Susan Gough Henly explores the deep passion for rugby, golf, cycling and surf not to mention the glorious wine and food and new cultural offerings across the Southwest of France.
A Variety of Landscapes and Cultural experiences in Nouvelle Aquitaine
With 15 UNESCO World Heritage sites (the highest number in France), 31 of the country’s most beautiful villages, 750 kilometres of coastline, 51 surfing spots, and 50 Michelin-starred restaurants, Nouvelle Aquitaine or New Aquitaine in the southwest of France is renowned for its exceptional variety of landscapes and diversity of cultural experiences. At its centre is the beautiful city of Bordeaux, which is surrounded by the world’s most famous wine region of the same name. To the south are the rolling green hills, beautiful beaches, and unique culture of the French Basque country as well as the spectacular Pyrenees Mountains , which form the border with Spain. To the north are the famous producers of Cognac , while inland the Dordogne Valley is renowned for prehistoric cave paintings (such as Lascaux, the most famous cave) and medieval castles, ancient river valleys and gourmet specialties such as foie gras, confit de canard and truffles.
With such rich and diverse offerings, Nouvelle Aquitaine delivers a phenomenal range of authentic travel experiences. There are tours and tastings at the finest wine chateaux; morish gourmet delights in local markets and oyster farms, casual bistros and remarkable Michelin-starred restaurants; world-class sports offerings, from exciting rugby matches to exceptional cycling, golf, surfing and hiking. And Nouvelle Aquitaine’s superb landscapes – dotted with character-filled towns and villages – offer myriad opportunities to slow down and enjoy the French art de vivre.
The scenic and historic Place de la Bourse Copyright Nicolas Duffaure
Bordeaux La Belle
Start your trip in the city of Bordeaux, with its gracious 18th century limestone buildings framing lively squares and car-free streets, its flower-filled parkland framing the Garonne River, where small cruise ships can dock right in town. The Old World wine capital not only sports dozens of wine bars and elegant shops but has also become a new foodie destination. Many Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine as well as a tantalising array of chef-owned bistros can be found tucked away down atmospheric cobblestoned streets.
The new Hotel Zoologie has been created from the iconic 120 year-old glass, metal, brick and stone building that once housed Bordeaux’s Institute of Zoology, to which two new wings have been added to frame an interior garden. The hotel is ideally situated near the Saint Jean train station, where high speed trains whisk travellers to and from Paris in a little over two hours.
Two new museum experiences in Bordeaux’s reimagined docklands area are set to enliven the city’s cultural offerings. The Musée Mer Marine , or Museum of the Sea and Navy, offers remarkable insights into the sea as a natural element as well as man’s relationship with it through navigation and naval exploration.
Opened in June 2020, the Bassins de Lumieres is the world’s largest digital art centre: its immersive exhibition centre delivering sound and visual projections reflected in the water of four huge basins at the former German submarine base.
Two other exciting events in Bordeaux’s vineyards include the three-day Hot Air Balloon Festival in mid-October and the Medoc Marathon in September, where costumed runners replenish their strength with wine, oysters, foie gras and steak, in true Bordeaux style.
Gabares in La Roque Gageac Copyright Norbert-CRTNA
A passion for Rugby in New Aquitaine
“Rugby is a religion in the deep southwest of France; a passion that has expressed and fuelled village and small-town rivalries in the region for a century,” says Mark Whittaker in The Guardian newspaper. “Draw a line roughly from Bordeaux to Marseille … and you define the boundaries of what many call simply “Pays de l’Ovalie”, the Land of the Oval Ball.”
Bordeaux will be one of the nine host cities for the France 2023 Rugby World Cup . But there is an even more important shrine to the sport in a small red-tile-roofed Romanesque chapel above the village of Larrivière-Saint-Savin in the Adour River valley on the eastern edge of the pine forests in Les Landes. Here, the Notre Dame du Rugby chapel has hundreds of framed rugby shirts and behind the altar is a cabinet honouring young local men who died playing the game. It is believed to be the only rugby church in the world.
Nouvelle-Aquitaine sports more than a third of the top-level teams competing in France’s top 14 professional rugby union games. They include Bordeaux Bègles, La Rochelle on the Atlantic Coast, Biarritz et Bayonne in the French Basque Country, Pau-Pyrénées, and Brive-la-Gaillarde in the Dordogne Valley. Arrive at the games as visitors and end up as friends when you join locals at the popular rugby bars afterwards. For a real insider’s experience, enjoy a meal at the cosy Le Comptoir de Bègles bistro, run by Bordeauxborn Maxime Machenaud, former scrum half for the French national team, Les Bleus.
French rugby union club Agen Copyright Julien Villemur
Lacanau, Land of sports
Rugby is not the only sport to sample in Nouvelle-Aquitaine. Surfing is huge in Biarritz and the Pays Basque and, indeed, all along the southwest coastline, with numerous international competitions such as the Lacanau Pro (in Lacanau, in the Médoc, near Bordeaux) and the Quiksilver Pro (further south, in Hossegor) drawing the world’s top surfers as well as numerous surf camps, clubs and local surfing brands for the rest of us to enjoy.
Cycling is also extremely popular, with mountain stages of Le Tour de France in the Pyrenees and easygoing itineraries such as La Vélodyssée along the Atlantic Coast, trails beside the Canal de Garonne and cycling alongside Bordeaux’s famous vineyards all appealing options for cyclists of varying abilities and interests.
Nouvelle-Aquitaine is also the number one golfing destination in France, with some of the country’s finest courses. These include the Pau Golf Club, built in 1856 and now the oldest golf club in mainland Europe, and the Biarritz le Phare Golf Course with stunning Atlantic Ocean views. There’s also the Ilbarritz International Training Centre and Golf Course, which offers lessons, intensive golf programs and tailor-made golf equipment, the Golf du Médoc Resort and the Grand Saint-Emilionnais Golf Club near Bordeaux.
Finally, there are many spectacular hiking trails, including six ways or routes of the Way of Saint James (which crosses preserved landscapes and historic monuments, 26 of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites), and numerous treks in the Pyrenees.
Dordogne Valley Copyright Alban Gilbert CRTA - Vues de Beynac en Dordogne 8246
Stunning stays in Nouvelle-Aquitaine
The Nouvelle-Aquitaine region offers some compelling places to stay, whether you’re staying for a few days or have time to venture deep into the valleys and vineyards.
Bordeaux: To stay in a luxuriously comfortable hotel, there’s no better way than to choose the Intercontinental Bordeaux Hotel - Le Grand Hotel, which features gourmet restaurant Gordon Ramsay and is opposite the 18th century Grand Théâtre, now the home of the Bordeaux National Opéra.
Lovers of boutique accommodation in central Bordeaux will appreciate the new Hôtel La Zoologie, inside the ancient institute of zoology. Or there’s Villas Foch, a 20-room hotel inside two mansions, complete with fireplaces, panelling… the best in contemporary comfort. Those travellers wanting to be close to the action in the Place de La Victoire will want to stay in the Clarion Le V Hotel. These Marriott group hotels feature 130 and 150 rooms.
Charente: With turrets and towers aplenty, choose from one of the seven rooms and suites inside this 11th century château. The deluxe Domaine des Etangs ranges over 2,500 acres of protected nature, spread across forests, grassland and ponds. It’s ideally located just an hour and 15 minutes from the famous Cognac vineyards.
Dordogne Valley: Don’t miss the beautiful and iconic castles of the Dordogne Valley, a destination with many outdoor activities and gourmet products.
Nouvelle-Aquitaine Regional Tourism Board