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From Cro-Magnon's Caves to Bordeaux's Châteaux

Somehow, life seems just a bit more intense in the Southwest of France than in other parts of the country: the food is richer, the wine heartier, the history more tumultuous—even the grass is greener.

Villages tucked away in the Pyrenees Mountains

Descending from the north, the verdant valleys and rolling hills of Périgord give way to the peaceful agricultural lands of Gascony and Quercy, then to the peaks of the Pyrenees, populated by grazing sheep and isolated Basque hamlets. In the northwest is the city of Bordeaux, surrounded by the region's renowned château vineyards. Farther south are the beaches, sand dunes and pine forests of the Landes, and in the southwest corner of the country near the border with Spain lies the glitzy port town of Biarritz, a magnet for the international jet set.

Throughout the Southwest, the homegrown cuisine features rich, full-flavored delicacies like foie gras (the liver of a fattened goose or duck) and confit de canard (duck preserved in its own fat). Although the health-conscious might scold that these dishes are a recipe for a heart attack, studies have shown that Southwesterners actually have a low rate of heart disease and that foie gras may even play a positive role. The region is, of course, awash in red wine, which is also thought to be beneficial for the heart.

The Dordogne (or Périgord, as the area has traditionally been known) is the land of ancient cave dwellings decorated with early man's sophisticated and mysterious paintings of beautifully preserved villages like Monpazier, La Roque-Gageac, Collonges-la-Rouge, and Domme, with its stunning views over the Dordogne Valley, and of fortified castles and bastides, or walled towns, that were captured and recaptured between the 12th and 15th centuries by the English and French as they fought for control of the territory. Périgord first fell into English hands when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet in the middle of the 12th century, handing over to him as her dowry the lands of Aquitaine, which in addition to Périgord includes the present-day French administrative départements of the Gironde, the Landes, the Pyrénées-Atlantique, and Lot-et-Garonne.

Neanderthal Havens

Château le Bordeilles

It is both an advantage and a drawback that Périgord is not served by a superhighway. It takes longer for visitors to reach their destinations, but they are rewarded by increasing beauty around every twist and turn of the road: beyond one bend awaits the stunning château of Beynac, once the stronghold of Richard the Lionheart; around another, a view of the lush, cultivated valley of the winding Dordogne River. Across the river from Beynac is Castelnaud, a château held by Simon de Montfort during the Albigensian Crusade.

The caves of the Dordogne provided havens for Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man. Wall paintings and engravings, mostly of animals, can be seen at Les-Eyzies-de-Tayac and at Lascaux II, an amazingly exact replica of the original Lascaux cave, which is no longer open to the public because a surfeit of visitors were causing damage to the prehistoric paintings. A smaller, lesser-known cave at Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, a village on the Vézère River, displays engravings of bison, horses, mysterious symbols, and rare representations of human beings.

The English and French are still fighting for control of Périgord, but this time without arms. As the French countryside gradually empties of its natives and loses its agricultural vocation, many of its charming blond-stone houses are being snapped up as vacation, retirement, or even permanent homes by British citizens, who are reminded of the green countryside at home, where property costs are much higher than in Périgord. This recent colonization has produced some interesting consequences: in one small area near Ribérac, no fewer than five restaurants have English owners, and some villages are almost exclusively inhabited by visitors from across the Channel.

In addition to foie gras and confits from farmers' flocks of ducks and geese, the earthy flavors of Périgord include locally pressed walnut oil, truffles and wild mushrooms from the forests, and tangy Cabécou goat cheese. The region's purple plums are distilled into potent eau-de-vie de prune. Although Périgord is not primarily known as a wine-growing region, a few worthwhile offerings can be tracked down. While many Bergeracs are undistinguished, some of the Pécharmants can be delightful. The sweet white wine of Monbazillac is a popular accompaniment to foie gras, and the tannic “black” wine of Cahors stands up to the region's robust cuisine.

The Bastides of Gascony

In Gascony to the south and Quercy to the east, the culinary specialties are much the same as in Périgord. But Quercy prides itself on cassoulet, a satisfying stew of beans, sausage, and confit; and tourtière quercinoise, a flaky tart filled with apples and prunes. Gascony, of course, is Armagnac country. This quiet area of rolling hills and peaceful farms is free of tourist traffic and is a fine place for vacations that involve biking, hiking, eating, drinking, and visiting bastide villages like Mirande or the town of Condom, which claims a Gothic cathedral as well as an Armagnac museum.

The Pyrenees are the domain of the French Basques, a proud people with a unique culture and a language of obscure origins, which, due to the isolating influence of the high mountains, has developed into several mutually incomprehensible dialects. In these rough, mist-shrouded mountains slashed by rushing streams, the Basques traditionally lived in villages and lonely farmhouses, some of which were accessible only by footpaths until quite recently. However small, each village has its fronton, a court on which locals play pelote, a form of handball that is the regional passion.

In Basque towns like Ascain and Aïnhoa, the bright whitewashed exteriors of the houses, set against the lush green mountainsides, sparkle in the sunshine when mists rise. The country folk tend their farms and their sheep, which provide mutton and brebis, a cheese made from ewes' milk. The Basques are also avid hunters of palombes, the wood pigeons that fill the skies during their autumn migration, and along the coast, they are skillful fishermen of tuna and hake. Black cherries are grown hereabouts to provide the preserves that fill buttery gâteaux basques. Chili peppers cultivated around Espelette lend fire to the typical piperade—scrambled eggs with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and garlic—or are dried and rubbed into the famous hams of Bayonne.

Bordeaux: A City for Anglophiles

Farther up the Atlantic coast is Bordeaux. To the world Bordeaux means wine, but Bordeaux is also a provincial capital and busy river port on the Garonne. Among the architectural treasures in old Bordeaux are the graceful Place de la Bourse, the late Gothic church of Saint-Michel, noble Renaissance mansions and narrow stone houses with wrought-iron balconies and ornate door knockers, and the 17th-century Grande Cloche, whose bell proclaimed the start of the grape harvest. Other must-sees are the Grand Théâtre, restored to its original eighteenth-century splendor; the Musée d'Art Contemporain, housed in the Entrepôt Lainé, a converted warehouse on the old port; and the cathedral of Saint-André, a Gothic wonder built between the 11th and 16th centuries.

Caught between hedonistic Spain to the south and the more austere north, Bordeaux combines elements of both cultures. The locals flock to bullfights and dance the flamenco while maintaining a very British reserve. Indeed the British, with whom the wine trade has always been important, have left their mark on Bordeaux as they have on much of the French Southwest. This is a city of Anglophiles, who take their Burberry raincoats seriously and know how to keep a stiff upper lip, which perhaps explains their reputation as rather haughty burghers.

Grape-picking in Bordeaux

The wine trade brought wealth to Bordeaux. The fabled wines of Médoc, Graves, Saint-Émilion, Pomerol, Fronsac, Bordeaux, and Côtes de Bordeaux come from the flat countryside around the city. A good starting point for château visits is the town of Saint-Émilion, located east of Bordeaux, with its cloisters, views of surrounding wineries, and curious church carved out of rock. The names of the wine-growing estates to the north of Bordeaux resonate around the world: Château-Lafite, Château Mouton-Rothschild and Château-Margaux, among many others. Itineraries for visiting the region's wine-producing châteaux can be obtained from Bordeaux's Tourist Office.

Below Bordeaux stretch the beaches and pine forests of the Landes, known as the Côte d'Argent, or Silver Coast. Home to the largest forest in Europe, planted in the 18th and 19th centuries to prevent the coastal sand dunes from overwhelming the interior plain, the Landes has miles of fine sandy beaches and dramatic sand dunes, including the 375-foot-high Dune du Pilat at Pyla-sur-Mer south of Arcachon. Parts of this once wild landscape, where towns and abbeys sank from view beneath invading dunes, have been marred by the construction of tacky vacation villages (like the one at Mimizan-Plage), but if adventurous visitors wander off the beaten path, they will find their reward.

Back to Southwest France
Images courtesy of Tourism Midi-Pyrénées

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