Aquitaine lies in the south-west of France, from the Dordogne in the north of the region, to Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast and down to the Basque country in the Pyrénées and the Spanish border. A turbulent history has left the region dotted with bastides, fortified hilltop towns and villages, ancient strongholds of Charlemagne, Richard the Lionheart and the Black Prince.
Still relatively undiscovered, this is the land of truffles and armagnac, sunflowers and foie-gras, vast uncrowded beaches, mountain villages, warm, generous people and wine.
Bordeaux, the regional capital lies on the left bank of the River Garonne, near the Atlantic coast. It is a lively university town with a busy port and the centre of the wine trade. The city centre has many handsome 18th century buildings and good shopping.
The vineyards, which produce some of the world's great wines, begin close to the town and stretch for many miles. Other wines are produced elsewhere, Duras, Bergerac, Buzet and Monbazillac in particular and the Madrian wines of the south. Visits to the cellars to taste are welcomed.
The lower reaches of the River Lot makes its way through a large fertile valley and joins with the Garonne at Aiguillon. It is now possible to bring a boat through the Canal du Midi from the Mediterranean or from the Atlantic through Bordeaux, as far as Villeneuve-sur Lot.
Villeneuve-sur-Lot, is a pleasant market town, which lies in the midst of a bustling market garden and fruit growing area in the heart of the Lot-et-Garonne. The countryside beyond the valley is rich green farmland with gentle wooded hills, orchards of plum and apple, fields of sunflowers and strawberries and valleys dotted with cypress reminiscent of Tuscany.
The Landes is a flat, forested area stretching along the coast from below the Bordeaux vineyards to Bayonne with fine beaches backed by high dunes and a number of resorts. Lakes, small villages and patches of grassland with clusters of half timbered houses, in the interior.
Dax is a pleasant spa town with a small casino and smart teashops.
Villeneuve-de-Marsan is an important centre for the production of armagnac and has two excellent Michelin restaurants.
Bayonne is a quiet cathedral city with mediaeval streets and riverside boulevards. It lies on the far south coast and is where Gascony and the Pays-Basque meet.
Lourdes is celebrated as the holy shrine of St. Bernadette and the grotto is visited by many thousands of pilgrims each year. The town is situated within sight of the Pyrénées and has many good cafes, restaurants and enticing food shops as well as endless souvenir shops selling religious bric-a-brac.
Just south of the town is the Lavedan, a series of seven valleys whose people are famous for their fiery independence. These take you into the mountains through villages and hamlets, steep pastures, gorges, waterfalls and outstanding scenery.
The full, rich flavours of goose and duck form the basis of most traditional dishes. Butter is considered a poor substitute for goose fat here and its use gives each dish a distinctive character. A simple fried egg or spicy sausages, a steak or a roast of beef, garbure, a thick cabbage and bean soup, or a duck stew, all begin with a generous knob of goose fat, followed by onions, tomatoes, brick red peppers and farm cured ham. Every part of the duck or goose is used. Foie gras, duck liver made into a patè, preserved with black truffles, or eaten fresh, lightly fried with toast. Juicy slices of peppered duck breast in a creamy armagnac sauce, or honey glazed and smoked, and eaten with a green salad. Rillettes, potted pork, goose or rabbit meat with country bread, or a plate of Bayonne ham and sweet butter. You can still buy these things at small country markets or directly from the farms which produce them. Autumn is a good time for mushrooms of all kinds, cèpes in particular. Further south, the dishes of the Basque country have affinities with Spain and Provence. Ttoro, an oniony fish stew, a seafood paella, or ice cold oysters accompanied with little hot spicy sausages. Good fish and shellfish along the coast.
Many Pyrénéean mountain cheeses and a very good soft, creamy goats cheese from the Lot. Excellent pastries and fruit tarts. Bayonne chocolates.
The great armagnac brandies are produced around Eauze and Condom, and are distilled and aged in much the same way as they have been for centuries, although there are numerous small producers throughout the south of the region who welcome visits. Floc is delicious a brandy based wine, usually taken as an aperitif.
Good sailing, swimming and surfing along the coast. Freshwater fishing in the lakes and rivers. Serious walkers can follow the old pilgrim route of Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle from Quercy to Santiago de Compostella, which takes you through Aquitaine. Excellent cycling country. Many good country golf courses which are easily accessible and inexpensive. Numerous markets in towns and villages on different days of the week and small country bric-a-brac and country furniture markets. Serious antiques fairs several times a year in Bordeaux and Agen. Jazz concerts, dance and theatre throughout the region. In the south, home of Ravel's Bolero, you can see the Courses Landaise, a colourful and exciting sport accompanied by bands and parades. Wild cows, reared and followed like racehorses, are pitted against a brave opponent, the object being to display the skill of the opponent and not to kill the animal. Trekking and hiking through the Pyrénées in the summer and rock climbing for the experienced. Skiing in the winter.
A cross between Atlantic maritime and Mediterranean. Early springs, long hot summers and mild winters. Short sharp thunderstorms in the summer. Soft drizzly rain in the winter. Good snow cover and colder in the higher Pyrénées.