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Last updated : Nov 2009
Aquitaine & Poitou-Charentes
Aquitaine & Poitou-Charentes - TravelPuppy.com
Included in this area of sunshine and Atlantic air in the southwest of France are the départements of Deux Sèvres, Vienne, Charente-Maritime, Charente, Gironde, Dordogne, Lot-et-Garonne, Landes and Pyrénées Atlantiques, the latter on the Spanish border.

The coastline has 270km (170 miles) of beaches and the 30km (20 miles) or so from Hossegor to Hendaye fall within the Basque area and offer some of the best surfing in Europe.

North of Bordeaux the region of Guyenne is sometimes referred to as ‘west-centre’ as if it were a clearly defined part of France, yet a diversity of landscapes and an extraordinary mixing and mingling of races exists here, including the Celts, Iberians, Dutch and Anglo Saxons, to name a few. The linguistic frontier between the langue d’oïl and langue d’oc runs between Poitiers, former capital of the Duchy of Aquitaine and Limoges, creating a dialect which developed from both. These people have in common the great north–south highway, the important line of communication between the Parisian basin and the Aquitaine basin. Throughout the centuries it was the route of many invaders including the Romans, Visigoths, Alemanni, Huns, Arabs, Normans, English, Huguenots and Catholics all moved along it.

Not far from Poitiers is Futuroscope, which is the domestic answer to Disneyland Resort Paris, offering a huge theme park containing interactive and cinematic exhibits, as well as rides and other entertainment.

Biarritz and Bayonne are both resorts on the Aquitaine/Basque coast, close to the Spanish border. Biarritz has been famous as a cosmopolitan spa town since the 19th century, when it was popular with the European aristocracy. There are several sheltered beaches, as well as a casino. Bayonne, a few kilometres along the coast but slightly inland, is a typical Basque town that is worth a visit. There is a 13th-century cathedral and two museums and one of them devoted to Basque culture.

Bordeaux is on the Garonne River just above where it joins the Dordogne, the two streams forming an estuary called the Gironde which forms a natural sheltered inland harbour. It is flanked on both sides by vineyards as far as the eye can see. The combination of great wines and great wealth made Bordeaux one of the gastronomic cities of France and the city offers an impressive sight from its stone bridge with 17 arches that crowns the enormous golden horn which forms the harbour. The second-largest city of France in area, the fourth in population, the fifth port, it wasdescribed by Victor Hugo with the words: ‘Take Versailles, add Antwerp to it, and you have Bordeaux’. The city is the commercial and cultural centre for all of the southwest. Its nightlife scene is fuelled by the large local student community, which, along with its eating and drinking scene and the new budget airline route to Bordeaux, is bringing more and more city-breakers into the city. South of Bordeaux along the coast is a strip of long sandy beaches backed by lagoons, some communicating with the sea, some shut off from it. Just at the back of this is the Landes, covered with growths of scrubby pine. Here in the marshes, the shepherds walk on stilts.

The hilly region between the Adour and Garonne rivers comprises the inland part of Gascony, first known as Aquitania Propria and later as Novem Populena. It was inhabited by Vascones, or Basques who, since prehistoric times, had lived in this area and south of the Pyrénées.

In the south, the Basque language has survived to this day, but the northern part of the area became known as Vasconia and then Gascony, a name made famous by the swashbuckling Gascons of literature, Cyrano de Bergerac, d’Artagnan of ‘The Three Musketeers’ and le vert gallant – Henri IV. In the centre of Gascony is the old countship of Armagnac which, like Cognac, provides the world with a magnificent brandy that bears the name of the region. The difference between the two stems from several factors, the type of grape used, the soil, the climate, the method of distilling the wine and the variety of wood used in the maturing casks. Armagnac is still made by local artisans and some small farmers. The quality and taste varies much more than Cognac, but it inevitably retains its fine flavour.

The Dordogne is the area where traces of prehistoric (Cro-Magnon) man abound. The Dordogne River itself, one of the most beautiful of all the French rivers, flows swiftly through the region, its banks crowded with old castles and walled towns. In Montignac, the fabulous painted caves of Lascaux are reproduced in the exact proportions and colours of the original, a few miles away. The reproduction was necessary as the original deteriorated quickly when exposed to the heat and humidity of visitors. A highly interesting and informative museum and zoo of prehistoric artefacts and animals has been created in Le Thot a few miles from Agen.

Around the area of Périgueux is a country of rivers and castles and very different from those on the Loire as these are older and, for the most part, fortified defence points against medieval invaders. There are facilities for renting horse and gypsy wagons (roulotte à chevaux) for slow-moving tours of the region. Along with hiking treks, river boating and bicycling tours, it offers a relaxed way to explore this beautiful region.

In Aquitaine and Poitou-Charentes it is possible to find pleasant hotels and auberges for an overnight or few days’ stay. They range from gîtes and chambre d’hôtes, a farm bed & breakfast programme, to châteaux hôtels with elegant restaurants. There are no less than 150 chambres d’hôtes stopovers in the Poitou-Charentes region alone, including many on the coast, near beaches and pleasure ports.

The area of Poitou-Charentes has lovely mature woodland and an attractive coast where oysters are cultivated. The Charente-Maritime is known as ‘the Jade Coast’, with Royan to the south (a fine modern resort with 13km/8 miles of fine sand beaches) and La Rochelle to the north. The centre of the département of Charente, amid low, rolling hills covered with copses of trees and vineyards, is a little town of only 22,000 inhabitants whose name is known throughout the world. Here, in an area of some 150,000 acres, the only brandy that can be called Cognac is produced. Use of the name is forbidden for brandy made elsewhere or from other than one of the seven officially accepted varieties of grape. The Valois Château located here is the birthplace of Francis I.

The ancient port of La Rochelle, from which many pioneers left to explore the new world, is today a popular vacation and a sailing port. La Rochelle is becoming more and more popular, thanks in no small part to the new budget airline route to the city from London. The rivers of the region offer quiet scenic walks and boating trips. Close by, the offshore islands of Oléron and are both connected to the mainland by bridges.