Dream of holiday cottage perfection in combination with silver sands and azure waters, and most minds are drawn eastwards to the Riviera and the Mediterranean coast. But follow the stepping stones of the Pyrenees west, to the Atlantic, and you will discover another, lesser known France. Aquitaine, a France draped with the longest sandy shore in Europe, not to mention the continent’s greatest sand dune. Aquitaine, a France carpeted with Europe’s largest pine forest. Aquitaine, a France delved with the Lascaux Caves, the Sistine Chapels of our Neolithic ancestors. Aquitaine, whose verdant valleys boast some of France’s grandest chateaux and some of the world’s greatest wines. So why not book a holiday cottage in Aquitaine, a world away from the Mediterranean masses? Shh, it’ll be our little secret…
With over 200 kilometres of fine golden sands, Aquitaine’s Atlantic coast is Europe’s longest beach, and one of the least crowded. Miles of undeveloped shoreline stretch from Bayonne to the Gironde, taking in such modestly-sized and family-friendly resorts as Contis-Plage, Biscarosse-Plage and Mimizan-Plage. Don’t miss the spectacular Dune du Pilat, the highest sand dune in Europe, which guards the entrance to Arcachon Bay in the Landes of Gascony. Slip on the sunglasses, slap on the sunscreen, and stretch out on your own slice of sandy heaven – it’s yours, all yours…
The Lascaux Caves
The Dordogne region is one of the oldest centres of human habitation in Europe, and the world-renowned Lascaux Caves, stumbled upon by a group of children only some seventy years ago, are a cathedral to the spiritual aspirations of our Neolithic ancestors. The Caves themselves are closed to the public, but a perfect facsimile has been created, so step inside and let the paintings speak to you with an artistic spirit so distant and yet so eerily close to our own.
Europe’s Largest Pine Forest
Aquitaine’s natural superlatives are not confined to its coastline. Les Landes is the most heavily-forested area in Europe, a pine-scented playground some 150km wide and 200km long, latticed with well-marked trails that offer a wealth of opportunities for hiking, biking and horse-riding. Les Landes is sparsely-populated even by Aquitaine’s spacious standards, so why not set your best foot, wheel or hoof forward to enjoy its verdant wonders?
They make wine here, apparently…
If the mere mention of ‘Bordeaux’ sets your nostrils a-quivering and your taste buds a-salivating, then you’ve come to the right place. To the north of Bordeaux itself, west of the Gironde estuary, lies Médoc, the most prestigious wine-producing area in south-western France. But Médoc is merely first among equals, as the land around Bordeaux is an embarrassment of vinicultural riches. Visit pretty old St. Emilion, not just for its vineyards but for its narrow streets and unique underground church, and pop in to Saint Estèphe or the Côtes de Bourg for the grand chateaux winery experience.
Three more to visit:
Bayonne – indulge your sweet tooth in the self-styled French Capital of Chocolate, not to mention the Capital of the French Basque Country. Every chocolatier has its own scrumptious speciality…
Biarritz – once popular with the great and good of the Belle Epoque, Biarritz combines old world elegance with the gnarly vibe of being the surf capital of Europe. But getting tubular isn’t compulsory – stroll instead along the promenade, visit the attractive aquarium, or tuck into the morning’s catch beside the pretty fishing harbour.
Les Eyzies – there’s more to Aquitanian prehistory than Lascaux: for it was in the Cro Magnon site of Les Eyzies that the earliest remains of homo sapiens were uncovered in 1868.
Andrew Murray 2015