There is something faintly provençal about the village of Saint-Émilion, perched in the hills up above the wide plains to the west of Libourne. The quaint architecture and steep, narrow streets (known as “tertres”) are a popular draw for tourists with around a million people visiting each year. Sights include an impressive hermitage and monolithic church, the 13th-century Tour du Roy (originally commissioned by Henry III, King of England and Duke of Aquitaine) and two traditional wash-houses. Of course, visitors also come in search of Saint-Emilion’s peaceful squares, quality restaurants and wine cellars, where the staff provide an authoritative take on the wines produced in the area under the Saint-Émilion appellation. Registered as UNESCO world heritage since 1999, Saint-Émilion thoroughly deserves its status as a stop on the Essential Gironde trail!
Médoc wine route
The scenic route through the Médoc wine-growing territory offers a succession of legendary châteaux to admire (getting inside is another story though!), tucked in amongst rows of vines as far as the eye can see. Leaving Bordeaux, Départementale n°2 - following the signposts to Pauillac - is the best way of picking up the route, looping back south whenever you run out of time. Proceeding north you venture through areas that produce wine labelled with famous appellations including Haut-Médoc, Margaux, Saint-Julien, Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Médoc, Moulis and Listrac. Among the sights to take in, be sure to stop off in Margaux (where you can stroll through the grounds of the world-famous eponymous château), Lamarque (try to visit the “dôme panoramique”), the village of Lesparre-Médoc and the church in Moulis. During the spring and summer months, Pauillac has a resort-like feel about it and is within easy reach of Château Mouton-Rothschild. Invisible Bordeaux’s personal favourite is Château Cantenac-Brown, mid-way between Margaux and Avensan, the latter also forming the backdrop to a large-scale winery which boasts an impressive array of wines not only from the Médoc but also from elsewhere throughout France... and the rest of the world! [Suggested itinerary on Caruso33.net here]
Cordouan lighthouse lies seven kilometres out to sea, just beyond the northern tip of the Gironde Estuary. It can be reached by boat from Royan, Vaux-sur-Mer and Verdon-sur-Mer. Sometimes known as the “Versailles of the seas”, Cordouan was originally erected between 1584 and 1611, and went on to become the first lighthouse to be registered as an historic monument in 1862. It remains the oldest lighthouse in France still in operation although it has, since 2006, been fully automated and computer-controlled. State-employed operators were nevertheless permanently stationed at the lighthouse until June 2012. The lighthouse is now supervised by Syndicat mixte pour le développement durable de l'estuaire de la Gironde (SMIDDEST) who welcome the general public and handle ongoing maintenance duties. The lighthouse can also be visited without getting your feet wet thanks to an impressive website which provides virtual tours of the lighthouse as it looks today, but also as it was in the past.
Overlooking the point where the river Dordogne meets the river Garonne, marking the start of the Gironde Estuary, is the charming Bourg-en-Gironde, officially labelled as a “Village ancien”, whatever that means. The heart of the town has been built on a rocky mound, offering spectacular views over the port and lower-lying rooftops. The narrow streets open onto a picturesque market square, medieval fortifications and the associated “Château de la Citadelle”. Look out for a peculiar Moorish-style house which stands out from the village’s otherwise more orthodox residences. Down near the waterfront is one of the region’s most remarkable wash-houses, once the hub of local chat and gossip! The chat and gossip no longer flow but the water systems remain fully operational. Within easy reach of Bourg you can visit the “Pair-Non-Pair” cave and, one of Invisible Bordeaux’s favourite places, the Moulin de Lansac windmill. Finally, the Estuary-side road from Bourg to Blaye, known as la Route de la Corniche Fleurie, is as pretty as any you’ll see anywhere.
Blaye and Blaye citadel
Blaye is very much underrated by the Bordelais, whose natural away-day instincts take them instead towards Arcachon Bay, Cap Ferret and surfers’ paradise Lacanau-Océan. And yet this mid-sized town located 45 kilometres to the north of Bordeaux very much deserves a visit. As well as a lively centre with a respectable choice of shops and restaurants, Blaye is home to an astonishing 17th-century citadel. This military complex, the 93 hectares of which are entirely open to the public free of charge, was part of Marquis de Vauban’s ambitious plans to “lock” the Gironde Estuary downstream of Bordeaux. To achieve this, fortifications were constructed on the left bank in Cussac, now Cussac-Fort-Médoc, mid-Estuary on Île-Pâté, and here in Blaye. The tall walls almost formed a new self-contained town in its own right, which encompassed existing edifices including the 12th-century Château des Rudel, the 13th-century Porte de Liverneuf and the 15th-century Tour de l’Eguilette. The citadel was registered as an historic monument in 2009 and is part of the UNESCO world heritage-listed “Réseau des sites majeurs de Vauban”. There are regular ferry connections from the port of Blaye to Lamarque on the other bank of the Gironde Estuary. Still today the passengers often include St James’ Way pilgrims en route on foot (or bicycle) to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain, for whom Blaye is a longstanding stopover on one of the variants of the “Via Turenensis” route from Tours.
Arcachon is a popular seaside resort that lies 60 kilometres to the west of Bordeaux, located on the southern tip of its own bay, le Bassin d’Arcachon. It is made up of four main districts, each named after a season and each having its own distinct character and appeal: the Ville d’Hiver with its winding roads and extravagant houses, the leafy Ville de Printemps with its wide streets and luxury residences, the Ville d’Été which is the commercial and administrative heart of the town, and the more down-to-earth residential district of the Ville d’Automne, the eastside extension of which is the L’Aiguillon port-side quarter; as well as being a fishing port, Arcachon boasts the second-biggest Atlantic coast “port de plaisance” and is proud of its sailing heritage. Essential activities in Arcachon include walking along the central pier (Jetée Thiers), visiting the landscaped Parc Mauresque (reached via a public elevator), climbing to the top of the Sainte-Cécile observatory tower, enjoying an evening stroll (and ice cream) timed to coincide with sunset in the bourgeois beachside “suburb” Le Moulleau, and venturing on a boat trip to enjoy a close-up view of the “Cabanes Tchanquées”, the fishing huts built on stilts which have become one of the symbols of the Bassin.
Dune du Pilat
Dune du Pilat, Europe’s highest sand dune, can be found a few kilometres to the south of Arcachon, at the point where the Arcachon Bay waters meet the Atlantic Ocean, forming the ever-changing Banc d’Arguin sand banks. The Dune is also in perpetual motion, its altitude oscillating between 100 and 117 metres above sea level. It stretches 2.7 kilometres along the coast and is 500 metres wide. Here too the figures need to be constantly revised as the Dune is gaining between 1.5 and 4 metres of ground every year, gradually engulfing the campsites that (currently) lie behind it and causing bunkers that formed part of the Germans’ World War 2 Atlantikwall coastal fortification system to crumble into the sea. The Dune is open to the general public and a staircase has been installed to facilitate access to the top. Once the summit has been reached the temptation is great to head down to the beach below but bear in mind that the trek back up to the top can be arduous!
Le Teich bird reserve
Staying on the banks of Arcachon Bay, the bird reserve in Le Teich is an impressive showcase for a wide array of ornithological species (260 in all), whether indigenous to the region or just passing through during the autumn and springtime migration periods. Notable tenants include storks, great egrets and herons, as well as rarer species such as Eurasian spoonbills and common shelducks. A more detailed list can be seen here on the reserve’s official website. The reserve has developed around the spectacular wetland delta of the river Leyre, which flows into the Bassin d’Arcachon. Covering an area of 300 acres, a number of different trails are possible, the longest of which is a 4-kilometre loop which comprises no less than 17 viewing stations (obviously, the use of binoculars is heavily recommended!).
Arcachon Bay fishing ports
Before moving on, be sure to take in the full breadth of the Bassin d’Arcachon’s fishing heritage by visiting some of the charming ports which are dotted around the bay, and perhaps enjoying a bite to eat in the authentic no-frills restaurants that you’ll find there. A good starting point is Gujan-Mestras which boasts no less than seven specific ports: La Hume, Meyran, Gujan, Larros, Canal, Barbotière and Molle. They are all within easy reach of each other and, combined, form a pleasant drive or cycle ride. The oldest of the Gujan ports is Port de Larros, founded in 1882. Its focus has gradually shifted from sardine and mackerel to oyster farming. Other notable ports can be seen in Le Teich, Lège and Andernos-les-Bains, the latter being a lively resort (during the holiday season at least) which offers a slightly smaller-scale alternative to Arcachon. In fact, in some areas Andernos even manages to outclass Arcachon: stretching 232 metres out to sea, its jetty is one of the longest in Europe!
Cap Ferret is a narrow stretch of land flanked by the energetic waters of the Atlantic Ocean on one side, and by the calmer Arcachon Bay on the other. Made up of what once were individual “villages” (Les Jacquets, Le Piquey, Piraillan, Le Caon, L’Herbe and Cap-Ferret), “Le Cap” trades on its reputation as an exclusive resort, best-symbolised by an area known as “les 44 hectares” which is a mixture of lush greenery and pricey accommodation (an average-sized villa here will set you back around 2 million euros, or can be yours to rent for around 2,500 euros per week during the summer months). However, Cap Ferret's charm really lies in its waterfront scenery: a good starting point is oyster-fishing village L'Herbe and its delightful succession of huts and houses. The Cap’s most emblematic landmark is its lighthouse, originally built in 1840, and rebuilt in 1947 after its wartime destruction. Fully-automatic since 1995, the lighthouse has been registered as an historic monument since 2009. The lighthouse is open to the public, with a stunning view to take in once the 258 steps have been climbed! The view isn’t so bad from ground level either: from the terraces of Cap Ferret’s popular Bassin-side restaurants, the Dune du Pilat is clearly visible in all its glory.
Photo sources when external: Wikipedia (Arcachon, Dune, Cap Ferret), www.bassin-arcachon.com (bird reserve), Sud Ouest (Gujan-Mestras)