Aquitaine & the Pyrenees

The south-west of France is one of France's most popular destinations, with the mountainous territory of the Pyrenees, the watersport-led lifestyle of the coastal resorts, and the famous Dordogne countryside, as well as in Limousin, the region just south of Centre and to the west of Auvergne.

Aquitaine is made up of the departments of Dordogne, Gironde, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne and Pyrénées-Atlantiques.

Dordogne is the inland part of this region, and has become one of the most well-known spots for British visitors, whether they are quitting the rat-race, buying a holiday home, or enjoying a holiday. The reason is clear: mile upon mile of unspoilt verdant countryside. There are also myriad castles (over 1000, it is believed). Amongst these is Château de Biron, with a range of architectural styles which reflect the different periods of development it has gone through. Its 14th century chapel is on two levels, the lower one existing for villagers, and the upper one for the lords who thought they should be based closer to heaven when it came time to pray. Château de Bourdeilles is actually two castles, one with a 13th century fortress section and a mighty octagonal keep, and the other 16th century with refined designs which abound. Château de Castelnaud has a Museum of Mediaeval Warfare inside it, which has a large collection of mediaeval armour, and is one of the most-visited castles in the area. The origins of Château de Commarque are largely unknown. It became buried in silt and dirt and a 13th century village which once surrounded it is being gradually uncovered and discovered. The listed historical monument of Château de Hautefort is notable for its finely-designed French gardens. Formerly a fortified castle, in the 17th century it underwent development into a Renaissance-style palace. In the middle of the last century, it was restored only to suffer a devastating fire upon completion. It was then re-restored! Dordogne also contains the highest number of bastide towns in the region. Constructed in the 13th century in France's south-west with the aimof bringing improved security, they were primarily designed in a grid layout; it is impressive how many of these towns have remained largely untouched since that time. Monpazier is probably the best preserved of these, with the newest building still at least 400 years old. Away from the bastide towns, Sarlat is one of the most popular towns for visitors to France, and considered something of a mediaeval capital. Dordogne's own capital, Perigueux can be considered as divided into its Roman town and its mediaeval one. Meanwhile, the Gallo Roman Vesunna Museum, is a modern glass construction built over the remains of a Roman villa. It too is divided into two collections- 'town and public life' and 'domestic and private life'. Like Perigueux, in the north of Dordogne, Terrasson has six hectares of gardens on a hillside, called the 'Jardins de l'Imaginaire' (Gardens of the Imagination). Various works of art and water features are set among them, and they are classified amongst France's list of 'Jardins Remarquables'. In the south of Dordogne, and just north of the Dordogne River, is Bergerac. This has a National Wine and River Navigation Museum, both industries that helped the town prosper. Also in this department, the Vézère Valley has about 25 painted prehistoric caves; the Lascaux Caves were discovered in 1940 and noted for a painting of an auroch, an extinct animal related to the ox. Although the Lascaux paintings themselves cannot be viewed (they were closed off in 1963 due to the visitors' breath apparently damaging them), 'Lascaux II' has replica paintings, done with the same materials and techniques, permitting those who come to appreciate what has been there so long. There is a national museum of prehistory in Les Ezyies de Tayac.

Gironde runs along some of the coastline, and is known for the quality of its wines, and particularly for Bordeaux. The Grand-Théâtre now houses the Bordeaux National Opera House. Inside, the décor remains in its original colours of blue and gold. The 'Grosse Cloche' is a bell tower built between the 13th and 15th century, evoking traditional imagery of such designs, although there is a leopard rather than a cock on its weather vane. The bell tower of the Saint André Cathedral stands apart from it, intended so that the bells would not pose a structural threat. The Pont de Pierre is a stone bridge with seventeen arches. The Palais Gallien is the remains of a Roman amphitheatre. Saint Emilion is a town which surrounds one of the Bordeaux area's four wine regions. It is worth more than just the quality of its wines though. A marvellous underground pottery museum covers 20 centuries' worth of Aquitaine pottery. Plus, a tour can be had of the catacombs and an underground labyrinth.

Landes is known for its forests, the largest in Europe. There are also a few attractive small coastal resorts, including that of Biscarrosse, which has Europe's oldest elm tree, at 750 years old. It also has a thrilling adventure park. Capbreton, north of Bayonne is a bit of a well-kept secret (although less well-kept now, saying that!), not overly touristy, and a fine fish and seafood area.

Pyrénées-Atlantiques borders Spain, and includes part of the Basque country. It is the department in which some of France's well-established watersports towns are found. Biarritz holds the annual Biarritz Surf Festival, and there are plenty of opportunities to have a go yourself. The Atlantic waves here are known to be ideal for surfing. La Grande Plage is the long sandy beach that most people know, but on the Plage de la Côte des Basques, there is a view of the Pyrenees mountains in the distance. There are also a few casinos, and Biarritz offers some of the best golfing opportunities to be had in the country. Nearby Anglet is also a popular surfing spot, with several beaches. Bayonne is a nearby town with two rivers cutting through. Of France's many festivals, the Fête de Bayonne held each summer is a notably lively affair. Pau is an attractive town with its castle, intricately-styled English gardens, and profusion of palm trees. There has been an annual motor race on its streets since 1933 (the Pau Grand Prix), which is unfortunately not being held in 2010, although efforts are being made to safeguard its future. Hendaye is an old frontier town right next to Spain, and good for windsurfers. Throughout Pyrénées-Atlantiques, there are a great many courts and walls set aside for pelote, a traditional Basque game resembling fives.

Lot-et-Garonne is the place for those who wish to explore the Dordogne, but prefer to stay within one of France's other, less-exalted districts. Near the capital Agen, there is a theme park called Walibi.

Midi-Pyrénées is, like Rhône-Alpes, one of the regions created in the late 20th century, and as such, is not necessarily the most cohesive unit to describe in itself, but is made up of various diverse towns, naturally largely based in and around the mountains. Its departments are Aveyron, Lot, Gers, Tarn, Tarn-et-Garonne, Haute-Garonne, Ariege and Haute-Pyrénées.

In Aveyron, Conques is a beautiful village, and listed as such (amongst the official 'most beautiful villages of France'). Rodez is the departmental capital, with an imposing cathedral. It is at the cathedral where some good Bastille Day (14th July) fireworks are set off, and where in the gardens, there is a music festival 'Estivada' around the same time. In Millau, and opened at the end of 2004, the Millau Viaduct is the tallest vehicle bridge in the world, at 336.4 metres, a height sitting somewhere between the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building.

Lot was formerly known as Quercy, so it is often referred to as such around the department. Rocamadour sits just on the border with the Dordogne in the Parc National Régional des Causses de Quercy, and one of the most popular sites in France, just after Mont Saint-Michel; it gets about a million visitors each year- tourists and pilgrims. Its first church was built in the 12th century. There are some beautiful gorges, and much limestone about. Cahors, as mentioned in Dante's Inferno should not be considered a hellish place! Cahors' bridge, Pont Valentre is especially pretty.

Gers is largely in a similar position to the old Gascony, whose name has not been applied officially since the Revolution. Larressingle is one of the major pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostella. 13th century fortified walls surround virtually all of it, and the village is entered via its single gate, across a bridge. Outside, a mediaeval siege camp has been recreated, due to various weaponry such as battering rams and stone throwers having been laid out near the walls. A few miles away, Condom is a town that has no connection to what it may sound like, but amusingly, a museum of contraceptives has been created, so someone there has a sense of humour about it. Marciac hosts an annual jazz festival of note.

Tarn has some excellent vineyards around Gaillac, with the characteristic red-brick architecture as found in Toulouse. Near Castres, there is a granite plateau area called Le Sidobre. Lacaune, set in the hills, has the distinction of having the largest prehistoric menhir (a kind of tall, upright megalith) in Europe.

In Tarn-et-Garonne, like in much of the region, there is a town en-route for pilgrimage to Santiago, Moissac. Its Abbey of Saint Peter has a great cloister and porch area. Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in the Gorges de l'Aveyron, some good-looking gorges.

Haute-Garonne has ample opportunities to make good use of its mountainous areas, with hiking popular in summer, and skiing likewise in winter. Bagneres-de-Luchon is good for hiking, and within range of some of the ski resorts. The 'Ville Rose' Toulouse is so named due to its pink brick-work, in keeping with the more general use of red bricks in the region. Pont Neuf is an example of this characteristic, this arched bridge featuring the colour. Saint-Sernin Church, constructed in the 11th century has five octagonal levels, with some excellent arches. As for museums, Toulouse has several, and another attraction is the 'Cité de l'Espace', giving 3D cinema 'space experiences', with educational experiences for children amongst its features.

Just south of Toulouse, heading towards Andorra, Ariège has some diverse landscapes, and immense wildlife, including bears and wolves (not that we wish to put you off- they are in a particular park!). Ax-les-Thermes is a spa town near the popular Ax-3 Domaine mountain resort, with over 40 miles of pistes. There are some good caves with prehistoric paintings, such as the those of Niaux. Tarascon has a Prehistoric Park, with information about the Ice Age and the settlers in Ariège. Out in the open, part of the Orlu Valley runs through a national nature reserve.

Hautes-Pyrénées (High Pyrenees) of course contains much of the mountains, and like Pyrénées-Atlantiques, borders Spain. Tarbes is a town just about a half-hour's drive away from some of the ski resorts. A couple of parks are worth visiting- that of Jardin Massey, a 25-acre 19th century one with some cloisters of the remains of an abbey, and the Parc Bel Air, which as is hinted by the name, is nicely in the open; this has good mountain views. Lourdes carries significance for many, as a girl is supposed to have had an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a nearby cave and it has since been considered a holy centre. Masses are available in over 20 languages. The Basilica of Saint Pius X is the largest and perhaps most spectacular of churches, while Le Pic du Jer, with its large cross, has excellent views of afar. As for the Pyrénées National Park, the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne is a tough route for hikers. The Cirque de Gavarnie is an impressive area of cliff. Not all parts of this mountainous area are easy to access by vehicle, and are best suited to keen hikers, for which it is a marvellous landscape.

Moving north, the region of Limousin is around the middle of the country, and much of it is composed of hills and forests. The three departments are Creuse, Haute-Vienne and Correze.

In Haute-Vienne, Limoges is the capital. This features a National Porcelain Museum, having been an important town for this kind of ceramic; it contains good local and international examples of porcelain. There is also a Museum of Butchery (there is a mediaeval part of the town known as 'La Boucherie', as this was long an integral trade to the town). Aixe-sur-Vienne sits by some nice spots of the Vienne River. Oradour-sur-Glane is a village entirely destroyed by the SS in World War II, and incredibly poignantly, it was kept exactly as it was on that fateful day. Visitors can wander amongst wrecked cars and buildings, and remember the tragedy that occurred. There is also a memorial garden.

The main attraction of Creuse may well be Aubusson, with a long history of rug and tapestry production. Besides several galleries and workshops, the Museum of Tapestry shows examples of this industry dating back four centuries.

Correze has numerous attractive villages and towns. These include the walled town of Uzerche, and the village of Treignac, which has three castles and three gates. Saint-Angel has a good abbey, which is the main feature of the village, and once run by Benedictine monks. There is also a village named Correze here- old ramparts and a few curious buildings can be seen. This can be considered the best department in which to explore the delightful countryside that Limousin has to offer.