Southwest France, the Dordogne, the Pyrénees and the Atlantic Coast

Wine, food, châteaux, vineyards and sunflower fields: the southwest is the essence of rural France, and much more. The historical richness of the southwest begins tens of thousands of years ago, when our palaeolithic ancestors made paintings on the walls of a cave in Lascaux in the Dordogne region and at other caves in the Vézère valley.

Place de la Bourse in the city of Bordeaux
Place de la Bourse in the city of Bordeaux

The region was later marked by the strife of the late middle ages: firstly the Albigensian Crusade of the early 13th century, in which the Church wiped out the heretical Cathar sect, and later the the Hundred Years War, spanning the 14th and 15th centuries, in which the French and English crowns fought for control of the ancient region of Aquitaine, the heart of the south west. The legacy of those times includes the thousands of medieval châteaux scattered all over the region, and also the fortified villages, built on clifftops and hillsides for better defence, many of which retain their great stone ramparts.

Bordeaux, the capital of Aquitaine, is also the wine capital of France. A thriving port city on the estuary of the Garonne River, it has a beautifully preserved 18th century centre and excellent shopping for visitors. Its Music Festival which takes place in May is an annual treat.

Surrounding Bordeaux are some of the finest vineyards in the world, including those of Margaux, Médoc, and Saint-Émilion. Most vineyards welcome visitors to visit their cellars and sample the product.

Dordogne

The medieval town of Sarlat
The medieval town of Sarlat

Along the valley of the Dordogne river are the départements of Dordogne, Lot, and Lot-et-Garonne. Visitors love this region’s beautiful countryside of gently rolling hills, small farms and woodlands, and historic towns and villages. The Dordogne is said to have 1001 castles - generally built in the middle ages for practical reasons of defence, rather than the gilded Renaissance châteaux more typical of the Loire. Many of the bastides, or fortified medieval towns, have been beautifully preserved and are ideal for a day trip.

Among the towns to visit are Sarlat, a finely preserved medieval town and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city of Bergerac, one of the largest towns in the region, has a finely preserved old town and a great market on Saturdays.

The village of Rocamadour in the Lot is built dramatically on a cliffside. In the middle ages, it was a pilgrimage site and a stop on the path to Santiago de Campostela; today it's a good place to see art galleries and crafts. Nearby are the caves of Padirac, where visitors can take a boat trip along a subterranean stream through caverns filled with strange rock formations.

Martel, the town of the seven towers, has a characteristic skyline from its tall medieval buildings, and is an important market town for the region.

Pyrénées

The abbey of Saint-Martin de Canigou in the Pyrénées
The abbey of Saint-Martin de Canigou in the Pyrénées

The great mountain range separating France from Spain is a lightly-populated region of stunning scenery, with great opportunities for hiking, mountaineering, and skiing. One of France's Grandes Randonnées walking paths runs the length of the range from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. In the foothills of the mountains are many quiet villages, which have as much character, tradition, and history as in the more tourist-centred parts of France, but are far less overrun by visitors in the summer, so can provide a true French experience.

The few large towns along the Pyrénées include the famous Catholic pilgrimage site of Lourdes, and Pau, a town with a fine castle and spectacular views of the foothills with snow-capped peaks in the distance.

Atlantic Coast

Biarritz on the Atlantic Coast
Biarritz on the Atlantic Coast

South of Brittany, France’s Atlantic coast includes great cities and scenery. The Charente-Maritime enjoys a microclimate that gives it as much sunshine as the French Riviera. The port city of La Rochelle is built around its picturesque old harbour, guarded by a pair of monumental towers. Rochefort was established as a naval base in the 17th century and is now an attractive and historic town. The two offshore islands of Île de Ré and Île d’Oléron can both be reached by bridges; they offer attractive villages and miles of sandy beaches.

South of Bordeaux, the coast is lined with more sandy beaches and some popular windsurfing spots. Close to the Spanish border is the city of Biarritz and neighbouring Bayonne. Biarritz was a glittering holiday spot for European royalty in the 19th century and today retains much of the glamour of that time, including its famous casino. It is now the surfing capital of France.

Map of Southwest France, the Dordogne, the Pyrénées and the Atlantic Coast

Map of France

Some holiday homes in this region

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