A five star region

The British love affair with the department of Dordogne in Aquitaine is well documented. It is referred to as Dordogneshire, it has cricket clubs and ITV ran a television series called Little England about the thriving expat community there.

The appeal is understandable – Dordogne is a magical place – but there is so much more to Aquitaine than the one department. And the more you discover about the region, the more you discover its spectacular diversity; there are mighty mountains, huge tracts of beaches, vast vistas of vineyards, and epic sweeps of forest.

Occupying the south-west corner of France, the region used to be truly vast, spanning almost a third of what we recognise today as France. It has passed through many hands, including those of the Roman Empire, which divided the original huge region into three; the Visigoths; the Franks; the Moors; and even the English, until, following the Hundred Years’ War, it returned to French hands in 1453.

Today, the region spans 41,308km2 that is divided between the five departments of Dordogne, Gironde, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne and Pyr�n�es-Atlantiques. Such is its geographical scale, and historical richness, that it is difficult to identify a homogenous Aquitaine sense of identity or culture. There are even linguistic variations as you head towards Basque country on the Spanish border. But this all adds a sense of adventure to the place, as traditions, cuisine and landscapes seemingly change as you travel from commune to commune.

An active interest

The spectacular diversity of the region means that there is a massive array of activities to enjoy in Aquitaine. Take Pyr�n�es-Atlantiques for example. Even its name captures the eclecticism of its landscapes, bordered as it is by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Pyr�n�es mountains to the south.

In the summer, the mountains are a hiker’s paradise, offering spectacular views and tantalising wafts of aromatic wild herbs. For me, the ultimate reward of hiking in this area is blundering up the mountains and happening upon the exquisite Ayous Lakes. Framed by wild flowers, these stunning, smooth bodies of water sprawl beneath the vertiginous heights of the Pic du Midi d’Ossau. A refreshing dip in the silky waters after a hard hike is one of life’s ultimate pleasures. Other pursuits you can enjoy in the area are horse-riding, fishing and rafting. In the verdant Bar�tous valley, you could also try your hand at potholing, and there are lots of cycling paths in the vicinity for riders of varying ability.

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And of course, there’s the skiing. Resorts such as Artouste and Gourette enjoy good levels of snow and the whole family can join in. Located south of Pau, Gourette, for example has a seven-hectare beginner’s area called Le Bizou. In total, Gourette boasts 26 pistes, four of which are green, eight blue and 13 red, with one somewhat daunting black. If you fancy something a little less high-octane in the mountain snow, a guided snowshoe trail might be more your sort of thing.

There aren’t many departments in which you could pack up after a morning’s skiing and head for the beach to warm up in the afternoon. But you can in Pyr�n�es-Atlantiques, heading to coastal towns such as Biarritz, which has an international reputation for great surfing, or Anglet, which has more than four kilometres of beach. I’m a fan of fishing port St-Jean-de-Luz, particularly the anchovies, tuna and sardines caught here. But more about food later.

Heading north, you come to Landes. While the south-east has its C�te d’Azur, here you’ll find the C�te d’Argent (silver coast), a term coined by early-20th-century adventurer Maurice Martin. This is a glorious 106-kilometre stretch of beaches, which are pummelled by powerful waves that have helped to make Landes, like Biarritz, a site of international pilgrimage for surfers, with particular hotspots being Seignosse, Moliets and Hossegor. At the latter, you will find the HQ for the F�d�ration Fran�aise de Surf, and where the world surfing championships are held every August. Even if you don’t surf yourself (psst... I don’t), reclining on the beach and watching surfers weave their way through giant waves is mesmerising. And if you do want a less dramatic way to engage with the water, you could try sailing, or take a canoe trip down the shaded Courant d’Huchet. Behind the beaches of Landes, meanwhile, lies the largest forest in western Europe. Cycling through the pine trees, from the scenic Biscarrosse Lac is a beautiful (if occasionally calf-punishing) way to enjoy the sights.

Indeed, cyclists are well catered for throughout the region, with a development scheme for cycling routes – green trails, cycling tracks and roads with little traffic – which will eventually total 2,000 kilometres of protected, maintained routes for bicycles. There are also 2,000 kilometres of mountain biking routes that are well signposted and indicate the level of difficulty. In Gironde’s Cr�on, you’ll find the first ever bicycle resort. Operating on the same principle as a ski resort, you can hire all the equipment and go exploring areas such as the Bordeaux vineyards and the Canal de Garonne.

Golfing is also big news in Aquitaine. Indeed, Pau Golf Club, which was founded in 1856, was the first golf course in Europe to be built outside the United Kingdom. There are now more than 40 courses around the region, with lots to choose from in and around Biarritz and Bordeaux in particular.

Getting historical

And the golf course isn’t the only site of historical note in the region. Far from it. The region is positively steeped in fascinating history, with equally intriguing culture in evidence everywhere you turn.

The capital, Bordeaux, is a case in point. Today, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a status earned in 2007 after a 15-year project, initiated by its mayor (and former French president), Alain Jupp�, to clean up a city that had been ravaged by pollution.

Today the city is sleek and clean, with the yellow sandstone buildings gleaming in the Aquitaine sunshine. Speaking of buildings, Bordeaux boasts no fewer than 350 listed buildings – only Paris has more. Among the many spectacular examples in the city are the extraordinary fa�ades lining the quays (including the Place Royale) which are an architectural demonstration of Bordeaux’s economic might during the 18th century.

Then there’s the huge Esplanade des Quincones, the hub from which the city’s main squares and thoroughfares extend; while the three UNESCO World Heritage sites within the city, St-Andr� cathedral and the St-Seurin and St-Michel basilicas are also well worth visiting. There is also a multitude of museums, including the Mus�e d’Art Contemporain (contemporary arts), which is housed within the Colonial Goods Warehouse (the Entrep�t R�el des Denr�es Coloniales, and another fine example of Bordeaux architecture), and the Mus�e des Beaux-Arts (fine arts) which, having been established in 1801, is one of France’s oldest museums.

Over on Place de Com�die, you have to see the exquisite neoclassical Grand Th��tre, which was built in the late 18th century and sympathetically modernised in the early 1990s.

In Lot-et-Garonne meanwhile, I have always been a fan of Agen (Rick Stein raved about the food in the train station caf� here during the filming of his series French Odyssey). Admittedly, the town is not wildly promising on the approach, but, once you’re there, digging around unearths some architectural treasures, including Tower of Notre Dame du Chaplet which, in the 11th century formed part of the town’s ramparts, and St-Caprais cathedral.

There are also castles aplenty in the region, including the wonderful Ch�teau de Gavaudun in the tranquil Gavaudun valley, near Monflanquin in Lot-et-Garonne. Originally built in the 11th century, it was destroyed in the 12th and rebuilt in the 13th, before forming a vital part of the French’s repelling of English occupation. With its intricate, domed towers, I am also a big fan of Ch�teau de Hautefort, which is found in north-east Dordogne, where it glowers from a rocky outcrop over the valleys of Beuze and Lourde.

Staying in Dordogne a little bit longer, it is also worth mentioning the Cabanes du Breuil. Lying nine kilometres from Sarlat, this fascinating cluster of buildings is believed to have been built in the late 19th, or possibly early 20th century, for agricultural use. The site itself became a Listed Historic Monument in 1968, with the huts being given listed building status in 1995. They have been used as locations in a number of films, including D’Artagnan.

genius in a bottle

Speaking of D’Artagnan, Aquitaine encompasses the historical province of Gascony, whose real-life resident, the Comte d’Artagnan, inspired Alexandre Dumas’s protagonist in The Three Musketeers. I can’t vouch for the real-life version, but the fictional D’Artagnan and his sword-wielding pals certainly liked to partake in food and drink after a fight. And it’s hardly surprising, in a region that produces such fine examples of both.

Let’s start with the obvious. The Bordeaux wine-producing area in the Gironde department is one of the most famous in the world. The scale of production, not to mention the quality, is breathtaking. According to wine merchants, Berry Bros & Rudd (www.bbr.com), a huge area of more than 120,000 hectares of vineyards (four times the size of fellow vinicultural heavyweight Burgundy) are under vines. It has 10,000 producers and 57 different appellations contr�l�es. Indeed, it is the largest producer of Appellation d’Origine Contr�l�e (AOC) quality wine in France. On the left bank of the Gironde Estuary, there are the Medoc and Graves areas, which produce globally renowned wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet France, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec grapes. On the right bank, you’ll find St-Emilion and Pomerol. And, to the south of M�doc, the Sauternes area produces sweet white wines.

And wine is not the only drink produced in the region. It is also famous for the brandy, armagnac, which is widely believed to be France’s oldest spirit. The armagnac AOC covers the departments of Landes (Bas-Armagnac) and Lot-et-Garonne (T�nar�ze-Armagnac) in Aquitaine, and Gers (Haut-Armagnac) in neighbouring Midi-Pyr�n�es.

Like cognac, in Poitou-Charentes, it is made using grapes and aged in oak barrels, but unlike cognac, it goes through a single, continuous distillation, rather than being double distilled. This gives it a full-bodied and fruity flavour. It is produced from grapes grown in the foothills of the Pyr�n�es between the rivers Adour and Garonne, and it is all too easy to believe, as you swirl the fragrant, golden liquid around the glass, that you are drinking distilled sunshine that has been squeezed from the fruit. Down south you’ll find another celebrated alcoholic beverage, Basque cider, which is still, rather than sparkling, made from a variety of apples.

Duck confit (where the seasoned duck legs are preserved in a layer of their own fat, which is then used for saut�eing potatoes when you cook the duck) is a famous dish of the region. And the P�rigord area (Dordogne) enjoys renown for the quality of its foie gras, with no fewer than 90% of the country’s foie gras producers being located here. The Dordogne’s dense forest means it is also revered for its black truffles, while Agen, over in Lot-et-Garonne, is celebrated for its prunes. Walnuts are another of the region’s crops.

The air-dried salted ham of Bayonne is a culinary highlight of the region, as are the oysters found in the Bay of Arcachon. On the coast, seafood is de rigueur. I’ve already mentioned those anchovies, tuna and sardines from St-Jean-de-Luz, and further south, on the Basque coast, huge pink prawns (gambas) along with a wealth of other fruits de mer are cooked a la plancha (on the grill). Basque culture and flavours permeate cooking in the south, as seen, for example, in veal axoa, which is a stew spiced with peppers. With piperade, meanwhile, garlic, peppers, onions and tomatoes are saut�ed in goose fat before being baked with ham or eggs.

Property

Unsurprisingly, for a region of such geographical and historical eclecticism, the property styles of Aquitaine are diverse. On the subject of Aquitaine architecture, Andrew Bishop, of French Property Bureau, points out that: “This varies between the 18th-century stone farmhouses you find in the east of Aquitaine, in Dordogne and Lot-et-Garonne, to dressed stone manoirs in Gironde, and quite a few timber-framed houses and architect-designed villas along the coast, and many converted stone farm buildings in the Pyr�n�es-Atlantiques, such as bergeries.”

There are also P�rigourdine houses, which are abundant along the River Dordogne, characterised by dark-tiled, steeply pitched roofs that shallow at the end, and that are built from stone, anchored with shaped cornerstones and spanned by giant oak beams. Another prominent property style is the bastide, a fortified farmhouse with a large courtyard.

While commonly associated with Brittany and Normandy, long�res are also found here in Aquitaine, chiefly in the north. Long�res are long, single-storey, rectangular buildings that were originally built to accommodate humans, horses and cows, and are hugely popular with British buyers. Andrew Bishop also observes that Brits are attracted by: “Character stone homes with original features and land, along with existing g�tes, or with outbuildings that can be used to create g�tes.” He goes on to point out that, if you want to make money from running g�tes out in Aquitaine: “There is a strong demand for holiday rentals throughout the area, but especially Dordogne – where you need to have a pool to do really well – and anywhere near the lakes and the Atlantic coast.”

According to the Notaires de France, you can expect to pay, on average, €187,000 for a resale home in Aquitaine. The Notaires de France also state that average house prices in the region dropped by 0.7% and 7.9% in 2007/8 and 2008/9 respectively. Since then, they have risen by 8.2% (2009/10) and 1.6% (2010/11) meaning that prices now are slightly above the pre-crisis level.

Andrew Bishop adds further detail, saying: “Prices are pretty static at the moment, apart from Bordeaux, where they are slowly increasing in the centre, a bit like London and other cities. In some areas, prices dropped by 20-30% (particularly Dordogne, which was perceived to have followed the UK market, due to it having so many British buyers), but it is more stable now.”

The Notaires de France say that Pyr�n�es-Atlantiques is the most expensive of the region’s five departments, with an average resale house price of €220,000. This is hardly surprising considering it has its Basque coastline, Biarritz, the mountains and ski resorts and the airport at Bayonne. Next up is Gironde (€210,000), home to the capital Bordeaux and some of the most famous wine-producing areas in the world, then there’s beach paradise Landes (€179,000) and, inland, the department of Lot-et-Garonne, which clocks in at €127,500.

Interestingly, for all its popularity, Dordogne has the lowest average resale house of all of the Aquitaine departments – €121,400. I have spoken to property experts before who attribute Dordogne’s lower average house prices to the fact that its transport links aren’t as strong as other departments, and that its main industries are agriculture and tourism as well as the fact that the average salary earned here is among the lowest in France.

On the subject of Dordogne, and the variation in prices across the region at large, Andrew Bishop says: “Dordogne is a traditionally sought-after area by British buyers, with very attractive varied landscapes and properties restored to a high (British) standard and well-equipped with pools and so on. However, many buyers from other countries seek the proximity of being close to the ocean in west Gironde, or a bit further south near to the mountains, and to Spain in Pyr�n�es-Atlantiques. This has had an impact to some extent, where prices greatly exceed those in Dordogne. However, there are many variations and for properties of similar quality, there is not such a significant difference as would seem to be indicated in the Notaires’ figures. Also, it should be noted that these average prices are much affected by the highly-inflated prices in the chic coastal holiday locations of Arcachon and Biarritz in the Gironde and Pyr�n�es-Atlantiques departments respectively, and the commercial and cultural centre of the Gironde capital, Bordeaux.”

Of course, the massive popularity of Dordogne with the British has to be addressed. And on this subject, Kathryn Gleadall, of Truffeau French Property Services, is unequivocal: “The British have been purchasing property in Dordogne for over 40 years, mainly because of the beautiful countryside, the gently rolling hills, and the fragrant forests. The climate is warm and kind, but the seasons are still retained: there are the wild flowers in the spring, the fields of wheat sprinkled with red poppies in summer, the mists and sheer abundance of autumn, and the frosts and woodsmoke of winter.”

She also highlights that the entente cordiale between French and British is going strong in Dordogne: “In 2006, Dordogne became the first department in France to set up the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce to meet the needs of British integration. Indeed, being part of the community is important for most expats. Many of the towns run French/English courses, where the Brits speak English to the French and vice-versa. In northern Dordogne, a bowls club was established in May 2007, thought to be the first of its kind in France; the P�rigord Lawn Bowls Club plays local p�tanque teams – bowls at home and p�tanque away – as well as traditional club matches. Also, each commune has an annual f�te where all of the inhabitants are encouraged to participate – this is a very good way to meet one’s neighbours!”

But, wherever you go in this region, whether it is Dordogne, or the Aquitaine less travelled, you will discover a magical land where all five departments share equal billing. n