Located in the south-west of France is the region of Nouvelle-Aquitane, the country’s largest region. It borders Spain to the south and the Atlantic coast to the west. Nouvelle-Aquitane is an incredibly diverse region that ranges from long, sunny beaches perfect for surfing; vast farmlands of strawberries, plums and tomatoes; colossal sand dunes; and the snowy peaks of the Pyrénées forming the rugged border with Spain. Its prefecture is Bordeaux, home of the elegant and historic Port de la Lune harbour and monuments, while the surrounding wine region of Bordeaux is one of the most esteemed wine regions in the country. The historic cities of Nouvelle-Aquitaine all have rich and storied histories; from the Knights Templar based at La Rochelle, Napoleon III’s elegant beachside palace at Biarritz, to the ancient Roman Baths of Dax.
The region has great cultural diversity, with Basque country in the south renowned for its cuisine such as poulet Basquaise, vibrant festivals such as the Fête de Bayonne, and red and white coloured baserri architecture. Meanwhile, the northern part of the region stretches almost as far as the Loire Valley, with cities such as Poitiers having a distinct style of medieval religious buildings and half-timbered houses. Some of France’s oldest sights are located around the Vézère Valley, such as the priceless cave paintings at Lascaux, and the important early human remains of the Cro-Magnon rock shelter. On top of it all are some of France’s most iconic foods and drinks, with cognac, confit de canard and canelé desserts all hailing from this amazing southern region.
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Cities in Nouvelle-Aquitane
The 6th largest city in France is Bordeaux, prefecture of the Nouvelle-Aquitane region, and capital of the celebrated Bordeaux wine region. Bordeaux is known for its stunning architecture that includes classical masterpieces along the river Garonne, Gothic and Baroque churches, Roman ruins, and contemporary designs. It is also a centre of aviation and aeronautics industries, and a thriving university city.
Bordeaux is known for its iconic harbour, La Porte de la Lune (the port of the moon), named for its shape along a bend in the river. It is the world’s largest urban area UNESCO Site, and is home to classical and neoclassical architectural masterpieces. Some of the most beautiful sights include the Place de la Bourse, an open public square with its 18th century buildings reflected in the mirror waters of the Miroir d’Eau. The Quais de Bordeaux is the city’s wide, elegant promenade by the river, with magnificent facades built alongside.
Other sights in Bordeaux include the Port Cailhau, a 15th century gatehouse, and La Grosse Cloche, a monumental bell tower attached to the old town hall. One of the city’s newest attractions is the Cité du Vin, a museum of wine that has exhibits and wine tasting, housed in a modern organic building design. Another modern design is the UNESCO listed Cité Frugès de Pessac, an experimental housing complex designed by Le Corbusier. Art abounds, with great museums such as the digital art museum of Les Bassins des Lumières, and the fine art collection at Musée des Beaux-Arts. And of course, Bordeaux is the ideal jumping off point to organise tours into the Bordeaux wine region.
The second largest city in the region is Limoges, located in the Limousin region just south of the Loire Valley. Limoges began as a Roman settlement around 10BCE, valued for its crossing over the river Vienne, and named after the Lemovices Gallic tribe who once occupied the area. The city is perhaps best known for its fine porcelain, which the city started producing when kaolinite was discovered nearby in 1768. Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir started his painting career painting Limoges porcelain. Today, it is still considered France’s best porcelain.
Limoges is a city that celebrates fine art and design, and the Musée National Adrien Dubouché is one of the city’s finest museums, which houses a large collection of Limoges porcelain. The Musée des Beaux-Arts de Limoges houses a large collection of paintings and drawings, Gallo-Roman archaeological treasures, Egyptian art and medieval sculpture. The city’s 13th century Gothic cathedral is the Cathédrale Saint-Etienne, one of the most impressive buildings in the city, which is home to several important artworks. Another notable sight is the Rue de la Boucherie, a charming Street of half-timbered houses that once was filled with butchers from the butcher’s guild.
Biarritz, on the southern Atlantic coast, is a seaside resort city renowned for its elegant beach front and surfing spots. The centrepiece of the city is its beach, La Grande Plage, where some of Biarritz’ most spectacular buildings and sights can be found. Numerous rock formations stretch out into the sea, most notably La Rocher de la Vierge, a prominent rock accessible by a footbridge. Built on the beach front are several notable architectural masterpieces, such as Le Phare de Biarritz (Biarritz lighthouse), Biarritz Aquarium, l’Église Saint-Eugénie (a magnificent neo-Gothic church), and the Hôtel du Palais, originally built for the Empress Eugenie in 1855, and is a functioning hotel today.
Just past the surfing lessons and sandcastles of the beach, cafes dish out bowls of paella and poulet basquaise, specialties of the region. Other sights nearby include Les Halles de Biarritz, a large covered market that sells cheese, meats, seafood, souvenirs and more. One of the city’s best museums is the Cité de l’Océan, an interactive ocean-themed museum, which has 3D videos and virtual reality experiences. The Musée Asiatica is another fantastic museum, which has one of the largest Asian art collections in France.
Situated on a rocky outcrop that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean is La Rochelle, a port city with a rich history. Protected by the Pertuis d’Antioch strait, and the islands of Saint-Martin-de-Ré and l’Île de Oléron, La Rochelle has been an active commercial port since the middle ages. The city is perhaps best known as the port base of the Knights Templar, where they docked their fleet. The city also saw sieges during the French Wars of Religion in 1572-73, during the Huguenot revolt in 1627-28, and was the last German stronghold in France to fall in WW2, besieged in 1944-45.
As a result of the city’s turbulent history, the city has several important and interesting buildings still standing today. Le Vieux Port (Old Harbour) is the heart of the city, it’s entrance guarded by three fortified towers; the Lantern Tower, the Chain Tower, and Saint Nicholas Tower. Just past the old port is La Rochelle old town, with sights such as the La Rochelle Town Hall, a 17th century masterpiece with tall turrets and elaborate stonework. Other sights include the ostentatious house of Henry II, La Grosse Horloge clock tower, and the covered gallery of Rue d’Escale.
At the junction of the Adour and Nive rivers is the city of Bayonne, known as a centre of Basque culture, as well as the location of the famed Fête de Bayonne festival. One of the largest cultural festivals in the country, the feria lasts for 5 days from the preceding Wednesday to the first Sunday of August. The entire city dresses in traditional white costumes with red scarves and belts, and enjoy live music by large groups called bandas, street performances, fireworks, parades, bullfights – even cow racing along the Place du Saint-André!
The city has a long history dating back to Roman settlement, and still has some sections of Roman fortifications visible. The city is also home to the Cathédrale Saint-Marie de Bayonne, a Gothic cathedral known for its impressive twin spires. Bayonne has a reputation as a centre for producing fine chocolate, and Bayonne Chocolate Street is the best place to find the city’s famous chocolate shops.
Close to the southern border of Nouvelle-Aquitane is the commune of Dax, a thermal spa town originally founded by the Romans. Today, it is still renowned for its Fontaine Chaude, a bubbling public fountain with a natural temperature of 64°C (147.2°F). While the present-day fountain and portico was constructed between 1814-1818, it was once the site of an ancient Roman baths. The city has plenty of indoor spas, to enjoy more luxurious beauty treatments!
Dax is also the location of one of France’s last functioning bull rings, the Arènes de Dax. Bullfighting takes place during the 5-day Dax festival (Fêtes de Dax), which beings the whole city alive in August. There are numerous well-preserved Roman ruins in Dax, including parts of the 4th century Gallo-Roman city walls, and the Crypte Archéologique, a museum preserving the foundations of a grand Roman basilica. For a more contemporary museum, the Musée de l’ALAT is an aviation museum with a large helicopter collection.
Affectionately known as La Ville de l’Image (city of the image), Angoulême is known for its large number of animation and video game studios, and visual arts festivals. It is renowned for the Angoulême International Comic Festival, the Musique Métisses Festival, and the Angoulême Francophone Film Festival. Visitors can see the Musée de la Bande Dessinée (Comic museum) to learn more. The city is also known for its incredible street art scene, with dozens of murals all across the city.
The city was founded as a Roman outpost, and was fortified with city walls towards the end of the Roman Empire. The city walls have been mostly removed, leaving behind terraces and raised ramparts that offer views of the city below. The ancient road layout is home to the Circuit de Ramparts road race, a classic car race that takes place in September. The city is home to some beautiful historic buildings, such as the Hôtel de Ville d’Angoulême, the town hall which features the keep and tower of the mostly destroyed Château d’Angoulême; and the stunning Cathédrale Saint-Pierre d’Angoulême, a 12th century Romanesque cathedral.
Picturesque Poitiers is a city on the Clain river in the north of Nouvelle-Aquitane. It is nicknamed La ville aux cent clochés (the city of a hundred bells) after its beautiful historic church towers that ring out over the old town of half-timbered houses and narrow cobbled streets. Poitiers is home to some of France’s most significant religious buildings – the Baptistère Saint-Jean, the oldest Christian building in France built around 360CE; the 12th century Romanesque l’Église Notre-Dame la Grande, often considered one of the most beautiful churches in the world; and the Romanesque/early Gothic Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Poitiers.
Poitiers is a university town, built around the Université de Poitiers, which was founded in 1431. Another of the city’s oldest and most charming sights is Rue de la Chaîne, a steep street of medieval houses that was named for the chains that would once block off the market from traffic.
Beaches and Coastlines of Nouvelle-Aquitane
The region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine has a very long coastline along the Atlantic Ocean, stretching 720km (447 miles) from just north of La Rochelle, down to the Spanish border and the port town of Hendaye. Along the way are some of France’s most beautiful and most luxurious beach towns and resorts, including the monumental Dune du Pilat, the highest sand dune in Europe.
Beach Towns of Basque Country
The section of Atlantic coastline of French Basque country near the Spanish border is home to some of the country’s most beautiful seaside resort towns. With their historic monuments, gorgeous beaches and unmistakable Basque style, there is a lot to explore. Saint-Jean-de-Luz is one of the most famous destinations, known for its great swimming beach, and the site of a royal wedding in 1660, when Louis XIV married María-Teresa from Spain.
Bidart is a quiet hilltop town, notable for its Basque architecture of red and white facades. Hendaye is France’s most south westerly town on the Spanish border, is home to historic fortifications and châteaux, as well as the Jumeaux Rocks just offshore. Anglet is popular for its long beachfront popular with surfers, as well as its cafe and restaurant scene. These are just a few examples, and there are many more great Basque towns to explore in this part of France.
Dunes of Pilat
On the Atlantic coast south of Bordeaux is the Dune du Pilat, the largest sand dune in Europe. The dune is 2.7km (1.67 miles) long from north to south, 500 metres (0.31 miles) wide, and around 106.6 metres (347 feet) high. The dune is constantly in motion, being pushed towards the land and slowly swallowing trees and infrastructure. Climbing the steep dune is made easier with steps installed in the sand. The dune is a popular tourist attraction in the region, with campsite accommodation and activities such as paragliding.
The closest town is Arcachon, an idyllic seaside resort town known for its sandy beaches, busy marina, and picturesque shopping streets in the Ville d’Été. Arcachon is famous for its oysters, which are grown in Arcachon Bay.
Located on a small island in the mouth of the Gironde river is the Cordouan Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in France. It was built between 1584 and 1611, and was heavily renovated in 1855 by renowned architect Louis de Foix, who added 3 stories. It is considered particularly beautiful for its white limestone, with Renaissance-style columns and gargoyles.
Sights to see in Nouvelle-Aquitaine
One of the largest theme parks in France is Futuroscope, built around themes of multimedia, cinematographic futuroscope, and technology, located just north of Poitiers. The rides of Futuroscope are amazingly inventive and imaginative; l’Extraordinaire Voyage uses a giant screen to give the impression of flying above cities and with hot air balloons; Objective Mars is a speedy rollercoaster that swivels and spins on the track; and Aventure Éclabousse, a water ride complete with water cannon. The park even has accommodation on the grounds and nearby, such as the Hôtel du Futuroscope.
Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe
Located in the far north of the Nouvelle-Aquitane region, about 45km (27 miles) east of Poitiers is the Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe. The church is a UNESCO site, built in the 11th century in the Romanesque style, complete with a stunning 80 metre (262 feet) Gothic spire. Nicknamed the Romanesque Sistine Chapel, it is known for its astounding 11th and 12th century murals that depict glorious biblical scenes and medieval stories.
Natural Landscapes of Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Jurisdiction of Saint Émilion
In the middle of Bordeaux wine country is the expansive Jurisdiction of Saint Émilion, founded in the 8th century by a Bretagne monk named Émilion, and centred around its medieval town of the same name. An area of small rivers, local roads and lots of vines, the region is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site for its long history as a pilgrimage site, complete with wonderfully preserved châteaux, half-timbered houses, stone hamlets, churches and cloisters. The wine of the region was introduced during Roman times, and the same monoculture still exists today.
The area is a popular tourist attraction, and one of the most visited sites is the Église Monolith (Monolithic Church). Dug into the rock below, it is the largest underground church in Europe, and includes a grotto where Saint-Émilion lived his final years. Other notable sights include the ruined Château du Roi and it’s imposing square tower, the Collegiate Church and Cloister from 1110CE, and the Neolithic stone of Pierrefitte menhir.
La Fôret de Landes (Landes of Gascony)
The Landes Forest is the largest man-made forest in western Europe, made up of maritime pine trees. The forest was planted around 1857, to transform and rehabilitate the wet and swampy terrain which was previously accessed by a unique method of stilt walking. Today, the 10,000 square kilometres (3,900 square miles) is home to many species of animals such as deer, boars, pheasants and staffs, and is a popular hiking and picnic destination.
Dordogne River Valley
The Dordogne region of Nouvelle-Aquitane is located inbetween Limoges and Bordeaux, with its capital of Périgueux. It is named for the Dordogne river, which runs through it. The Dordogne river valley is a popular tourist area, known for its picturesque local villages, hundreds of charming châteaux, limestone cliffs, and outdoor activities.
The Pyrénées mountain range which divides France and Spain falls across two regions in France, Nouvelle-Aquitane and Occitanie. In Nouvelle-Aquitane, the mountain range falls into the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, with its prefecture city of Pau. Hiking is a popular activity in the region, with routes such as the Col de Trois Croix and the Iparla Ridge some of the most well-known routes.
Vallées du Lot et de la Garonne
The Lot and Garonne Valleys are located in the south of the region, and are major agricultural areas, and are popular with tourists. The Lot Valley follows the river Lot, and is a major producer of plums. Centred around its regional capital Villeneuve sur Lot, the area is a great destination for visitors looking to explore rural France.
Prehistoric Sites of Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley
Nouvelle-Aquitaine is home to the Vézère Valley, site of some of France’s oldest and important prehistoric sites. Dated to the Paleolithic era, the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses 147 sites and 25 decorated caves. The sites are important for their cave art, stone tools, and human remains. Some of the caves include the Lascaux Caves, one of the most well-known sites. Other caves include the Rouffignac Caves, a collection of hundreds of mammoth paintings 2km from the entrance; and Font-de-Gaume, a collection of bison, mammoth and horse paintings, and the only cave still open to visitors.
The rock shelters of the Vézère Valley include the Cro-Magnon Rock Shelter. The namesake of early Homo Sapiens, the shelter contained the remains of 5 humans that date to 28,000 years old, anatomically modern humans that were distinct from Neanderthals. La Micoque Neanderthal site was inhabited as far back as 450,000 years ago, and bi-faced stone tools were discovered here. Several carved stone works were recovered from the area, such as the Venus Impudique ivory figurine (16,000BP) from the Laugerie-Basse site, the Venus of Laussel stone carving of a woman holding a horn (25,000BP), and the Bison Licking Insect Bite carved on reindeer antler (20,000-12,000BP).
One of the most important prehistoric sites in the world is Lascaux Caves near the town of Montignac, an incredible collection of cave art dating to approximately 15-17,000 years ago. The rock art features animal representations such as aurochs, horses, deer, stags, bears, as well as humans and geometric patterns. The most impressive section of the caves is the Hall of the Bulls, which features large number of animals, include a 5.2 metre (17 feet) charging bull.
The caves were discovered in 1940 by a young French man whose dog fell in the cave. By 1948, it was open to tourists. However by 1955 the air, humidity and contaminants brought in by visitors began to damage the paintings with lichen and fungi, and the site was closed to visitors permanently in 1963 for restoration. It is possible to visit replicas of the site, named Lascaux II, III and IV, the last of which is located near Montignac, and features digital displays.
Eating And Drinking In Nouvelle-Aquitane
Drinking in Nouvelle-Aquitaine
The Bordeaux wine region is the main attraction when it comes to drinking in Nouvelle-Aquitane. The region is a delight for visitors, with beautiful landscapes dotted with historic châteaux. There are almost 7,500 producers in the region, which produce mostly red wines, with the Bordeaux blends being the most famous.
Nouvelle-Aquitane is also a big producer of Cognac, a matured brandy named after the commune of the same name. Armagnac is a similar product produced in Gascony, made from ugni blanc grapes and distilled in column stills. Also from Gascony is the spirit Floc de Gascogne, a sweet fortified wine made from Armagnac and fresh grape juice. Basque drinks include Basque apple cider, and Txacoli, a very dry, lightly bubbly white wine.
Cuisine of Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Nouvelle-Aquitane is home to Basque cuisine, which has a strong emphasis on seafood, as well as notable Spanish influence. Poulet Basquaise (Basque style chicken) is made with chicken thigh or breast, slow cooked in a sauce of red espelette pepper, tomato, onion, and white wine, and served with fries, pasta or rice. Confit de canard, a staple in bistros around the country, is made by roasting duck in its own fat, seasoned with herbs such as thyme and bay leaves. It is usually served with duck fat-fried potatoes, called pommes de terre à la sarladaise.
One of the most famous seafood dishes from Nouvelle-Aquitane is Bacalao al Pil Pil. Made with salt cod, the dish uses just olive oil, garlic and chilli to create a slow cooked, gelatinous sauce. Another popular dish is Marmitako, a thick tuna stew cooked with potato, tomato, onion, paprika, and chilli, and thickened with potato starch. Other Nouvelle-Aquitane dishes include Piperade, a dish of tomato, pepper, ham, onion, eggs, and garlic; and Tourin, a rich garlic soup thickened with egg.
Nouvelle-Aquitaine is a region of great goat cheese, and the most well-known is perhaps Chabichou. Chabichou comes in cylindrical form, and has a soft, white creamy texture, and is eaten by itself, or in cooking. Bûche de Chevre is another goat’s cheese from the Poitou region, a soft, creamy and slightly sweet cheese. From the Périgord region comes Chaumes cheese, a smooth and creamy cheese known for its bright orange colour, and rubbery, aromatic crust.
Desserts of Nouvelle-Aquitaine
With its perfect combination of rum, vanilla and custard, the humble canelé is perhaps the most well-known cake from Nouvelle-Aquitane. Originating from Bordeaux, the canelé is a small cylindrical cake, with a spongy, caramelised crust and a soft centre. Hailing from Dax is the Dacquoise, an almond and hazelnut meringue, on a biscuit base, with layers of buttercream.
Perhaps the most traditional cake from French Basque country is the Gâteau Basque, made of a dough of flour, sugar, and butter, and filled with either cherry jam or vanilla pastry cream. They are known for their egg-brushed pastry top, and cross hatch or Basque cross design. From the Limousin region is another classic, the Clafoutis, a flan-like tart filled with black cherries from the region.