Nouvelle-Aquitaine lends itself to relaxing holidays from the Basque Coast to the Périgord-Limousin Natural Regional Park – discover its beaches, cities steeped in history, many picturesque villages, medieval fortified towns and also its mountains, vineyards and the Landes forest.
Why you should visit Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Aquitaine is the ideal destination for a short break! With many flights from the UK, its main towns and its countryside have a lot to offer. Bordeaux, the region’s capital, is the place to be for its 18th-century heritage as well as for wine lovers of course!
Périgueux in the Dordogne area, is known for its refined gastronomy and its bustling outdoor markets. Pau, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, has kept alive a strong link with the British influence.
While, Bayonne home of chocolate makers, has preserved its traditions and heritage from the Basque country. You can throw in a pretty decent coastline, too, the Côte d’Argent, which is Europe’s longest, and attracts many surfers to Mimizan and Hossegor each year.
Tourism is an important sector in a region with significant assets, starting with a mild and sunny climate, famous vineyards (wine tourism) and many heritage sites, some of international renown.
Its wide ocean frontage, stormed by thousands of vacationers – and surfers – every summer is characterised by sandy beaches that often stretch to the horizon.
Nouvelle-Aquitaine is also a delight for the food-lover, with numerous Michelin starred restaurants.
In Landes and the Périgord, duck breasts, gizzards and foie gras are the specialities. The Basque country treats you to Bayonne ham, sheep’s cheeses and espelette chili. But the gastronomic trump card in Aquitaine is to be found in its vineyards.
From Unesco-listed Saint-Emilion to the House of the Wines of Jurançon, through Planète Bordeaux or the House of Wines in Bergerac, you can sample the finest vintages from the Aquitaine region.
What is Aquitaine like?
The countryside is especially notable for its wines and vineyards, perhaps more so than its scenery, although the hills around Entre-Deux-Mers and the lovely town of St Émilion are a delight to explore.
Of wider appeal is the huge pine-clad expanse os Les Landes, as well as the notable beaches along the Côte d’Argent, which stretches for over 200km from the Gironde estuary all the way to Biarritz.
Inland from these beaches lie high sand dunes, and Les Landes, the largest forest in western Europe.
What makes Aquitaine especially attractive, particularly for those who enjoy being by the sea is that the limited range of conventional tourist attractions means that for most of the year (July and August excepted) there are few visitors; at these times you can have long stretches of the beach to yourself.
Places to visit in Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Bordeaux, the capital of Aquitaine, remains the finest example of 18th-century architecture in France (the façades of the quaysides, the Grand Théâtre, the Jardin Public, the Bordeaux Triangle etc.). This, among other things, is what earned the city inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
The riverside city of Bordeaux, capital of the Aquitaine region, was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, and a walk around the area will show much of what you need to know about the city. This was a major settlement long before the Romans, and was always a key trading station, and open to repeated attach by pirates.
Bordeaux is an amazing city not to be missed! Book a boat tour, take your family to the famous “water mirror” (le Miroir), relax in a park, climb the 229 steps of the Pey-Berland tower, and enjoy the unique atmosphere of the old town.
The city’s beautiful architecture is inseparable from the city’s identity. From charming public gardens to monuments full of history, the city definitely has something to say. Take time out to visit a permanent or temporary exhibition at one of the municipal museums, or browse at an art gallery.
This city has it all: ancient buildings, eccentric shops, wonderful cafés, stylish squares – perfect for the café lifestyle. And if you are searching for a souvenir, then rue Ste Catherine is the longest pedestrianised shopping street in Europe; that should help.
Of course, you probably came here for the wine, so why not pop into one of the wine bars for a glass or two of something comforting, or visit the tourist office to book a bus wine tasting tour – it beats driving, every time.
Opened in June 2016 is the magnificent Cité du Vin, a spectacular new museum dedicated to wine.
Tram moving in front of Saint André Cathedral. The building is one of 69 monuments associated with the Way of St James recognised by UNESCO when adding the famous pilgrimage to the world heritage list.
In 1552, Eleanor of Aquitaine married the future King Henry II of England, and her dowry comprised almost the whole of south-western France. As a result, the city became part of the English kingdom, and remained as such for over 300 years.
In fact, it was the English demand for wine that began the city’s tradition of seafaring, and inspired the expansion of the vineyards. Not even the Hundred Years’ War could impede the flow of wine to England.
Today, following much restoration in the 18th century, the Old Town is well worth visiting, its restored buildings including those along the quayside, following a bend in the Gironde.
As in many of the important French cities, the Musée des Beaux-Arts is a splendid place to visit (Jardin de la Mairie, 20 cours d’Albret). But the name of the city is for many synonymous with wine.
Bordeaux is probably the most well-known wine-producing region in France, and counts for a third of the good quality French wine. The wines are so good there that a Bordeaux ranking is needed to classify the best of the best.
Some of them are universal: Margaux, Yquem, Pétrus, Cheval Blanc, Haut Brion and all the others. Remarkably, the area has about 7,000 chateaux and castles!
The medieval centre of Brive-la-Gaillarde is largely commercial with shops and cafés, but is also the location of the city hall, the main police station, and the Labenche museum. One notable landmark, worth visiting, outside the inner city is the Pont Cardinal, a bridge that was formerly a crossing point for travellers between Paris and Toulouse.
The town hosts the famous French market that Georges Brassens sang about… Three times a week, on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings.
This centre of gastronomy enables locals and visitors alike to stock up on the very best of regional produce.
Fans of foie gras and truffles should note that the Georges Brassens market hall hosts several food fairs in November and February.
There is an agreeable modernity about Brive-la-Gaillarde, a town of 50,000 inhabitants, that belies its antiquity.
More recently, it was the first city of Occupied France to liberate itself by its own means, on 15 August 1944. For this, the city received the “Croix de Guerre 1939-1945” military decoration.
Although the area was settled as early as the 1st century, it was not for another 400 years until the town developed around a church dedicated to Saint-Martin-l’Espagnol. Nothing remains – other than boulevards – to indicate the location of the 12th-century fortified walls or those added during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453).
The appendage ‘Gaillarde’ is probably intended to signify bravery, and was added to the name, Brive, in 1919, following the First World War.
During the Second World War, Brive-la-Guillarde, was a stronghold of the Resistance Movement, and focal point of several clandestine information networks, including the so-called Secret Army.
None of this is evident as you stroll the streets of the town, which seems in all respects to be nothing more than a respectable hub of society, associated with an airport link to the UK.
The Aquitaine coastline
250 kilometres of ocean coastline! Aquitaine has quite simply Europe’s biggest beach of fine sand.
Plains and valleys, towns and villages, lakes and rivers, Charente reveals its beauties and mysteries at every turn. No need for SatNav; just let serendipity be your guide.
Created from the former province of Angoumois, south-west of Saintonge, the department is one of the original 83 created in 1790. It derives its name from the river that flows through it, and is part of the Poitou-Charentes region. Capital of the département is Angoulême.
The department has increasingly been popular both as a place of residence and of tourist resort among British people, in terms of immigration placing Charente behind only Paris, the Dordogne and the Alpes-Maritimes.
There is, perhaps, a sense in which Charente plays second fiddle to Charente Maritime, but that hardly does it justice. Charente is peaceful, perhaps a little introspective. But here that is no bad thing for those who want a tranquil holiday.
On another level, this is cognac country, and no fewer than 75,000 hectares of countryside are given to the vineyards that produce cognac. The eponymous village of Cognac is a delight, as is the agreeable small town of Jarnac.
Beyond the towns and vineyards, undulating farmland predominates, mainly given to cereal production.
Remnants of woodlands mark field boundaries or the course of minor streams, and sleepy villages have a Marie Celeste air about them, punctuating the countryside with oases of habitation clustered round the ubiquitous churches.
Nature, it seems, is always on your doorstep here; there are no mountains or crag-girt hills, just the gentle ways of the paysage, the countryside.
Angouleme – cartoon capital of France
First impressions in Angouleme are misleading, not least because it’s a two-part town, and you have to pass through the lower, industrial part before reaching the more historic, walled upper town.
But then you discover that the city is encircled by boulevards above the enclosing walls, from which there are fine views in virtually all directions.
Most of the town streets are narrow, and the Old Town has been preserved and largely pedestrianised, with a cobbled, restaurant quarter, where there are several galleries and boutiques.
The town is principally renowned for paper-making and the printing industry, with which the town has been associated since the 14th century, but today the economy is supplemented by annual tourist events and festivals.
Angouleme has long been associated with animation, illustration and the graphic arts. The Centre internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image (Quai de la Charente, 16012 Angoulême. Tel: 05 17 17 31 00) includes an exhibition space and cinema in a converted brewery down by the river.
Opened in 2009 in an old wine warehouse beside the Charente, its unique collection includes 8,000 original drawings.
Strip cartoons (Bande Dessinée) are an important entertainment here, whatever your age, and the town’s Cartoon Festival owes its origins to an exhibition first staged in the 1970s.
As you wander the streets, you can explore four themed areas covering the history and technical complexities of the comic strip, with exhibits rotated three times annually. There are always temporary exhibitions and you can browse the extensive shop for your favourite characters.
The exhibition centre is a wacky kind of place, but you don’t have to go there to see cartoon graffiti.
You’ll find cartoon characters depicted in over 20 giant wall paintings on the sides of buildings all over town – pick up an annotated map from the Tourist Office. Even the street names are contained within speech bubbles!
Notable (former) residents are Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, one of the original members of the Académie-Française, and Honoré de Balzac, a novelist and playwright.
And while you are here, discover the town’s fascinating heritage on themed walking tours.
Stop off at the splendid Romanesque cathedral; enjoy the eclectic collections of the town museum, and don’t miss the panoramic views from the ramparts, scene for the annual Angouleme Rampart Race for historic cars.
Coastal Charente-Maritime, part of the Poitou-Charentes administrative region, is the second largest and the most populated department in the region with a land area of 6864 km² and around 600,000 inhabitants.
The important rivers are the Charente and its tributaries, the Boutonne and the Seugne, along with the Sèvre Niortaise, the Seudre, and the Garonne, which is the estuary of the Gironde.
The department includes the islands of Île de Ré, Île d’Aix, and Ile d’Oléron, and forms the northern part of the Aquitaine basin.
It’s separated from the Massif Armoricain by the Marais Poitevin to the north-west and from the Parisian basin by the Seuil du Poitou to the north-east. C
harente is surrounded by the departments of Gironde, Charente, Deux-Sèvres, Dordogne and Vendée.
But there is more than coastline to Charente, which also includes the regions known as Jonzac, Saintonge Romane, centred on Saintes, the Vals de Saintonge around St Jean d’Angély, and Aunis in the north.
The Pilat Dune
The highest dune in Europe, standing 104 meters above the Bay of Arcachon and offering a fantastic view of the ocean on one side and the Landes maritime pine’s forest on the other.
The Bay of Arcachon is first of all a geomorphologic curiosity: a bay of 1500 hectares fed both by the ocean and a large number of waterways, producing an inland sea with the colors of a lagoon, bordered on one side by the Dune du Pilat, a blond crown of fine sand culminating at 104 meters.
“The King of Beaches and the Beach of Kings,” launched by Empress Eugenie who brought the whole of the European aristocracy to this little fishing village in the 19th century.
Biarritz is a prime destination for tourists and with its splendid beaches of fine sand, 6km (2½ miles) of them, high quality facilities, golf courses and luxury accommodation; this is undoubtedly one of France’s most welcoming towns.
So long a playground; a ‘promised land’ for golfers, surfers, Basque Pelota and rugby players, and other devotees of sea water spa therapy, health, fitness and relaxation.
The mild climate and the beauty of the coastline, its curved inlets, punctuated by rocky outcrops, and the great events that it hosts, make Biarritz a destination of enchantment at any time of year.
Open and cosmopolitan, this is the pearl of the Basque coast. Music, dance, cinema and the arts have a privileged place in local life.
From the International Festival of Audiovisual Programmes (FIPA) in January to the Biarritz Festival of Latin American Cultures and Cinemas, which highlights the long-standing links between the Basque Country and Latin America, Biarritz pays attention to images of the world.
Dance has long been at the forefront here with the creation of Ballet Biarritz, a national choreographic centre directed by Thierry Malandain.
There is also the annual ‘Le Temps d’Aimer’ dance event that, by combining classic and contemporary with innovation and tradition, provides an opening to large international companies and young training programmes.
A century ago, this little whaling town became a fashionable summer resort that, across the years, has stayed open to the outside world without ever losing its identity.
Fame came with the visit of Napoleon and the Empress Eugénie; Queen Victoria visited in 1889, and the town later became a favoured resort of Edward VII.
Today, Biarritz remains ever-popular, and is arguably the only town where you can see neoprene-clad surfers with surfboards under their arms crossing paths with business men in suits and ties.
The caves of the Vézère Valley
25 decorated caves including Lascaux (its discovery in 1940 was a key date in the history of prehistoric art), Font de Gaume, Les Combarelles.
Lower Lot valley
The Lot valley starts at the heights of the medieval fortress of Bonaguil. The valley then widens, and the Lot River flows generously. Standing high up are villages such as Pujols and Penne d’Agenais.
Futuroscope in Poitiers is one of France’s most beloved theme parks? In 2017, the park will be celebrating its 30th anniversary.
The biggest estuary in Europe, where the Dordogne and Garonne rivers meet before flowing out into the Atlantic.
The Pyrenees in Aquitaine stretch over more than 110 kilometers. These mountains start gently from the Atlantic Ocean in the Basque Country with the Rhune (900 meters) then rise sharply to the Pic du Midi d’Ossau (2884 meters).
The Jurisdiction of Saint Emilion
Built on the edge of its famous wine-growing plateau, Saint Emilion offers all the beauty of a medieval village with ancient paved streets, ramparts surrounded by vines, religious edifice, and rows of houses that slope down the plains below.
The town of Oradour-sur-Glane is spread across a broad hillside; it looks down on the remnants of its old town, destroyed by Germans on 10 June 1944, when 642 inhabitants were massacred by a German Waffen-SS company. Only six escaped.
The new town was built just above the ruins of the old village, The first stone was laid on 10 June 1947, exactly three years after the old village was destroyed, and the new town was deliberately designed to look as austere as possible, with all the buildings painted gray with white shutters. The new town opened in 1953, but it took several years before it was fully occupied.
What is Oradour-sur-Glane famous for?
The massacre involved men, women and children, some as young as one week, and some as old as ninety. The officer responsible, 29-year-old Sturmbannführer Diekmann, was killed in action shortly afterward during the Battle of Normandy, and a large number of the Third Company, which had committed the massacre, were themselves killed in action within a few days.
These events are commemorated in the Centre de la Mémoire (87520 Oradour-sur-Glane. Tel: 05 55 430 430; www.oradour.org. Open daily from Feb-mid Dec, from 0900, with variable closing hours according to season).
Whether this sort of pseudo-macabre ‘preservation for posterity’ is bona fide tourism only each of us can say individually as we face the conflict and sadness of what the scene represents.
It is, admittedly, very moving. But the answer to the question ‘Why do we find it moving?’ is a subjective issue, as is much of what today is called ‘Black Tourism’.
As with the battlefields of the Somme, only by coming face to face with the past and making a study of it do we begin to have a chance to understand. In that regard, Oradour-sur-Glane is a valid tourist destination, but you may need a stiff drink in the new town square afterwards.
What is Nouvelle-Aquitaine?
Nouvelle-Aquitaine is the largest administrative region in France, located in the south-west of the country. The region was created by the territorial reform of French Regions in 2014 through the merger of three regions: Aquitaine, Limousin and Poitou-Charentes.
The new region covers 84,061 km2 (32,456 sq mi) – or 1⁄8 of the country – and has approximately 5,800,000 inhabitants. The new region was established on 1 January 2016.
After Île-de-France, Nouvelle-Aquitaine is the premier French region in research and innovation, with five universities (Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Limoges, Poitiers and Pau).
The first agricultural region of Europe in terms of turnover, it is the first French region in terms of tourism jobs, as it has three of the four historic resorts on the French Atlantic coast (Arcachon, Biarritz and Royan), as well as several ski resorts, and is the fifth French region in terms of business creation.
The region embraces 12 departments in total: Charente, Charente-Maritime, Corrèze, Creuse, Dordogne, Gironde, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Deux-Sèvres, Vienne and Haute-Vienne.
Its largest city and only metropolis is Bordeaux, in the heart of an urban agglomeration of nearly one million inhabitants.
Its economy is based on agriculture and viticulture (vineyards of Bordeaux and Cognac), tourism, a powerful aerospace industry, digital economy and design, para chemical and pharmaceutical industries.
Its financial sector (Niort is the fourth-largest financial centre in the nation, specialising in mutual insurance companies), and industrial ceramics (Limoges).
In terms of French culture, the new region includes major parts of Southern France (“Midi de la France”), marked by Basque, Occitan and Oïl (Poitevin and Saintongeais) cultures.
Historically, it is the “indirect successor” to medieval Aquitaine and extends over a large part of the former Duchy of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The region has a complex and chequered history: it passed to France in 1137 when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII of France, but their marriage was annulled in 1152.
When Eleanor’s new husband became Henry II of England in 1154, the area became an English possession, the cornerstone of the Angevin Empire.
Aquitaine remained English until the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453, when it was annexed by France.
During those 300 years, the region was ruled by the Kings of England strengthening links with England, with large quantities of wine produced in south-western France being exported to England, where it was known as claret.