de-Baigorry. It takes around tourist offices, which will have leaflets with descriptions of eight hours and on a clear day there are inspiring views into two local balades.

All over the region, craftsmen are returning to their roots. Sylvie Berson is an artisan potter, who sells her jugs and bowls from her home, the Ferme de Soulies in Casteljaloux, where she also runs pottery classes to pass on her skills to others. In Osses in the Basque country, Goicoechea Pottery is a family business, where earthenware pieces are now produced by a third generation of potters. Pre-booked visits can be made to the workshop and factory, and the products are sold from a shop in Biarritz. Culinary traditions abound in the region, too. Especially delicious are the small, moulded

cakes known as caneles, thought to have originated in 18th-century Bordeaux, and now widely available from good bakeries. They can be eaten alongside a coffee or as a dessert, and are at their best when they are crunchy on the outside, with a softer, almost custard-like texture inside. But this is predominantly farming country, renowned for its agricultural products, from Agen prunes to Bayonne ham, as well as some excellent cheeses like the tasty Ossau-Iraty, made in the Basque region from sheep’s milk. The textiles produced in the workshops of Tissage Moutet on the Route de Biron in Orthez, just outside Pau, with their bright colours and striking designs, are an example of an ancient tradition that has been adapted for modern times. Equally traditional is the béret, at once the uniform of the stereotypical Frenchman, but these days also a stylish fashion statement available in a multitude of colours. Bérets are still made in the Bearn region, and the Béret museum in the small town of Nay, just outside Pau, has a historical collection as well as a shop selling more contemporary designs to suit your outfit. Farming in a region of climatic extremes has led to the evolution of another of Aquitaine’s most characterful products. In a workshop in Pau, Christophe Pando, helped by his father Herve, makes large, sturdy umbrellas originally designed to protect shepherds and hunters from the rain, wind and harsh sun encountered on the mountains. Each umbrella takes four hours to make. “We’re always working,” says Christophe. “You won’t come in here and find us resting.” Demand remains buoyant, although the customers have changed. Nowadays, the umbrellas are particularly popular with the golfers who visit the region. Further information n Atelier Nat’Osier, Place du Sauvignon, Hameau de Bages, Pauillac (00 336 19 02 64 31; n Savonnerie Saponaire, Monflanquin (00 335 53 36 46 15; n La Poterie de Soulies, Casteljaloux (00 335 53 79 95 54; n Goicoechea Poterie, Place Bellevue, Biarritz (00 335 59 24 62 57; n Tissage Moutet, Route de Biron, Orthez (00 33 5 59 69 14 33; n Musée de béret, Place Saint Roch, Nay (00 335 59 61 91 70; n Parapluie de Berger, 12 Rue Montpensier, Pau (00 335 59 27 53 66;



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The Romans first established Bordeaux, developing a settlement on the left bank of the river Garonne, which curves here in the shape of a

The iconic Regent Grand Hotel Bordeaux (7) opposite the Opera House (1) at Place de la Comédie (00 33 5 57 30 44 44; has recently been given a sparkling refit, reaffirming its status as the smartest place to stay in town. Doubles from €290 without breakfast. In the Chartrons district, L’Avant Scène (8) at 36 rue de Borie (00 33 5 57 29 25 39; is a boutique chambre d’hôtes offering nine individually treated rooms in a former merchant’s house. Doubles from €95 without breakfast. The two-star Hotel Continental (9), is centrally located at 10 rue Montesquieu (00 33 5 56 52 66 00;, has 47 comfortable rooms from €89 for a double with breakfast included.


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Get your bearings

Check in

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Bordeaux’s Mérignac Airport is 10km west of the city centre. City bus 1 (00 33 5 57 57 88 88; runs from outside Terminal B to place des Quinconces (2) in the centre, linking with the city’s tram system. The journey takes about 45 minutes, with departures every 45 minutes from the airport between 7.45am and 10.45pm. As with all the city’s trams and buses, a ticket, valid for an hour, costs €1.40. The city’s St-Jean railway station (3) is about 1km south of the centre and is served by tram C. This is also the destination for the Jet’ Bus service from the airport, which also runs every 45 minutes but has a oneway fare of €7.



Touch down

Exceptional wine, dramatic architecture and cultural treasures await you in this sublime riverside city. By Harriet O’Brien


At any time of year, there is a magical quality to this city of elegant limestone buildings, wrought-iron balconies and wonderful mascarons – carved stone faces above windows and doors. But, bathed in spring sunshine, the capital of Aquitaine is currently looking its very best. Come now to take in an evocative production of West Side Story at the opulent Opera House (1) (00 33 5 56 00 85 95; on place de la Comédie, which runs during April. And enjoy Bordeaux’s ongoing spirit of enterprise. Over the past decade, the city has been wonderfully revived – so much so that it won Unesco world heritage status in 2007. The renewal projects continue, particularly in the St-Michel district just south of the centre, while new projects are also being undertaken. In November, work started on a hi-tech bridge that will span the Garonne river 2km north of the centre and a major wine museum is in the pipeline.

Bordeau eG

Why go now?

crescent moon. This sweep of water later gave the city’s harbour its name, Port de la Lune. In the 18th century, Bordeaux was radically redeveloped – and it became an architectural gem. But by the late 20th century its glorious streets and buildings had become grimy and downtrodden. These have since been revived, along with the old quayside. The city centre is set in the Roman and medieval heart of Bordeaux, between place des Quinconces (2) and the remnants of the ancient walls at the Grosse Cloche bell tower (4). To the south is the up-and-coming StMichel district, an appealingly bohemian area with a lively student vibe. To the north is the newly restored, newly cool Chartrons area, traditionally the haunt of merchants and wine traders. The largely car-free city centre is very walkable and also served by three ultra-modern tram lines whose wires are buried underground. The main tourist office (5) is at 12 cours du XXX Juillet (00 33 5 56 00 66 00; and is open 9am-6.30pm Monday to Saturday and 9.45am-4.30pm Sunday. A second is at St-Jean railway station (2) (9.30am12pm and 2-5.30pm Monday to Friday; Saturday and Sunday in summer); and a third tourist office (6) is at 28 rue des Argentiers (10am-1pm and 2-6pm daily, but not Sunday mornings).


Travel essentials

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Day one

Take a view Get a magnificent view of Bordeaux by climbing the 231 steps to the top of the cathedral’s belltower, Tour Pey-Berland (10) (00 33 5 56 81 26 25;; open 10am12.30pm and 2-5.30pm daily, except Monday; €5). It was built in the mid 15th century separated from the Cathedral of St-Andre (11) so the vibrations of the bells would not disturb the ecclesiastical building. Afterwards, visit the cathedral opposite (10amnoon and 2-6pm daily, except Mondays when it opens 2-7pm; free), which effectively comprises two glorious Gothic buildings in one, with the nave built in the 12th and 13th centuries and the choir and transepts constructed in the 14th century.





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Opposite the west end of the cathedral is the gracious Palais Rohan (12), built in 1774 for the bishop of Bordeaux and now the


Day two

Place de Stalingrad


city hall. Guided tours are conducted every Wednesday at 2.30pm; €3. Head south between the city hall and the cathedral (11) and turn right into rue des Frères-Bonie and Bordeaux’s judicial district. The complex at number 30 is Richard Rogers’ striking Law Courts (13), a creation of glass and thatch with the courts themselves housed in huge cones modelled on wine vats. Turn right into cours d’Albert. On the left, at number 20, is the wonderful Musée des Beaux Arts (14) (00 33 5 56 10 20 56;; daily except Tuesday 11am6pm; free to the permanent collection, which includes works by Titian and Rubens). Turn right again into rue Montbazon, whose name changes to rue des Trois-Conils. Carry straight on into the heart of old Bordeaux. At place St-Projet (15) turn right down rue Sainte-Catherine, a Roman road from the third century. Cross cours d’Alsace et Lorraine and turn left along rue des Ayres, passing the Baroque St-Paul des Dominicains (16) (10amnoon and 2.30-7pm except during church services; free). Continue to place Fernand Lafargue (17). Turn sharp right into rue St-James, marked with scallop shells that show it



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Sunday morning: go to church


The huge church of StMichel (24) is a fine example of Flamboyant Gothic architecture – albeit with striking, modern stainedglass windows replacing historic glass destroyed in 1940. The windows were replaced in the Sixties by poignant and jewel-like works by Jean-Henri Couturat and Pierre Gaudin. Sunday mass is at 11.30am. To fully explore the church, return in the afternoon – it opens 2-6pm daily, admission free.


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Every Sunday from about 7.30am until roughly 2pm, an antiques and flea market spreads around the church of St-Michel (24) and its tall bell tower.

Open 10am-6pm daily, Thursday to 10pm. The €7 entrance charge includes a choice of two wines for you to sample.

An apéritif

Relaxing: cafés in the Place du Parlement CRTA-OT DE BORDEAUX

is part of the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela. At the end of this cobbled street stands the 13th century Grosse Cloche (4) belltower and gate. Just before the gateway, turn left into an area of 18thcentury houses, winding along rue Teulere and then turning left into rue Neuve. Turn right down cours d’Alsace et Lorraine to reach the waterfront. Then stroll left, passing the 15thcentury gate of Porte Cailhau (18) before reaching Bordeaux’s grandest sight: place de la Bourse (19), built by architect Jacques Gabriel in the 1730s.

Lunch on the run Once the seat of Bordeaux’s medieval government, place du Parlement (20), behind place de la Bourse (19), was turned

into an elegant market square in 1754. Today it is fringed with cafés. Karl at number 6 (00 33 5 56 81 01 00; is a stylishly laid-back outfit serving salads from €8.50.

Cultural afternoon To explore Bordeaux’s newest museum, head to the Chartrons district. Set in an 18th-century merchant’s house, Musée du Vin et du Négoce (21) at 41 rue Borie (00 33 5 56 90 19 13; tells the story of the city’s wine and its traders. The ground floor and basement traditionally served as a warehouse and it is here that you take in the displays about how wine was aged and mixed, how bottles were developed and more, while the floors above are still neatly occupied by a vintner.

Make that a taste of the finest of Bordeaux wine. Max Bordeaux Wine Gallery (22) at 14 cours de l’Intendance (00 33 5 57 29 23 81;; 11am-8pm daily except Sunday) opened last October with the aim of both promoting the vineyards of the area and changing the elitist image that they have acquired. This is a sleek and serious tasting centre where, as yet uniquely, you can sample grands crus by the glass. Invest in a tasting card (from €25 and valid for a year), then select the wines you would like to taste, with prices starting at €2 for a 25ml measure.

Dining with the locals Since it opened last spring, pretty Brasserie Bordelaise (23) at 50 rue StRemi (00 33 5 57 87 11 91;; closed Sunday) has become a firm favourite in the city centre. Mains include magret de canard at €17 and grenier médocain, a local type of pork charcuterie, at €14, with an extensive choice of wine.

shape of the apartment blocks around it. Careful planting shows 11 different eco-systems in Aquitaine, along with a aquatic and vertical gardens. An impressive greenhouse contains aloes, palms, carnivorous plants and more, with binocular stands offering close-up inspection of the vegetation. Open 8am-6pm daily (until 8pm River dance: Pont de Pierre spans the Garonne PHOTOLIBRARY.COM in summer), admission free. The city has an older botanic garden (30) on the Out to brunch will take you over the left bank of the Garonne Adjacent to St-Michel Garonne on the elegant south-west of the church (24), Passage StPont de Pierre (27), offerMichel (25) at 14 place Can- ing a great panorama of the Chartrons district (open 7am- 9pm in summer, free). teloup is an Aladdin’s cave city. The Garonne’s width of antique and bric-a-brac and strong currents defied stores housed in a 19th-cen- bridge building until this The icing on the cake tury banana warehouse The Musée d’Art Contemstone crossing with 17 (open daily, noon-6pm or arches was finished in 1822. porain (31) at 7 rue Ferrère later). On its ground floor is (00 33 5 56 00 81 50; Le Passage St-Michel is housed in a A walk in the park Brasserie (00 33 5 56 91 20 Leave the tram at the stop 19th-century warehouse 30), furnished a la Belle once storing sugar and called Jardin Botanique Epoque. It opens noonspice. Its now a stunning (28), the second stop 2.30pm and 7.30-11pm, and beyond the bridge, in La gallery of modern art and serves baked salmon dynamic exhibitions on Bastide, a developing dismedallions at €12.80. painters, sculptors and trict of Bordeaux. The architects who have made eponymous Botanic Gara significant contribution den (29) (00 33 5 56 52 18 Take a ride to the art world within the North of place Bir Hakeim 77; is just to (26), catch an A tram head- the north-west. Completed past 30 years. Open 11am6pm daily except Monday, in 2003, it is a long, thin ing east in the direction of Wednesday until 8pm; €5. strip of land echoing the Floirac Dravemont. This



Traveller’s guide

Wine journeys To get the full flavour of Aquitaine, explore the region’s vineyards – a chance to see the sites and pick up a few bottles along the way, says Cathy Packe Give me a taste for the landscape The most exciting way to get an overview of the region is by floating above it. This can be arranged with Aquitaine’s flying winemaker, Michel Fonvielhe, who combines managing an organic vineyard with his passion for hot-air ballooning. Flights take-off

from the field beside his property, the Domaine de Durand (00 33 5 53 89 02 23; in St-Jean de Duras. Exactly what course you take will depend upon the vagaries of the wind: you could find yourself floating above Bordeaux, or heading in the opposite direction towards Bergerac. Ei-

ther way, the scenery can be spectacular, especially in spring, when the white plum blossoms take on the appearance of snowdrifts. This aerial perspective reveals why the wine from some vineyards is more highly prized than others. “I flew recently over Château d’Yquem,” remembers Fonvielhe, refer-

ring to one of the region’s most famous vineyards, “and you could see quite clearly that the vines there were growing much better than those of the neighbouring château where the terrain isn’t so favourable.” In theory, flights can take place all year round, but the season tends to last from Easter until the end of October. Trips cost €200 for each of four people and last for up to 90 minutes. Flights take-off in the early morning and two hours before sunset, and should be booked in advance.

What makes this region so special? Aquitaine produces more high-quality wine than any other French region, thanks to its terroir: a combination of factors that include micro-climates and soil composition. The region is divided into districts that include wellknown names such as Médoc and Entre-DeuxMers, and lesser-known ones such as Irouleguy, a tiny area in the Basque country around St-JeanPied-de-Port. These are then sub-divided into smaller communes such as Monbazillac, in the Bergerac district, which has a 16th-century castle (00 33 5 53 61 52 52; whose vineyards still produce a renowned sweet white wine. Tastings are available at the château, and also at the nearby Cave de Monbazillac, on the road between Eymet and Montde-Marsan (opens 10am12.30pm and 1.30-7pm Tuesday to Sunday). The communes are made up of individual châteaux, such as Château

Smith-Haut-Lafitte (00 33 5 57 83 11 22; in the village of Martillac, in the Graves district. Like a number of the region’s larger wineries, it offers daily tours. Pre-booking is advisable, particularly as not all are in English. Many of the region’s vineyards welcome visitors, and offer both tasting sessions and the opportunity to buy. Most wine districts can be explored by following the local route des vins, usually a scenic road through the vineyards. The route des châteaux, for example, follows the D2 road from the outskirts of Bordeaux along the west bank of the Gironde river, taking in many of the major wine estates in the area. The best way to find out about a region and its wines is to visit the wine centre or maison du vin, which tends to offer an exhibition on vine-growing and wine-making in the region, and a small shop selling local vintages. One of the best of these is on the outskirts of Duras, a pretty little town dominated by a castle with medieval origins. The Maison des Vins de Duras (00 33 5 53 94 13 48; is designed to appeal to visitors who may know little or nothing about wine when they arrive in the region.

“We want to train people so they can leave us and set off on a journey of discovery of our wines,” explains Corinne Lacombe. Among the displays is an interactive exhibit with different items to smell; there are daily free tastings of local wines; quizzes for adults and children; information about local wineries open to the public; and a vine garden with shady picnic areas. The Maison opens 10amnoon and 2pm-5.30pm Monday to Friday throughout the year, 10am-1pm and 2pm-6.30pm Monday to Saturday from mid-June to mid-September.

Where can I learn more about wine? Among the courses on offer in the region, French Wine Adventures (00 33 5 53 22 72 71; frenchwine offers two-hour introductory sessions every Tuesday afternoon at 2pm during the season for €15. They are run by Caroline Feely, who, with her husband Sean, makes wine at the Château Haut Garrigue in Saussignac. The sessions begin with a tour of the château’s organic vineyard before moving inside for a more formal explanation of the appellation system, followed by a tasting. Feely



Vine tuning: Chateau de Monbazillac, main; Aquitaine makes more high-quality wine than any other French region, inset ALAMY

also runs classes specialising in the grand cru classe wines, and a food and wine matching class takes place every Thursday afternoon at 3pm during the season; the cost is €25. There are several other wine schools in Aquitaine. These include the CIVB, based at 1 Cours du 30 Juillet (00 33 5 56 00 22 66;, which offers a range of training from intensive courses to two-hour sessions for those wanting to find out about wine as part of a holiday.

What about something high-tech? Try La Winery, a modern complex on the Rond-Point des Vendangeurs in Arsac en Médoc (00 33 5 56 39 04 90;, just outside Bordeaux. The contemporary building is a striking contrast to the traditional style of the region. In the words of one local winemaker: “This is where you’ll see the future.” Part wine supermarket – with a selection of over 1,000 different wines – part wine bar and restaurant, with sculpture garden attached, La Winery also can divine the “wine sign” of its visitors, indicating the wines they might prefer to drink. Small groups are given an hour-long blind tasting, in which they are

asked to rate each wine according to how much they like it. A computer analyses the results and allocates a wine sign from a selection of eight, ranging from “muscular” to “aesthete”. This is accompanied by a booklet containing suggestions of appropriate wines – which are all, unsurprisingly, stocked in the supermarket. While this resembles a clever marketing ploy, the tutored tasting is still interesting and informative. La Winery opens 10am-7pm Tuesday to Sunday, with wine sign sessions taking place at 11am and 3pm, and also at 5pm during the summer. Sessions cost €16.

Can I join in? In recent years, many of Aquitaine’s wine makers have begun to realise the advantages of opening up their châteaux, and have devised ways to involve their visitors. Alongside wine classes, Feely of Château Haut Garrigue (00 33 5 53 22 72 71; vineshare) also runs a vineshare scheme. Rent a row of vines for a year for €99, and you will be invited to make two visits to the château: in spring, to help with general maintenance; and during the harvest, when there is a chance to

join in with the picking and to collect a case of wine. The Médocaines (, a group of four wine-making women from the Médoc, also enlist visitors to help with the harvest – usually between mid-September and mid-October, and on four days they run harvest workshops. Dates will be available from the tourist office in Bordeaux (12 cours du XXX Juillet; 00 33 5 56 00 66 00; Participants helping with the harvest at the Château Paloumey (00 33 5 57 88 00 66; join the other pickers for lunch, followed by a tasting of previous vintages at the Château du Taillan (00 33 5 56 57 47 00; chateaudu At other times of year, the Médocaines run blending workshops, a kind of “mix your own” session, which combines fun with a serious lesson in how great wines are made.

I want to immerse myself Book in at the Sources de Caudalie (00 33 5 57 83 83 83;, the world’s first wine therapy spa. Located in Martillac just outside Bordeaux, and in the middle of the Château Smith Haut V



Traveller’s guide

Market values A region rooted in gastronomy

CLafitte vineyards – its an ideal place to relax. The idea for the treatments came from a university professor who watched the wine-making process and remarked that what was being thrown away – the grape skins and pips – could be put to good use as skin treatments whose added attraction is their anti-ageing properties. This idea, conveniently combined with a patch of land in the middle of the vineyard that was too muddy to grow grapes, led to the construction 11 years ago of a luxury hotel and spa. A variety of treatments are on offer, ranging from merlot wraps and cabernet massages to facials using vine flower mousse. Prices start at €60.

How do I get around? Among the many ways to tour the region’s vineyards are cycle paths and walking trails, with maps available from the local tourist offices. At the Château Lanessan (00 33 5 56 58 94 80;, near Cussac-Fort-Médoc, visits to the winery, with its ancient hall where the barrels

are stored, can be followed by a tour of the estate in a horse-drawn carriage; the total cost is €125 for up to five people. The nearby Château Maucaillou in Moulis-enMédoc (00 33 5 56 58 01 23; has its own helipad, and can provide helicopter tours of the Médoc, flying over the vineyards of StJulien and St-Estèphe, before looping round over the Gironde river and the Margaux vines. In St-Emilion, the Train des Grands Vignobles (00 335 57 51 30 71; makes up to 10 departures a day from outside the Église Collégiale, taking around half an hour to trundle through the countryside past 18 of the nearby vineyards. The train operates from Easter until mid-November, and tickets cost €6.

Where should I stay? Accommodation in Aquitaine is as varied as the wine that the region produces. Rooms at the top end of the scale, such as those at the Château


Cordeillan-Bages (00 33 5 56 59 24 24; cordeillan in Pauillac, may be associated with a wine château – in this case Château Lynch-Bages. Double rooms here start at €203, with an extra €28 for breakfast. The hotel and wine château are located nearby the village of Bages (, a reconstructed wine village with a bakery, upmarket store and bistro. Other luxury accommodation is linked to some of the region’s numerous golf courses. These include the Château des Vigiers in Monestier (00 33 5 53 61 50 00;, an attractive and secluded location that includes a 27-hole golf course, and where rooms are available next to the first tee from €180, with an extra €17 for breakfast. There are also several spa hotels in the region, among them the Hotel Château Grand Barrail (00 33 5 57 55 37 00;, a 19th-century château set in an attractive three-acre park in the heart of the Saint-Emilion vineyards a mile or so from the

village itself. Completely renovated in 2008, it has 41 luxurious and individuallydecorated rooms, and an attractive spa, where treatments are available from €55. Rooms at the château start at €290. With more modest stays in mind, some 15 years ago the Gites de France organisation began expanding its collection of rental properties in the Gironde to include gites bacchus, properties located among the vines, run by wine growers or wine makers, and intended to appeal to wine-enthusiasts. Prices vary according to size and time of year, but gites are available from €250 per week. The scheme has now expanded, and includes properties in other parts of the region, a mixture of gites, usually rented by the week, and chambres d’hôtes, where rooms are available on a nightly basis. Among the properties on offer are the Ferme Etxeberria (00 33 5 59 37 06 23;, a lovely family house in Ispoure, which has double rooms available from €50.

Great wines The Grand Crus In 1855, the Emperor Napoleon III asked for the wines of Bordeaux to be ranked, in preparation for the Paris Exposition of that year. The resulting classification system is a list of chateaux, the so-called “Grands Crus Classés”, which are sub-divided into five groups. In the most prestigious, the First Growths were – and remain – the châteaux of Lafite Rothschild ( and Latour (00 33 5 56 73 19 80; in Pauillac; Margaux (, also in the Médoc; and Haut-Brion (00 33 5

56 00 23 30;, from the Graves region. Mouton Rothschild (00 33 5 56 73 21 29) was added in 1973. A separate list, with Château d’Yquem at the top, ranked the sweet wines of Bordeaux in the same year, and during the 1950s, the Graves and St-Émilion regions – which were omitted from the official classification – drew up their own lists. Pomerol has no classification, despite its bestknown wine, Petrus, being one of the most expensive in the world.

n The biennial Bordeaux Wine Festival ( takes place this year from 24-27 June. Among the attractions will be a “wine road”, lined with pavilions offering the wines of the region, many of which will be available for tasting. Tasting passes, including 12 vouchers and a glass, are available for €15. There will also be master classes and vineyard visits, music, fireworks and a son et lumière show.

when you get there do you discover why. The remains of a large amphitheatre, to match the scale of Arles, are scattered around a park that is draped in greenery and punctuated with sculptures – such as a lilac door to nowhere. It was built in the 1st century AD, and could hold 20,000 spectators.

Close by is the remarkable Vesunna temple, providing rail travellers on the adjoining main line with a glimpse of monumental aspirations from 19 centuries ago. To return to the roots of good food, explore elsewhere in Aquitaine. An excellent starting point is the Château de Belloc in Sadirac, which has both a museum and a maze devoted to ancient eating habits. Oh! Légumes oubliés may be a startling name – but the range of vegetables that many have forgotten is fascinating. To remember the source of our food, head for Beaumont in July or August when – each Tuesday at 2pm – a local farmer will take you on a journey of exploration through the fields and farmyard. Elsewhere in Aquitaine, the local diet is informed by the surroundings. Along the Atlantic, the mingling of

river and sea water creates a breeding ground for oysters – with Cap Ferret, opposite Arcachon, an excellent candidate. Further south, Basque fishermen bring back a marine harvest that will be augmented with fiery peppers from Espelette. The capital of the French Basque lands, Bayonne, bestows its name on France’s finest ham – whose intense flavour derives from drying in the ocean breeze. Round off a meal with sheep’s milk cheese and Basque cake – a sweet gateau that provides the calories for many a hiker in the Atlantic Pyrenees. Most markets are daytime affairs, but on long summer evenings Aquitaine’s towns come alive with “night markets” that add a delicious dimension. Every Friday night in June, July and August the night market at Vianne runs from 6-11pm, specialising in local crafts. Meanwhile in Dax on 8 August, gourmets congregate at 6pm on the Promenade des Remparts to devour regional produce, watch stilt-walkers and view a son et lumière display.


Ripe for the picking: harvest time at the Château Paloumey

At the brilliantly conceived and executed Musée GalloRomain in Périgueux, the the attraction of Aquitaine becomes evident. Even two millennia after the Romans arrived in this corner of Gaul, the motifs speak of a land of plenty, from fish to grapes (a welcome Roman innovation). And one of the many blessings of Périgueux is that you can wander through a town that is rooted in gastronomy. Périgueux is the main town of the département of Dordogne, but this is a Napoleonic affectation for the Périgord – a name synonymous with good food. Indeed, guides registered with the Ministry of Culture offer tours with a pastry cook through the city or a gastronome who can point out nuances of the markets. Poultry is the strongest suit in Périgord, with foie gras from duck and goose served in all kinds of guises: as pâté, with truffles (another local speciality) or in a sauce. From mid-November until late March, Place StLouis hosts a duck and goose market each Wednesday and Saturday, 8am-1pm. To complement the rich pâté, wander into the Place de la Clautre (beside the cathedral) – or the squares of Coderc or the town hall, any Wednesday or Saturday morning. The market is a feast for the senses, from the blush of freshly picked vegetables to the aroma from a dozen cheeses. Add in the scent of fresh bread from the bakeries in the old town, and you have the recipe for a perfect picnic. Where to enjoy it? In the only urban park bequeathed by the Romans. The Jardin des Arènes is marked on the map as a circle – but only




Greens and very pleasant

Hole lot of fun: Château des Vigiers CRTA JJ-BROCHARD

Golf has been played in Aquitaine for more than 150 years – and now’s the time to join the club. By Cathy Packe


t most golf courses, the pro shop sells a mixture of clubs, stylish clothing, and accessories: balls, tees and so on. But at the Golf du Médoc, there is also an impressive selection of fine wines – 37 of them: one for each of the course’s 36 holes, and one for the putting green. On the course, the distance markers are bottle-shaped. Just in case there might be any doubt, here is the evidence that this championship course is located in the heart of some serious wine country. The Golf du Médoc, which has hosted the French Open championship, offers two courses in one. “Les Châteaux” was designed 21 years ago by the American architect Bill Coore, and each of its 18 holes is sponsored by a grand cru wine chateau. It is a traditional links course with wide fairways, contrasting with the more wooded terrain of the 18hole “Vignes” course. Many of the golfing world’s bestknown names have played here; but part of the appeal of the Golf du Médoc, according to its general manager, Vincent Paris, is it is accessible to golfers of all levels. “It’s playable – no matter who you are, you can enjoy it, even a beginner.” An added attraction is the hotel, a low-rise modern building with excellent facilities, that was built three years ago and seamlessly integrated into the landscape. Vincent Paris attributes the popularity of the Aquitaine region as a golfing destination to its diversity and its golfing culture. This can be put down to two Scottish army officers stationed in southern France during the Napoleonic wars. Eager to keep up

their golfing skills, they travelled with their clubs and practised wherever they could. The countryside around Pau particularly appealed, and they later returned on holiday with friends. A British colony established itself, and in 1856 a golf club was opened. The French were slow to join in, and the club declined, but in 1960 the Pau Golf Club was restored to its Victorian glory, and can now claim to be the oldest in mainland Europe. With a bar that looks like an English pub, Pau Golf

they like it that the greens are well protected, there are lots of hazards, and it’s scenic, too.” Like Pau, on the edge of the Jurançon wine region, a number of courses are surrounded by vineyards, including the Golf des Graves et du Sauternais. The 18hole course is long and technical, set in attractive flat, wooded countryside. The course is playable all year round: two days of snow this winter which caused it to close were exceptional. The club’s president, Jacqueline Couerbe, has noticed it attracts plenty of English visitors. “I think it’s popular not just for the golf but because of the vinen Golf du Médoc: Chemin yards and the local cultural de Courmateau, Le Pian heritage. And of course beMédoc; 00 33 556 703 131; cause of the food. One of our specialities is caviar n Pau Golf Club: Rue du from the local sturgeon.” Golf, Billère; 00 33 559 131 Several golf courses provide accommodation, mak856; n Golf des Graves et du ing it possible to combine even more easily the attracSauternais: Lac de Seguin, tions of golf with food, wine St-Pardon-de-Conques; and visits to the local cul00 33 556 622 543; tural landmarks. Deep in n Château des Vigiers: the heart of the vineyards of Bergerac is the Château Le Vigier, Monestier; 00 des Vigiers, a property that 33 553 615 000; dates back to the late 16th century and which has been Club is popular for its restored and upgraded into British atmosphere and for a luxury hotel. In front of the unexpected challenges the building is a 17th-centuit can pose even for a talry dovecote; a 27-hole golf ented golfer. course fans out all around. “People think that, beStrenuous efforts were cause the course is short, made, when the course was they will play well,” says built, not to disturb the exNicolas Barraud, the golf isting landscape, so there director at Pau. “But it’s are vineyards around the tricky. There are plenty of perimeter, and some of the bunkers and water hazoriginal plum orchards reards.” Barraud says the main at the side of the faircourse, designed nearly ways. The fruit is never for150 years ago, has little in mally harvested, but golfers common with some of the in need of a sugar boost are region’s more modern encouraged to help themofferings; nevertheless, the selves to a snack. Pau Golf Club remains popThe original 18-hole ular with golfers. “I think course at Château des


Vigiers combined an area of wide-open fairways, “Les Vignes” – “a forgiving course, although not easy”, according to Azzedine Chabi, who is in charge of golf – with “Le Lac”, nine holes surrounded by trees and water. Two years ago, “La Vallée” was opened, to provide a further nine holes that are longer, very technical and more challenging. There is also a

six-hole academy course, to enable golfers to practise on something more realistic than a driving range. All this means the Château des Vigiers can offer, in effect, three 18-hole courses, an attraction for golfers who want to stay for more than a couple of days without sacrificing variety. “The nearest course is more than an hour away,”

says Chabi, “and people don’t want that. But with our facilities, very few people want to play elsewhere.” Chabi comes from Morocco, and travelled widely before settling in Aquitaine. He is in no doubt the region is attractive for golfers. “It’s real countryside. The food and wine are important, and the transport is good. And it’s just very relaxing.”




Welcome to a ‘land of water’ Aquitaine’s aquatic options include canoeing, canal boats and lily gardens. By Mick Webb


aptised Aquitania, “land of water”, by the Romans, the region has three great rivers, numerous lakes, and a vast ocean frontage where watery activities of all kinds can be enjoyed. The Atlantic waves which pummel the 250km of beach have made this France’s top surfing destination, in particular the elegant and lively city of Biarritz (where surfing was first introduced to France in 1956). In the smaller resort of Hossegor, elite surfers will be competing in a world championship event in mid-September. For less skilled practitioners there’s the opportunity to rent boards and enrol on courses at resorts all along the coast. Surftrip in Hossegor will rent you a board for €15 a day, or you can really go for it with their immersive surf holiday. The cost for seven nights, based on four people sharing a beach cabin, with equipment hire and six lessons, is from €445 per person (00 33 681 908 412; Surfing isn’t limited to the coast, however. The mascaret is a tidal bore which occurs in the Gironde estuary at high tide and can reach heights of two metres and speeds of 30kph. The best place to ride it is St-Pardon-deVayres on the river Dordogne, 20km east of Bordeaux. The best time to try it is in August and September ( For swimming, windsurfing, sailing and other activities which require placid water, look towards the string of large, freshwater lakes to be found along the coastal strip between the dunes and the forest. The lakes of Hourtin,

Lacanau, Cazaux and Biscarrosse all have beaches and pleasure ports (Biscarrosse is also reputed as a centre for kite-surfing) while the Bassin d’Arcachon, a huge, enclosed bay, has several little ports and, close to the town of Arcachon, the very fine Péreire beach. From a much smaller lake, the lac de Léon, there’s a relaxing 10km trip to be enjoyed along the Courant d’Huchet on board a galupe. This vessel is a local, flatbottomed boat made for navigating the shallow streams, courants, which run from the Landes and are constantly changing course in their attempt to get through the dunes and down to the sea.

“One unusual way of getting to know the Dordogne is on a sailing barge” The Courant d’Huchet has been designated a nature reserve for its wealth of wildlife, including otters, and for its variety of habitats: part of the two-hour trip (longer ones are available in July and August) takes you through the “Amazonie landaise” with its exuberant, almost sub-tropical vegetation. Trips, which run between April and September, cost from €12. Booking is essential (00 33 558 487 539; Away from the ocean and the lakes the region’s inland waterways are also well worth exploring. One unusual way of getting to know the Dordogne is to drift

down it on board a gabare, also called a gabarre, the traditional sailing barge that used to bring goods to Bordeaux. Barge cruises from Bergerac cost €7.50 per adult for the 50-minute trip (00 33 553 245 880; Messing about in a canoe or kayak is possible in a number of locations. You can usually choose between short rentals of one/two hours and full-day expeditions. Couleurs Périgord at Vézac beach has trips available along a lovely stretch of the river, decorated with three châteaux, a bastide and a fort. The four-hour, 14km descent from Vitrac costs €32 for a two-person kayak or canoe, and €52 for a four-person family craft (; 00 33 553 303 761). Less visited but equally delightful is the Vézère, the Dordogne’s “little sister”. Explore it from the Aventure Plein Air base at Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, 40km southeast of Périgueux, and classified as one of France’s most beautiful villages. Seven trips of different lengths are offered at prices ranging from €9.50 to €25 per person (00 33 553 506 771; Fifty kilometres south of Bordeaux, the river Leyre winds for 90km through the forests of the Parc naturel régional des Landes de Gascogne before flowing via a delta into the salt water of the Bassin d’Arcachon. There are three bases along the Leyre, all accessible via the A63 motorway, where you can rent canoes for trips between two and six hours in duration. Costs are from €12 to €20 per person, including all safety equipment, practical instruction and transport from the base

to begin your trip. The complete descent takes four to five days and costs €19 for a group of four or more people. All of the trips must be booked in advance (; the high Leyre – 00 33 558 077 301; Le Val de Leyre – 00 33 557 719 929; the Delta Leyre – 00 33 556 228 093). Another small river, the Gélise, flows into the larger Baïse at Barbaste, five kilometres from Nérac in the department of Lot-etGaronne. The local leisure park of Cap Cauderoue offers, among other activities, the chance to rent a canoe and play around in the eddies and swirls created by the confluence of the two rivers. Canoe rental is €6 per hour (00 33 553 655 274; For higher-adrenalin kayaking, look to the gaves, mountain streams, filled with rapids and white water that hurtle from the Pyrenees. On the Gave d’Oléron at Navarrenx, Rafting Eaux Vives provides 13km and 20km descents on rafts from €29 to €55 (00 33 559 660 405; To get a taste of rafting in a more controlled environment, not to mention the even more adventurous craft called Hot-dog and Hydrospeed, the place to go is the recently opened Stade d’eaux

vives on the outskirts of Pau, in the Avenue Léon Heid. An hour’s supervised session costs from €26 plus equipment rental of €11 per hour (; 00 33 559 408 544) The ultimate, watery experience is to rent a houseboat and progress tranquilly down one of Aquitaine’s broader waterways. Two hundred kilometres are navigable without need for permits on the Lot, the Baïse, the river Garonne and the Garonne canal. The river port of Buzet-surBaïse is handily placed at the confluence of the Lot, the Baïse and the Garonne canal. Starting from there, you could, in a week, cruise the meandering Lot from Buzetsur-Baïse to Lustrac and back, visiting picturesque villages such as Castelmoron, while negotiating the 18 automatic locks. Weekly rentals from the company Aquitaine Navigation start at €823. A day trip on a four-person boat costs €89 (00 33 553 847 250; Aquitaine’s abundant watery heritage has produced several interesting places to visit. France’s highest and oldest functioning lighthouse – Le phare de Cordouan – stands on a rocky islet, 7km from the Pointe de la Grave at the



Aquitaine Events n

Set more or less at the meeting point of northern and southern Europe, Aquitaine’s variety of landscapes – from mountains to lush river valleys and an extensive coast – enjoy a particularly kind climate. All of which means there are celebrations based around food, culture and sport throughout the year. Head south to pretty Bayonne during Easter for the Bayonne Ham Fair (1-4 April;; free), when the marketplace by the River Nive (right) becomes festooned with some of France’s best pork products, preserved with the highly prized local salt. Inland in northern Aquitaine, the town of Nontron stages a most eccentric fete on 18 April. Le Carnaval des Soufflets (; free) is a festival of bellows, for which townsfolk dress in nightshirts and parade the main street blowing bellows at each other and into the air while singing nonsensical songs in Occitan. The tradition dates back to medieval days and symbolises purification and the explusion of bad spirits.

firmed). Meantime, for Basque music as well as dance, bull running and more, join the throng at Bayonne festival on 28 July (; most events free) when for four days the town becomes a huge, colourful party.

Over on the coast, the start of summer is celebrated at Arcachon with a literary event. Arcachon lance l’ete (; details to be confirmed) takes place on the beach on 8 and 9 May, with writers holding open-air readings while on the Saturday an oyster buffet is spread along the waterfront. This year’s biggest early summer event is the Bordeaux Wine Festival from 24 to 27 June (; a tasting pass for €15 covers 12 tasting tickets, glass and other benefits). Apart from sampling wine, activities to watch range from barrel rolling to stilt walking and a swimming competition across the Garonne river.

From 2 to 7 August, Périgueux becomes a hive of quiet drama with an annual Festival of Mime (; admission charged for some shows, others free). Harvest time in late August sees the start of autumnal food and drink celebrations as the medieval city of Agen hosts Le Grand Pruneau Show (; free) on 27, 28 and 29 August, with tastings, gourmet markets, much street entertainment and pruneinspired music.


For spectacular water action make for Biarritz between 10 and 14 July when the Roxy Jam surfing competition takes place. The focal point is the World Female Longboard Championship, but alongside it are funky exhibitions,


For rural crafts and traditions head to the village of Villefranche du Perigord on 16 and 17 October when the Chestnut and Cep Festival (; free) is held. There’s more piquant fare at the Espelette Pepper Festival ( on 23 and 24 October. This picturesque Basque town becomes a whirl of activity, with music, dance, strong-man events and many peppers to sample alongside Basque specialities. Then revel in the taste and aromas of France’s oldest brandy at the Armagnac Festival on 30 and 31 October at Bastide d’Armagnac (; free).


The Christmas season begins at the end of November, with the atmospheric gourmet market Festivolailles at Saint Sever (; free) on the last weekend of the month. Meanwhile the Gironde village of Monsegur’s duck and goose fair (; free) is on 12 December.


concerts and open-air performances (; most events are free). Further north, the laid-back yet lively Sanguinet jazz festival is on from 22 to 25 July (; details to be con-


entrance to the Gironde estuary; information about times of excursions by boat from Pointe de Grave is available on 00 33 556 096 293. Another “highest” is to be found 5km south of Arcachon: la Dune du Pilat, Europe’s most spectacular sand dune, is more of a sand mountain. It reaches a eight of 100m, and is still growing. Climb it for wonderful views up and down the coast. Also special is the LatourMarliac water lily garden at LeTemple-sur Lot, 20km west of Villeneuve-sur-Lot. Established in 1875, it was a great influence on the artist Claude Monet and today has 250 varieties of water lily. Opening times from May to September are 10am-6pm, closed Mondays; entrance is €5 for an adult (00 33 553 010 805; For bird watchers, le Parc Ornithologique du Teich, on the Bassin d’Arcachon, gives the chance to observe 260 species, 80 of which nest there. From 17 observation points, you can spot white storks, egrets, herons and rarer avocets and blue throats. The park is 50km from Bordeaux on the N250. It is open all year from 10am; admission is €7.20 (00 33 556 228 093; parcMaking a splash: there’s a wide variety of activities to choose, from sight-seeing trips on the Dordogne (above) to rafting ALAMY; CRTA-JJ BROCHARD

For the past three years, the Marathon du Médoc ( has been voted the most convivial race in France, with many of the contestants in fancy dress (below, left) and much food and wine laid on. Starting from Pauillac, the circuit is stunningly beautiful and loops past more than 50 chateaux. This year’s event takes place on 11 September. n

Aquitaine, season in the sun - 2010  

Article extracted from "The independent" March 27th 2010

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