Introduction to Nouvelle Aquitaine

Welcome to Nouvelle Aquitaine! This expansive tract of southwest France extends from the Marais Poitevin wetlands in the regions north, to the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees. Here, world-class wineries and medieval fortresses rub shoulders with Atlantic beaches. The region contrasts thriving cities such as Bordeaux and Limoges with the sleepy, idyllic Dordogne. The region offers a wealth of geographical and cultural diversity. Read on for my in-depth guide to this remarkable region. Ready to explore? Allons-y!

Geography, size and location

France’s largest region, Nouvelle Aquitaine covers a sizeable chunk of the country’s southwest. Bigger than Austria, the province measures a hefty 32,455 square miles, or 84,058 square km.

The region’s western flank is a 750 km stretch of fabulous coastline, fringed by the Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay. Here you’ll discover popular islands including Ile de Rhe and Ile d’Oleron. The peaks of the Massif Central lie eastwards, whilst south you’ll find Pau in the Pyrenees and the Spanish border.

Clockwise from northwest, the regions neighbours are Pays de la Loire, Centre Val-de Loire, Auvergne Rhone-Alpes, and Occitanie.

Map of France showing Nouvelle Aquitaine
Nouvelle Aquitaine and it’s location

How to get to There

By plane

From the UK you can fly direct to seven international airports.

BA, Ryanair and EasyJet operate daily services to Bordeaux (BOD).  Ryanair and BA also fly to Bergerac (EGC).

EasyJet and Ryanair fly to La Rochelle (LRH) and Biarritz (BIQ).

Ryanair serves Limoges (LIG) and Poitiers (PIS), and currently flies twice weekly to Brive (BVE).

Flight times from London airports are approximately 1 hour 40 minutes.

From Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) or Orly (ORY) airports, you can fly to La Rochelle, Bordeaux, Limoges or Biarritz in around 1 hour 15 minutes.

By train

High speed trains (TGV) link Paris Montparnasse station and Bordeaux St Jean. The fastest service takes just over two hours. Paris Montparnasse also serves La Rochelle (2 hours 40 mins) and Biarritz (4 hours).

By road

The A10 motorway runs from Paris to Bordeaux then continues into Spain. Driving time to Bordeaux is approximately 6 hours (without stoppages and dependent on traffic). You’ll pass Orleans, Tours and Poitiers en route.

NB: Use a GPS or make sure you’ve enough data on your phone for Google maps!

From the south, the A62 links the region with Toulouse and the Mediterranean coast.

If you’re driving from the east, The A89 runs to Bordeaux via Clermont-Ferrand.

Remember, highways/motorways in France get crowded and slow-going during holiday periods, particularly throughout August. So take this into account when planning your route.

Getting around

By train

This region in france enjoys an efficient and comprehensive rail network, featuring both high speed (TGV) trains and regional (TER) services. 32 lines traverse the region, stopping at over 300 towns and popular visitor destinations.

By car

Driving is a breeze in nouvelle-aquitaine. A well maintained road network combines high speed toll routes and smaller roads, great for exploring the region’s lesser known corners. Main arteries include the A10 autoroute which links Poitiers, La Rochelle, Ile de Re and Saintes. The A63 serves Arcachon, Landes and the Basque area, whilst the A89 connects Bordeaux and the Dordogne. You’ve also got numerous ‘Nationale’ dual carriageways, such as the N141 between Limoges, Angouleme and Royan.

Note if you’re driving to Ile de Re, you’ll pay a toll charge to cross the bridge from the mainland onto the island.

By Boat

Car ferries cross the Gironde estuary from Le Verdon sur Mer to Royan and Blaye to Lamarque.

If you’re on foot or bike, you can take a ferry from La Rochelle to Ile de Re and Ile d’Oleron.

Departments of Nouvelle Aquitaine

The regions 12 departments are: Charente, Charente-Maritime, Corrèze, Creuse, Dordogne, Gironde, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Deux-Sèvres, Vienne and Haute-Vienne. Bordeaux is the regional capital.

A potted history

The region’s earliest inhabitants made their homes in the limestone caves of the Dordogne’s Vezere valley. The area is renowned for its Prehistoric cave art, which is over 36,000 years old.

Around 56 BC, invading Romans ousted the resident Gauls. The Romans introduced the first grapevines to the region’s fertile soil.

In 16 BC Emperor Augustus created the province of Aquitania, with Bordeaux as its capital. Stretching west from the Garonne River to the Atlantic Ocean and south to the Pyrenees, Aquitania later expanded north towards the Loire.

In 412 AD Visigoths invaded the province.

In 507 AD, the Franks, led by Clovis, defeated the Visigoths. Aquitania became part of the Kingdom of France.

In 732 AD, the Franks, led by Charles Martel, successfully defended Poitiers from Arab invasion. This victory halted Muslim plans to conquer France.

In 1137, Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII of France, and Aquitaine became part of France. The royal marriage ended in divorce in 1152.

Eleanor promptly married Henry Plantagenet. In 1154 Eleanor’s husband was crowned Henry II, King of England, which brought Aquitaine under English rule.

During the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) French and English armies built numerous fortified towns across the region. These imposing ‘bastides’ stand today, and attractive thousands of visitors each year.

France retook Aquitaine in 1453, at the battle of Castillon. In October that year, England surrendered Bordeaux, which marked the end of the Hundred Years War.

The 16th and 17th centuries brought further turmoil as Protestant Huguenots in the region suffered persecution by French Catholics.

During the French Revolution (1789-1799), Aquitaine (by then known as Guyenne) was divided into departments.

La Rochelle was one of the last French cities to be freed from German occupation in the final days of WW2. Allies liberated the port city on 8 May 1945, nine months after the liberation of Paris.

In 2016 the regions of Aquitaine, Poitou Charentes and Limousin merged to form Nouvelle Aquitaine.

Culture

Bastides of the Dordogne

The Dordogne hillsides are awash with imposing castles built at vantage points on clifftops and above rivers. Step back in time when you explore these medieval fortresses that witnessed so much conflict down the centuries. Some of the most impressive are Castlenaud, Hautefort, Biron and Beynac (read my ‘Do not miss’ section below).

Saintes Amphitheatre

Visit the graceful white stone city of Saintes on the Charente Maritime, and discover one of the oldest and largest amphitheatres in France. Built in 40AD, the structure hosted up to 18,000 spectators, who gathered to watch violent battles between gladiators and wild animals. Nowadays you can enjoy summertime music concerts at this atmospheric venue.

Limoges Pottery

If you’re a pottery fan you’re probably au fait with Limoges’ credentials. The city has produced high end porcelain since the 19th century. The Adrien Dubouché National Museum showcases Limoges’ finest ceramics, alongside international exhibits.

Bordeaux Miroir d’Eau

On a sunny day, head to the Miroir d’Eau, take off your shoes and walk on the clouds that reflect in the water around your toes. Built in 2006, the world’s largest reflecting pool is a stylish newcomer to this ancient city. Artfully located, the pool pairs wonderfully with its stately neighbour, the 300 year old Place de la Bourse.

Cities

Bordeaux

The capital, Bordeaux is a vibrant port city on the Garonne River. A world renowned wine production centre, the city is beloved for its cuisine and stunning architecture (half of its key buildings hold UNESCO world heritage status). Sweeping avenues of handsome neoclassical mansions contrast with stunning contemporary structures. You can’t miss Cite de Vin, Bordeaux’s iconic wine museum, constructed as an enormous decanter.

Poitiers

Situated in the north of the region, Poitiers boasts a glut of Romanesque churches including the beautifully ornate 11th century Notre Dame la Grande. Don’t miss the light display that bathes the church in glorious colour on summer evenings. And don’t miss the wonderful space age adventure/experience park futuroscope.

Limoges

Wander the narrow alleys around Rue de Boucherie in the heart of Limoges’ medieval quarter, then take a breather in the Eveche Gardens. Filled with over 5,000 rose bushes, this beautiful (and fragrant) park overlooks the Vienne River.

La Rochelle

This historic seaport is known as the White City, due to its attractive limestone waterfront. For a bird’s eye view of the port, tackle the 158 steps of the 15th century harbour lighthouse, the Tour de la Lanterne. Visit the city’s aquarium and gaze at over 600 marine species, including shark, seahorse, piranha and jellyfish.

Weather

The region enjoys a temperate climate with four distinct seasons. This balmy region receives over 2,000 hours of sunshine each year, on a par with the Med. Due to its geographical diversity, weather and temperatures vary depending where you travel. Coastal areas tend to be drier and warmer (thanks to the Gulfstream) whilst the mountainous Pyrenees is cooler. Overall, August and September are the area’s driest months.

Winter (December to February)

The winters are chilly and wet with average temperatures falling to between 4oc (39oF) and 10oC (50oF), with lower temps in elevated areas. December and January see heavy rainfall, particularly southern Basque areas like Bayonne. Snowfall hits the peaks of the Pyrenees by mid-December, when resorts such as Artouste and Gourette open their doors.

Spring (March to May)

From March to May temperatures begin to warm up, with an average of 18oC (64oF), bringing increasing sunshine with intermittent showers.

Summer (June to August)

Holiday season brings plenty of sunshine with consistent highs of 27oC (81oF) and rising. Humidity levels may rise in the south west, particularly during August.

Autumn (September to November)

Temperatures fall to an average of 14oC (57oF) across the region. September is often dry, with rainfall intensifying from October onwards.

Best time to visit

For settled weather, plenty of sunshine and minimal rainfall, May to September is the best period to visit Nouvelle Aquitaine. September can be especially lovely, with long sunny days, warm nights and high, but not oppressive, temperatures. You can expect peak temperatures and blazing sunshine during July and August, when coastal areas throng with visitors. If you’re looking to ski, mid-December to mid-March are usually the best months to hit the slopes.

Do not miss

Arcachon Bay

The Victorian seaside town of Arcachon is a gem, its broad sands lapped by an ocean fed lagoon. Here you can swim, surf and feast on mussels and oysters fresh off the boat. Rent a bike and explore laidback Cap Ferret, the headland between Arcachon and the Atlantic. Take a detour to the mighty Dune du Pilat, Europe’s tallest sand dune at 110 metres. Clamber to the top where you’ll earn superb panoramic views across Arcachon bay and the surrounding woodlands. Bring water, and maybe a picnic to enjoy at the summit!

The Dordogne Valley

It’s easy to be seduced by the Dordogne. This ridiculously attractive fertile valley with its namesake river is dotted with medieval villages and castles. Take a guided tour around Perigord’s jewels. Visit the 12th castle of Beynac, perched on a clifftop above an ancient settlement. Explore historic Domme. This idyllic bastide settlement withstood years of turmoil during the 100 Years War. The panorama from the town viewpoint, Belvedere de la Barre, is worth the trip alone. End your day with a boat trip down the Dordogne River, aboard a traditional gabarre.  

Lascaux Caves

Encounter prehistoric cave art at the Lascaux cave complex near Motignac in the Dordogne. In 1940, schoolchildren stumbled upon a hidden network of caves, whose walls bore hundreds of painted animals and figures. Scientists agree the artwork dates back to the Palaeolithic era, making it over 15,000 years old!! Take a guided tour of the caves and learn more about this ancient site.

Bordeaux vineyards

Wine lovers, treat yourself to a full-day guided tour of renowned wine estates in St Emilion. This beautiful medieval village has been at the heart of Bordeaux wine production for 2,000 years. Learn about the wine making process and enjoy tastings at wineries, topped with a relaxing lunch at a chateau. I’m in!

Markets

Royan, open daily except Monday. Food and farmers market comprising over 150 stalls.  Place du Marche Central, 17200 Royan

Issigeac, open Sundays.  Fresh and cooked food, clothing, flowers, jewellery and pottery. Very busy in summer. Market Square, 24560 Issigeac

Niort, Tuesday to Sunday mornings. Local food market selling seafood, cheese, fruit and veg, fresh meat and charcuterie. 1, Place des Halles, Halles Couvertes, 79000, Niort

Sarlat, Wednesday and Saturday mornings, food and regional specialties plus general produce. Place de la Liberte, 24200 Sarlat-la-Caneda

Angouleme, Tuesday to Sunday mornings 7am-1pm. Vast covered market with bars and restaurants plus stalls of fruit and veg, cheese, deli products, wines, seafood, meats, you name it. Place des Halles, 16000 Angouleme

What to eat and drink

Nouvelle Aquitaine boasts a wealth of gastronomic joy for food and wine lovers. If you stay for a while, elasticated waistbands might be in order!

Squid, hake, oysters and seabream typically star on coastal menus. Meat lovers can feast on Basque chicken (often cooked in a spicy tomato and pepper sauce), Poitou-Charentes lamb and Limousin beef. The Dordogne celebrates its goose and duck products, such as pate fois gras, and confit de canard. Truffles are a highly prized specialty. Sarlat hosts an annual truffle fair each January, where these ‘black diamonds’ take centre stage.

Try Ossau Iraty, a nutty sheep’s milk cheese from the Basque hillsides. You might also like Coeur de Chevre, a heart shaped goats cheese from Poitou Charentes, or tangy Chaumes in its distinctive orange rind.

Bordeaux’ wines are world class. Familiar reds include Bergerac, Malbec, Cahors, Bordeaux, Saint Emilion, and Medoc. Try Sauternes, a sweet white wine. It pairs perfectly with Arcachon oysters, salty cheese or fois gras. Grand Marnier, Cognac and Armagnac all hail from Nouvelle Aquitaine, and often appear at the end of a meal.

Where to eat

La Roque-Gageac, La Belle Etoile. Le Bourg, La Roque-Gageac, 24250. Enjoy award winning traditional cuisine at decent prices in this lovely restaurant and hotel overlooking the Dordogne River.

Christopher Coutanceau. Plage de la Concurrence, 17000 La Rochelle. Book in advance for a table at this 3 Michelin star rated fish and seafood restaurant. Run by celebrated local chef Coutanceau, the ethos is all about responsible and sustainable fishing. Enjoy exceptional food and service, alongside fab sea views. Great for a holiday treat, so go on, push the boat out (yes, I did write that).

Bordeaux, La Tupina. 6 rue Porte de la Monnaie, 33800 Bordeaux. Longstanding, laidback bistro dishing up hearty southwestern fare. Come hungry and enjoy roast meats, duck fat fries and seasonal veg plus fish and veggie options. The menu du jour delivers good value for money.

Where to stay

Rest and recharge in the tranquil Dordogne. This three bed, three bath cottage with shared pool is a 20 minute drive from the Lascaux Caves. The pet friendly property lies in pretty gardens complete with bbq. Sleeps seven.

https://www.vrbo.com/en-gb/p607235a?noDates=true&uni_id=607235

Live like a local in elegant Bordeaux. This tasteful period house sits in a peaceful residential area, a short walk from shops and a ten minute tram ride into the city centre. The property sleeps four in two bedrooms with three bathrooms. There’s a serene courtyard garden and private parking.

https://www.vrbo.com/en-gb/p670407a?noDates=true&uni_id=670407

Get the sand between your toes at this seaside apartment in Arcachon, a short stroll from the beach. This contemporary one bed property comes with air con, parking and a relaxing balcony. Sleeps three.

https://www.vrbo.com/en-gb/p2006244a?noDates=true&uni_id=2182125

Conclusion

I hope my guide to Nouvelle Aquitaine has got you in the holiday mood!  Thanks for reading and happy travels!

Maria Bricheno
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Author

Maria Bricheno is a freelance writer, with a focus on independent travel. When not writing or plotting her next trip, she enjoys trail/road running, contemporary fiction, and country walks with her enthusiastic golden retriever. An ardent fan of all things Gallic, Maria spends too much of her leisure time lurking on French property websites.

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