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Get acquainted with Aquitaine

A region of variety and superlatives

France, sometimes known as l’Hexagone, is a country with many sides. Both in terms of its borders and in terms of its diversity

In terms of geography alone it ranges from the wave battered, craggy coasts of north Brittany to the idyllic azure waters of the Côte d’Azur. From the chalk cliffs of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais to the volcanic lunar landscape of the Massif Central. From the ancient, dark oak forests of central Brittany to the pine woods of eastern France. The rugged Pyrenees, the epic Alps, the gently undulating Dordogne, the soft fertile fields of the Loire Valley, the lush green pastures of Normandy and the lavender fields of Provence.

Aquitaine is an historic region, one of the largest in France, and is sometimes overlooked or confused by travellers unsure of how this region is defined and where its borders lie.

Château de Castelnaud overlooking the Dordogne at dusk

Stretching from the Gironde river in the north to the Spanish border in the south, it has always been a militarily strategic area. It encompasses the Dordogne and the Lot-et-Garonne, both colourful regions with important histories entwined with England‘s. 

The Dordogne region is famously dotted with stark, brooding castles and fortified villages (bastides) perched on top of hills with commanding views over the surrounding landscape. And what a landscape: lush valleys, mellow stone villages spilling over with pots of geraniums, undulating hills and an all-pervading sense of timeless history, with the majestic Dordogne river flowing serenely through it all.

The Gironde region is dominated by the city of Bordeaux, one of France’s great seaports and the conduit to the world for all its huge wine production. Bordeaux has helped the region acquire great wealth through its trade associations and helped the great wines of the Médoc, Graves, St Emilion and surrounds to make their mark on the world stage.  

Place de la Bourse

The Landes is rustic and life is simple in the small villages which remain relatively unvisited. In times past it was a thoroughly uninviting, desolate place, so marshy and damp that stilts were a common mode of transport over marshy ground and watery channels. Even today it remains one of France’s least populated regions (while no longer being marshy and damp).

To the east lies the rich country of Armagnac, home to fields of sunflowers and melons, vineyards, sleepy villages lost in time and the 3 musketeers of course. To the south is the Basque country and the Pyrenees. Here, in the Pyrénées Atlantiques a touch of Victorian grandeur lingers in Biarritz, though it is more popular with the surfers who come in search of the big waves.

In short, Aquitaine has a huge and wide appeal. It is a region of extremes and superlatives here are just a few.

The largest beach in Europe The silver ribbon of fine sand that is the Côte d’Argent is basically Europe’s largest (and possibly straightest) beach. Running 200 km south from the Gironde to Biarritz it is magnificent. The shimmering silver sands, backed by the tall pines are spectacular.

The highest dune in Europe The powerful Atlantic waves fan into large curves along the smooth sand and over the years have formed large dunes. Some were created artificially to protect the hinterland by forming a windbreak. The highest is the Dune du Pilat, near Arcachon and, once you have made the climb to the top you are rewarded with epic views out to sea, and just as dramatic, vistas inland over the tree tops of the forest des Landes.

The largest (man-made) forest in Europe Created over a century ago, the Landes pine forest was designed to arrest the problem of erosion along the coastline. It’s 3.5 million acres were designated a national park in 1970 and is today a huge conservation and recreation area. Its unique charms are popular with Parisians who holiday here, many coming to enjoy the miles of way marked trails, the 330 km of cycle paths, riding, canoeing and watersports on the large lakes.  

Tree-lined Canal du Midi

Oldest human habitation The Vézère valley around Les Eyzies in the Dordogne is renowned as the oldest centre of known human habitation in Europe with Cro Magnon remains found in 1868. Lascaux is famously where the world’s most sensational cave paintings were discovered.   

Europe’s oldest canal The Canal du Midi famously links the Atlantic with the Med and crosses the river Garonne at Agen (the second longest canal aqueduct in France).

Biggest producer of quality French wine The Gironde region is responsible for approximately half of all quality French wine production – that’s approximately 400 million bottles of appellation controlée wine annually. 

Bordeaux wine infographic - credit to Wine Folly

Explore Aquitaine for yourself