City, country, coast – whatever you want Aquitaine delivers
There are few places as well endowed as Aquitaine in south-western France. It’s a region benefiting from the best of the city, coast and countryside and which has for centuries built its fortune on the fruits of its land and sea.
But as we visited Bordeaux and Bayonne however, we didn’t realise just how much Aquitaine had in store for us.
Bordeaux comedie and culture
Bordeaux – we all think we know it. It’s as familiar as many of the wine vintages for which it is known – Medoc, Margaux, St Emillion and more.
But what of Bordeaux the city? Yes, amid those miles of twisting vines there’s a city. And not only that, but it’s well worth spending quality time with it.
Vibrant, forward-focused yet rich in history – Bordeaux is a progressive city that carefully nurtures its fascinating past. It came as little surprise to us to discover it has been voted European Best Destination for 2015.
In part, it is a city of neo-classical 18th century architecture, which makes it a visual delight. Particularly, as over the last 10 years huge sways of the city have been pedestrianised and the majority of building facades have been cleaned, reviving them to fresh-faced youthfulness.
In the next two years the entire clean up will be complete, making Bordeaux something of a modern day city of renaissance.
Take the Grand Theatre of Bordeaux for example, which sits like an opulent colossus in the Place de la Comédie. It was designed by Victor Louis to be a perfect structure, built to divine proportions in 1780. And there is divinity to it. For us, it stands as an elegant monument to a time when beauty and graceful architecture triumphed over cost and utility.
Bordeaux's glorious architecture has earned it the title of 'a small Paris', and has resulted in over a third of the city being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
And perhaps somewhat controversially many Bordelaise, like our city guide Bruno, describe Paris as a small Bordeaux. But given its grandeur and the style that flows around every street corner, we couldn’t argue with that.
But that’s by no means where culture begins and ends in Bordeaux. The city is also home to the biggest private bookshop in France. Mollat is an enormous oasis of books, and with four universities and over 85,000 students in the city, there is a strong culture of learning. Indeed, one of the signs for Mollat's states that it 'heals the mind with culture'.
And we couldn’t help but apply this sentiment to our time in the city as we took in everything from Bordeaux’s Wine Museum to its public art like the Sanna sculpture and grand buildings like those reflecting in the Miroir des Quais of Place de la Bourse.
Fruit of the land
The world over, Bordeaux is known for its wine, and producers in the region certainly know their grapes. No surprise – they’ve been making wine here since the first century AD.
The land and climate is a near perfect combination for producing a large array of fine wines. In fact it produces 450 million bottles of it annually from 121,000 hectares of vineyards. Almost 90% of it is red wine, or as it's known in the UK, claret.
We took one of the many group and private tours available to the vineyards, ours taking in the Medoc area. There we were taught the process of production, a little of the history of the area, and best of all, sampled some of the wines for which Bordeaux is celebrated. There are other tours, which go deeper into the wine scene for connoisseurs, but our afternoon tour provided a good overview.
But it’s not just wine that is produced here. This fertile region is famed for asparagus, principally grown up-river in Blaye, and Aquitaine is also famed for its farm-fresh meats. We tasted the best of these meats and that asparagus at La Tupina, which specialises in traditional home-cooked food from “grandma’s kitchen”.
City by the sea
Continuing our foray into French food we headed an hour and a half by train from Bordeaux to Bayonne, just six kilometres from Aquitaine’s Atlantic coast. Here the best food is naturally of the sea, but let us not forget Bayonne ham. This air-dried salted ham is close in character to the Spanish jamon Iberico, and this is no surprise as Bayonne is in Basque Country.
There are many other ways in which Basque culture runs through Bayonne, from the dialect of its people to its traditions.
But what struck us most as we wandered the streets from our hotel, the brand new Basses Pyrénées, were the homes that line the streets. Row upon row, street upon street of homes huddled together jutting at aging angles. This is the Bayonne of the Middle Ages and its age showed on every leaning building. But this is where maturity is beautiful – Bayonne’s buildings had wooden beams in red, blue, green and yellow, turning the old town into a palette of colour. And with this it sent us right back in a time machine to the 12th century to the point where we could almost live Bayonne’s past with every step.
But Bayonne isn’t all ancient history, in the nook of the river Nive (the second that cuts through the city after the larger Adour) we discovered arcades, intricate wrought iron balconies and the curve of Art Deco buildings as they stretched their grandeur around corners.
The Art Deco style is also a feature in the mansions of nearby Biarritz – the showy seaside sister to Bayonne. But here the attractions are of the European seaside, revelling in the sea and sand of its bays. Although for a real beachy treat we loved Anglet. You can’t really call it a town in its own right as it’s mainly a huddle of hotels, sports attractions and tourism related buildings along its four kilometre stretches of beach. For any real hint of urbanisation you have to take the ten-minute drive back to Bayonne, but Anglet provides a perfect Atlantique escapism that shouldn’t be missed.
Bordeaux and Bayonne make a perfect long weekend. Aquitaine’s twin treats give the region more fine food, wine, culture and history than most regions of its size. Their attractions are varied and plentiful, and a flight time from London of just 75 minutes is another of them.