What to do in Aquitaine
The Aquitaine is a vast territory that convers the Atlantic side of south-western France. It has a multitude of landscapes, places to discover and so on. On the coast the sand goes on to infinity and is washed by waves that attract surfers from all over the world. This is mix of beauties, from the Dordogne and its medieval castles and prehistoric caves, to the mountain of the Pyrenees, passing through the Gironde vineyards. Consider it as a versatile region that will get everyone’s imagination in a different way.
Where to stay
Nestled in the tranquil bay of Arcachon, on the edge of the shore and backing onto lush pine forests, you will find the luxury Villa La Tosca. Built in 1903 in the Arcachon Architectural style, Villa La Tosca is a beautiful hotel decorated with acute attention to even the finest details. The Villa itself is a mix of sumptuous and restored features. The elegant design of Villa La Tosca is inspired by local architecture with Italian influences and envelops guests in an atmosphere of tranquil luxury. Villa La Tosca is a home from home, where guests can relax by the open fire with a glass of vintage red from the hotel wine cellar, or browse the shelves of the wood-panelled library. Unwind amidst the lush landscape and fountains and take a refreshing dip in the natural spring waters of the hotel swimming pool. In summer, guests are invited to dine on the hotel terrace and admire spectacular sea views and sunsets. The eight guest rooms boast bright, airy interiors with splashes of rich colours and stylish wooden furniture, creating a warm, inviting ambiance. All the well-appointed luxury rooms each come with an en-suite bathroom and are individually designed to complement the surroundings and make the most of the sea and forest views.
Now that we have chosen the hotel, we are ready to explore the best things to do in Aquitaine:
World wine capital, Bordeaux has more historic buildings than any other city in France, apart from Paris. The center is a world heritage site for the architecture of the 1700s, a time when the city began to expand outside its medieval walls. A fitting example is the gorgeous Place de la Bourse, made even more inspirational by the Mirroir d’Eau by Michel Corajoud, a thin layer of reflecting water that is magical when the square is illuminated at night. There is much more to see than this, such as the medieval port of Port Calihau, the bell tower of the Grosse Cloche, the iconic Pont-de-Pierre and the impressive Monument aux Girondins, with its rampant horses.
Château de Beynac
The Dordogne River Valley was a bloody battlefield during the 100-year war in the 14th and 15th centuries, providing the region with strong military castles that meditated on the river from the tops of limestone rocks. One of the great ways to see fortresses like Château de Beynac and Château de Castelnaud (picture on top), as well as the small historic villages on the banks of the river is to rent a canoe for a few hours and let the gentle currents do the work. The malleable limestone of the Dordogne also gave way to the inhabitants through Paleolithic caves that left behind them paintings that still have the power to fascinate almost 20.000 years later.
On the Atlantic coast of Aquitaine, 270 kilometers long, there is exaltation as well as relaxation. If you want to recharge your batteries go directly to Hendaye, right on the border with Spain. It could be an obvious choice, with a flat and immaculate beach at the mouth of the river Bidasoa. As with most beaches in the region, the conditions are great for water sports such as body boarding and kite-surfing. Higher up, the Grande Plage of Biarritz is world famous and offers space for sportsmen and those who do not want to do anything. Elsewhere, Montalivet is the oldest naturist resort in France, having been in business since 1949 and offering campsites, chalets and wide beaches.
Dune du Pilat
An hour west from Bordeaux and just south of Arcachon Bay is a natural wonder that you should try to visit. It is the highest sand dune in Europe, forming a seascape that amazes without ifs and buts. The dune rises to over 100 meters and at the top the views on both sides are stunning. You have the sandbank of Banc d’Arguin and the Atlantic, glitter to the west, and to the east there is a massive pine forest that extends to the horizon. In a day without clouds and a clear day, it is possible to see the Pyrenees, too.
Recently, France’s most famous wine region has started inventing creative ways to attract people beyond typical cave visits and tasting sessions. Château La Dominique for example has a bold contemporary architecture and if you come for a meal you will have a table on their terrace with a perfect view of the vineyards. And in the Atelier-B workshop in Haut-Sarpe you can also take part in a seminar to create a blend of wine according to your tastes, which you can then take home with you.
If you have a weakness for French topiary, these gardens connected to a 17th century manor house are ideal for you. There are ten hectares of boxwood carvings that require tens of thousands of hours of work a year for their maintenance. You can have an audio guide explaining the five different sections of the gardens, each with an unlimited variety of creative forms to make you feel like you are entering rooms with furniture rather than something alive. As you go you can also find benches in small quiet corners where you can read a book for a while without being disturbed.
Boulevard des Pyrénées
Located at the top of the cliffs on the Pau’s Gave River, this walkway is like a gigantic balcony with a magnificent view that you could study for hours. Not far away are rolling hills, some covered with castles, and later the peaks of the Pyrenees that border the sky, individually identifiable as an iconic landscape. In front of you are the terraced gardens on the steep slope, which you can explore by strolling up to the Ousse River through the zigzagging paths of the Sentiers du Roy.
Rocher de la Vierge
Located between Biarritz’s Port-Vieux and Port des Pêcheurs, it is a natural curiosity, a rock that resembles the overturned hull of a ship. The rock is exposed to the Atlantic and crowned with a statue of the Virgin Mary, and in the 19th century Napoleon III ordered that a tunnel be pierced through it. At that time it was used as a platform for whale watching and today it’s just one of those things you need to do when you’re in Biarritz. There is a bridge from the late nineteenth century that connects it to the mainland, and you can continue through the tunnel to take the sea air and watch the Atlantic crashing against the rock below.
Saint-Émilion Monolithic Church
This church is carved into the limestone hill and to build it have been extracted almost 15.000 cubic meters of rock. It was built in the Middle Ages to house the relics of Saint-Émilion, a Breton monk of the 8th century who came here as a hermit to escape the persecutions of the Benedictine order. You can borrow a key to climb the tower by yourself, but to see the three underground naves and the catacombs you must take a 45-minute guided tour, where you will discover incredible sculptures and medieval frescoes on the church walls.
Château de Bonaguil
When you visit this castle, you will look at the avant-garde defenses of the fifteenth century. After the Hundred Years’ War, the entire site was rebuilt to cope with the new artillery threat, and cannons were placed on top of the towers. But the irony was that these would never be served because the castle was never attacked. For us it is great, because there is enough to keep you fascinated for several hours while you walk the spiral staircases, through the large rooms and the roof of the keep to observe the countryside of the Lot-et-Garonne as a feudal noble could have done in past. Wherever you go, there is something interesting to see, such as tunnels and caverns where you can enter through the moat or pieces of medieval graffiti discovered during restoration.
Caves des Crouseilles
If there is a region to see on two wheels, this is the Aquitaine. Whether you are in the vineyards or on the coast or at the foot of the Pyrenees, you will be spoiled with cycle path networks. This is true for the green trail on the towpath near the Canal de Deux Mers, which runs from coast to coast in southwest France with an important 17th century waterway. All the bathing destinations of the Arcachon Basin are connected by a system of paths that stretches for almost 90 kilometers between Arcachon and Cap Ferret. And wine tours can also be made by bike, such as in Madiran, where there is a circular route with castles, hills crossed by vineyards and the Caves des Crouseilles, where it is possible to get to know and taste ultra-award-winning wines.
Red Peppers at Espelette
In one paragraph it is impossible to do justice to the abundance of culinary specialties and regional products. There is the black Périgord truffle, the foie gras, the Arcachon oysters, the Le Teich French caviar, the Ossau-Iraty sheep cheese, the Landes poultry, and this is only to name a few. Every city and village is blessed by a market where it is possible to discover which foods generate local pride. And it seems that every place has a festival for its products: take the Etauliers, where at the end of April you can go to the Aquitaine Asparagus Festival to celebrate the Asperges du Blayais, or Espelette, where there is a festival in honor of its red peppers at the end of October.
Lacanau Pro at Lacanau Beach
Landes is the undisputed capital of surfing in Europe, but has some beaches that place it high even in the world. A phenomenon that you will never forget is the tide in the Gironde estuary. The high tide of the ocean that rolls inward against the current of the river, causes waves that never break and can carry you for a couple of kilometers along the river. Lacanau beach in Médoc is one of the great surfing beaches and in August it hosts Lacanau Pro, the country’s oldest surf tournament. Not to be underestimated either La Gravière, La Piste and Les Estagnots.
Preserved as a French historical monument, this luxurious mansion was built for the author of Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand, at the beginning of the 20th century. With its wooden frame, stained glass windows, wooden shutters and sash windows, it is a fine example of Basque architecture. From the outside, the villa may seem rustic, but the interior has a sophisticated Belle Époque style design and Rostand has equipped it with cutting-edge amenities such as a telephone, early electrical appliances and a heating system. The gardens are an unmissable part of the tour in the summer when everything is in bloom.
This sumptuous Basque church was the site of one of the most important political marriages in history, when Louis XIV married Maria Teresa, daughter of the king of Spain in 1660. In addition to the wooden galleries on either side of the church, what attracts everyone is the extravagant sanctuary golden baroque. This was completed in 1630, reflecting the wealth that this seaside community had generated through whaling, cod fishing and trade in the West Indies. Before that time the church had suffered much damage, especially during the Hundred Years’ War when Saint-Jean-de-Luz was repeatedly burned and rebuilt.